Turning It Down: Cities Combat Light Pollution By Going Dim

Mar 3, 2013
Originally published on March 3, 2013 3:35 pm

Bright lights are part of a city's ecosystem. Think of Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip or right outside your bedroom window.

Electric lighting is ubiquitous in most urban and suburban neighborhoods. It's something most people take for granted, but appreciate, since it feels like well-lit streets keep us safer. But what if all this wattage is actually causing harm?

"We're getting brighter and brighter and brighter," warns Paul Bogard, author of the upcoming book, End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

Bogard says the developed world's desire to light up the night has gotten out of control.

"Things like gas stations and parking lots are lit now 10 times as bright as they were just 20 years ago," Bogard tells Celeste Headlee, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "It has everything to do with marketing, really. The gas station on the corner has figured out that if they turn up the lights, more people will be attracted to those lights."

And, Bogard says, all that light is having some unintended consequences. For one, it affects our sleeping patterns, he says.

Others say the effects of light pollution are worse.

Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, was one of the first to make the connection between bright, artificial light and breast cancer. Stevens' research found that artificial light can disrupt our body clock — and affect our production of melatonin.

"We know for sure that the lighting in the modern world can disrupt our circadian rhythms, and that cannot be good," Stevens tells Headlee.

Cities such as Santa Rosa, Calif., and Brainerd, Minn., are turning off a certain number of streetlights. Even Paris seems willing to cut down on its illumination to reduce light pollution.

The French Environment Ministry recently announced that starting this summer, office buildings and storefronts will have to turn off artificial lights between the hours of 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. Major landmarks like the Eiffel Tower will continue to be lit.

Yet Bogard says he hopes Paris will lead a lighting revolution.

"The fact that Paris, the city of lights, is choosing to control their use of light at night is fantastic, and can serve as a model for cities all over the world," he said.

Perhaps, someday soon, we'll get off the subway, look up at the dark city sky, and see the stars of the Milky Way again.

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We've been asking filmmakers about the movies they never get tired of watching, including this one from one of the stars of the TV show "Girls."


ALEX KARPOVSKY: My name is Alex Karpovsky. I'm an actor and filmmaker. And the movie I've seen a million times is "Punch-Drunk Love," written and directed by P. T. Anderson, starring Adam Sandler.


LUIS GUZMAN: (as Lance) You OK?

ADAM SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) Yes.

GUZMAN: (as Lance) Why are you wearing a suit?

SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) I bought one. I thought it would be nice to get dressed for work, and I'm not exactly sure why.

KARPOVSKY: I saw it with a friend of mine, and we both absolutely loved it and immediately started quoting it as we were walking out of the movie theater through the lobby. It just - it immediately had a huge effect on us.


SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) Yes, I'm still on hold.

KARPOVSKY: It was really, really funny. But a lot of movies are funny. There was just something so unique about it. It's doing so many things at once. And it felt so daring and ambitious because of that.


SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) Do you realize that the monetary value of this promotion and the prize is potentially worth more than the purchases?

GUZMAN: (as Lance) I don't know.

KARPOVSKY: It's about this character called Barry Egan, who's played by Adam Sandler, who is a very shy and introverted salesman of novelty toilet plungers.


SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) Been working on this, and we have a nonbreakable handle, finally. Let me demonstrate for you. OK. This is one of the old ones. Oh, do we have a new one around, Lance?

KARPOVSKY: And he's very angry, and a lot of his anger seems to be rooted to unresolved issues. He's got seven sisters, which are very concerned about his welfare - as probably they should be - and one of them introduces Barry to one of her friends.


MARY LYNN RAJSKUB: (as Elizabeth) This is Lena. She's a good friend of mine from work. We were in the neighborhood, and she had to pick up her car. And we're getting breakfast before we go in. So do you want to go? We're going to go eat. Let's go.

KARPOVSKY: After a few stumping blocks, they begin to sort of nurture a romance.


EMILY WATSON: (as Lena Leonard) How's your business going? You sell all that pudding.

SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) The pudding is not a sales item.

KARPOVSKY: On top of that, seeing him navigate down this road of love while simultaneously dodging four blond brothers from Utah, these menacing gang, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, that are trying to distort him for cash....


PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Dean Trumbell) All right. When can you leave? Well, I want you to go right away.

KARPOVSKY: ...whilst also simultaneously collecting a heroic amount of pudding in hopes that it will lead him to a million frequent-flyer miles.


WATSON: (as Lena Leonard) That's insane.

SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) I guess it was a mistake.

KARPOVSKY: It just seems so playful and absurd and moving and funny and pretty magical.


KARPOVSKY: There's a scene about a third of the way through the film. Most of it occurs over this very abrasive, intense percussive rhythm.


KARPOVSKY: One of Barry Egan's sisters storms into his warehouse, and she's talking a million miles a minute.


RAJSKUB: (as Elizabeth) I can't find that thing in my car. I can't find it, but I can get it and give it to you later.

KARPOVSKY: There's this beautiful schizophrenic cacophony of events and dialog happening, but it's not disorienting. It's actually very seductive and engaging. And it's one of my favorite sequences in movies ever.


RAJSKUB: (as Elizabeth) What is this pudding?

SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) I don't know.

RAJSKUB: (as Elizabeth) Why are they here?

WATSON: (as Lena Leonard) Are you ready?

SANDLER: (as Barry Egan) I have no idea.

KARPOVSKY: It's not easy for me to express my emotions. There's a lot of issues and fears that I haven't fully come to terms with. And that's exactly what Barry is going through through most of this film. He's trying to overcome all of these walls. And the way that they come down in very lyrical, surreal ways is not only really funny, but I can completely relate to all of them.


HEADLEE: That's actor Alex Karpovsky talking about the movie that he could watch a million times, "Punch-Drunk Love." Karpovsky currently stars on the hit HBO show "Girls" and the new film "Red Flag," which he also wrote and directed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.