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  • Leanne Fan

The Moral Dilemma of Overlighting Our Cities

With the rise of new technologies, we have been gradually lighting up our world. However, these indulgences place not only a burden on our environment, but also a hidden burden on ourselves. Within the past decade, megacities such as Las Vegas and Hong Kong have benefited significantly from their appealing nighttime scene. They feature daily light shows and streets lit up with LED signs and advertisements. These are major tourist attractions that improve the city’s economy, but do we really want to sacrifice the lives of native animals just so that we can take pretty photos to post on social media?


To understand the situation and conflicting values more clearly, we must weigh the pros and cons of using LED lights. They are often referred to as an “extraordinary breakthrough,” allowing us to conserve energy and save the environment. They are sturdier, have a longer lifespan, and make for a better long term investment. Cities benefit greatly from the use of LED lighting, as it has been shown that “public lighting can reduce crime by up to 20% and traffic accidents by up to 35%.” LED lights are commonly used in Christmas decorations and as shop decorations, bringing more business and tourism to shops, malls, and the city in general. People love traveling to these intensely urban areas covered with LED signs. A popular example is New York Times Square, which is famous for its digital screens and billboards, the largest of which features a 125,000-square-foot screen.


However, this popularity has led to an overuse. This isn’t the first time a miracle like LEDs has turned into a curse. Some areas are even overlit due to how luminous LED lights are compared to incandescent and fluorescent lights. Public lighting is definitely important for pedestrian safety, however light shows and streets covered with LED signs are completely unnecessary and not worth their detrimental impact to the environment.


LED signs and lighting are viewed as a “need” by large business corporations so that they can profit and attract customers, but it is completely unethical for these billionaires to overlook any negative side effects and barrel straight towards the money. An increased number of tourists leads to a higher influx of people moving into the city. This propels the rate of urban sprawl and in turn increases pollution and invades more animal habitats. Frogs, moths, and sea turtles are all attracted to city lighting. This means that native wild animals outside of the city won’t have a reliable food source, therefore hurting other animals in the food chain. Newborn sea turtles scramble towards the brightest horizon, which is now artificial lighting by cities, causing them to be crushed to death by cars. They are already classified as endangered, and bright city lighting is only bringing them closer to extinction. Greenwashing also plays a large role in the popularity of LED lighting. Because they are seen as more environmentally friendly, people feel better about themselves when they use LED lights and don’t pay attention to its downsides.


Instead of continuing to overinflate our cities with people and ruin the surrounding ecosystem, we should reduce and get rid of excessive lighting, while limiting the construction of LED signs and billboards. An effective way to prevent new lighting decorations from being built is to stop visiting these areas, convincing companies that fancy lights would not be profitable for their business. Furthermore, wavelengths of light closer to the UV spectrum such as blue and violet LEDs disrupt the circadian rhythm of animals more than longer wavelengths of light. Longer wavelengths of light like red and amber colors are less visible to wildlife, and they will be less attracted to these lights. Shorter wavelengths of light contribute more to light pollution, as they travel further and make up the majority of skyglow. While some lights and billboards can’t be removed, we can still put them into “night mode.” Similar to how our phones turn more orange tinted and less blue at night, we could do the same with outdoor lighting. This would be relatively simple with billboard displays, as the RGB of the image displayed could just be adjusted. Currently at the New York Times Square, the billboards are on throughout the day and night. Even turning these lights off for a few hours late at night would make a big difference.


City lights act as vacuums for moths and insects, bleach birds’ retinas so that they circle endlessly until they drop dead, attract and dehydrate frogs, and lure baby sea turtles to be crushed by vehicles. While basic public lighting is important, the overuse of these lights in order to attract tourism and business is unethical. The health of our environment should never be compromised for the sake of monetary benefit. We have already drained many of our earth’s natural resources dry, so reducing unnecessary LED light usage is the least we can do to save the environment.


Citations


Makumbe, Jie Lipedzi. “Led Street Lighting: Unburdening Our Cities.” World Bank Blogs, 7 Aug. 2017, blogs.worldbank.org/energy/led-street-lighting-unburdening-our-cities.


Weaver, Shaye. “North America’s Largest Billboard Is Now Displaying Hyperrealistic Crashing Waves.” Time out New York, 19 July 2021,

www.timeout.com/newyork/news/north-americas-largest-billboard-is-now-displaying-hyperrealistic-crashing-waves-071921. Accessed 20 July 2023.


“About Lighting Pollution.” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/lighting/pollution/#:~:text=Artificial%20light%20has%20several%20general.


“Sea Turtle | Species | WWF.” World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/species/sea-turtle#:~:text=Climate%20change%20has%20an%20impact.


“French Authorities Warn of Health Dangers from LED Lighting.” CTVNews, 15 May 2019, www.ctvnews.ca/health/french-authorities-warn-of-health-dangers-from-led-lighting-1.4423910?cache=%3FclipId%3D373266. Accessed 20 July 2023.


December 22, on, and 2016. “Why Is Blue Light at Night Bad?” International Dark-Sky Association, 22 Dec. 2016, www.darksky.org/why-is-blue-light-at-night-bad/


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