Friday, September 16, 2016

The Bright Rural African Moon and Asia's Light Polution Problem

When one lives in a big Asian city, one tends to forget about what is up in the sky.  The context simply does not allow for casual relaxed upward observations.  On the streets, there are always people clamoring behind to ensure people move faster on sidewalks and pedestrian areas; high-rise buildings of all sorts densely sprouting out everywhere block out any chances of clear sky views at the ground level, and worst of all, flashy neon signs of commercial districts, along with thousands upon thousands of electrical illuminations make it impossible to see the sky clearly at night.

The not-so-visible sky at night is all the more unfortunate considering how Asians celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the day (supposedly) when the moon is the "biggest."  The full moon is worshipped and celebrated in classical literatures through the centuries, only for it to not be visible in contemporary Asia's densely populated urban areas.  Mid-Autumn, in turn, has evolved into a commercial holiday, where families and friends get together to exchange expensive gifts.  Few people actually observe the connection to nature the Festival celebrates.

To be completely honest, the author is one of these people.  While he does not engage in excess commercialism of modern-day holidays, he also did not really bothered to look up at the moon on Mid-Autumn.  The big cities of the world he lived in just offered so much stimuli on the ground level (and within the dozens of floors in skyscrapers) for him to bother seeing what the sky had to offer.  In the city, entertainment options are overwhelmingly man-made.  To be in touch with nature meant long trips to distant destinations, impossible for urban dwellers short on both time and money.

But things are different here in rural Africa.  The streets of the town, devoid of any streetlights or lighting from shops and houses, are pitch dark at night.  The moon and the stars, in absence of flashlights, are the only things keeping the streets barely visible for the pedestrian.  One cannot help but look up to get one's bearings.  And it is then, that one notices, just how big and bright the moon and how sparkling the stars can be.  The sight, set against the backdrop of distant mountains and flatlands almost uninterrupted by man-made structures, is almost magical in its entirety.

Of course, obviously the moon is the same one everywhere, and the same goes for most of the stars.  The magical view of the two coming together is certainly not limited to this corner of rural Africa, but is something inherently available worldwide.  It is just that the views of the moon and stars are not particularly impressive when compared to the varied colors man can equip the cities.  That is just unfortunate, for the man's lights are mere instruments to entice people to part with their money in one way or the other, while the moon and the stars, however miniscule in comparison, helps people remember their solidarity with Mother Nature.

Put this way, the idea of Asian cities filling themselves up to the rim with urban light sources of all kinds is not a matter of necessity, but instead just a presence of certain philosophy.  It is a philosophy of how the urban resident ought to live in an artificial environment where he should interact as much with creation of men as possible, to keep the artificial vibrancy of the urban landscape going.  Nature can be good for looking at once in awhile, but it simply does not create enough value for the society at large to warrant a central spot in the urban environment at the expense of manmade structures.

Hence, the urban architects of Asia shows little concern for regulating the amount of artificial lights businesses and residences put up for public views.  For them, the more lights available, especially in central business areas, is equated to a feeling of great economic development and by extension, higher standard of living through widespread culture of convenience.  The more flashy, gawky, and kitschy the lights, the wealthier, more "developed," and more trustworthy the provider of the lights become.  Such perceptions directly lead to proliferation and almost unstoppable advance of light pollution in Asian cities.

There are some signs that similar mentality is at play in this part of the world.  As the local economies develop, and businesses acquire more startup capital, they are pouring more funds into lighting.  From new urban towers in Dar es Salaam to new hair salons right here in Iringa, more lights are being pumped out even while the values of products and services do not essentially change.  Perhaps one day they will start to respect their own (not so flashy) traditions as today's Europeans can be, but until then, the bright rural African moon will shine a little bit less every year moving forward.

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