When it's preferable not to see the light

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2011, 12:00am

The night sky has thrilled and inspired poets, lovers, scientists and just ordinary people for millennia. But here in Hong Kong, inspiration is harder coming. Several generations have now grown up without regularly being able to see the stars and planets above; air and light pollution have in the past decade worsened to the point that Hong Kong is each evening shrouded in a golden-haloed haze. That age-old practice of simply gazing up at the heavens is now something we associate with a holiday elsewhere.

Being able to see the craters on the moon, the Milky Way or the redness of Mars may not seem important to having a comfortable life. Such observations do not have a financial reward or ensure that there is good food on the table. They do, however, connect us with our environment and nature and help remind of our place in the universe. But light pollution is not simply an issue of a nice-to-have luxury; it has plenty of immediate consequences, too. Lights that are too bright, in large numbers, poorly placed and left on unnecessarily affect our health and our well-being. People who live in mixed commercial and residential areas like Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay well know this. Billboards and signs distract, disturb and keep them awake. Beyond that, the energy needed requires the burning of increased amounts of coal and gas at our two power stations. We all suffer from the air pollution that creates.

Who decided that this was acceptable? We are all in some way responsible. Pollution is caused by us all, some more than others. A few rules aim to curb air pollution, but they are not as effective as we would like. No legislation exists to deal with light pollution - and perhaps there should be some - but in the meantime, sturdy voluntary guidelines should first be tried.

That does not mean the government can go slow, like with air pollution. Both matters have to be fixed sooner rather than later. Lawmakers are looking at proposed government guidelines that recommend switching off outdoor displays after 11pm, minimising flashing lights and glare and advocating energy efficiency. A three-month consultation and a task force on external lighting will be set up to look at technical standards and ways of tackling lighting nuisances.

With air pollution, livelihoods and the high cost of replacing polluting vehicles with cleaner ones are involved. Laws will speed up that process. But light pollution is about promotion - important in a city jostling with competition, but an issue that should for now be able to be dealt with through education, guidance and volunteerism.

If, after a reasonable amount of time, the guidelines are not being followed, the government has to take tougher measures. Apart from pollution, excessive lighting can cause insomnia, high blood pressure, headaches and increased anxiety. They are not ingredients for a healthy, well-balanced and tolerant society. And that does not take into account that our skies are being wiped of stars.

We have got reason for hope, though. Earth Hour last Saturday, when businesses and homes were asked to turn out lights for an hour, received encouraging support. More than 3,100 companies and buildings, 300 schools, all the universities and the government took part. It is a small base for a city of seven million people, but one from which targets can be made. Authorities can start by setting an example; assuring that the lights on their buildings meet guidelines, ensuring inspections and improving education. Ultimately, though, each and every one of us has to do our bit.