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Star of Wonder, Shard of Light (Pollution)

Last week LightAware received a request from a journalist asking about ‘our perspective on increased LED lighting used over the Christmas period.’ She mentioned the display on The Shard as an example, so I looked it up. The blurb on the Shard’s website said that  “the mosaic-inspired designs will be brought to life with animation and movement across the top 20 storeys of The Shard” and that they would be visible “from over 40 miles away”. 

My thought was that any lighting display visible from 40 miles away would meet anyone’s definition of light pollution. This distance would cover from Reading in the West to Southend in the East, as well as  Stevenage in the North to Tunbridge Wells in the South. It will be visible by around 15 million people, whether they want to see it or not.

Colorful view of Southwark bridge and the Shard Tower at night during new year’s eve, as seen from the north bank of the Thames river

According to The Shard’s website, this is OK, because it uses ‘energy efficient LED lighting’ They are so busy greenwashing their display, they neglect to tell us how much electricity it uses – I did ask, but they were unable to provide the information. There seems to be an assumption now that using LED lighting is in itself green – regardless of the enormous and unprecedented amount of energy consumed by newly vast LED displays, and their scientifically evidenced negative impact on wildlife and human health. It’s almost as if people believe that LEDs are powered by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gases by their very existence. 

There are much better ways to run a Christmas lighting display.  Last year my LightAware colleague Sarah welcomed in the start of the festivities by attending the Christmas Lights switch-on in Kendal, Cumbria. There was the usual hustle and bustle of excited children, folk sipping mulled wine from carboard cups, Mariah Carey warbling her famous Christmas hit and of course the eagerly anticipated switching on of the hundreds of bright Christmas lights, which were to adorn the little Cumbrian town.

But something different happened, something very unusual, very welcoming and very powerful… before Santa did the big switch-on, he did a big switch-OFF as the Cumbria Dark Skies team demonstrated the importance of creating dark skies for the wellbeing of all. The 1000-strong crowd stood for a few minutes in a slightly eerie but very tranquil darkness as all the towns surrounding street lights and business lights were turned off. The noisy children quietened, the loud chatting turned to whispers, almost to respect the darkness and people started to look up… up at the bright stars which were now visible without the obstructing street lights. There were also a few bats flying around making the most of the unusual dark town!

It felt very peaceful and serene and, in all honesty, when the countdown to the lights being switched on happened, there seemed to be a slight lack of enthusiasm at the thought of the glimmering stars being overshadowed by the LED lights. Sarah liked the calmness, those few moments to reflect on community and wellbeing and a time where we connected more with the planet and nature.

The first Christmas lights in London were on Regent Street in 1954 and their use has spread gradually, however it seems the introduction of outdoor LED lighting it seems to have set off a Christmas lighting ‘arms race’ across the country, with brighter, more garish displays each year.  No city park or local forest seems safe from being used for ‘a magical trail’ of Christmas or autumn lights.

Wouldn’t it be great if all towns did a big switch OFF, like Kendal, before switching on their Christmas lights. Imagine London having five minutes of darkness to see the magical canopy of stars and the milky way for the first time in generations. Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas present for Londoners. You never know, some eminent visitor from a Dark Skies Park might spot a new star before they all disappear.

By John Lincoln and Sarah Pritchard
Blogs are written by LightAware supporters in a personal capacity.

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