Breaking Cultural Barriers and Building Cultural Bridges in Dark Skies Protection

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Amy Oliver
NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador

“When it comes to dark skies protection there are several requirements for success: to simultaneously break the cultural barrier—fascination with and attachment to the “bright lights, big city” way of thinking—and build cultural bridges—help individuals to reconnect, or connect for the first time, with the cosmos, and to understand the criticality of dark skies to the health and well-being of people, animals, and biosystems worldwide.”

Each page of the 1990s children’s book, It Didn’t Frighten Me, by Janet Goss, begins, “One pitch black, very dark night…” These days, the book, much like that dark, night sky, has faded from my grasp. As a public affairs expert and NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, I’m using every tool in my communications arsenal to educate the public, help them to engage with and become inspired by science and the world around them, and to solve seemingly small dark skies problems that I hope will someday make a greater impact on the world around us.

Growing up with Dark Skies

Growing up with an outdoors-safety-expert Dad, who insisted our family spend as much time in the Utah wilderness as we did at home, filled my childhood with unlimited access to a now nearly unknown wonder: unobstructed, unadulterated, star-filled night skies. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I watched these skies slip further and further into the distance, their decreasing reach following close behind increases in nighttime light infrastructure in a growing metropolis.

A Night Sky Survey Illuminates the Growing Problem

In 2016, Dr. Fabio Falchi and his team of researchers at the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy, confirmed my own worst fears, and those of dark sky protectors everywhere, when they released the results of a new night sky survey, which were, for lack of a better term, illuminating. While human beings are estimated to functionally inhabit (actually live on) only 10-percent of Earth’s surface, Falchi estimates that increasing infrastructure has left less than one-third of Earth’s inhabitants an unobstructed view of the night sky. In the United States, infrastructure has proven even more debilitating, as “lighting the night” has effectively blocked night sky views from more than 80-percent of the population, and these people have never seen the Milky Way.

The Issue is More than Statistics, It’s Culture

For night sky protectors, battling back nighttime lights requires the support of both public officials and the public itself. But it isn’t always easy. That’s because “lighting the night” has become more a part of modern culture than the night sky. While the practice is still young, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Nearly 90 years in the making, nighttime lights have been a focus of fascination in cities since quick-build architecture took off.

In 1930, General Electric published Architecture of the Night, described as a “series of articles to suggest the possibilities of architectural illumination.” Increased and enhanced lighting “shows off “ some of the world’s most recognizable buildings—the Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House—to the delight of locals and tourists. It isn’t just the world’s largest buildings that produce nighttime “daylight.” In Downtown Salt Lake City, blue light burns into the night sky, an historic 64-foot lighted weather tower tops the Walker Center, and contributes to what I recently heard Bettymaya Foott of IDA describe as “taking the stars down from the sky and putting them into the city.”

Facilitating Public Engagement Through Effective Communication

When it comes to dark skies protection there are several requirements for success: to simultaneously break the cultural barrier—fascination with and attachment to the “bright lights, big city” way of thinking—and build cultural bridges—help individuals to reconnect, or connect for the first time, with the cosmos, and to understand the criticality of dark skies to the health and well-being of people, animals, and biosystems worldwide. Meeting these requirements means filling gaps in community education by engaging in four crucial elements of communication:

  • face-to-face interaction;
  • clear, concise and shareable information produced at a 5th grade reading level;
  • shareable social media; and,
  • clear instructions for making a difference.

Fighting to take back the night sky isn’t an easy task. When most of the world’s stars are on the ground, and the world’s most beloved photographs highlight monuments like the Eiffel Tower at night, the conversation about turning out the lights is a difficult one. For the 80-percent of Americans and one-third of the world population who have never seen the Milky Way, its majesty is lost to manmade creations, which are amazing in their own right. Reaching deep into the cosmic connection with the right communication tools, and the right understanding of the cultural sensations we work against and alongside, can help us reach the end goal: one pitch black, very dark night.

Four Crucial Elements of Communication

1- Face-to-face interaction. According to a 2017 Western University study, face-to-face interactions are 34 times more successful than email. A 2015 study in Australia determined that while 51-percent of people rely as heavily on social media as they do on personal relationships, there’s still an overwhelming support for keeping face-to-face contact when it matters most. When it comes to dark skies protection, making a face-to-face connection can help us make a dark-to-sky connection.

2- Clear, concise, shareable information. Public relations principles require that written information be presented at no higher than a 5th grade reading level to ensure that any member of the general public can both understand and share the message. Sometimes, as those educated in astronomy we can forget that terminology and messaging doesn’t need to be technical to be effective. It simply needs to be meaningful.

3- Shareable social media. Sharing information on social media isn’t enough. Creating material that gets shared by others is what will make a difference. Being a conversation starter, mentioning key individuals, using appropriate hashtags, and providing positivity aligned with facts, can help spread messages that make a difference.

4- Clear instructions for making a difference. Believe it or not, we’re more likely to see positive action for dark skies if we tell people how to make it happen. IDA’s web site provides plenty of sample messages for talking to your neighbors, planning presentations and pop-up displays, and working with public officials.

Author Bio

Amy Oliver is a public relations expert living in Salt Lake City, UT. She serves as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and OSIRIS-REx Ambassador. She is a star party presenter for Snowbird Summer Stargazers, and fights for dark skies on a local level.
Amy holds a bachelors degree in communications from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Oklahoma.

Follow Amy’s adventures in dark skies protection, astronomy, and community science education at http://www.nerdyastronomy.com, on Twitter @nerdyastronomy, on Facebook, and on Instagram @nerdyastronomy.

If you would like to be featured please email darkskycooperative@gmail.com.

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