Besides being an engineer and technical writer, I have many outside interests and activities. Some of these even get me noticed and recognized, even if there is no equal pay to go with such notoriety.
However, in one of these capacities, I was recently paid to attend a conference on the Jersey shore (not to be confused with MTV’s popular reality show) banking the Hudson River, just across from Manhattan, with all expenses covered. The discussion focused on how to foster economically healthy and socially just urban communities.
In one of the sessions, the presenter posted a picture on the projector, asking if anyone knew what this picture was (Figure 1). The people I was surrounded by in the room were all intellectuals, but none of them were aware of what the image actually was. My hand went up, not because I was the most intellectual but because of my engineering background with LED lighting.
Figure 1: China (left), North Korea (center, the dot in the middle is the capital city, Pyongyang, with >3 million people), and South Korea (right). (Source: NASA/Reuters)
When the presenter called on me, I responded, “That is a nighttime satellite image of North and South Korea where the picture displays a visual graphic of the relative flourishing economic climate based upon two different economic systems, as indicated by the amount of relative lighting per population.”
Heads turned. Suddenly, in their eyes I was now a worthy intellectual and colleague. Probably not, but I’m glad to know that sometimes being the only engineer in the room pays off.
On November 22, 2017, a multiple-authored journal article entitled “Artificially Lit Surface of Earth at Night Increasing in Radiance and Extent” appeared in Science Advances (Volume 3, Number 11). In the abstract they claimed:
A central aim of the “lighting revolution” (the transition to solid-state lighting technology) is decreased energy consumption. This could be undermined by a rebound effect of increased use in response to lowered cost of light. We use the first-ever calibrated satellite radiometer designed for night lights to show that from 2012 to 2016, Earth’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by 2.2% per year, with a total radiance growth of 1.8% per year. Continuously lit areas brightened at a rate of 2.2% per year. Large differences in national growth rates were observed, with lighting remaining stable or decreasing in only a few countries. These data are not consistent with global scale energy reductions but rather indicate increased light pollution, with corresponding negative consequences for flora, fauna, and human well-being.
It is well known that LED lighting consumes less electrical power to generate the same amount of lumens as traditional lighting. With that information in mind, the development of high-efficacy LED lights has led to a rapid transition from traditional lighting sources to LED lighting. However, if the authors are correct in their claim, this has been more than offset by an unintended consequence: Growth in lighting—lumens projected—itself.
The result is that an increase in light efficiency means that more light is being employed. This is in line with standard conclusions that one might suspect from simple supply and demand curves. In essence, the increased efficacy reduces the cost of projecting “X” amount of lumens onto the scene. This shifts the supply curve (S) to the right due to advanced and improved technology. Right shifts of the supply curve (S→S1) make more quantity (Q→Q1) available at the same or lower prices (P→P1), as Figure 2 shows.
Figure 2: Supply curve shifted to the right. (Source: Economics Online)
So more efficient forms of lighting have led to humans employing more lighting; as a result, we can see better than ever, but we have also generated more light pollution. Together, we all share the same experience. We have lost much of our ability to see the nighttime sky.
I live a few kilometers away from one of the biggest shopping centers in the US. When I step into my back yard each night, there is always the parking lot glow of the large shopping center off in the distance.
So, if (as the study suggests) the world is, indeed:
What, then, should we as engineers do in response to these unintended consequences?
Perhaps we are to understand that our control of lighting has ecological stewardship issues that we must take seriously. Lighting provides the basis for one of humanity’s most important senses and its reception of input from the external environment. It is good that humanity has made so many improvements in controlling light that we can successfully deploy it where and when vital. Continual improvements in solid-state lighting provide more and more people with this ability to interact with their environment.
For engineers, future lighting designs will allow for greater use of external shields and electronic controls to optimize when, where, and how much light displays. Through this, our design goals will subsequently reflect not just an attention to the raw light output but to how the light is properly contextually bracketed to suitably meet the needs of the biological environment—human, animal, and plant. This will require an action of unity where everyone works together as a society. However, as engineers, we are a vanguard with the potential to seize these unintended consequences and engineer unique technical lighting solutions that make a positive impact on lighting, while we remain good stewards of our surroundings.
November 2017 represented the 100th anniversary of the birth of Melvin Kranzberg (1917–1995), an American historian and professor of technology history, who is notable for his insight into what is known as “The Six Laws of Technology.” Kranzberg stated, “Many of our technology-related problems arise because of the unforeseen consequences when apparently benign technologies are employed on a massive scale.” While I am hopeful to see you at a future tech conference, where we can discuss the well-being of humanity, in the meantime, I hope your works are illuminating and can put our minds to the task of resolving any problems that are a result of the unintended consequences of technology.
Paul Golata joined Mouser Electronics in 2011. As a Senior Technology Specialist, Paul contributes to Mouser’s success through driving strategic leadership, tactical execution, and the overall product-line and marketing directions for advanced technology related products. He provides design engineers with the latest information and trends in electrical engineering by delivering unique and valuable technical content that facilitates and enhances Mouser Electronics as the preferred distributor of choice.
Before joining Mouser Electronics, Paul served in various manufacturing, marketing, and sales related roles for Hughes Aircraft Company, Melles Griot, Piper Jaffray, Balzers Optics, JDSU, and Arrow Electronics. He holds a BSEET from the DeVry Institute of Technology (Chicago, IL); an MBA from Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA); an MDiv w/BL from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fort Worth, TX); and a PhD from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fort Worth, TX).
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