Light pollution which brightens the beautiful dark sky with an ugly muted glow is one of the most underrated negative externalities around. I talked a little bit about this earlier. Unfortunately, it is a really difficult problem to solve.
On the one hand, Coasian bargaining can’t solve the problem given the huge transaction costs of dealing with the millions of people who cause the natural dark sky to disappear (not to mention that a property right in the skies relevant to this issue can’t really be defined or allocated easily unless you gave someone a near monopoly grant).
On the other hand, even government solutions would be resisted by the “cult of light” that has formed around the notion that we need artificial lighting outdoors in order to be safe and secure (or to properly advertise business activity). I can’t imagine a tax on improperly shielded outdoor lights large enough to change behavior and decrease light pollution would be very popular with the electorate. And light fixture and bulb companies would almost certainly use their vast lobbying power to help kill such a tax even if it had an electoral chance. That leaves regulation – which might suffer from the same political barriers – and education.
Of course, someone might argue that the harm done is so small in the aggregate that it isn’t even worth a political decision costly to the preferences of many more people. Maybe so, even though I generally reject utilitarian defenses of any particular act or policy.
So I think we are stuck for the immediate future with the ugly sky we’ve created through the millions of innocent and often well-intentioned decisions of market participants that harm others without compensation. Part II of this series will try to help educate people about light pollution and how we can reduce it without great harm to other ends.