The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Spring 2014

"The Politics of Stargazing" by Magdalen Vaughn


There is a certain type of nature enthusiast whose beating heart is stilled when he or she visits the Mount John Observatory. In June 2012[1], the 4300 square kilometers housing this site were declared the fourth International Dark Sky Reserve. Located in the center of New Zealand’s South Island, the Aoraki/Mt Cook Mackenzie region is home to locales like Mount John, and Lake Tepako, the township below the mountain. 

If you choose to visit Lake Tepako for the quality of its night skies, you might be one of these starlight enthusiasts. However, it is not just individual hobbyists who enjoy the fruits of Starlight Reserves. Both groups and individuals, of varying scientific or political authority, are interested in the establishment of dark sky reserves and dark sky parks.[2] Astronomers, environmental activists, marketing agencies, and photographers all value a clear night sky in different ways. These actors advocate for the preservation of starlight by supporting legislation that both limits light usage at night and radio emissions throughout the entire day, and promotes the stargazing tourist industry. Yet, people’s protection of the stars, which dwell in the realm of ‘things,’[3] brings up interesting questions of agency. How, specifically, do we in the United States understand ownership or rights with respect to the night sky? 

Activists for the preservation of starlight on the international scale have been making significant theoretical and political contributions since 2007.[4] International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and Starlight Initiative stand as leaders in the establishment of unpolluted sky-scapes, like the Aorake/Mount Cook reserve. However, they were founded at different times and for seemingly different political purposes. A non-profit operating out of the U.S. since 1988, the IDA is made up of astronomers and stargazers all around the world who believe in the importance of clear night skies. Members of the IDA work with members of the state, in the U.S. and abroad, and evaluate applicants for the title of Dark Sky Reservation. The necessary criteria for a Dark Sky Reservation title, for any of the IDA’s member countries around the world, include a degree of unnatural light polluting the area, clearly observable sky phenomena like the Milky Way or aurora, visual limiting magnitude and some more complex astronomical criteria.[5] From the first reserve, Mont Mégantic in Quebec, established during 2008, to the most recent, Westhavelland International Dark Sky Reserve in Brandenberg, Germany, the IDA has maintained a process of acceptance and publicity for each proposed stretch of land. The designation of an International Dark Sky Reserve requires expertise and consistent time commitments from members of the IDA and the IDA is currently a prominent authority on light pollution in the United States. 

However, on the larger scale of multinational organizations like the United Nations, there is no such consensus on the politics of protecting locations with clear night skies. Interactions between the Starlight Initiative, the World Heritage Committee (WHC) and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at-large prove that international political authority is not so easily established in terms of governing the natural world. 

For example, in 2009 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the WHC commissioned a working group that would take practical steps to include scientific components of the World Heritage. 

Within the framework of the Global Strategy for the balanced, representative and credible World Heritage List…the Thematic Initiative on Astronomy and World Heritage, aims to establish a link between Science and Culture towards recognition of the monuments and sites connected with astronomical observations… not only scientific but also the testimonies of traditional community knowledge.[6] 

In 2010, after participating in the IAU’s general assembly in Rio de Jainero, the Starlight Initiative and the Astronomy and World Heritage working group helped author the “Declaration in Defense of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight.”[7] In this work, historians and astronomers weighed in on the political and cultural import of stargazing practices. The document cites the involvement of members from organizations UNESCO, the UN’s tourism organization, environmental protection groups and multiple international scientific authorities like CIE, the International Commission on Illumination. 

Yet, a year later the World Heritage committee issued a statement explicitly separating activities pertaining to starlight reserves from the political domicile offered by the World Heritage properties list (sanctioned by the World Heritage Convention of 1972). In separating themselves from the project, the WHC states, “neither Starlight Reserves, nor Dark Sky Parks can be recognized by the World Heritage Committee as specific types or categories of World Heritage cultural and natural properties since no criteria exist for considering them under the World Heritage Convention.”[7] ‘Starlight Reserve’ is a term that has the same significance as Dark Sky Reserves established by the IDA, but the Starlight Initiative intended for Starlight Reserves to garner support from the UN. Refusing to recognize the concept of Starlight Reserve the WHC effectively strips starlight of protection by the UN, even though the UNESCO, as well as the UN’s environmental and touristic departments, continues to be associated with Starlight Initiative on their webpage and in publications. 

While the IDA has been operating for more than twenty years, and more than five ‘starparks’ or ‘starlight reserves’ have been established in the United States since 1998, there is no way to measure the impact of theoretical materials produced by the IAU and the Starlight Initiative, which prioritize the protection of clear night skies. Still, the multi-voiced fight to preserve starlight is generating dialogue between many international scientific, cultural and political organizations. 

Dark Sky Reserves are all over the world, calling to interested travelers and serving as reminders of the great divide between nature and culture. Groups created by the IAU have crossed what some see as the rational boundary between the natural world and the social world. Though individuals can visit dark sky reserves to promote ‘starlight tourism,’ a lack of consensus on what starlight is and who has a right to it may have consequences. For example, individuals may believe they have the right to claim non-polluted light, in ‘undeveloped’ countries as if starlight were property. Even so, the IAU, alongside the UN, is committed to ‘developing’ astronomy in the Western economic sense—birthing the unheard of concept of a Right to Starlight. This term gives the sense that, while the UN may not be officially protecting starlight, stargazing has cultural and political importance on the international stage. 


[1] “Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie.” Accessed May 24, 2014. 
[2] “About IDS Places.” Accessed May 28, 2014. 
[3] Scott, Charles E. 2002. The Lives of Things. Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 
[4] “Objectives of the Starlight Initiative.” Accessed May 24, 2014. 
[5] “Reserves.” Accessed May 24, 2014. 
[6] “World Heritage Centre - Astronomy and World Heritage Thematic Initiative.” Accessed May 24, 2014. 
[7] “The IAU Strategic Plan 2010 – 2020 ‘Astronomy for the Developing World - Building from IYA2009.’” In International Year of Astronomy 2009. Rio de Janiero, 2009. 
[8] “World Heritage Centre - Astronomy and World Heritage Thematic Initiative.” Accessed May 24, 2014.

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