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A whole new light: Introducing ADSA’s Youth Ambassadors - by Alexandra Lay

There are few moments in life that make you stop completely and take it all in, moments that connect you with nature and the world around you. I had a moment like that in 2018 when a night drive in South Africa turned into an evening of stargazing with elephants. We’d spent hours driving around collecting data on what nocturnal wildlife we could find when our driver pulled to a sudden stop waking those who had started to drift off. Our eyes, adjusting to the darkness without the spotlight, eventually discovered a group of at least fifteen elephants on the road around us. With the engine switched off we were able to just sit, and listen, and take in the incredible environment we found ourselves in. The elephants rumbled to each other and crunched away at branches, and I looked up at the sky. The night sky is something that many of us take for granted, barely even noticing. But on that night, I saw the stars in a whole new light. That was the moment that I began to appreciate the night sky and all that it provides us with. But when I returned to Melbourne, I quickly remembered that while I’m looking at the same sky, the image is very different.

With a background in wildlife conservation and biology, my immediate reaction to light pollution is the damaging effects it has on our species and our ecosystems, but I’ve quickly learnt that the effects are much broader. Humans have been guided by the night sky for tens of thousands of years. It provided us with inspiration and perspective before we built our brightly lit cities of artificial light that have since been discovered to be harmful to our mental and physical health.

The Australasian Dark Sky Alliance (ADSA), a not-for-profit organisation for the conservation of the night environment, recruited five youth ambassadors, including myself, to raise awareness of this critical cause. Thomas Windsor holds an Honours degree in Antarctic Marine Science. He has recently found an interest in amateur stargazing and astronomy in Tasmania, first experienced light pollution while conducting ecological surveys on flatback turtles in the northwest shelf region. “The stars there are fantastic, quite brilliant,” he says. “You spend two weeks tied into natural rhythms of night and day, the tide cycles and lunar cycles”. It can be hard to put into words what a natural dark sky can really look like for someone who has spent their life in areas affected by light pollution. “Physically dragging someone out and putting them under a bowl of stars, really shows people what a dark sky can be,” he says. “Because I’ve lived it, I not only see it as the issue that it is but also as something that actually guides what I do day to day, that’s the way to get people really on board”.

Eloise Cater, who studies a Masters of Environmental Engineering, recalls spending time going to observatories with her family and looking at astrophotography competitions around light pollution sent by her grandpa. “I was really into art and I painted and drew quite a few of those pictures that he sent,” she says, “A good way to reach people for a cause like light pollution is with art, I feel that really draws people in.” With her passion for the environment, Cater hopes to use her creativity to make a positive change in her time as a youth ambassador to prevent further environmental degradation.

With a background in ecology and environmental justice, Gabriella Allegretto now studies a PHD on the perception of light pollution, using environmental social theories to look at the way we perceive the night sky. Her project explores the values of light and darkness, people’s relationship to the night sky and looking at the sky in the context of a landscape and our relationship with that landscape. “I became fascinated with people’s connection with the night sky, especially indigenous astronomy, I thought was really beautiful,” she says, “When I think about the impact of light pollution, I think about how it can disrupt animal behaviour, as well as how it can disproportionately disrupt different communities and different groups.” Allegretto aims to raise awareness of light pollution but particularly to make people aware of the work the ADSA does to educate the community and generate interest around this issue that is typically not well known in comparison to other environmental concerns. “I wish I’d learnt more about this as I was growing up, my first experience with camping wasn’t until university, so if I hadn’t have realised what the night sky looks like in rural areas, I wouldn’t have known what we were missing out on,” she says.

As a Master of Geography student, Kalycia Singleton’s interests lie within intersectional socio-ecological issues and urban human-nature relationships. Having grown up in suburban areas, Kalycia explains that she didn’t really know what I was missing from the night sky until she started camping as a young adult. “I am so grateful for how leafy nature spaces near my home improve my wellbeing, but I can't access that from the night sky in the city,” she says. We are constantly hearing of environmental degradation and the dire straits that we find our earth in and many of the issues our planet faces are not easily reversed. Singleton describes the emotional burnout encountered by herself and fellow students associated with studying and campaigning for socio-environmental issues, like pollution. “It can be hard to engage with these issues every day when tangible change isn't being made quickly enough,” she says, “but it is re-energising to hear that light pollution and its impacts are something that we can potentially change within a lifetime.” Singleton aims to spend her time as a youth ambassador encouraging community engagement by acknowledging the physical and mental health impacts of light pollution, centring both the heaviness and grief entangled within these issues and her hope for what we can achieve.

As ADSA Youth Ambassadors we aim to spread awareness about the damaging effects of light pollution because we can all make simple changes to bring back the beautiful night sky.

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