A Picture Is Worth.... Lights Out in North Korea

Satallite image of korean peninsula at night
South Korea is filled with lights and energy and vitality and a booming economy; North Korea is dark.

Roman Harak / Department of Defense / Creative Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic describes this photo of the Korean peninsula, calling it "an astounding look at North Korea's utter failure to capitalize on the economic development that swept the world -- and not least, it's neighbor -- over the last half-century."

Donald Rumsfield said pretty much the same thing in 2006:

"If you look at a picture from the sky of the Korean Peninsula at night, South Korea is filled with lights and energy and vitality and a booming economy; North Korea is dark."

People used to think that belching factory smokestacks were a sign of progress and a booming economy; now we think of them as pollution. Thompson and Rumsfield think of the bright lights of South Korea as a sign of wealth and development; It is really all waste, the light going up into space instead of down where you need it. Thompson notes that North Korea generates quite a bit of electricity; "a not-entirely-terrible 69th in the world, just behind Puerto Rico and ahead of Nigeria and Iceland." But they don't use it to light up parking lots and shopping malls.

The blazing lights our satellites photograph while whizzing above us in their orbits, well, that's light that's serving no useful purpose (unless you want to think of our glowing cities as a form of art meant for distant eyes). Light seen from space is bouncing off illuminated surfaces, or being shone directly from bulbs aimed up. Neither is helping us on the ground see our cities better.

It's fun to gloat, but don't celebrate waste.