I was taught to turn lights out when I was not using them. We pay extra for electricity to finance energy-saving programs that involve devices that turn lights out when not in use. Yet, the city of Little Rock recently sent an email advising citizens to combat crime by leaving outside lighting on all night. That is backward, ineffectual, potentially counterproductive and environmentally irresponsible advice.
Lighting as an antiseptic for crime is a sop, long promoted by electric utilities to sell electricity during the off-peak load time at night and politicians wanting to appear to be doing something about crime.
While it is useful to light where and when people are out and about, both for safety and security, the expert consensus is clear. “We can have very little confidence that improved lighting prevents crime, particularly since we do not know if offenders use lighting to their advantage,” a 1997 National Institute of Justice report to Congress on preventing crime found.
In Britain, public streetlights are either turned off or dimmed late at night to save money and reduce greenhouse emissions. British scientists, reviewing 16 years of data, concluded that dimming light was associated with a decline of crime, particularly violent crime. This practice of dimming or turning off lights late at night has become standard practice in informed and progressive cities in the U.S. with the same result.
Most residential property crime occurs in the day. It is hard to imagine how you could have more light. Why would this be? Though we might like to think of them that way, criminals are not cockroaches; they need light like everyone else. A Washington state school district turned off campus lighting to save money, vandalism fell. Should that really be a surprise? In Little Rock, we mindlessly waste scarce education money lighting empty K-12 campuses all night long. This is impulse and habit, not thoughtful conduct. The Illumination Engineering Society recommends light on motion sensors as the most effective lighting for residential security.
The city of Little Rock’s advice is not harmless. A 100-watt bulb left on all night for a year generates nearly a half-ton of carbon dioxide and helps sustain air polluting coal-burning base-load generating plants that typically supply nighttime electricity. We are talking tens of thousands of lights in this city, and if it is sound advice here, it is everywhere. Aside from the climate change impact of all this lighting, the biology of every living thing on the surface of the planet is keyed to the diurnal cycle of light and dark. The American Medical Association has issued two statements addressing the health risks of exposure to light at night, explicitly referencing outdoor lighting as a concern, and implicating a host of diseases of modernity to include obesity, diabetes, depression and prostate and breast cancer.
The glow from your porch light does not stop at your property line. Light from the city of Little Rock pollutes the sky over hundreds of square miles. There is no naturally dark place left in the state of Arkansas. We are driving nature at night into smaller and smaller enclaves. The vast majority of our children have never seen a natural night sky or the Milky Way galaxy they live in, something that was a real and intimate part of our ancestor’s world until a few generations back. Now we have to create special parks for people to experience what is left of nature at night. Perhaps this itself has something to do with the prevalence of crime.
Crime is principally the product of socioeconomic conditions. The way to prevent most crime is through education and economic opportunity, which is to say through hope. Our city has high crime because it is falling behind. For decades, we have been losing out on economic opportunities because we are backward thinking, looking for the jobs of the past and addressing problems with thoughtless sop.
Successful cities offer quality education, are environmentally sensitive and culturally and economically progressive. Business can’t afford to locate where top-quality employees don’t want to live. Proposing that citizens should pollute the environment by turning lights on to prevent crime is not the mark of an informed progressive cutting-edge city. The lights we need to turn on are in our children’s heads and those of our city officials who evidently are in the dark.
Bruce McMath is chairman of the Arkansas Natural Sky Association.