NM Governor Unaware That More Light Pollution Means More Crime

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Recently, I came across a post by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham bragging on yet another poorly-executed government program. If you’re familiar with my articles, you probably know that I’m very unimpressed with her political shenanigans. Instead of spending her years in office producing results, she does things like wheel out fake EV charging stations and distract New Mexico’s voters with political stunts she knows won’t stand up in court.

Predictably, none of the stunts she’s pulled has had any effect on Albuquerque’s epidemic of crime and shootings. Now, instead of putting in the hard work it would take to actually get that problem under control (something she should have been doing for years already), her and the mid-wit mayor of Albuquerque who couldn’t put an electric bus program together have cooked up another stunt, but this time sacrificing the state’s view of the stars at night for yet another cheap stunt.

The news story she linked to is light on details, but does show some video of the area. Even considering that cameras are generally less light sensitive than the human eye, the streets aren’t brightly lit, but everything can be seen. But, one police commander disagrees.

“They like to disappear into the shadows, but now we’re making it difficult for them to disappear in the shadows because everywhere is going to have new lighting,” Commander Nick Wheeler said at a press event.

On the surface, what the governor and police are saying sounds reasonable. Many people think that dimly-lit streets allow criminals to sneak around more, so adding lighting and making it brighter should make life harder for criminals, right? But, common sense is wrong on this one.

More Light Actually Produces More Crime

DarkSky International (DSI) has been studying this issue for decades, and there’s really no proof that brightly lit streets do anything to reduce crime. A 2015 study shows that such lighting schemes end up costing a lot of money without actually producing any measurable public safety benefit. DSI also points to a 2000 study where the City of Chicago tried to do what Albuquerque is doing, and ended up with even worse crime as a result, with violent crime going up 14%.

If anything, it’s the opposite of what the police commander claims. Some photos DSI shares on the organization’s crime page shows the reason why crime went up with more lighting in Chicago:

While the human eye is pretty good, it still has limited dynamic range, or the range of things you can see from light to dark. When there’s dimmer light and your eyes adjust, it’s actually harder for criminals to lurk in the shadows, because you can see into the shadows and know they’re there. But, when bright lights are installed, our pupils close up to adjust, making the shadows appear darker. So, it’s actually easier for criminals to get the drop on innocent victims.

Other dangers often lurk in the dark, too. Glare and blindness can cause car, bike, and pedestrian accidents that hurt and kill people. So, it’s not just crime that gets us when there’s excessive light.

More Light Hurts Us In Other Ways

The rise in crime that counterintuitively accompanies brighter light is bad enough on its own, but there are other compelling reasons to avoid using more light at night for no good reason.

The biggest one (at least for readers) is probably human health. The human body regulates all sorts of things based on our exposure to light. People who don’t get darkness at night and light during the day suffer from higher incidence of all sorts of health disorders when our sleep cycles and hormones get interrupted. Cancer, heart disease, depression and suicide, obesity, and many other frightening things accompany light pollution.

It should be no surprise that animals suffer from the same problems as people, and more. Migratory patterns, reproduction, safety from predators (kind of like us), and many other things get hurt or lost in the light at night. Insects (including pollinators) are heavily disrupted. Artificial lights are often misidentified as the moon, leading to injury and death that endangers our food supplies when the pollinators can’t get to our crops.

Aesthetics and Tourism

Another tragic but not deadly effect of light pollution is that it hampers our ability to see the stars at night. Our ancestors all were able to see the stars in all of their glory, and they were able to see the Milky Way on a clear night. Today, most humans live someplace where they’ve lost this birthright.

Screenshot from Dark Site Finder.

All of the places that are orange, yellow, and green on the map are places where you can’t see the Milky Way. In the urban cores, where shades of red and white appear on the map, it’s often difficult to see more than a few stars, and often none at all. It doesn’t kill anyone to lose their view of the stars (unless you’re an animal that depends on that for navigation), but the lost natural beauty of the night is tragic regardless.

To see what our ancestors saw, many people take vacations to places where it’s dark on the map. In the darkest zones, it’s possible to see things that are missing even in rural areas, such as the Zodiacal Light, gegenschein, and even seeing your own shadow in the light of the larger planets on a moonless night.

Many of the places that people visit to get an amazing view of the night sky are in the Southwest, with several in New Mexico. In a state that’s already last or close to last on many key measures, we can’t afford to lose any more tourism dollars.

Adding a few street lights in Albuquerque alone won’t make a big difference in the appearance of these dark sky zones, but the general attitude that more light is needed, regardless of all of the real facts gets amplified and lent false credibility when these dumb politicians uniforms tell the public that they’re doing a good thing. Other people in New Mexico will turn around and put obnoxious lights on their homes and businesses, actually making the light worse.

So, we need to spread the word and make it clear that it doesn’t work that way.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.


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