Driving north through eastern Arizona and into northwestern New Mexico, small mountain communities stood out in the night. Even though some were made up of not more than a few homes clustered around a highway, there were always at least twice as many outdoor lights shining away. Many of these lights were orange, low-pressure sodium lights that are the most dark sky and environmentally friendly, but a great number were also bright, cool LEDs glaring away on the sides of businesses and industrial buildings.
Jim, the gruff, grey-haired artist with a warm, coy smile whom we had met the previous night had told us that some insurance companies require certain kinds and amounts of outdoor lighting for businesses to be covered. He knew this because he spoke with the owner of an assisted living facility who couldn’t get the business insured unless the parking lot was fully illuminated by outdoor lighting, despite the fact that this is the last place to experience night time traffic.
There are other, poorly informed market pressures that also push business owners to install unnecessary outdoor lighting. According to a landscaping company in Tennessee, landscape lighting can increase property value by up to 20 percent and decrease insurance rates because it supposedly adds aesthetic appeal and reduces the chances of a break-in or theft. However, the International Dark-Sky Association has found several studies suggesting exactly the opposite – that outdoor lighting does not play a role in reducing crime, and instead serves as a huge waste of energy.
One thing the landscaping company got right, despite their obvious bias, is that outdoor lighting does make people feel safer. Our society has established a forever lit environment as the norm, while darkness as become more and more stigmatized as something to be fearful of. Horror movies pull this sentiment to the extreme, making it hard for people to fall asleep in the dark of their own homes. It is clear – darkness is treated as the unknown, the feared and dangerous.
That darkness embodies these characteristics, however, could not be farther from the truth. U.S. News reported that more general crime, like theft, in big cities happens during the day. That said, the same report did show that more violent crime happens at night. So, as manufacturers continue to push the message that outdoor lighting at night reduces the chances of break-ins or theft, the reality is much the opposite. However, because more violent crime does happen at night, a good alternative to an overabundance of wasteful outdoor lighting should be substituted by fewer, dark-sky friendly alternatives with emergency service dialers, such as the Blue Light systems on many American college campuses.
We need to find a way to balance the needs of pedestrians at night with the needs of the planet, and Flagstaff, AZ is a perfect example of that. But currently on our journey, Connor, one of my closest friends for years, and I were out in the thick of New Mexico’s off-roading scene. Of average height and slender build, Connor is one of those rare, authentic happy-go-lucky kinds of people. He has nearly-shoulder length brown curls that bounce with excitement at the novel beauty of all that we pass. Those curls were flying around as we sent it down hard-packed mud roads into the backcountry – in the pursuit of darkness.
We were looking for a remote campsite hosted by a filmmaker now living in Belgium, but in the dark and dense forests of this region, we didn’t make it far along the deep, frozen mud tracks before deciding to car-camp that night. At over 7,000 feet of elevation, the air was cold, clean, and thin. The stars poked out from behind moonlit clouds, but with a nearly full moon now the whole sky was washed out. Still, we admired the crater in the distance and the hardy, evergreen vegetation of this plateau.