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Let There Be Light, Sickly Blue Light

Goodbye, incandescent bulb. Salvation comes from the compact fluorescent lamp.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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As it happens—if the lives of the hermit saints are any guide—cleanliness and godliness can often dwell some way apart. But that old nannyism really did capture something about British sensibility at a certain point in time. It expressed what we might call the leak—the place where our environmental religious energy, like water building up behind a dam, found a fissure and squirted out to douse the public square. Godliness is best, certainly, but cleanliness is very important, both for your health and proper deportment, and all good things fit together somehow, which means these good things must go together, and, anyway, we say so, and we’re good muscular Christians and members of the British middle class, so it must be true. Saving our souls, one bath at a time.

The Edwardians set the tone for all advanced twentieth-century opinion by roundly mocking such Victorian clichés, and perhaps some of those nannyisms deserved it. But the mockery became meaningful—gained a public hearing—only when there had already faded away the public certainty and sensibility that had made the nannies’ proclamations seem meaningful. The truisms of one era are the curious totems and taboos of the next: We know them, but we don’t exactly remember why anyone bothered to think them. 

Every broad religious movement leaves behind such remnants: small mementos of a no-longer-understood place where the faith of the moment found release as public morals. Why the great Methodist revival of John Wesley eventually issued in Victorian demands for bathing is not entirely clear, now. You probably had to have been there to understand. There’s a sense in which the First Great Awakening in America set up the Revolution, and the Second Great Awakening had as its moral consequence the abolition of slavery. But it’s something of a mystery why the Third Great Awakening left us with Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms and the memory of our strange national attempt at the prohibition of alcohol. The pressures and cracks of the time just let it flow out that way.

And now we have the light-bulb ban—the odd consequence of our current public religion, our present national ethics. For all this really is nanny-speak: the taking of the moral judgments that religious fervor has spewed into public life and the forming of them into platitudes. More than that, it’s nanny-speak made the law of the land, truisms with the force of congressional enactment. There’s an atheist group called the Abimelech Society whose members pride themselves on their supposedly daring feats of removing Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms and destroying them. The daring is not readily apparent; the day is long past when public outrage over anti-Christian atheism posed much threat. But think of it as a metaphor: Perhaps the time is coming, after our current environmental revival has ebbed, when would-be bravos will sneak compact fluorescent bulbs from hotel rooms—and replace them with clandestine incandescents.

I suppose, even knowing that it’s pointless these days, the facts of the great compact fluorescent lighting of America need to be laid out. According to the National Energy Foundation of the United Kingdom, the average life of a CFL is at least eight times longer than that of an incandescent, which looks like a great improvement in efficiency. Of course, hardly anyone is actually getting that much life from the bulbs; it turns out that a quarter of them lose power and dim after only 40 percent of their official life-span. That lifespan was calculated from ideal use, and the truth is that we simply don’t use lights in the dream-world way of those calculations. If you turn your CFLs on and off too often, you cause their electronic ballasts to decay. Dimmers kill them quickly, outside temperature ranges make them burn out, and they flicker themselves to death when coupled with motion sensors, light sensors, or timers.

But, for the sake of argument, grant the things an ideal use. The Department of Energy certainly did when, at Senate hearings this year, it announced that mandatory use of CFLs will save us 21 quadrillion BTUs over the next 30 years. As the stage-lighting expert Howard Brandston points out, that figure actually includes metal-halide fixtures. Subtract those still-legal lights, and we’re left with 15 quads over 30 years—or about 0.013 percent of U.S. energy use—as the burden of continuing to allow incandescent bulbs. 

Even that potential savings is too high, for if CFLs truly are superior enough to justify their increased expense—they typically cost three to ten times more than incandescent bulbs—then in an open market some consumers will switch voluntarily, especially employers with workplace lighting conditions closest to ideal for the bulbs. 

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