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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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More, the potential savings don’t include the expense and energy required for disposal: The mercury content of a single CFL is small, but that mercury adds up quickly when the nation is using millions of the bulbs a year. It’s already illegal to throw the things into the trash in seven states, and hundreds of Chinese light-bulb factory workers have suffered mercury poisoning. (Did I mention that almost all these bulbs will end up being made in China rather than the United States, which, economic costs to the nation aside, will add shipping to the energy burden of production?) 

As for what you should do if one breaks in your home—which, it came as a surprise to the Environmental Protection Agency to learn, light bulbs do from time to time—the EPA guidelines read like instructions for fleeing a house in Love Canal. Saving the world, one hazmat suit at a time.

And then there are the changed behavioral patterns demanded of us, the intrusions into the lighting systems that we have grown to expect. CFLs can take up to a minute to reach full illumination. They produce constant ultraviolet and blue light, which can aggravate skin rashes and, anyway, makes most people look like modern versions of Boris Karloff. They don’t fit in tight light sockets, they’ve been known to catch fire when hung upside down in recessed lighting, they make the rest of your electrical appliances stutter when they draw their first burst of power, and they automatically switch on anything that uses an infrared remote control or sensor. Like your TV channel changer and your cell phone. Oh, they also make polarized window film shimmer with funny little rainbows till your eyes water, and they cause the dyes in expensive fabrics and paintings to decay.

Other than that, they’re fine—except, of course, for the fact that people dislike them. Genuinely and truly hate them. We want yellow-based light, not blue-based. Soft light makes us happier, and it makes us prettier. We expect light to behave as the sun does, growing redder as it dims. We want book pages to reflect a golden tinge. The deadening effect of fluorescent bulbs used to be a standard trope of movies about workplaces (watch Joe Versus the Volcano again), but now, somehow, we’re mandating the accursed things. 

The psychological cost of these bulbs has not yet been calculated. Perhaps it never will be, but here’s one guess at a measure: The Department of Energy reports that from 2007 to 2008 the sale of CFLs in the United States dropped, despite the fact that CFLs were widely available, routinely advertised as superior, and large consumers like factories and municipalities had the looming enforcement of the energy bill to spur them to switch. It’s not that, as a nation, we didn’t try compact fluorescent bulbs. We did try them, and we found them wanting.

And now we’re about to be left with only CFLs. How did we get here? Here, all the way from a vague notion that pollution is bad to Title 3, Subtitle B, Section 321 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which outlaws the production of incandescent bulbs between 310 and 2,600 lumens, starting with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012 and ending with 40-watt bulbs in January 2014?

The course from Jonathan Edwards’s Great Awakening to the Declaration of Independence is a little hazy, and the exact means by which the early-twentieth-century Fundamentalist movement got sidetracked into Prohibition is a little unclear. But it shouldn’t be such a mystery for our current symbolic issue of light bulbs. This is our story, after all. We’ve been living it for the last 40 years—ever since those 1970s “public-service announcements” on television that showed an Indian in a canoe weeping at the littering of America.

The two essays in a new pamphlet in the “Voices of the Tea Party” series from Broadside Books—I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial by the editor Michael Patrick Leahy and The Disastrous Light Bulb Ban by Howard M. Brandston—both identify the primary cause as an activist and out-of-control government, manipulated by crony-capitalist corporations: “If you want to find the ultimate roots of the movement . . . it all began when Herbert Hoover was named the Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding, when he set about organizing manufacturers into cooperative industry organizations.”

In this telling, the otherwise forgotten 1924 “Phoebus Cartel” of light-bulb manufacturers looms large, but the story only really gets rolling with the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Congress decided energy policy lay squarely within its remit and began to pass laws mandating all kinds of usage standards for cars and factories. In those days, of course, the announced purpose was American “energy independence” rather than our currently declared goal of reducing greenhouse gases. But the real motives, say the Tea Party authors, were always the same: a mistrust of ordinary people and an insatiable hunger for increased government. All of which culminated when the 2007 Democrat-dominated Congress (led by Nancy Pelosi, Nanny of the House) set out to do something, anything, that expanded government power, changed the nation’s lifestyle, and rewarded the large manufacturers such as General Electric that had supported the Democrats’ election. An inattentive or uninterested President Bush signed the bill, and here we are.

This version of the story is about what one would expect from Tea Party activists, and it’s true enough, as far as it goes. But all it really gives is the mechanism by which we got the light-bulb ban. It describes only how we came to have this leak: a kind of retrospective explanation of why the levee broke. But the stuff itself—the muddy water of our current environmental religion—remains a mystery. Worse, these kinds of explanations seem to imply  that different political procedures or different economic views about the marketplace would have avoided the light-bulb ban.

Well, actually, different politicians with different economic views probably would have done things differently. But if it hadn’t been incandescent bulbs, it would have been something else. The truisms of the nannies, the trite expressions of public morality spraying from the religious weight of environmentalism, will not be denied. One way or another, they force themselves out into the public air. Among Republicans, Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is under some attack for having sponsored the amendment that kept the light-bulb ban alive in the 2007 energy bill. George W. Bush is tarred with the same indictment for having failed to veto the bizarre legislation. But, really, those poor men were just trying to do the right thing. They accepted the faux-science of CFLs and the pseudo-economics because they wanted to believe. They wanted to share in the great public morality of environmentalism, and everyone seemed to be telling them that light bulbs were the way to do it.

In the event, light bulbs weren’t the way to do it, but that’s really beside the point. You want to know where the light-bulb ban began? It wasn’t Nancy Pelosi, and it wasn’t Herbert Hoover, and it wasn’t even the shadowy Phoebus Cartel, though all who do evil love the darkness. The light-bulb ban was carried forward by the placards about towels in motel rooms. It was nursed at the local coffee shop, where we are lectured in high moral language about how only sustainable coffee beans—gathered, if the illustrations are accurate, on the misty slopes of Ytaiao Mountain by Rima the jungle girl—can redeem us. Saving the planet, one Starbucks at a time.

The demand for CFLs was inculcated at “Earth Day” plays in which grade-school children got to act out the roles of bunnies and butterflies who’ve come to warn us that we must be nice to the Earth. (As James Lileks once noted, those school plays typically end with “a hymn to nature that makes the Romantic poets look like strip-mining company CEOs.”) The desire to eradicate incandescent bulbs grew up with myths of the Cuyahoga River catching fire and the smog of Los Angeles rolling through the Hollywood Hills like malevolent mud.

The truth or falsity of such things is a trifle, a quibble, a bagatelle. What matters is that they form our national mythology and our cultural worldview. They form our public religion—the one moral vocabulary that can be spoken in this country anywhere and anytime. 

Of course, the result is the kind of general feeling that something must be done about it all, and if that something is rather pointless—the peculiar rush to legislate 1.6-gallon toilets is a good example—nonetheless we have shown a righteous will by trying. We have the guilt-release of a noble attempt. We have the warm feeling of being on the side of good. We have asserted our standing as children of light, even if rather ineffectual ones. We have followed the sayings of nanny.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.

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