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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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In the beginning, there was a glade. A green and foresty place, a meadowy clearing in the great big woods. The robins called from branch to branch. A laughing stream wove gently through the dell. A rabbit hopped through the long grass, bright with morning dew. All was well, and all manner of things were well—until, one day, the evil came.

Government Forces Fluorescent Bulbs Picture


The evil, of course, is you. And me. People, in other words: human beings in general, but Europeans in particular—those pale pioneers who invaded the forest with their unnatural Western science and their denatured Western religion. Iron sick, they were, and gold mad. Acquisitive and unsettled. Uncomfortable in their own skins. They tormented the land with their steel axes and their guns, their machines and their desires. They poisoned Mother Earth with runoff and waste, overheated houses, and cars like angry monsters prowling through the night. What now can come to good, with people here? All is changed, and nothing for the better.

And yet, certain small actions might still save the world from the apocalypse we have brought upon ourselves—or, if they won’t exactly save us, such gestures may nonetheless declare our will toward salvation, our right intention to stand with the forces of light against the impending doom. 

Like, for instance, hanging up my motel-room towel after a shower to signal the chambermaid that I don’t need a fresh one. 

Save The Planet! reads the headline on the motel placard that explains my duty. Saving the planet, one towel at a time. A Gideon Bible may be safely stashed in the nightstand drawer, but sermons are still preached here in the formica bathrooms of the chain motel outside Carol Stream, Illinois. Carol Stream, Illinois, of all places: Cornfields and dry Midwestern plains stretch as far as the eye can see, but the placard’s illustration shows an endangered bunny in a threatened forest glade, and the text is one of high moralism and utter confidence in a worldview. 

No priest dare speak this way anymore. No pastor, no rabbi, deploys this tone. Your dentist might indulge it, in high dudgeon about flossing, or your internist on a tirade about smoking, but otherwise ethical discourse in our nation—the acceptable public language of manners and morals—is reduced to this kind of universalized environmentalism: righteous notices posted in motel rooms in middle America about the ethics of terrycloth towels, preset air conditioning, and light bulbs. 


Ah, yes. Light bulbs. You know, of course, about those twirled-tube bulbs of which motel chains now boast: CFLs, they’re called, “compact fluorescent lamps,” and they are about to become the primary means of lighting our lives in the United States. Mr. Edison’s old incandescent bulbs—the ubiquitous glass pears with the carbonized filament and the Sprengel pump-induced vacuum that have defined light since 1879—and all their tungsten descendants are under a death sentence: a rolling execution that begins with 100-watt bulbs on January 1 and moves down the wattage line in subsequent years. 

A “dim bulb” you are, if you don’t grasp the need for this banning of incandescence. Or so, at least, the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times announced on July 18. Oh, the newspaper admitted, the public is showing some anger as it realizes, finally, that the 2007 light-bulb law is about to kick in, but, the Times assures us, science, economics, and “the nation’s future and collective health” all demand the change. Even “Edison himself, ever the forward thinker, probably would have approved.” Saving the planet, one gooseneck lamp at a time. 

In point of fact, the science of the light-bulb ban is dubious, the economics are a shambles, and the impact on our “future and collective health” is entirely symbolic: more a genuflection toward environmentalism than an actual contribution. For that matter, it’s not clear that Edison—whose ever-forward thinking, one remembers, led him to invent the alternating-current electrical chair for executing prisoners—would have done more than looked up from his workbench to sneer.

You won’t get anywhere with the shining advocates of fluorescence, however, by pointing any of this out. The world finds its illumination where it will, and one interesting effect of a public moral vocabulary is that we find it difficult to make people hear anything that contradicts the truisms, platitudes, and shibboleths of the day. The inferiority of incandescent bulbs is written in the unanswerable nanny guidebook of the early 21st century, replacing the old Victorian entries on castor oil and such aphorisms as Cleanliness is next to godliness

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