Fluorescent Fanatics Turn Me Off

I believe in conservation and efficiency. I’ve never loved any car more than my used ’84 Civic, which moved nimbly and got 38 miles to the gallon. I long for the day that electric cars, geothermal housing and breakthrough solar technology put the oil industry out of business, so we can give half of Texas back to the jaguars and jackrabbits.

But the bathroom is no place for wild optimism, let alone deception. Hippie delusions and false marketing teamed up to put the low-flow toilet over on the public. Did it help the planet? Not to be graphic about it, but the new, untrustworthy toilets trained me to flush in stages, three or four flushes instead of one. I figure I’m using twice as much water nowadays.

The compact fluorescent light bulb, which is supposed to take over when incandescents are outlawed, is another low-flow toilet. My first encounter with one was in college, where they were encouraging students to try them in desk lamps. I tried; my reading matter lay in a muddy-colored pool of dimness. I went back to the golden 60-watt glow.

Compact-fluorescent boosters say the bulbs have come far since then. What they mean is that they’re no longer laughably inadequate—they’re just mildly, annoyingly inadequate. They still don’t fit nicely in fixtures or work right with dimmers; they still burn out by doing a maddening slow fade. Most importantly, they still don’t shine with a clean, warm, continuous spectrum.

If they did, it wouldn’t take a law to make people use them. I have high hopes for energy-saving bulbs—especially the L.E.D. ones in development, which promise to turn on crisply and shed bright light and last maybe 10 times longer than compact fluorescents. I plan to buy some, as soon as they finish tinkering with the L.E.D. spectrum to make it a little richer.

Unless, that is, Mayor Bloomberg and his allies hand the fluorescent-pushers a captive audience before L.E.D.’s can take over.

In Beijing, a burning smell fills the city the day the communal heat goes off, as the populace falls back on old-fashioned personal coal stoves. Replace my real light bulbs with fluorescents, in sickly yellow or morgue blue, and I’ll have to burn something else for color. Whale oil, maybe.

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