As a loyal American, I find myself ever more worried about the fate of electrical lighting. By electrical lighting, I mean incandescent. There are other kinds of lamps that run on electricity, but they count as lighting only in the same sense that brown rice counts as food—only if someone morbidly insists on it, and no one else has the heart to argue.
The latest person to insist is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. In a speech in Houston this month, the Mayor bragged about phasing out incandescent light bulbs at City Hall and in his own home. He then said that the United States ought to follow the lead of Canada and Australia, which earlier this year, in separate spasms of First World environmental guilt, announced that they would outlaw incandescent bulbs by 2012 and 2010, respectively.
“I think it won’t be very long before you won’t be able to buy an incandescent light bulb,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
This sort of thing is easy to mock as nanny-state socialism, especially coming from the Mayor who banned smoking in bars. But I am fond of the smoking ban. At the moment, I’m in China, where the restaurants and bars stink of cigarette smoke. This is a Communist country, a real one, where they turn off the people’s heat in mid-March and don’t turn it on again till mid-November. For weeks, the chill sinks into your bones.
The heat does work when it comes on, though.
The anti-light-bulb campaign isn’t creeping socialism—it’s nanny-state capitalism: a cross-ideological alliance to force-market lousy products to the public. The left gets to see environmental virtue written into law; the right gets to see the negative consequences of that law fall on individual consumers, rather than, say, the power industry.
And the people get to squint to see anything. Yes, eliminating incandescent bulbs cuts down on X amount of electrical use and Y amount of power-plant fuel and Z amount of greenhouse-gas emissions—four million “tonnes” per year for Australia, the Australians say.
It also eliminates 100 percent of incandescent light.
The anti-light-bulb crusaders like to point out that incandescent-lighting technology is more than a century old, as if that helps settle things. So is basketball, if you’re counting, and the Constitution is more than two centuries old. Incandescent light is not the most durable or efficient artificial light (though the Canadians might want to remember that it can help heat your home). It’s just the best at lighting things up. As it happens, the light bulb’s century—or century and a quarter—is the era that brought antibiotics, radio, motion pictures, airplanes and digital video recorders. The light bulb is the metonym for it all, the symbol of dynamic inspiration, dispelling darkness and ignorance: Genesis 1:3, by way of Menlo Park, N.J.
So before we clap Thomas Edison in the stocks alongside Columbus, let’s stop by the bathroom. This was where the mandatory-conservation movement scored its defining victory: the low-flow toilet.
The campaign for the low-flow toilet seemed noble—who doesn’t want to save water?—but it was smug and dishonest. It was smug because it presumed that the people who designed normal toilets had been too benighted to use the right amount of water. It was dishonest because … well, because there are certain kinds of equality that can’t be faked. A toilet that can’t handle an above-average job is no toilet at all.
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.