Opinion » Ted Rall

Dim Bulbs

Humans are part of the environment, too


PITTSBURGH--Don't conflate Midwestern blandness with moderation. Americans are extreme--but nothing like the Mountain Dew commercials.

First, we are often willing to tolerate far too much for far too long. Until the 1970s, to cite one of countless absurd examples, Americans allowed smokers to spew toxins everywhere they pleased. Restaurants, bookstores, supermarkets, even hospital maternity wards were their personal Superfund sites. Once we recognize a problem like that, we tend to overreact. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of Americans who'd never had a cigarette in their lives died of lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke. Finally, pissed off nonsmokers had enough. They pushed through bans everywhere from bars to public parks to beaches to smokers' own homes. Some condominium dwellers face eviction if caught smoking. Even the office building doorway, last refuge of the nicotine addict, is now under siege by ordinances than prohibit puffing near such entrances.

We've seen the same from-one-extreme-to-another pattern with airline security. Before 9/11, no one cared if you hauled a bag full of box cutters on board. (I routinely carried an Exact-o blade, an essential cartooning tool before Photoshop, and was never questioned.) We've gone from extreme non-security to the useless zealotry of shoe searches and toothpaste seizures. Only in America would screeners rob nursing mothers of their babies' milk.

Now it's light bulbs.

Riding a wave of publicity following his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore went before the Senate on March 21 to call for action to reduce global warming. Among the highlights of the deposed president's 10-point proposal are a tax on carbon emissions, a new mortgage program to encourage homeowners to install energy-saving devices, and a ban on incandescent light bulbs.

Don't laugh--it could happen.

Citing claims that fluorescent bulbs use only 25 percent as much electricity as traditional incandescents, legislators in Australia have already banned Thomas Edison's filament-burning invention. Cuba and Venezuela began phasing them out in 2005. The European Union may get rid of them as well. A bill banning old-school bulbs in 2012 is pending before the California state legislature.

"A day will come when our children and grandchildren will look back and they'll ask one of two questions," Gore said. "They will ask, what in God's name were they doing? Or they may look back and say: How did they find the uncommon moral courage to rise above politics and redeem the promise of American democracy?"

The planet is in trouble. Global warming is a big part of the cause. And Gore has done a great job forcing the public to focus on the crisis. Losing the first president who might have made the environment his top priority was the worst tragedy caused by the Bush v. Gore decision. But--my green friends are going to hate me for this--I would rather watch the oceans boil than live in a world lit by fluorescent light bulbs. According to the Web site 18seconds.org, replacing one 60-watt incandescent bulb with a fluorescent, especially "compact fluorescent bulbs" (CFB) that come in oversized spirals, eliminates the need to burn 110 pounds of coal and prevents 450 pounds of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from reaching the atmosphere. A homeowner saves $30 over the life of the bulb. "If we cannot deny ourselves incandescent light bulbs, which would require minimal sacrifice, how are we ever going to do the really difficult things such as cutting our reliance on fossil fuels, buying smaller cars or reducing our use of finite natural resources?" asks Matt Prescott, director of banthebulb.org.

I think he's got it backwards. As I've learned firsthand, buying a small hybrid automobile doesn't entail much sacrifice. It costs more up front, but you make up for it with higher fuel efficiency and, in some states, the right to drive solo in the carpool lane. The fuel cell necessitates a smaller trunk. Reduced horsepower can be slightly annoying.

Getting rid of incandescent indoor lighting, on the other hand, would erase one of the biggest quality-of-life differences between the first and third worlds.

Fluorescent lights, already a blight upon office workers and prisoners and the world's poorest countries, suck. They cast a hateful grey light that hurts your eyes; they cause real pain with continuous use. (In 1986, German scientists found that continuous exposure to fluorescent lighting blinded rats in four weeks.) They buzz and flicker. CFB proponents say you can't see the flickering. Maybe they can't tell the difference between cold digital music and old-fashioned analog either. Or they're lying. Some machine shops ban them because the frequency of their flickering matches that of moving equipment, causing it to appear stationary. If you've ever wondered why New Yorkers look sickly in footage that's shot on the subway, it's not because they're zombies. They're innocent victims of penny-pinching transit executives.

CFBs come in several varieties, but none cast an approximation of natural light. Some shine a blue tint reminiscent of a late '80s action movie. Most are gray, suitable for a detention cell in a Soviet-era jail. The "warm" variety, the best of a bad lot, makes a room look yellow and pink--like a demonic orphanage.

If quality of life--and quality of light--aren't important to you, consider that it might be greener to ban fluorescent rather than incandescent bulbs. Among other environmental concerns, CFBs contain significant volumes of mercury, whose high toxicity requires special disposal methods. They also emit ultraviolet radiation. "Is it [CFB-generated radiation] enough to make a difference? Probably not," says Akron ophthalmologist Charles Peter. "Do we know for sure? No."

But quality of life does matter. There are far better and more efficient ways to conserve energy and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Banning SUVs, requiring all cars to go hybrid or electric and tightening manufacturing regulations are only a few ideas that would go further without reducing us to a nation of squinters. As I told a friend who worked long hours for low pay under a cruel boss--the place was lit by crappy fluorescent bulbs--at an environmental organization, humans are part of the environment too.