Politics & Policy

Dim Idea

From the Oct. 18, 2010, issue of NR.

Arriving late one night into Tokyo, I checked into my hotel room to discover the world’s most complicated toilet.

There were hoses and nozzles where hoses and nozzles probably shouldn’t be, and along the side there was an alarming set of buttons and switches, which made the entire contraption look like a neat freak’s electric chair.

But, you know, when in Rome, right?

It’s difficult to convey, in a magazine dedicated to the higher pursuits of political philosophy and national renewal, just how fantastic the Japanese toilet was. It’s impossible, especially, within the civilized parameters set by the editors and their assistants, to describe what a revelation it was — after a few eye-popping mishaps with the electric controls and one of the smaller nozzles — to discover that there were still things to perfect about an act we’ve all come to take for granted, still improvements to be made on the entire system, and that the Japanese had done it.

On the other hand, it uses an awful lot of water, at least the way I adjusted the settings. In addition to the water in the toilet itself, there’s the additional water for all of those clever nozzles — you can set the pressure for each of them, but I learned the hard way that it’s best not to be a hero.

By the end of my trip to Japan, I had already located an American dealer. It’s an expensive unit, but I like to think I’m worth it. Also, it took me the entire week to make it through the user’s manual, and once I’ve put in that kind of time on a gadget, I like to get my money’s worth.

So, my beloved Japanese toilet now finds itself ensconced in my bathroom — look, this is going to get personal, okay? — near my shower, which sports a sunflower-sized showerhead, which rains buckets and buckets of soothing water onto the bather, the entire room lit by hot-burning incandescent bulbs with 100 watts apiece of wake-up brightness.

My bathroom, in other words — which to me represents the pinnacle of easy livin’, the perfect intersection of raw technological innovation and empathetic human understanding — is an environmentalist’s nightmare. My dazzling and profuse showerhead, which turns a morning ritual into a moment of Zen, and my complex, computer-chipped, nozzled toilet, and the bright bulbs that give it all a clarity and visual snap — all of them are in the crosshairs of the eco-police. All of them are doomed.

The light bulbs are the first to go. The last major incandescent-light-bulb factory in America, in Winchester, Va., is closing. When you remember that light bulbs are also the symbol of great ideas, sudden inspiration, entrepreneurial Aha! moments, the fact that the country of Thomas Edison no longer produces light bulbs is a sad metaphor. Maybe we no longer produce light-bulb moments, either. A compact-fluorescent bulb flickering to life above the head of a cartoon character doesn’t feel the same.

By 2014, according to an absurd and indefensible act of Congress — and this one passed in 2007, so it’s not Obama’s fault for once — the kind of light bulbs that we all prefer — you know, the bright ones, the ones that actually illuminate rooms and objects — will be essentially banned and replaced by those awful Dairy Queen–looking things, the compact-fluorescent bulbs that bathe the world in a gauzy, dirty, yellow haze. It’s sick-room lighting, state-mental-hospital illumination — the kind of lights they used in East Germany to keep everyone sad and downcast.

The compact fluorescents are harder to manufacture — something about all of those twisty tubes — and if something is hard to make, it ends up getting made in China, which is where all of our light bulbs will come from by 2014.

And that’s how the Chinese will win, of course. We’ll all be squinting into the sick gray light while they sneak in and take everything.

The only time I ever really lost my temper in a business setting — and there’s no point in working in Hollywood if you don’t throw a huge tantrum every now and then; exploders and fit-pitchers are not only tolerated out here, they’re positively celebrated — was when the studio decided to install those awful light bulbs in some kind of ludicrous “green” initiative.

Working late became impossible — you couldn’t actually see the script you were supposed to be rewriting. The minute the sun went down, it was as if we were working in an emergency zone, with flickering generator lamps lighting our job site.

I sent a polite memo to the studio facilities crew asking for the incandescents to be reinstalled. They sent a polite memo in reply denying that request — “The studio is committed to creating a green workplace” — and suggested that I just needed to let my “eyes adjust.”

I’d like to say that I handled this in a firm and civilized way, but I didn’t. I went nuts. I marched over to the studio president’s office and demanded that he spend the next evening in my office in the cold yellow haze and try to read a script printed in a twelve-point font. I yelled and threatened and shouted and screamed, which people do in Hollywood all the time for more money or a bigger trailer or a helicopter taxi, but rarely for better light bulbs.

In the end, they gave me back my light. But I knew the days of the incandescent were numbered. Workplaces all over America are going to get darker and even more depressing.

And now they’re coming into my bathroom.

The Department of Energy regulates showerheads. Some of them, apparently, are too wasteful. My sunflower-sized rainmaker is on the list to be banned, as are the kinds that squirt water in all directions (those seem nice) and the kind that emit a steamy fog. In other words, if it somehow leavens the act of bathing, raising it up from dull routine to a tiny glimpse of the spa lifestyle, well, the DoE is against it.

Manufacturers of such showerheads are being fined — this spring, the federal government fined four such companies a total of about $150,000, just for making a showerhead that people want — and stern warnings are being sent out on Department of Energy letterhead.

To an environmental bureaucrat, the world looks better when it’s dingier. Bright lights are too festive. Powerful showerheads are too luxurious. To maintain the proper downcast attitude, they want to make sure we’re all a little less comfortable.

It’s all about less with them. As far as the environmental movement is concerned, we’re running out of everything — polar icecaps, sea turtles, crude oil — and the trick is to cut our appetites down to size, to stop wanting to stand under a gushing showerhead in a bright morning bathroom and think, I can handle what’s coming at me today.

It’s not about showerheads and wattage. It’s about optimism. Either you think a more prosperous world is a good thing — that prosperity and ingenuity can solve most of our pressing problems — or you don’t. Either you think that being able to afford an expensive showerhead is a component of a complicated web of incentives designed to inspire the next Thomas Edison to invent something useful — like, say, a battery-powered car or a brighter energy-saving light bulb — or you think that we’re done, we’ve invented everything already and we need to divvy up a shrinking pie. For the Left, there are no light-bulb moments in the future.

In the Battle of the Bathroom, the environmental bureaucrats have the optimistic hedonists on the run. They’ve taken our bulbs and our rain-showers, so it’s just a matter of time before they focus their regulatory powers on my toilet, with its delightfully surprising — but water-wasteful — nozzles and jets. This, perhaps, is where we need to take our (seated) stand. This is the line they must not cross. When they come to me with their regulations and federal guidelines, I will take a page from the National Rifle Association and say, “From my cold, dead . . .”

Well, you get the idea.

Rob Long is a contributing editor of National Review and a contributor to Ricochet. This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2010, issue of National Review.


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