It is fitting that the light bulb — in addition to illuminating homes, workplaces, and streets — has become a symbol of a bright idea. If we see one shining above a cartoon character’s head, we immediately know that he or she has had a flash of inspiration. Nothing says “good thinking” quite like one of these little wonders of the modern world, which have helped to liberate mankind from the oppression of darkness.
It is also fitting, then, that environmentalists have declared war on these symbols of sensibleness. Greens want to rid homes and other buildings of the old-fashioned, apparently harmful light bulb and replace it with paler, weaker compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Now, if you were to see a CFL, a twirly, ugly cousin to the standard bulb, flashing above a cartoon character’s head, what would you think? Smug git? Dimwit?
This week in Britain, there has been panic-buying of old-fashioned 100W bulbs — not in anticipation of a nuclear war or a long winter (though it is exceptionally cold here), but because soon 100W bulbs will no longer be available. They’re being phased out, switched off, made history by the eco-worriers who rule over us. As part of a government campaign to force us all to start buying CFLs, retailers have voluntarily agreed to stop replenishing stocks of 100W bulbs. There will be none left within weeks. This follows the scrapping of the 150W bulb last year. It just gets darker and darker — literally and metaphorically — here in Blighty.
The eco-war on light bulbs shines a light on the nauseous combination of gesture politics and backward thinking that makes up modern environmentalism. It is a fallacy that only by changing to CFLs can we save the world from a manmade hellfire that will burn brighter than any bulb. In Britain, household consumption accounts for only 30 percent of overall energy use — and lighting accounts for only 9 percent of that domestic usage. (By contrast, heating and hot water account for 80 percent of household energy use.) In short, less than 2.7 percent of total energy consumption in Britain can be blamed on ignorant people recklessly switching on the lights at night.
It is possible that forcing people to switch to CFLs by clearing shop shelves of the traditional bulbs we prefer will actually increase energy use. The anti-bulb brigade fails to realize that a surprising amount of heat is generated by the old-fashioned bulb; in fact, more than 80 percent of an incandescent bulb’s energy is converted into heat. In the average four-bedroom house, such bulbs can produce as much heat as a three-bar electric heater.
If we replace traditional bulbs’ warming glow with the cold, eerily greenish light of energy-saving CFLs, it is likely that people will turn the heat up. And that could mean a net increase in energy use — and therefore more chance that we will all be bumped off by the four horsemen of the eco-apocalypse (allegedly).
The government and retailers’ voluntaristic deal to force the rest of us to change our light bulbs is the worst kind of gesture politics. It’s a cheap and easy way for our betters and leaders to show that they’re supremely committed to “saving the world.” Consider the language used to describe this minor measure that will achieve little. One reporter says the demise of 100W bulb is a “significant victory in the battle to save the planet” and only “the most irresponsible of climate-change refuseniks would dare object.” In one fell swoop (or perhaps “foul swoop”) a silly campaign to promote CFLs is presented as epoch-definingly heroic, and anyone who says “hold on a minute . . . ” is written off as a denier, heretic, someone who clearly hasn’t seen the light.
Last year, the then-mayor of London Ken Livingstone even held a “light bulb amnesty.” People in London could pop into designated hardware stores and hand in their evil incandescent bulbs in return for a civilisation-saving CFL bulb. An amnesty is defined as a “period during which offenders are exempt from punishment.” So this is how the green elite sees everyday people who use appliances, warm their homes, and switch on their lights: as “offenders” who probably deserve “punishment.” Holding a “light bulb” amnesty puts possession of these wondrous devices on the same level as owning illegal guns or knives.
It has been 130 years since Thomas Edison patented the first modern light bulb, allowing us to light our homes and public spaces like never before. The bulb is a small but powerful symbol of man’s victory over a terrifying natural phenomenon: darkness; bleakness; the unknown. The misguided war on light bulbs is a perfect metaphor for contemporary environmentalism: they want to return us to the dark ages.
– Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked and the author of Can I Recycle My Granny? And 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas.