Fluorescent bulbs – Bright lights and Dim Governments

Australia, a country famous for being a libertarian paradise*, announced it will ban incandescent light bulbs in three years. The Ontario government reaction? Great idea! There’s a spate of news items and forum postings and so on about how great this idea is – to ban the ‘old-fashioned’ incandescant light-bulbs with the super-efficient fluorescents. It’s will save the plant. Nasty, dirty coal-fired plants can be closed. Global warming will stop.

Hold on a sec.

Ever since there was a freakishly warm early January in the NorthEast and the release of the UN IPCC report it seems that there’s been a lot of people leaping onto the ‘anything green’ bandwagon.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’ s nothing wrong with energy efficiency but just because there are claims about one thing being ‘greener’ or more environmentally friendly doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t still be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. And just changing a couple of lightbulbs isn’t going to save the planet.

There’ s two things that are seriously wrong with the Australian government’s move that make me sincerely hope that the Ontario government will not follow suit.

First off, it is totally wrong for governments to legislate and micromange any consumer decision to such a degree.

Second, it just seems to be accepted on pretty shaky evidence that fluorescents are the better choice. I have serveral reasons why they are not:

  • Disposing old fluorescent bulbs. Most of these kinds of bulbs contain mercury – a substance that is extremely bad for the environment, and something which already contaminates to many a landfill and water supply. If using fluorescents was to be legislated, the governmen would also need to legislate a formal recycling programme or they’ll just end up in the regular waste dumps.
  • The colour of the light is terrible – even the so-called full-spectrum bulbs are still cold and harsh compared to the lovely warm glow of the lamp next to me.
  • Many people, including myself, associate the glare of fluorescent lights with unpleasant experiences – long hours at the office, school, waiting rooms
  • Even worse, fluorescent lightbulbs can trigger migraines for some people.
  • Anecdotal evidence that the ‘new’ light bulbs aren’t as long-lasting as their press releases or industry-backed lobby groups might claim.
  • If it’s about saving energy, why not just keep fewer lights on less often?
  • Energy efficiency of fluorescent lights leaves out one factor – manufacturing them in the first place. If the entire production process is more complicated and requires more material is it really that efficient?
  • If most of the energy loss is in the form of heat and you live in Toronto and it’s the middle of February, is that heat such a bad thing?

People point to companies that ‘go green’ as an example of how they are right about this or that environmental issue but just because Exxon endorces global warming or wal-mart is selling a particular type of light bulb just indicates where these companies think consumer sentiment is – it is not a sign that anyone is necessarily right about these things.

On top of that, focusing on the ‘waste’ of a forty-watt light bulb is a distraction from the other ways that people are energy hogs. Do the math. A 1200-watt hair dryer running for fifteen minutes uses the same amount of energy as over 5 hours leaving a 60-watt bulb on. I’ve known plenty of people who will run a clothes dryer for the full cycle with just a single pair of jeans or a couple of towels in it. There are countless ways people could be using less energy without the government dictating what sort of lighting we choose for our homes.

*(on Australia being libertarian I’m being sarcastic)

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