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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Light in the Darkness
distributed 12/2/05 - ©2005

In the poetic prologue that opens the Gospel of John, we find words of deep faith and promise that are often quoted in the Advent and Christmas seasons: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

That verse has been in my thoughts a great deal recently. I'm sorry to say, though, that my awareness of the beloved passage has not been stimulated by an upsurge in my Advent spirituality. My scriptural recollections have been stirred by our neighbor's display of holiday decorations. Their lights shine in the darkness across half of our block. In these first days of December, I long for darkness to descend again in January.

When I look out our living room windows, I see an almost solid wrapping of little lights around the trunk of a tree in their yard, and its leafless branches are festooned with lighted globes. Scattered around the small lawn are illuminated candy canes. Several well-lit and animated reindeer stand on the porch roof. The shrubs near the front door are draped in mats of lights, and strings of lights weave through their porch railings. In a new addition this year, the roofline of their home is traced by zigzags of small blue lights.

As you may have gathered, their effusive decorating style does not mesh well with my more minimalist tastes. I really do give thanks for the diversity of human expressions, for variety in cultural observances, and for the far-from-uniform character of our neighborhood. It is the wattage of their display that really gets to me.

When I turn on the compact florescent reading bulb in our living room, and I can leave it on the lowest of the 3-way settings because of the light streaming in the window, there's a very evident contrast in the energy use of our two households.

In solidarity with their reindeer, I've been ruminating, chewing on my semi-digested thoughts. (Extended reflection seems like a wiser approach than a late-night trip next door with wire cutters.) My cud is chewed to the point where I feel like I can toss out two very different perspectives on this energy-intensive display.

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The easy approach is the technical one about reducing energy use in the holiday season.

This time of year does bring a dramatic spike in electrical consumption. A study from the University of Central Florida compared residential utility use in November and December. Their report documents "an average load increase of about 400 watts in the early evening hours, continuing through the night at about 200 watts until mid-day the following day. This indicates that many households leave their holiday lighting on all night and far into the following day."

So, to minimize that seasonal spike -- even if lots of lights is your preferred style -- there are practical options. Use a timer to limit the hours you brighten the neighborhood. Use the type of lights that draw the least energy. The UCF study provides information that's not always on the box of Christmas lights about how much power the things use. A string of the big, hot bulbs of my youth uses over 500 watts. The brand-new (and still very expensive) option of LED lights only use 2 watts for an entire string!

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Then there are the harder areas of human relationships and social standards.

My neighbors take great delight in their holiday decorations. They might not react very well if I knock on their door wearing sunglasses to talk about timers and energy use. If I told them that they could save $20 in December by turning off their lights, they'd feel a profound loss in their celebration of the season. This ain't a technical problem.

Neither is it an isolated personal problem. The folk next door are one expression of cultural practices that are affirmed and reinforced in many ways.

  • Each year, TV stations and newspapers make a big deal about the "best" holiday displays, and they're always the ones that require heavy-duty wiring.
  • The "invisible hand" of the economic marketplace is eager pull those with a taste for lights into ever brighter displays. A few decades back, the introduction of little-bitty lights brought real energy savings. Now the very popular "icicle" lights use vast quantities of those little lights, and put the total wattage right back at 1970 levels. "More" and "brighter" are assumed in marketing these lights.
To deal with human issues takes a human approach.
  • If you have good media contacts, suggest to your paper or TV station that they run a December story about the joys of moderation in holiday displays. Or write a letter to the editor that critiques their brighter-is-better fixation. Looking ahead, plant the idea for a story next October about energy-efficient displays, a story which would run before people start to buy new additions for their set. (That story could be a good item in a church newsletter, too, by the way.)
  • Encourage local retailers to feature the ultra-efficient LED lights and timers. Not only will such a display lead some shoppers toward more responsible choices, it will raise the idea of energy use among many others -- and it is smart marketing for the retailer.
Those options work at the societal and community level. When your neighbors are the basis for the electric company building a new power plant, it is probably important to talk to them directly. And that works better if there's a prior basis for a friendly relationship. Neighborhoods with a strong sense of community can encourage energy conservation.

What will I do about our neighbors -- who are at the wave-and-smile level of friendship? This winter, I'm going to go to them, and several of our other neighbors, with Christmas gifts -- a plate of home-made cookies, and a couple compact florescent light bulbs for their year-round use in porch lights. It is one way to start the conversation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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