Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

I See the Light!
distributed 9/8/06 - ©2006

When people discuss global warming, they ask -- or I hope they ask -- "what can I do to help solve the problem?" One suggestion comes up over and over again. On almost every list of strategies that individuals can use to minimize climate change, there's an item about "replace your light bulbs with compact florescent bulbs."

I confess that I have, at times, dismissed that strategy. In an effort to drive home the scope and urgency of the climate crisis, I have often said something along the lines of "we're not going to solve this problem by changing a few light bulbs." And that is true.

But the flip side of my comment is also true. The crisis of global warming is so big and so important that we're not going to make a dent unless we do change our light bulbs. Swapping out old-style, inefficient incandescent bulbs and putting in high-efficiency florescents is one of the easiest and most cost-effective steps that we can take to reduce energy use, and thus cut the production of greenhouse gasses.

So what can you do? Change a light bulb -- change lots of light bulbs. And then move on with other personal and institutional changes to even more dramatically reduce the global rise in earth-warming carbon dioxide. (For example: fly and drive less, buy a high-gas-mileage car and demand high fuel efficiency standards for new cars, and push for the development of renewable energy sources.) But the light bulb is a great place to start.

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There is a good reason why compact florescent (CF) bulbs are the poster child of the energy conservation effort. They do everything right, with virtually no drawbacks. They are the nearly perfect way to get people to reduce their energy consumption, and thus reduce greenhouse gasses.

Once you install a bulb, it saves energy for years. No other action is required. Using a CF bulb doesn't demand any significant changes in your behavior, or in the way you run your home or office. It doesn't even require that you care much about the environment, because CF technology is an easy sell, strictly on the financial side.

A compact florescent light only uses one-quarter to one-fifth as much electricity as an old-style light bulb to produce the same amount of light. And the CF bulbs can last up to 10 times as long as the heat-generating type of bulb that Thomas Edison invented way back in 1879.

It is hard to imagine why anyone would NOT want to install as many of these bulbs as possible. Think how people would react if installing a small, inexpensive gadget on an automobile engine would boost the gas mileage from 20 miles per gallon to about 90 MPG. Same car, same performance, but 4-5 times as efficient. That's what you get with CF bulbs -- the same lamp, the same performance, and it is lots more efficient.

My friend Jack Twombly -- a retired professor of electrical engineering, and a very active "Stewardship of Creation Enabler" in the Presbyterian Church -- suggests that we think of CF bulbs as an investment, not a purchase. He assumes a new florescent bulb costs $5, which may seem like a lot to spend on a light bulb. As he does the calculations, if you put that new bulb in a porch light that is on 12 hours a day, and look at how much electricity is not used, and how many bulbs are not replaced, the "return on investment" in one year is 447%. The "expensive" bulb pays for itself in 2.4 months. You're not going to get that sort of return on your investment in a savings account or in the stock market!

We can encourage our friends and neighbors to use CF bulbs because it is a good investment, but I know that I don't generally give financial advice to the folk next door or at church. I'm an advocate of changing light bulbs because they make a remarkable difference environmentally. If we don't use as much electricity, power plants don't have to generate so much electricity, and that means that they don't have to burn up as much coal or natural gas. That means that there's less carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere, and that means that global warming doesn't happen as fast or as dramatically. And that is good for all of us, and for all of God's creation.

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Some people may hesitate to use CF bulbs because of bad experiences long ago. They need to give it another try.

When I first installed some florescent bulbs about 20 years ago, they didn't work all that well. They flickered and blinked for several seconds every time they started up. They buzzed, and the light had a greenish tinge. The bulbs had odd-shaped bases that wouldn't fit into some fixtures. They were expensive and hard to find. But all of that has changed.

Now, CF bulbs sit on the shelf in the grocery store, in discounted packages of four bulbs. That whole package may be priced at just $6, which makes Jack's investment calculations give even better results. They come on instantly, and the color is good. They'll work in almost any lamp socket, indoors or out. With some shopping around, you can find 3-way bulbs that are wonderfully bright, and there are now some bulbs that work with dimmers.

The normal advice just talks about the benefit of replacing bulbs. I'd encourage you to be a bit more intentional about which bulbs to replace. If you have a light in your attic which is on for only 15 minutes a year, don't bother. The longer a light is on, the greater the savings in energy and in greenhouse gasses from making the CF change. But don't think that you can, or should, leave your lights on all the time just because you're using CF bulbs. They do use less power that other bulbs, but they still use power. The most energy efficient bulb is one that is turned off, no matter what technology it uses.

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Christian ethicist Walter Wink has made the provocative statement that "anyone who needs scriptural guidance to decide that destroying the ecosystem is wrong is a moral idiot." Even so, it is helpful for a preacher to have a Bible text to back up a pro-ecological message. Finding that sort of a passage can be a challenge.

As the text supporting CF light bulbs, I'd suggest Matthew 25:1-13. That's the story about 10 bridesmaids waiting for the late arrival of the groom. Five were wise, and five were foolish. The wise ones thought ahead, and brought extra oil for their lamps; the foolish ones did not. At midnight, the wise women had light, and the others were out of luck.

In today's world, the way to be sure we have enough energy for our lights in the future is to conserve energy now -- so use CF bulbs! OK, it is a stretch. But when it comes to advocacy for high-tech electronic devices, you can either stretch the meaning of an ancient Bible text, or go with Walter Wink and not even try.

In any case, I hope you see the light about the value of CF bulbs as a way to minimize global warming. Replace all the bulbs that you can, and encourage others to do the same.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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