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

Changing Light Bulbs -- Big Time
distributed 1/3/14 - ©2014

A law took effect in the United States two days ago (January 1, 2014) that requires far-reaching changes in technology and the marketplace. The real news, though, is that hardly anybody noticed.

As of New Years, 40 watt and 60 watt incandescent bulbs cannot be manufactured in the US. (75 and 100 watt bulbs were phased out in 2013). There are some folk who are upset about this law -- for a variety of economic and philosophical reasons -- but for most folk, the change isn't that big a deal.

A recent survey found out that 4 in 10 people didn't know that the change was coming at all. Many others had a vague idea, but didn't know when it would take effect. (I was in the "vague idea" group until last week.) Most of those who did know about the ban are not very concerned.

15 years ago, the demise of Thomas Edison's style of light bulb would have been catastrophic. There were not any viable options for everyday use. But now, the changeover can happen without great complication or inconvenience.

The light bulb change may not be big news, but I can still find things to say! This mandated shift in lighting technology does raise two moral questions that go far beyond one law, and two other questions that are far less significant but more fun.

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The first ethical question is one about rights and freedom. Do we have a right to waste and pollute? If we can afford it, should we be able to squander valuable resources, and to cause widespread pollution? Or are some limits on that freedom appropriate?

In terms of the law that just kicked in, should I be able to buy and use a light bulb that wastes 90% of the electricity it uses -- which means that some power plant somewhere is going to have to generate more electricity? The law sees a compelling public good in limiting that freedom.

This kind of issue has been addressed in many other areas. Laws set fuel economy standards for vehicles. Building codes insist that toilets not waste water, and that insulation be at levels that will conserve heat. The proposed new federal rules for power plants define efficiency standards for generating electricity that will prohibit standard coal-fired units.

Regulations that constrain options or require some level of efficiency work very well in many segments of our society. The general principle is that some limits to individual freedom are appropriate when those constraints lead to significant gains in the common good. Changing light bulbs is a sensible, reliable and non-disruptive way to reduce pollution, conserve energy, and reduce global warming impacts.

The law does not say what kind of lights must be produced and used. It does set an efficiency standard of at least 45 lumens per watt. Traditional incandescent bulbs can't meet that standard, but there are quite a few options -- compact fluorescent, halogen and LED are all widely available. So if you don't like the "corkscrew" bulbs, you don't have to use them.

Lawmakers -- even in a very conservative Congress -- have decided that this is not an excessive or unwarranted intrusion. Defining efficiency standards for light bulbs brings about lots of good outcomes, with very few negatives.

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The second ethical question is about economic justice. What impact will this law have on the poor? Incandescent bulbs have been amazingly cheap. What are the moral issues about requiring more expensive forms of lighting?

In the long term, as is well-known, the more energy efficient bulbs are a good investment. A higher up-front cost is more than balanced by savings in electricity over the years. The CNN news story pointed out that the much higher cost of an LED can be paid off with savings in two years -- and because LED bulbs are expected to last at least 20 years, "it's all savings for the next 18 years."

But 18 years of future savings are not much comfort if you can't afford $10 for the light bulb that you need right now. And if you rent your housing, it is a very poor investment to spend a lot of money on a bulb that you'll probably leave behind at your next move.

Not long ago, the economic justice issues were more difficult. In 2006, I quoted a study that assumed that a single CFL bulb cost about $5. This week, a "big box" hardware store is selling a 4-pack of those bulbs for $4.95. Rapidly dropping costs reduce, but don't eliminate, questions about disproportionate impacts on the poor.

The reality of higher costs is taken into account when home energy initiatives have gone door-to-door giving away CFL bulbs in low-income communities. With the end of incandescent bulbs, social service agencies and food banks may need to make efficient bulbs available to their clients for free, or at deep discounts.

The justice issue may be most urgent in rental housing. Especially in this transition time, landlords should make sure that all the bulbs in permanent fixtures are switched over to longer-lasting CFLs, so that tenants do not have to foot the bill when the quick-to-burn-out old bulbs stop working. That could be a requirement that states and communities might impose on any subsidized housing.

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The shift in lighting technology is an occasion to consider broad questions about freedom and justice, questions that go far beyond light bulbs. But a news story raised two technology-specific questions that I had not considered -- questions that may have very long-lasting cultural implications.

  • What will cartoonists draw to indicate somebody getting a "bright idea"?

  • And will we have to stop telling a whole category of jokes about "how many XXX does it take to change a light bulb?" When LED light bulbs might last more than 20 years, will we remember "changing a bulb"?

On that note ... best wishes to you all as we work together for peace, justice and sustainable societies in 2014.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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