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Let There Be Light, Sickly Blue Light


In the beginning, there was a glade. A green and foresty place, a meadowy clearing in the great big woods. The robins called from branch to branch. A laughing stream wove gently through the dell. A rabbit hopped through the long grass, bright with morning dew. All was well, and all manner of things were well until, one day, the evil came.


The evil, of course, is you. And me. People, in other words: human beings in general, but Europeans in particular – those pale pioneers who invaded the forest with their unnatural Western science and their denatured Western religion. Iron sick, they were, and gold mad. Acquisitive and unsettled. Uncomfortable in their own skins. They tormented the land with their steel axes and their guns, their machines and their desires. They poisoned Mother Earth with runoff and waste, overheated houses, and cars like angry monsters prowling through the night. What now can come to good, with people here? All is changed, and nothing for the better.

And yet, certain small actions might still save the world from the apocalypse we have brought upon ourselves – or, if they won't exactly save us, such gestures may nonetheless declare our will toward salvation, our right intention to stand with the forces of light against the impending doom.

Like, for instance, hanging up my motel-room towel after a shower to signal the chambermaid that I don't need a fresh one.

Save The Planet! reads the headline on the motel placard that explains my duty. Saving the planet, one towel at a time. A Gideon Bible may be safely stashed in the nightstand drawer, but sermons are still preached here in the formica bathrooms of the chain motel outside Carol Stream, Illinois. Carol Stream, Illinois, of all places: Cornfields and dry Midwestern plains stretch as far as the eye can see, but the placard's illustration shows an endangered bunny in a threatened forest glade, and the text is one of high moralism and utter confidence in a worldview.

No priest dare speak this way anymore. No pastor, no rabbi, deploys this tone. Your dentist might indulge it, in high dudgeon about flossing, or your internist on a tirade about smoking, but otherwise ethical discourse in our nation – the acceptable public language of manners and morals – is reduced to this kind of universalized environmentalism: righteous notices posted in motel rooms in middle America about the ethics of terrycloth towels, preset air conditioning, and light bulbs.

Ah, yes. Light bulbs. You know, of course, about those twirled-tube bulbs of which motel chains now boast: CFLs, they're called, "compact fluorescent lamps," and they are about to become the primary means of lighting our lives in the United States. Mr. Edison's old incandescent bulbs – the ubiquitous glass pears with the carbonized filament and the Sprengel pump-induced vacuum that have defined light since 1879 – and all their tungsten descendants are under a death sentence: a rolling execution that begins with 100-watt bulbs on January 1 and moves down the wattage line in subsequent years.

A "dim bulb" you are, if you don't grasp the need for this banning of incandescence. Or so, at least, the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times announced on July 18. Oh, the newspaper admitted, the public is showing some anger as it realizes, finally, that the 2007 light-bulb law is about to kick in, but, the Times assures us, science, economics, and "the nation's future and collective health" all demand the change. Even "Edison himself, ever the forward thinker, probably would have approved." Saving the planet, one gooseneck lamp at a time.

In point of fact, the science of the light-bulb ban is dubious, the economics are a shambles, and the impact on our "future and collective health" is entirely symbolic: more a genuflection toward environmentalism than an actual contribution. For that matter, it's not clear that Edison – whose ever-forward thinking, one remembers, led him to invent the alternating-current electrical chair for executing prisoners – would have done more than looked up from his workbench to sneer.

You won't get anywhere with the shining advocates of fluorescence, however, by pointing any of this out. The world finds its illumination where it will, and one interesting effect of a public moral vocabulary is that we find it difficult to make people hear anything that contradicts the truisms, platitudes, and shibboleths of the day. The inferiority of incandescent bulbs is written in the unanswerable nanny guidebook of the early 21st century, replacing the old Victorian entries on castor oil and such aphorisms as Cleanliness is next to godliness.

The world finds its illumination where it will, and one interesting effect of a public moral vocabulary is that we find it difficult to make people hear anything that contradicts the truisms, platitudes, and shibboleths of the day.

As it happens – if the lives of the hermit saints are any guide – cleanliness and godliness can often dwell some way apart. But that old nannyism really did capture something about British sensibility at a certain point in time. It expressed what we might call the leak – the place where our environmental religious energy, like water building up behind a dam, found a fissure and squirted out to douse the public square. Godliness is best, certainly, but cleanliness is very important, both for your health and proper deportment, and all good things fit together somehow, which means these good things must go together, and, anyway, we say so, and we're good muscular Christians and members of the British middle class, so it must be true. Saving our souls, one bath at a time.

The Edwardians set the tone for all advanced twentieth-century opinion by roundly mocking such Victorian clichés, and perhaps some of those nannyisms deserved it. But the mockery became meaningful – gained a public hearing – only when there had already faded away the public certainty and sensibility that had made the nannies' proclamations seem meaningful. The truisms of one era are the curious totems and taboos of the next: We know them, but we don't exactly remember why anyone bothered to think them.

Every broad religious movement leaves behind such remnants: small mementos of a no-longer-understood place where the faith of the moment found release as public morals. Why the great Methodist revival of John Wesley eventually issued in Victorian demands for bathing is not entirely clear, now. You probably had to have been there to understand. There's a sense in which the First Great Awakening in America set up the Revolution, and the Second Great Awakening had as its moral consequence the abolition of slavery. But it's something of a mystery why the Third Great Awakening left us with Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms and the memory of our strange national attempt at the prohibition of alcohol. The pressures and cracks of the time just let it flow out that way.

And now we have the light-bulb ban – the odd consequence of our current public religion, our present national ethics. For all this really is nanny-speak: the taking of the moral judgments that religious fervor has spewed into public life and the forming of them into platitudes. More than that, it's nanny-speak made the law of the land, truisms with the force of congressional enactment. There's an atheist group called the Abimelech Society whose members pride themselves on their supposedly daring feats of removing Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms and destroying them. The daring is not readily apparent; the day is long past when public outrage over anti-Christian atheism posed much threat. But think of it as a metaphor: Perhaps the time is coming, after our current environmental revival has ebbed, when would-be bravos will sneak compact fluorescent bulbs from hotel rooms – and replace them with clandestine incandescents.

I suppose, even knowing that it's pointless these days, the facts of the great compact fluorescent lighting of America need to be laid out. According to the National Energy Foundation of the United Kingdom, the average life of a CFL is at least eight times longer than that of an incandescent, which looks like a great improvement in efficiency. Of course, hardly anyone is actually getting that much life from the bulbs; it turns out that a quarter of them lose power and dim after only 40 percent of their official life-span. That lifespan was calculated from ideal use, and the truth is that we simply don't use lights in the dream-world way of those calculations. If you turn your CFLs on and off too often, you cause their electronic ballasts to decay. Dimmers kill them quickly, outside temperature ranges make them burn out, and they flicker themselves to death when coupled with motion sensors, light sensors, or timers.

The truisms of one era are the curious totems and taboos of the next: We know them, but we don't exactly remember why anyone bothered to think them.

But, for the sake of argument, grant the things an ideal use. The Department of Energy certainly did when, at Senate hearings this year, it announced that mandatory use of CFLs will save us 21 quadrillion BTUs over the next 30 years. As the stage-lighting expert Howard Brandston points out, that figure actually includes metal-halide fixtures. Subtract those still-legal lights, and we're left with 15 quads over 30 years – or about 0.013 percent of U.S. energy use – as the burden of continuing to allow incandescent bulbs.

Even that potential savings is too high, for if CFLs truly are superior enough to justify their increased expense – they typically cost three to ten times more than incandescent bulbs – then in an open market some consumers will switch voluntarily, especially employers with workplace lighting conditions closest to ideal for the bulbs.

More, the potential savings don't include the expense and energy required for disposal: The mercury content of a single CFL is small, but that mercury adds up quickly when the nation is using millions of the bulbs a year. It's already illegal to throw the things into the trash in seven states, and hundreds of Chinese light-bulb factory workers have suffered mercury poisoning. (Did I mention that almost all these bulbs will end up being made in China rather than the United States, which, economic costs to the nation aside, will add shipping to the energy burden of production?)

As for what you should do if one breaks in your home – which, it came as a surprise to the Environmental Protection Agency to learn, light bulbs do from time to time – the EPA guidelines read like instructions for fleeing a house in Love Canal. Saving the world, one hazmat suit at a time.

And then there are the changed behavioral patterns demanded of us, the intrusions into the lighting systems that we have grown to expect. CFLs can take up to a minute to reach full illumination. They produce constant ultraviolet and blue light, which can aggravate skin rashes and, anyway, makes most people look like modern versions of Boris Karloff. They don't fit in tight light sockets, they've been known to catch fire when hung upside down in recessed lighting, they make the rest of your electrical appliances stutter when they draw their first burst of power, and they automatically switch on anything that uses an infrared remote control or sensor. Like your TV channel changer and your cell phone. Oh, they also make polarized window film shimmer with funny little rainbows till your eyes water, and they cause the dyes in expensive fabrics and paintings to decay.

Other than that, they're fine – except, of course, for the fact that people dislike them. Genuinely and truly hate them. We want yellow-based light, not blue-based. Soft light makes us happier, and it makes us prettier. We expect light to behave as the sun does, growing redder as it dims. We want book pages to reflect a golden tinge. The deadening effect of fluorescent bulbs used to be a standard trope of movies about workplaces (watch Joe Versus the Volcano again), but now, somehow, we're mandating the accursed things.

As for what you should do if one breaks in your home – which, it came as a surprise to the Environmental Protection Agency to learn, light bulbs do from time to time – the EPA guidelines read like instructions for fleeing a house in Love Canal. Saving the world, one hazmat suit at a time.

The psychological cost of these bulbs has not yet been calculated. Perhaps it never will be, but here's one guess at a measure: The Department of Energy reports that from 2007 to 2008 the sale of CFLs in the United States dropped, despite the fact that CFLs were widely available, routinely advertised as superior, and large consumers like factories and municipalities had the looming enforcement of the energy bill to spur them to switch. It's not that, as a nation, we didn't try compact fluorescent bulbs. We did try them, and we found them wanting.

And now we're about to be left with only CFLs. How did we get here? Here, all the way from a vague notion that pollution is bad to Title 3, Subtitle B, Section 321 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which outlaws the production of incandescent bulbs between 310 and 2,600 lumens, starting with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012 and ending with 40-watt bulbs in January 2014?

The course from Jonathan Edwards's Great Awakening to the Declaration of Independence is a little hazy, and the exact means by which the early-twentieth-century Fundamentalist movement got sidetracked into Prohibition is a little unclear. But it shouldn't be such a mystery for our current symbolic issue of light bulbs. This is our story, after all. We've been living it for the last 40 years – ever since those 1970s "public-service announcements" on television that showed an Indian in a canoe weeping at the littering of America.

The two essays in a new pamphlet in the "Voices of the Tea Party" series from Broadside Books – I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial by the editor Michael Patrick Leahy and The Disastrous Light Bulb Ban by Howard M. Brandston – both identify the primary cause as an activist and out-of-control government, manipulated by crony-capitalist corporations: "If you want to find the ultimate roots of the movement . . . it all began when Herbert Hoover was named the Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding, when he set about organizing manufacturers into cooperative industry organizations."

In this telling, the otherwise forgotten 1924 "Phoebus Cartel" of light-bulb manufacturers looms large, but the story only really gets rolling with the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Congress decided energy policy lay squarely within its remit and began to pass laws mandating all kinds of usage standards for cars and factories. In those days, of course, the announced purpose was American "energy independence" rather than our currently declared goal of reducing greenhouse gases. But the real motives, say the Tea Party authors, were always the same: a mistrust of ordinary people and an insatiable hunger for increased government. All of which culminated when the 2007 Democrat-dominated Congress (led by Nancy Pelosi, Nanny of the House) set out to do something, anything, that expanded government power, changed the nation's lifestyle, and rewarded the large manufacturers such as General Electric that had supported the Democrats' election. An inattentive or uninterested President Bush signed the bill, and here we are.

This version of the story is about what one would expect from Tea Party activists, and it's true enough, as far as it goes. But all it really gives is the mechanism by which we got the light-bulb ban. It describes only how we came to have this leak: a kind of retrospective explanation of why the levee broke. But the stuff itself – the muddy water of our current environmental religion – remains a mystery. Worse, these kinds of explanations seem to imply that different political procedures or different economic views about the marketplace would have avoided the light-bulb ban.

They accepted the faux-science of CFLs and the pseudo-economics because they wanted to believe. They wanted to share in the great public morality of environmentalism, and everyone seemed to be telling them that light bulbs were the way to do it.

Well, actually, different politicians with different economic views probably would have done things differently. But if it hadn't been incandescent bulbs, it would have been something else. The truisms of the nannies, the trite expressions of public morality spraying from the religious weight of environmentalism, will not be denied. One way or another, they force themselves out into the public air. Among Republicans, Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is under some attack for having sponsored the amendment that kept the light-bulb ban alive in the 2007 energy bill. George W. Bush is tarred with the same indictment for having failed to veto the bizarre legislation. But, really, those poor men were just trying to do the right thing. They accepted the faux-science of CFLs and the pseudo-economics because they wanted to believe. They wanted to share in the great public morality of environmentalism, and everyone seemed to be telling them that light bulbs were the way to do it.

In the event, light bulbs weren't the way to do it, but that's really beside the point. You want to know where the light-bulb ban began? It wasn't Nancy Pelosi, and it wasn't Herbert Hoover, and it wasn't even the shadowy Phoebus Cartel, though all who do evil love the darkness. The light-bulb ban was carried forward by the placards about towels in motel rooms. It was nursed at the local coffee shop, where we are lectured in high moral language about how only sustainable coffee beans – gathered, if the illustrations are accurate, on the misty slopes of Ytaiao Mountain by Rima the jungle girl – can redeem us. Saving the planet, one Starbucks at a time.

The demand for CFLs was inculcated at "Earth Day" plays in which grade-school children got to act out the roles of bunnies and butterflies who've come to warn us that we must be nice to the Earth. (As James Lileks once noted, those school plays typically end with "a hymn to nature that makes the Romantic poets look like strip-mining company CEOs.") The desire to eradicate incandescent bulbs grew up with myths of the Cuyahoga River catching fire and the smog of Los Angeles rolling through the Hollywood Hills like malevolent mud.

The truth or falsity of such things is a trifle, a quibble, a bagatelle. What matters is that they form our national mythology and our cultural worldview. They form our public religion – the one moral vocabulary that can be spoken in this country anywhere and anytime.

Of course, the result is the kind of general feeling that something must be done about it all, and if that something is rather pointless – the peculiar rush to legislate 1.6-gallon toilets is a good example – nonetheless we have shown a righteous will by trying. We have the guilt-release of a noble attempt. We have the warm feeling of being on the side of good. We have asserted our standing as children of light, even if rather ineffectual ones. We have followed the sayings of nanny.



Joseph Bottum. "Let There Be Light, Sickly Blue Light." The Weekly Standard vol 16 no. 43 (August 1, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of The Weekly Standard. To subscribe to The Weekly Standard go here.

The Author

BottumJoseph Bottum is one of the nation's most widely published and influential essayists, with work in journals from the Atlantic to the Washington Post. He is a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard, holds a Ph.D. in medieval philosophy. He lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in the town of Hot Springs and is the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into WordsThe Catholic Awakening: How Catholicism Replaced Protestant Christianity as America's National Church, and An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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