Please don’t think this is easy for me. I’m one of those crazed Americans who can’t walk into Home Depot, Target or my local grocery store right now without wanting to grab one of those king-sized shopping carts and stuff it to the gunwales with 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.
Maybe it’s the sheer thrill of buying bulbs that in just over a month, as of Jan. 1, 2012, will be banned for sale in America. What fun, in this incandescent twilight, to acquire legally what the federal government will soon treat as contraband, should it appear in any American marketplace. Or maybe it’s that gut sense that with the dollar teetering toward an abyss of unfathomable and inflationary government spending, those beloved old 100 watt bulbs will at least provide a decent store of value, even if all I do is use them to read by for the rest of my life — meticulously taking care never to violate federal law by offering even a single bulb for sale to some fellow citizen willing to pay for it.
Or, just possibly, this urge to stockpile incandescents is the product of simmering outrage. For decades, I have written about America as the world’s beacon of freedom, which it has been. Yet here we are, wards of the nanny state, with politicians dictating that even that prime symbol of American ingenuity, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, shall be regulated into oblivion. All this has been ably exposed as an act of crony capitalism, designed to enrich manufacturers who prefer to sell pricier light bulbs that a lot of Americans, if free to choose, prefer not to buy. And the actual mechanics of this ban have been greatly blurred, Washington-style, by framing this fix not as an outright prohibition, but merely as a phase-out of light bulbs that do not meet standards set by Washington in the name of “energy efficiency.” First the 100-watt incandescents vanish from the shelves. Then the 75-watt, the 60-watt and 40-watt. It is, in its way, a bipartisan dimming of choice, tacked onto an energy bill signed into law in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and –despite an attempt at repeal this past July — upheld by Democrats in Congress under President Barack Obama.
Americans being an enterprising band, it is of course possible that the country will develop bootleg markets in incandescents. Though I would recommend against such law-breaking. The federal government may not have control of America’s borders, but in Washington such stuff as border security can’t hold a candle to having control of America’s light bulbs. Presumably, federal authorities will now be spending U.S. tax dollars (excuse me — “creating jobs”) to deploy light bulb cops. In years ahead, if you haven’t amassed a private stash of the old incandescents, and find yourself yearning for their comfortable glow after the sun goes down, you may have to head overseas and comb the developing world for someplace where people are still free to choose what bulbs they sell and buy.
But I promised you the confessions of a light bulb addict, and so far I have mainly been talking about the drawbacks of the incandescent ban. So here begins the real confession. Never mind the crony capitalism, or the latest news of Climategate 2.0, or the simple ornery pleasure of exercising free will to choose how I individually will spend my scarce resources to light the night. I surrender. I give in. The federal government says this is for my own good. Washington can choose my ideal energy efficiency tradeoffs much better than I can do it for myself.
However, if the government is to be in charge of my tradeoffs, I must protest that Washington has not gone nearly far enough. There is so much more that could be done to ensure my energy efficiency. My passion for 100-watt incandescents is just the beginning of my vices. My entire day is one long set of tradeoffs that involve balancing what I would like against what I can afford, and almost all of it entails, in one way or another, the consumption of energy. I make coffee in the morning, though it would be more energy efficient to drink only water. I use up energy toasting bread, though I don’t really have to. When I open a can of soup, I heat it up, though we all know it is precooked and just as nutritious cold and straight out of the can. I heat my home to a temperature at which I can comfortably take my coat off indoors in the winter — though I know, from experience working in Russia 15 years ago, that this is not strictly necessary. I use hot water daily, though ditto the 1990’s Russian experience, I am well aware that this is not essential to survival. Some days I drive miles, not just for work, but for such frivolous pleasures as seeing friends — when, especially if ordered to do so by law, we could of course restrict ourselves to teleconferencing. Worse, in service of such idiosyncratic individual pleasures as visiting friends and family, I sometimes take airplanes.
Each of these choices entails energy consumption not just on my part, but on the part of people I don’t even know. It takes energy to ferry to and from work the people who maintain the electricity grid, who pave and police the roads, sell and service the plumbing and heating equipment. It takes energy for the TSA to inspect me and my baggage every time I board a flight. It takes energy to manufacture, transport and offer for sale the coat that I buy, but don’t bother to wear when I am inside heated buildings.
That is just the smallest sample of the choices I make that involve energy consumption. And I am just one of more than 300 million Americans. It is endless. Almost every minute of the day, we are making choices. Light bulbs are the least of it.
So, if our leaders in Washington are serious about saving us all from our self-imposed energy inefficiencies, then as a longtime 100-watt incandescent addict who has seen the light, I must speak up. Our politicians are shirking their duties if they limit themselves to banning the light bulbs that most Americans prefer. They should be banning morning coffee and toast. Water and bread would be more energy efficient. There should be soup police — no, make that kitchen police — to ensure that no one spends too much energy heating up food that’s already been cooked. There should be federal laws to minimize energy-guzzling travel for such frivolous individual purposes as seeing friends, or visiting family; quite likely we would need a new regulatory agency to enforce this at the grass roots level, and vet requests for special exemptions. As for heat and hot water, the energy waste could be cut dramatically by the simple expedient of issuing draconian quotas, taking into account that the need for heating can be greatly reduced by wearing parkas, hats and gloves indoors at all times; and Americans will hardly need to bathe all that often in any event, if they are forced to do most of their socializing by teleconference.
Of course, it would all make for a relatively spare existence. With the possible exception of Washington politicians and bureaucrats who would have to be exempted from this plan in order to more efficiently perform their duties, hundreds of millions of Americans would be facing a winter of near isolation sitting around unbathed in dim, frosty homes, swaddled around the clock in outdoor clothes, living on bread, water and cold soup. But think of the energy efficiencies! So bring it on. There are much bigger things at stake here than Thomas Edison’s little old light bulbs.