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Three Words on the Delayed Light Bulb Standards

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Photograph by TypeFiend/Flickr

It’s a mystery to us how a light bulb came to symbolize a bright idea, because they’ve produced only dim-bulb thinking in Washington lately.

As part of a $1 trillion stopgap spending bill passed by Congress on Friday, the incandescent light bulb has received a reprieve. Originally, under a bipartisan measure signed by President Bush in 2007, light bulbs were going to have to be 30 percent more energy efficient starting Jan. 1. 2012. Incandescent bulbs were never going to be banned, but realistically that means switching to compact fluorescents or LED lights. The spending bill carries a provision preventing the Energy Department from enforcing the rules for another nine months, until the end of the current fiscal year.

Light bulb manufacturers are okay with the switch (it’s just as easy to sell one kind of bulb as another). The Department of Energy says if every household switched just one old bulb for an energy efficient model, we’d save enough electricity to power three million homes for a year.

But for a lot of people, particularly in the Tea Party, this idea really pushes their “don’t tread on me” button. The idea of government telling people what kind of light bulbs to use brings out the inner libertarian in some people. Plus, lots of people just don’t like how fluorescent light looks.

This is a delay, not a repeal, so it’s important not to overanalyze this. But we’d say two things about this debate:

To the opponents: Get over it. A lot of conservatives get much more jazzed up about increasing the supply of energy than conserving what we’ve got. And in fact, world energy demand is projected to skyrocket as nations like China and India become middle-class consumer societies. We’re going to be in a global competition for energy, and it is important to find new and cleaner sources. But let’s not kid ourselves: we’re also going to have to make the energy we have stretch further. It’s just like controlling the federal budget. If you’re serious about it, you need to both cut spending and raise taxes. And if you’re serious about energy, you need to both conserve more and produce more.

Plus, let’s remember: the government already has the power to set rules about how every electrical wire and outlet in your house is installed. Surely the government can also weigh in about what kind of bulb you screw into a lamp.

To the supporters: Also, get over it. One of the most powerful tenets of environmentalism has been the belief that small individual changes add up to big social shifts, and there’s truth in that. But it’s also true that small personal changes haven’t yet brought us to the point where we, as a society, have the political will to make the big decisions.

And we can’t solve our energy problems and mitigate global warming without grappling with the big, fundamental decisions: what kind of power plants do we build? What kind of cars do we drive? How do we come up with the massive investments needed to shift away from fossil fuels and bring cleaner energy sources on line in the vast quantities we — and the world –- will need?

Changing over to more efficient light bulbs helps, and we should do it. But we’re going to need a lot more than that to solve our energy problems.