Friday, December 3, 2010

Good Intentions, With Perspective (4/22/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

It's Earth Day. On my favorite news/commentary site,, there are a bunch of blog postings about green topics. One called "Mercury, Like the Planet, Gets Around," tells how to clean up a broken CFL (compact fluorescent lamp), according to governmental guidelines. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury in vapor form, and even though the recommendations are probably overkill, you're better off cleaning up a mess like this carefully.

It's my opinion that CFLs are a terrible idea, a well-meaning but flawed in-between technology -- like the auto-erasing Divx discs the video-rental industry unsuccessfully introduced several years ago, or "Polavision," which was an "instant" home-movie system from Polaroid that came out in the late '70s, just as home VCRs were coming onto the market. CFLs try valiantly to fill a need but fail. In addition to containing a poison that doesn't break down even after billions of years (mercury, like lead, is an element that can't be destroyed except through nuclear processes), each CFL requires the manufacture of semiconductor components and whatnot, all of which requires energy and resources, resulting in even more non-green pollutants eventually going into the waste stream. All this because we've been told CFLs save energy and reduce global warming.

That's the "good intentions" part. But how about some perspective? Consider what goes on up and down a city street each evening. Every 100 feet or so, on both sides of the street, there's an electric light that uses 250 watts. This light remains on for 10-14 hours per day, 365 days per year. The mercury issue aside, how many CFL replacements, with typical household usage, would it take to offset the energy usage from just one street light? How about an entire block of them? How about an entire city of them? How about an entire nation of them?

There was a TV commercial that ran recently, encouraging people to unplug their electronics chargers when not being used. Don't get me started about the proliferation of these things; that's the subject of another blog. But how much energy does such a well-meaning gesture really save, in the grand scheme of things? It would certainly be more effective, and easier, just to turn off one additional light for five minutes each day. Hell, shut off your TV during the two-minute commercial breaks. You will save a lot more energy that way than by fastidiously unplugging your chargers.

Changing our bulbs to CFLs, or unplugging our chargers, is more about making us feel better in a consumerist culture than about "cooling the globe." What we need are actual solutions, not feel-good ones. How about some revolutionary street-lighting technology, for example? (People are, in fact, working on this.) If we're serious about using less energy as a nation, we should get some perspective, look at the big picture, and go after things that actually make a difference...not just make us feel like we've done something to help.

Because changing a few bulbs, while the mega-lamps up and down the street operate at full blast all night long as you sleep, is a bit like switching to a diet soft drink while you're consuming 10,000 calories per day.

No perspective.


  1. An interesting point, something I had not considered so directly before.

    I don't however think these are "feel good" solutions as simply as you state it (though I have no doubt that many people do derive some pleasure from using these lamps).

    CFLs have minor money-saving benefits for the consumer, they last longer (meaning you need to buy and change them less often), and they consume less power. Regardless how many would have to be installed to offset a street lamp, that scenario is still better than the same number of incandescent lamps.

    In our household we use both CFLs and ILs depending on the room. It's not something we take any kind of pride in, for us it is genuinely practical. The CFLs work fine and we have much less bulbs blowing. That's less trips to the fuse box in the dark, and that's a good thing!

    Thanks for an interesting post though :D

  2. I was in Fry's (an electronics warehouse store) the other day and was pleased to see LED "light bulbs" on sale. Unfortunately the highest wattage I could find was 3 watts, which is supposedly equivalent to 30-60 incandescent watts. They were about $15 apiece, but last forever. When they come out with LEDs in the 5-10 watt range, I will happily replace every light in my house!