Let There Be 100-Watt Incandescent Light

The traditional light bulb is already gone from California stores, the nationwide switch to a lower energy alternative starts in 2012, and Congress continues to make light of consumer choice

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In Joe Versus the Volcano, the cult classic starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, it is vital that the office at the beginning of the film seems unfathomably awful. The protagonist, Joe Banks, is supposed to be so horrified by his daily existence there that he volunteers to jump into boiling hot lava just to escape it. The audience is shown a bullying boss who constantly repeats himself, a painfully insecure secretary, and execrable coffee. But Director John Patrick Shanley's most powerful visual device is the flickering fluorescent light that fills the room. On arriving in the morning, Banks flinches under its ghastly glow until he gets to his desk and turns on a small lamp with a warm incandescent bulb. It is his only refuge, and when his boss prohibits its use, he snaps.

Suddenly we are all Joe Banks, innocently enjoying our incandescent light bulbs, only to have Uncle Sam rob us of their superior light in an act of arbitrary deprivation. What's your daily pleasure? Dogs? Red wine? Riding a Harley? Imagine if they made it illegal - if the US Congress passed a law prohibiting the particular thing that's your favorite. How would you feel after you drained your swimming pool or plowed over your garden or relinquished your iPad or sealed up your fireplace or destroyed the single consumer possession that you'd least want to give up? That's how I feel about being forced to replace my incandescent bulbs with screwy CFLs (pictured above): Angry! Outraged! Aggrieved! Stirred to action!

The federal law that makes the sale of 100 watt incandescent bulbs verboten passed during George W. Bush's tenure, and takes effect on January 1, 2012, when the era of ugly light officially begins. Over time, lower watt incandescents will be phased out too unless Congress reverses itself. The ostensible reason is environmental. Defenders of the law point out that CFLs save energy, even if they are pricier and filled with mercury vapor. As Virginia Postrel notes in her latest Bloomberg column, however, banning incandescent bulbs is a poor way to reduce America's carbon footprint. "A well-designed policy would allow different people to make different tradeoffs among different uses to produce the most happiness for a given amount of power," she writes. "Maybe I want to burn a lot of incandescent bulbs but dry my clothes outdoors and keep the air conditioner off. Maybe I want to read by warm golden light instead of watching a giant plasma TV."

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For me there isn't any maybe about it. In my childhood home, where the kitchen and the family room are adjacent, the most persistent source of domestic conflict was the awful bright white kitchen light, casting its antiseptic, nerve-tweaking pall. The days in high school when teachers turned off the classroom lights and taught by sunshine filtering through the windows left me viscerally more calm. When I sublet an apartment with CFLs screwed into the sockets I drive to Home Depot shortly after arriving and spend a hundred dollars on replacements. To be fair, CFLs aren't quite as bad as the flourescents of old. I understand that most people aren't as sensitive as I am, and I don't begrudge anyone lighting their own home with bulbs that would drive me batty. But forced to choose between my lightbulbs of choice and a television or an electric dryer? I'd keep my bulbs. Oh, to bask in the golden soft tones of a well lit room! I'd prefer them even if I had to generate the electricity to use them on a stationary bike, but when I sublet my next one-bedroom apartment sans air-conditioning they'll have been taken from me, in the name of energy efficiency, by Congressmen and women who inhabit climate controlled mansions with multiple plasma television sets, heated swimming pools, and fleets of SUVs.

Surely it isn't hard to imagine being forced to change the environmentally inferior habit of your liking. Do you have a big lawn? Or take long showers? Or drive a sports car? Or eat fruit transported great distances to reach you? Or sip water from plastic bottles? Or fly to Europe twice a year on vacation? Or commute an hour to work? Or get your hair colored once a month with all sorts of frightening chemicals? Presuming that the government has a legitimate role in making environmental laws - I believe that it does - there's the approach where you constrain very particular consumer choices (say doing so helps out certain powerful corporate lightbulb makers, for example), or there's the alternative: policy that respects the individuality of citizens and imposes on their preferences as little as possible. That may mean a tax on carbon emissions, or a policy that encourages cutting home electricity use by a certain percentage rather than specifying the particular ways that energy savings might be attained.

This lightbulb ban is maddening to me personally because I am going to hate the light of everyday life. But it ought to make you angry too. Our elected leaders could've decided that energy use must be decreased for the sake of the planet and sought that end by enacting whatever policy would be most efficient and impose least on the freedom and preferences of its citizens. Instead it acted arbitrarily, without any regard for minority preferences, thereby showing that it cares little about them. For most of you, it isn't a big imposition right now. But if you'll stick with me as they try to take away my lightbulbs, I'll speak up for you when they come for the backyard fire-pits or the jet-skis or whatever is next.

Image credit: Flickr users dgbb1979 and Daniel Dionne