Nine Lessons from the Newfangled Lightbulbs

“Waiting for Godot”
— by Horatio Algeranon

Something better’s round the bend
Guess I’d better wait
Then again, if we depend
It may be too darned late

1) It’s easier than you think to inconvenience a redneck

Wikipedia reports (

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (Pub.L. 110-140) laid out the changes in legislation regarding lighting in the United States in Title III, Subtitle B. In this, the different bulbs being affected by the standards changes are first defined. Along with higher standards being created for bulbs, the ballasts are also required to increase efficiency. It is also outlined within EISA 2007 that there are lighting requirements within public buildings. The General Services Administration (GSA) set minimum energy efficiency standards for leased spaces, which includes energy efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs, including the use of Energy Star and Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) designated products.

EISA 2007 set new performance requirements for certain common light bulbs, requiring that these bulbs become approximately 25-30% more efficient than the light bulbs of 2008 by 2012-2014. Overall, the intent of this is to bring into the market more efficient light bulbs. Some new incandescent products could be introduced by the effective dates of the law, including a bulb by General Electric that will decrease the amount of energy required. Non-incandescent bulbs, such as compact fluorescent (CFL) and light emitting diodes (LED) already meet the Tier I standards introduced. Some companies are working to stop the sales of incandescent bulbs in anticipation of the standards changes. For example, the home decor and furniture company IKEA has phased out the stock and sale of incandescent bulbs at their stores in the US and Canada, starting in August 2011.

Now of course you can anticipate that a certain segment of the society will be outraged. If they want to pay their own money for a decent looking light bulb they don’t want no (%^&**&^%*) CFL bulb instead. (I saw a “better dead than Prius” bumper sticker yesterday.)

But until I actually spent a few months in the Texas countryside it didn’t occur to me that rednecks and libertarians use things in ways you don’t anticipate. For instance, there’s usually a lightbulb in the pumphouse at a Texas groundwater pump. This is not to make nighttime work easier – these “houses” are too small to enter anyway. No, the bulb is there to provide heat on the occasional freezing nights. An LED bulb will not suit. The bulb is valuable in that application because of its inefficiency, not despite it.

To say to a southland farmer that you can’t have a 100 watt bulb is to say you need some fancy custom solution to a problem that used to be solved with a bulb and a socket. This is a problem that city folk don’t have and don’t think of. Regulations crimp creativity – which is why underregulated  Americans invent things.

“People make fun of a redneck ’til their car needs fixin'”

– overheard from a redneck

2) The private sector can accomplish miracles

Have you actually seen the new LED bulbs and fixtures? For most applications they are amazing! They are so power frugal and the light is pure and white, they don’t flicker, they respond quickly, they last forever, and they don’t shatter.

Here is where I agree with the Breakthrough Boys and disagree with the radical greens. Those who claim that there are no technical solutions to our problems have it wrong; human technical capacities are immense. The new LED bulb is a case in point.

3) The private sector will do nothing unless pushed

But why now? Why was the lightbulb basically the same since it was invented, with the minor exception of the frosted glass which came in half a century ago?

LEDs have been in commercial production since 1968. Again, almost a half century. Why weren’t they developed as light ing sources sooner?

It’s true that progress happens at the rate it happens. Some things can’t happen faster. No amount of money could have caused LED lighting to be practical in 1955, and probably not in 1985 either. But it’s obvious that regulatory pressure increased the incentive to dedicate engineers to develop something better than those nasty conpact fluorescents.

4) Rednecks push back

Of course, distrust for authority has always been a dominant streak in humans and in particular in the American personality. In some ways this is fortunate for us all –
America is problematic enough as the sole superpower, but imagine how much worse it might be if the citizens actually trusted their government.

And indeed, America is fundamentally ironic. Distrust of authority is the prime authority in America, enshrined in the constitution.

So, perhaps it’s only in America that freedom would be explicitly invoked in reversing lighting policy. HR 849 (2011) is entitled the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act”!

Proposed by Michelle Bachmann, it defanged the EISA not by reversing it but by encrusting it in layers of bureaucracy. Wikipedia again:

This [required] report would need to include information that proves that: (1) consumers will obtain a net savings in terms of dollars spent on monthly electric bills and expenses for new light fixtures to accommodate the use of the light bulbs required by such provisions, compared to dollars spent before their enactment; (2) the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs required by such provisions will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by 20% in the United States by 2025; and (3) such phase-out will not pose any health risks, including risks associated with mercury containment in certain light bulbs, to consumers of the general public, including health risks with respect to hospitals, schools, day care centers, mental health facilities, and nursing homes.

Provision 2 seems implausible enough as to make the whole enterprise impossible. Fortunately this law was not passed.

Nevertheless In December 2011, the U.S. Congress defunded enforcement of EISA light-bulb performance requirements as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act in the 2012 federal budget.

5) The Pushback can be too late

ABC News has this:

It was a bipartisan idea, but conservatives have come to hate it. It wasn’t just that the new bulbs are uglier, dimmer and more expensive, but that the federal government was dictating what kind of light bulb consumers could buy.

“The American people want less government intrusion into their lives, not more, and that includes staying out of their personal light bulb choices,” said GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who, as a member of the House, introduced a bill to roll back the incandescent ban. So today Congress took the teeth out of the incandescent ban by eliminating the funds the Department of Energy would need to enforce it. But what many Republicans are celebrating as a win for individuals’ light-bulb-choosing freedom will probably not save the energy-guzzling bulbs from disappearing off store shelves.

“The industry has moved on,” said Larry Lauck, a spokesman for the American Lighting Association. Lauck said U.S. light bulb manufacturers have already “retooled” their
production lines to build more efficient bulbs”

It’s important to understand how this argument from “freedom” resonates with rural people more than with urban ones. To the urban lifestyle, this is a small hit and a small inconvenience in exchange for a safer and more sustainable commons. The rural person has a bigger property with more fixtures, more jury-rigged setups where light bulbs work as low wattage electric heaters, and who knows what else. And the rural person has far less sense of a need for a workable common space.

In general, the more you are already living as a node in a large system, the less rule changes impinge on you and the more they are likely to benefit you. It is not entirely
unreasonable that the rural population is more offended by regulations that effect their daily lives; they are more affected by them, and more intruded upon.

It’s one thing to believe that we need clean flowing water. It’s another to have a bureaucrat tromping on your spread trying to decide which trickles count as part of the state drainage system.

This imbalance of regulatory impact is something we need to remember in striving for a carbon neutral future as well.

But while Bachmann got some mileage out of this business and the regulations are not practically enforced, in the end the regulatory push was enough. And now we have lots of really good LED bulbs.

6) Procrastination sometimes pays

Another point that reflects on the larger carbon emissions issue is the oft stated position by the techno-optimists that we ought to drag our feet as long as possible and encourage the development of new technologies meanwhile.

Those of us who were quick to replace our incandescents with CFLs now have a minor explicit investment in somewhat unpleasant lighting, as well as an implicit waste disposal which is a significant externality.( )

Those of us who dragged our feet can just meander down to our local hardware store and get lightbulbs that are in every way superior and have an almost infinite useful lifetime. So our reticence in buying the early replacements has been rewarded rather than punished.

This is a small concern, but it has much larger echoes in the big picture.

Maybe some day, perhaps even soon, energy storage will become cheap. Certainly there are motivated and talented teams competing to find a way to make that happen. At that point, it will become very easy to invest in renewables.

Those who would prefer a nuclear-free and carbon-free future may be well advised to support natural gas as a bridge fuel to that happy possible future day when energy storage becomes cost effective and a pure renewables solution then becomes feasible. Rushing to true carbon neutrality is not actually possible without nuclear power. Few do take this position, of course, but that’s because complex positions don’t motivate movements. (Lest you think I’ve gone 100% Breakthrough Institute on this, read on.)

For one thing, there’s a risk, of course. Those of us who coveted LED lighting had no way of being certain that it would ever be cost effective, though there was no fundamental reason that it couldn’t. And of course, we did our damage with the incandescents in the meanwhile.

7) Inertia is the problem

We have just installed a whole bunch of new fixtures in our unit, and they are all LED fixtures. And we have replaced a few of our incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs. We intend to replace almost all of them (except on a pair of lamps that we like to run on a dimmer at very low levels).

The delay is just that somewhere we have a piece of plastic that entitles us to a store credit at Lowe’s, a major hardware chain around here which we don’t usually frequent. This would be a perfect application of the credit. But until we establish that we don’t know where it is, we are demotivated to go replace the bulbs!

In the large, the effort to replace fossil fuel energy is enormous even when alternatives exist. Certainly the people with billions invested in coal (and now tar sand and shale) production will have more serious motivations to drag their feet than a $100 store credit.

8) The Future is not evenly distributed

As science fiction writer William Gibson famously said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

LEDs are here, in production, and vastly superior to either incandescents and fluorescents in most home and office applications. (Fluorescents may suffice and be more cost effective in warehouses.)

But there are a lot of bulbs out there. The larger the proportion of the space you manage to your cash flow, the more it will cost you to replace the bulbs. Still worse are commercial and office settings where non-compact fluorescents continue to inflict themselves on people’s daily lives.

The fact that it is possible to have something better doesn’t make it a high priority to have something better. Incandescents will continue to waste energy and fluorescents to pollute, and both to create nasty glass shards, for a long time to come.Ampoules

Even though the LEDs are better, they do not immediately replace all the other bulbs.

9) Invention is not enough. Even deployment is not enough.

The problem with carbon emissions is not the same as the problem with lightbulbs. Replacing a good fraction of lightbulbs with LEDs is a big win both for the consumer and for the global collective interest.

But replacing some fossil fuels with renewables and/or nuclear is not enough. We are already deploying quite a lot of wind in Texas, but Texas is hardly exemplary in its energy direction.

The problem is not deploying renewables. The problem is shutting down carbon emissions.

We have to replace, pretty much, 100% (counting sequestration as possibly part of the replacement). We can do this, despite may people’s intuitions, without a huge change in lifestyle, and in the end most of us will be better off, though as with lightbulbs, a few interests will be worse off and the range of available choices will effectively shrink a bit. It’s not tragic for anybody.

If we don’t do the replacement, though, it will eventually be tragic for everybody.

This is where the whole Breakthrough argument (that we simply need to fund innovation and stand back) breaks down. Finding alternatives is necessary and good, but it is not
enough. Deploying alternatives, even though they are better on almost all counts, is not enough. We actually have to shut down the old system, cold. And without regulation, it’s hard to imagine that happening fast enough.

The fossil fuel industry needs to come up with near-perfect sequestration or it needs to shut down. It won’t volunteer to do that. It can’t. Parts of it will pretend to be cooperative if only we make “reasonable” demands, and parts of it will sneak around and subvert what needs to be done. Both of these efforts are in full force nowadays. But it’s a business, a big business, the biggest business ever. The purpose of a corporation is to maximize return on investment. Sometimes that aligns with the common interest (a healthy economy, etc.) but when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Having techniques to keep humanity safe and comfortable without destroying the world is only half the battle.

The lightbulb story yields several lessons about the larger climate issue. Regulation always feels unfair to somebody. Sometimes it works spectacularly anyway, because engineers are immensely capable. But without the regulation, neither the development of innovations nor their deployment will happen fast enough.


  1. I had that problem with wellhead heating. I've had to switch to a little paraffin greenhouse-heater, which of course means I have to keep the wellhead lid open enough to let the thing breathe but not enough to let flame-killing cold breezes and snow flurries in, which can be tricky to judge. Plus it's expensive and needs fiddling with at least once a day. And of course it's hastening climageddon far faster than the lighbulb did.

    I haven't tried LEDs yet. They are still crazily expensive here. CFLs are shit. They are slow to get to full brightness, so are hopeless for places like corridors, where you switch the light on and off within seconds. Besides, full brightness isn't very bright. Plus the mercury thing. Plus the brighter ones (~60W equivalent?) are too big for many fittings that would have taken 100W incandescents - bulkhead lights, anglepoises and so on. (The bulb in my anglepoise sticks out about two inches: so much for getting light only where you need it.)

    Another annoying and expensive planet-saving regulation: doors. If you want to replace an external door, you have to pay for two visits from a building inpector, one before and one after, so he can satisfy himself that the new door is at least as thermally efficient as the old one. Grrr!

    But the worst annoyance has been the govt's big push to get homes better insulated. All the cowboys climbed aboard and set about cold-calling everyone to try and flog us subsidised insulation. This has quietened down recently (touch wood) but at times five calls a day wasn't unusual. The poor souls in the call centres are earning very little (perhaps nothing if they're on commission-only, which they probably are) but after a while you stop treating them like human beings and just slam the phone down while shouting uninformed speculations about their parentage or sexual habits.

    Your larger point? Yes, some regulation is necessary as a nudge but it has to be well thought out and kept to a minimum. There's too much grandstanding regulation here in Yurp. Sounds good but achieves little except getting people's backs up and costing them money.

  2. The whole 'nasty CFL' thing is reminiscent of the hyperbolic sackcloth-and-ashes arguments, which are among the most depressing of all because they are often used by people who are otherwise clued up. There's nothing wrong with the light they give, at most it represents a minute change in the quality of your life and if people who understand the problem aren't willing to take this degree of 'discomfort' (and get over yourselves and get some perspective if you actually think this amounts to anything that a sane person would genuinely describe as discomfort) then we might as well just stick two fingers up to it all and walk away. Moving to CFL from incandescent in all but a very small number of instances is as obvious a choice as you will find, even if it's only going to be for the lifetime of one bulb or even less, as has turned out, before a better technology emerges.

  3. I am very happy with my old CFLs, as as they go I will upgrade. They've saved me a lot of money. I am an artist and the quality of light is important to me. As for the short time they take to warm up, that has almost never been a problem (less than a minute? ish?).

    I look forward to getting better ones as these die.

    That said, I have quite a few leftovers as I was an early adopter, and I know many people leave an incandescent in the closet in their houses to keep the damp out when they are out of town. It's pretty universal, so sad theyy can't be repurposed as many other accidental uses in other contexts are.

  4. The pathetic arguments that accepting a tiny change in your life to a state that a decade or two ago would have been a step forwards is somehow an unacceptable sacrifice that could never happen. In reality you make that change and, so long as people don't keep harping on about it, within a few days you've forgotten it happened. This is also known as the 'back to the stone age' argument.

    We're always too poor to afford the changes we need to make.

  5. I am totally in agreement that incandescents should be phased out. One question is whether that should be voluntary or regulatory.

    I dislike the light from cheap CFLs (though on Facebook somebody mentions "high index" CFLs which I don't know about; if they are better then they don't really change the thrust of the argument). I am happy to put them in laundry areas, closets etc. but I am not sure what message it sends guests to have them in the living room and dining areas. Is it self-righteous? Is it implicitly critical of their decisions? Is it just drab and depressing?

    If there were no legal alternative I would certainly cooperate, but the question as to whether the sacrifice on a personal basis is actually effective, or whether it just feeds the resistance and backlash. It seems to me better to support the proscription but only implement it partially.

    In short it's not just that the sacrifice is smallish with CFLs, it's that the balancing gain is infinitesimal. As a rational calculation the Prisoner's Dilemma is strong with this one.

    This is interesting as I contemplate the arguments by the occasional denier demanding to know what my carbon footprint is. It's not extremely expensive to purchase voluntary carbon offsets (provided (as I understand it) they don't become too popular). Now one can do this quietly or loudly. If one does it quietly, it is arguably simply getting nothing for something - a bit of a suckers' bet because most people won't go along. If one proclaims it loudly, especially is like oneself one spends a good fraction of one's time thinking and writing about these issues, one can be accused of buying self-aggrandizement and self-righteousness rather than of doing the right thing. (I'm probably going with the latter.) Much the same complaint applies - the action is more symbolic than substantive. But at least I inconvenience no one but myself.

    Getting back to the lightbulbs, the point here is that the engineers have completely altered the calculation. Though the costs are front-loaded, in the end the LEDs are superior on every axis. So I'm completely enthusiastic about this.

    And it fits in to the basic theme of my position - the green future need not be a substantial compromise at all. If we do things better we do not need to have poverty at all; there will be very few setbacks and they will be very small. When I think about it I conclude that all we have to do is be willing to play with the rules of the game, and not even all that much. But we have to do it well.

  6. MT

    And it fits in to the basic theme of my position - the green future need not be a substantial compromise at all. If we do things better we do not need to have poverty at all; there will be very few setbacks and they will be very small.

    MT, are you saying that the socialized cost of AGW can be fully internalized if we high-consuming energy users just pay a little up front, by investing in energy-efficiency and writing off sunk capital costs? That's not what I took from the OP:

    In the large, the effort to replace fossil fuel energy is enormous even when alternatives exist.

  7. Complaints about modern CFLs often strike me as forced. Twenty years ago they were more of a compromise being six inches long and having the color spectrum of Sirius, but they still took a noticable bite out of my electric bill and even at $20 per paid for themselves within the year.

    Now you can get them as small as regular incandescents and with apparently the same warm spectrum. They even hide the pig-tail look. I've always bought Phillips or GE, which are more expensive, but that means several dollars for something that's supposed to last at least as many years. I've never lived anywhere long enough for them to burn out. They also allow a 100W equivalent in old circuitry and fixtures that are supposed to take only 40W, making everything much brighter.

    The warmup time (a minute or two?) is a genuine drawback, but short cycle times are supposed to shorten their lifetime (at least that's what I heard 20 years ago) so they shouldn't be used for those applications anyway. A bigger problem I think are enclosed fixtures, which make them hotter than they like. But you can also get ones shaped like globe fixtures, which with the wattage equivalent jump have done wonders for visibility in my kitchen.

    LEDs sound like the winner overall, but the notion that CFLs would be taken as any more of a hairshirt statement than replacing kerosene lamps with electric bulbs astonishes me. More light for less money is a sacrifice?

    As for heating, use heaters. You can get ceramic ones that fit in light sockets.

  8. Completely stealing verytallguy's idea, he made me wonder what would happen if JFK had used the Breakthrough/Ridley/Tol (and others who think technological advance is magic pixie dust) approach to the moon landing:

    All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

    We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

    It is for these reasons that we should do nothing and just wait for someone to invent an antigravity machine.

  9. Or in the case at hand, an anticlimate machine (oh, wait)

    "Anticlimatic Breakthrough"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    We're waiting for a Breakthrough
    We know that it will come
    An anticlimate brake shoe
    That stops the warming plumb

  10. The griping about CFLs (Even by mt! Maybe hanging out with rednecks has rubbed off?) is relevant to the larger point: The superiority of LED bulbs in efficiency and performance will mean little to people who disdain them because treehuggers. Jared Diamond's observations about people unable to save their own skins when doing so would require violating their sense of identity loom large here.

  11. Re "CFL's are the end of the world" (I paraphrase):

    I call BS. They're not fully bright immediately, so they're hopeless in corridors?? Who needs light you could read or sew by to traverse a corridor without bumping into the wall? C'mon.

    And the mercury thing? Yeah, it's there. But then there's the CO2 thing. Sheesh.

    Plus, as others have pointed out, other solutions are multiplying quickly.

    BTW, my impression is that the cheaper CFL's may give you what you pay for. The better brands still save a bundle compared to traditional incandescents.

  12. MT:

    I think I manage to believe both of those things at the same time.

    Heh. I try to believe six impossible things before breakfast, myself. I'm afraid there are more contradictions here, though. In the OP, you say:

    Certainly the people with billions invested in coal (and now tar sand and shale) production will have more serious motivations to drag their feet than a $100 store credit.

    A little later you say:

    The problem is not deploying renewables. The problem is shutting down carbon emissions.

    We have to replace, pretty much, 100% (counting sequestration as possibly part of the replacement). We can do this, despite may people’s intuitions, without a huge change in lifestyle, and in the end most of us will be better off, though as with lightbulbs, a few interests will be worse off and the range of available choices will effectively shrink a bit. It’s not tragic for anybody.

    I have little doubt that in "the end", most of us will be better off. But there are infinitely many pathways to that end, and all but a handful pass through at least a rough patch or two. If nothing else, the people with serious motivations to drag their feet will ensure that the path taken won't be smooth.

    Talking of "we", and saying it's not tragic for anybody, obscures the reality that there will be (relative) winners and losers, for 'twas ever thus. Recall the last time billions of dollars were found to be invested in stranded assets: the people that made those investments were buffered from the consequences, while many others experienced more or less severe setbacks, and some already living (from their perspective) on the edge of tragedy were pushed over it.

    IMO the fatal flaw in your position is represented by this:

    It is not entirely unreasonable that the rural population is more offended by regulations that effect their daily lives; they are more affected by them, and more intruded upon.

    Assuredly GHG emissions must cease if civilization is to survive in any form, but if you think the "green future" won't require substantial compromise, you are expecting greater cooperation across class and cultural lines than the world has yet seen. Coal miners who are thrown out of work when it's no longer economic to burn coal will be more than offended, they will demand to be made whole. The money to buy their cooperation will have to found. If we who have benefited from too-cheap fossil energy think that can be achieved without internalizing, one way or another ("People make fun of a redneck ’til their car needs fixin"), any of the cost we've thus far held external, then we are in denial.

  13. Cheap CFLs are depressing. Rhino extinction is depressing. We want to avoid both to the extent possible.

    Let go of what needs letting go because it's too expensive or flat out impossible to save. Meanwhile don't push everybody to adopt things that are so expensive and shabby so soon that they don't make matters palpably better out of some misplaced sense of duty. Keep playing with it until it rocks. The green future is a thing of beauty, not of shabbiness.


    Bicycle routes? Fast trains? Slow trains? Vehicle rental fleets? Funiculars? Hell yes to all.

    Roundup for corn? No way. Stop that %$^& please.

    Corn ethanol biofuel, yeah, a little, so you're ready to tool up in a supply emergency.

    Nukes? Well, that's a much longer story. Which this one leads into.

  14. While you're thinking, MT, let me try again. My objection to your OP and to the comments I've responded to is that I think they're too optimistic. Maybe they're more ambiguous than I've interpreted them to be. We obviously agree that GHG emissions have to cease. But you seem to be saying that concerns that any government decarbonization policy will have significant economic impacts are unwarranted:

    And it fits in to the basic theme of my position - the green future need not be a substantial compromise at all. If we do things better we do not need to have poverty at all; there will be very few setbacks and they will be very small. When I think about it I conclude that all we have to do is be willing to play with the rules of the game, and not even all that much. But we have to do it well.

    I, OTOH, think that if decarbonization is done well, concerns about economic impact have justification. I think that eliminating U.S. GHG emissions will require policies to drive the price of fossil energy high enough to force a switch to renewables, in all sectors of the economy. If those policies are effective, I think there's bound to be a reduction in economic growth, at least until the price of "renewable" energy (including fossil fuels with CCS), to end users in all sectors, falls to what we now pay for fossil energy (including fracked natural gas). How severe the impact on growth will be depends to some extent on policy specifics, and it's reasonable to expect recovery as alternative sources and infrastructure are built out. I don't believe it will happen without anyone noticing, however, and I'm afraid there will be at least subjective tragedy on at least a personal scale.

    Heck, let's talk about how it might affect me. Based on my family history, I can reasonably expect to live at least 30 more years; with luck, I might see 2050. Under current conditions, my financial resources should keep me comfortable for the duration, in a modest energy-efficient house on a few acres that I can begin restoring to native vegetation. If effective decarbonization begins soon, my 401ks may not last as long as I thought, and SSN won't be a sure thing either. I might have to sell my acreage and move into humbler digs. I wouldn't like that, but I expect I could live with it, and I'd try not to think too much about that pitiful patch of restored ecosystem. If decarbonization isn't well underway by 2050, however, I may die in my modest house on my futilely restored acres, relieved that I won't be alive in 2100. I'd be willing to compromise on my retirement dreams, for the sake of those who will be. I can't speak for anyone else, though.

  15. Pingback: Another Week of Climate Disruption News, May 4, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  16. Yes it's true; too much exposure to rednecks does rub off a little.

    Reading Diamond's Collapse, we learn that the Icelanders in avoiding an imminent collapse had a social cohesion and maturity that it seems unlikely that we (globally or in the West or in the English-speaking world in particular) can match with our current cultures. But we have something the Icelanders didn't have, which is enormous technical capacities.

    The point here is that to the extent feasible, rather than reinforcing this sort of resistance by tackling it head on, an effort for which we have little time and a dreadful start, to some extent we should hold off on deploying things at scale that are shabby and wait for them to be great.

    The vision we are presenting of the future is of a choice between two grim outcomes.

    And it's true that anyone with any ecological sense is suffering huge losses that are only beginning, and that we are a long way from stanching the bleeding, much less recovering. I am not trying to minimize this or dismiss it.

    But we're a long way from an actually uninhabitable globe and still have some margin to avoid social collapse. The underlying point of everything I write, including this, is we can best avoid collapse by providing a genuinely beautiful, desirable vision of the future.

    I wish I could paint this picture without vast ecological losses, but that is now impossible. A great deal is lost, far more is as bad as lost. But there is still room for a future worth aspiring to, and there is still time to revive the original, progressive idea of progress.

    I have some sympathies with the Breakthrough people. They may be glibly underestimating the difficulties facing their path just as everyone else underestimates its feasibility. I'm trying to stake out some ground that recognizes progress and still recognizes the necessity for politics. The lightbulb analogy is useful in trying to explain what I mean.

  17. Mal, well said. Some points where we disagree:

    1) I recommend giving up on putting emphasis on the "native vegetation" constraint. The only biome that matters for the purposes of the next few centuries is the whole Earth biome. I agree that extraterrestrial biota should not be encouraged at present. But you can't preserve any existing ecosystem in any sensible way; if we are very diligent we will still triple the climate forcings we see now, and we begin to see how the disruption is highly nonlinear with the forcing.

    2) Decarbonization is not cheap compared to cheap things. Decarbonization is not politically easy. Decarbonization, like any policy, will have losers. My point is only that decarbonization need not lead to widespread perceived discomfort, nor a slowing down in the emergence of the poor countries from poverty.

    3) The green future need not be a thing of romantic retreat from technology. Not only that, but even if that is what we want we'll have to go through a period of embracing it. Far from being in hospice, we need to consider ourselves as being in the ICU. Machines and treatments that can save the world and allow prolonging something close to a normal life? Bring 'em on!

  18. MT:

    I recommend giving up on putting emphasis on the "native vegetation" constraint. The only biome that matters for the purposes of the next few centuries is the whole Earth biome. I agree that extraterrestrial biota should not be encouraged at present. But you can't preserve any existing ecosystem in any sensible way

    Hmmph. Again, IMNSHO you are too quick to dismiss the differences in values that impede an effective national response to AGW. I'm as exasperated as you are by the deniers' argumentum ad consequentiam against the physical reality of AGW, but I'm less willing to overlook their underlying fears. Will you acknowledge that tragedy is in the eyes of the beholder, Michael? A high unemployment rate in coal country may be a price you're willing to pay to mitigate AGW, but try to imagine how the miners will feel about it!

    As always, Leopold's tragic sense resonates:

    One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

    I'm one of those tree-huggers inspired by Leopold's Land Ethic, and my recommendation to you is to at least pay lip service to those values when you are talking to us about AGW mitigation. I may have turned away from Ecology and Evolution as a profession when I left the Ph.D. program 30 years ago, but it's still my consuming avocation. When you were in Madison, you could hardly fail to notice the fashion for tallgrass-prairie restoration, pioneered by Leopold, that's still sweeping the Midwest. For tens of thousands like me, ecological restoration isn't just a fashion, it's a passion. The whole Earth biome is obviously at risk from AGW, but it's not the only biome that matters to me. When I retire, I'll redevote myself to small-scale restoration as a rear-guard defense against the Anthropocene mass extinction, whether or not that's sensible to you, thank you very much. I will personally evaluate any proposal for mitigating AGW on how well it protects biodiversity on all geographic scales. I'll favor a plan that requires extending unemployment compensation to coal miners for another year, if it makes it easier in some way to maintain refugia for (as an example) the golden paintbrush. When it comes down to thrashing out the diabolical details, that's what I'll paying attention to. You can advocate for your own idiosyncratic values.

  19. MT: "insofar as a stable climate is a thing of the past, so is a climax ecosystem."

    I really want to object to this but I'm finding I can't. It's a scarily compact way of putting it. It's one of those things I thought I knew already but that sentence made it hit home at a gut level: the climate system is going to be out of equilibrium for a good long while (and more-so the more we kick it). Until it has an opportunity to begin stabilising again (and we're currently going in the opposite direction to that), ecosystems are going to be flailing about on the massively shifting landscape they're trying to adapt on.

    Blech. That said, the biggest damage done to land-based ecosystems globally - up to now at least - is still plain habitat loss. But these two combined - not good.

  20. The point is very specifically that the wildlife management strategies of the past century are simply not sufficient in the future.

    Mal refers specifically to a species of figwort disappearing from the southern (equatorward) reaches of its range.

    Here in central Texas the westernmost, thus driest, stand of southern loblolly pine, known informally as Lost Pines, (intrinsically moisture-stressed) famously caught fire over Labor Day weekend in the drought of 2011, darkening us here in Austin in a huge smoke cloud. The response of the locals and the state park system is to do everything possible to re-establish a loblolly pine forest in Bastrop State Park. This is not what we call "denialism", but it is denial, plain and simple. The Lost Pines are now lost in a different sense.

    They're gone, and nothin's gonna bring 'em back. The last thing we need is to grow tinder for another Bastrop fire, but apparently that is the plan.

    If the golden paintbrush thrives or even hangs on in British Columbia and Washington, it may be time to let go of thinking of it as endemic to Oregon. Just be happy that it's still around at all.

    Ecological communities are getting scrambled, and specialized interspecies relationships will fail. I'm not biologist enough to say what the right strategy for benign human intervention is here in the midst of all this malign human disruption and damage. But I can say that old Aldo is only a spiritual guide, no longer a practical one. He knew nothing of accelerating climate disruption and for all his perception of loss never had to cope with it.

    Sharing the ecological ethic is not enough of a guide. The old truisms aren't true anymore.

  21. MT:

    If the golden paintbrush thrives or even hangs on in British Columbia and Washington, it may be time to let go of thinking of it as endemic to Oregon. Just be happy that it's still around at all.

    Michael, as with many specialized disciplines, it's easy for non-experts to presume they know more about Restoration Ecology than they do. If you're willing to put the time in, you could do worse than to start with the extensive Island Press catalogue. I'm not an expert, but I can tell you that ecologists have a more advanced understanding of "climax" than Clements did a century ago.

    Castilleja levisecta (BTW, botanical taxonomy underwent a major revision around 2000 on the basis of molecular data. Most of the Scrophulariaceae were reassigned to other families; Castilleja and the other hemiparasitic Scrophs are now in the Orobanchaceae) is a convenient index into the eventful ecological history of the Puget-Willamette lowland since the late Pleistocene. With a simplistic notion of climax, one would expect closed Western hemlock forest, and C. levisecta to be long since extinct if it had ever evolved to begin with. In the Willamette valley, what the Oregon Trail settlers found was a matrix of grassland with scattered Garry oak savanna, and gallery forests of other deciduous trees and conifers along water courses. A preponderance of the evidence supports the view that the valley's aboriginal inhabitants had intensively managed the landscape since the altithermal climatic interval, using carefully timed burning to maintain the open physiognomy favorable to their staple foods, with C. levisecta a presumably incidental beneficiary.

    Today there is an active community of restorationists applying considerable knowledge, energy and skill to the defense of the region's unique biota, with full awareness that they're fighting a rear-guard action. They're used to it, after all. Climate change is a serious challenge, of course, but it's only the latest one, and it's not a reason to quit. Many species will be lost, but a negotiated surrender is better than abject defeat. Hint: "facilitated migration".

    Getting back to the point of your OP: Science can tell us that the climate is changing and why, and how it's likely to change in the future; but it can't tell us why we should care. The Universe assuredly does not care if the golden paintbrush survives, so why do I? You may as well ask, why does anyone care if humans survive? The answer isn't about facts, but about values.

    My last word: society's response to AGW will largely depend on reconciling conflicting values, and rednecks will fight at least as hard for theirs as conservationists will.

  22. There is some really fine material in this discussion, which has moved far beyond the subject of lightbulbs. I agree that the old idea that we could dial back exploitation and return - and the whole idea that nature doesn't move on, even without our help - is inadequate, and also that devaluing small steps because we need much more is unhelpful.


  23. I still have some Panasonic Light Capsule CFLs I bought when they cost $30 apiece and used 27 watts; they're pretty dim compared to the current 7-watt CFLs, and the phosphor is flaking off inside the tube so the eerie violet emission from the mercury vapor is visible (no, I don't let them out where people can see them; they're useful in locations where I some ultraviolet keeps mold down, like the attic and basement during cold weather --- where the waste heat is also a benefit. And as heaters, old well made CFLs are more reliable than old incandescent lamps -- no filament to break.

    I wouldn't leave a new inexpensive CFL on anyplace I couldn't see it though, having seen a couple of them start to melt when the magic smoke leaked out of the cheap parts.

    The same rush to market with inefficient and possibly dangerous tech is happening with LEDs now -- cheap electronics fail early on LEDs too.

    And lo, the light emitted by both CFLs and "white" LEDs turns out to have a risk from the emitted spectrum in the blue range. The information is available. Nobody seems to be looking.

    I urge people to look and realize they have choices they don't know about:
    and this:

    Particularly if you are young, or have young people around you when using bright LEDs described as “white” -- they're blue-pumped with a phosphor over a blue emitter, and they emit a significant amount of blue regardless of whether they're "warm" or "cool" white.

    The retinal damage accumulates over time, showing up after months or years. It’s entirely avoidable.
    “Photochemical oxidation” is an effect of high energy photons. Lower-energy photons (yellowish green to red range) do not have enough energy to knock electrons off atoms. Higher-energy photons (greenish blue-to-violet and higher) do have the energy to knock electrons off atoms. That’s the critical level at which damage starts and there’s a chemical cascade after it’s started.

    The market rush to sell “white” LEDs — like the rush into “efficient” CFLs that turned out to be crap for various reasons — is happening despite the known problems.

    I'm not complaining, mind you, I don't know any way for people to be smarter about small adverse effects of highly profitable new tech with unintended consequences that are cumulative rather than immediate risks. Cough. Neonicotinoids. Cough.

    What bugs me is that some scientist somewhere has almost always published on the issues around the new tech -- and yet nobody even looks into whether such a concern might exist.

    And there are good inexpensive reliable LED products with emission spectra that don't include the blue spike.
    In a free market, you'd probably have heard about them somewhere, from someone marketing them.
    But no. Despite 20 years of publications, one LED company recently patented the idea and is charging $60 apiece for LEDs that have reduced levels of the blue light problem.

    Q: What do you think of intelligent life on Earth?
    A: It would be a good idea.

  24. I've heard of "blue light hazard". What I don't get is why the competition isn't screaming about it. For example, these guys frequently mention that their bulbs are mercury free - a dig at CFLs - but I've never seen them say "and LEDs will fry your eyes".

    On the one hand, you'd figure that our hyper-litigious society would keep a lid on possible problems. On the other hand, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.


    I'm not terribly worried about it. The UV source in fluorescent lamps isn't exactly healthy either.

  26. > fry your eyes
    That demonstrates the misunderstanding, right there.

    Cumulative macula damage leading to blindness -- "a major health problem in the developed world accounting for approximately half of all blind registrations" -- isn't "fry your eyes" at all. Completely different hazard.

    People confuse two distinctly different issues. And that's a major source of delay.

    A decade or so ago the cautions began to come out:

    Those applied, then, to fluorescent and halogen sources, which are bluer than old-type incandescent bulbs.

    But early warnings about increases in statistical risks are pretty minor stuff.

    Consider the say three percentage point loss in IQ of kids exposed to lead paint dust. What's three percent? Nobody cares. Over the population as a whole, though, that's a lot to lose. But it's taken more than a century to deal with industrial uses of lead, even partially. All that time, delay has been profitable. And they're still using leaded gasoline in large parts of the world right now.

    So -- do we care about small risks that are avoidable at some expense?

    Not likely.

    And besides, looking at the statistics about nighttime lighting and health -- there's a good public health argument for using far less bright and pervasive artificial light at night, everywhere. It's well known and widely explained, if you look, e.g.
    page down to the links on that page if you want the background:

    Some Official Associations Respond to Health Hazards by lights at night
    American Cancer Society adds "night work" as a breast cancer risk factor
    IARC Monographs Evaluates the Carcinogenic Risks of Shiftwork to Humans
    American Medical Association UNANIMOUSLY passes Resolution 516 against Light Pollution

    Imagine that. And that doesn't require turning the lights _off_ -- but avoiding those emitting in the blue range.

  27. The irony where I live is that the new energy efficient LEDs and CFLs have increased my carbon footprint and environmental footprint.
    I live in a cool climate and the vast majority of my electricity comes from carbon free hydro.
    The heat given off by incandescent lights meant that my fossil fuel heating furnace did not need to burn as much fuel heating my home. Now I burn more fossil fuels.

    In addition an incandescent lightbulb contains very little material, all of which is easily recycled and nontoxic. Feel how light weight an incandescent bulb is. The CFL's are heavy and complex and not terribly recyclable with there heavy metals and circuit boards etc.

  28. Got me an LED bulb for my office right here. It's fine. Instant brightness, miniscule running cost, lasts for ages. It's a wee bit blue, don't like the sound of the health risk, look forward to solutions.

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