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Almost Everybody Is Wrong About Incandescent Bulbs

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  activism critique environment health policy

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Earlier this week, the New York Times ran its latest attack article vilifying incandescent light bulbs.

The article states objective facts which are long known to be true: incandescent bulbs are highly inefficient and have a relatively short life span. Seizing on the fact that incandescent bulbs are supposedly more readily availble in poorer areas, the author then goes on a crusade against the technology, blaming the Trump administration's blocking of a ban on incandescents, which is ironic, because that's probably one of its few environmental accomplishments on record.

Despite what the left has been claiming for years, incandescent bulbs aren't evil, and LED bulbs aren't environmentally friendly. It bears worth mentioning some specific aspects of artificial lighting and its history to revisit why.

Planned Obsolescence

Despite all the bad press coverage that incandescent bulbs receive, the idea of improving these bulbs — and/or the way they're used — as opposed to completely discounting them is something that is simply not discussed at all. Planned obsolescence, which is everywhere today, essentially originated with modifications to incandescent bulbs in the early 1900s. Incandescent bulbs aren't inherently evil, but artificially shortened lifespans certainly are and exacerbate environmental harms.

So undoing planned obsolesence is certainly part of the solution, but I don't hear anyone decrying incandescent bulbs suggesting that as an improvement.

Most incandescent bulbs today are 60 watts at 120 volts AC. A secret that some people have picked up on is buying 130V bulbs, and running them off 120V. This means the bulbs operate at a lower voltage than they are actually rated for, which means they're slightly dimmer than they could be. In practice, the difference is hardly noticeable, but this can significantly increase the lifespan of these bulbs. (It's worth mentioning that, although dimmers also reduce consumption and prolong lifespans, they cause huge amounts of dirty electricity. Given that many people using incandescent bulbs today do so for health and well-being reasons, using a dimmer most likely negates the effects and counters the goal.)

Lighting Consumption

Inefficient isn't always evil. Mainstream environmentalists would argue they are, but this is a surface-level analysis that rarely captures all the details. The real problem is not that incandescent bulbs are inefficient; it's how much modern industrial society has come to rely on artificial lighting, and just how much it uses.

Those who've driven around streets in the suburbs at night before can probably visualize a familiar scene: passing endless stores, schools, and other venues which are all closed. What do most of them have in common? They all have their lights on.

Likewise, some of the same people who criticize incandescent bulbs for their inefficiency sleep in on weekends and waste half a day's worth of natural sunlight, then burn the midnight light bulbs when it's dark out. Why are we not calling for the obvious: a massive decrease in the consumption (often wasteful and unnecessary consumption) of artificial lighting? The hypocrisy would be funny if it didn't have such damning real-world consequences.

It doesn't have to be this way. I typically wake up before sunrise, and as a result, I use far less artificial lighting than most Americans do. Incandescent bulbs typically last me years, simply because I use so little artificial lighting to begin with. Toxic technology is not the answer. Reducing consumption is.

Incandescent bulbs are inefficient; nobody's disputing that. Taking the leap to argue that means they're evil and should be banned is a huge leap, however — and a misstep at that. Incandescent bulbs work by turning thermal energy into visible light. That's exactly what the Sun does, too. Maybe we should ban the Sun too, because it's "inefficient". I'm still waiting for California to introduce legislation to propose this.

For what it's worth, the efficiency of the human body is only about 20%. A really great idea would be banning humans, for being inefficient. Now that would be a great way to help the environment!

Less Carbon Doesn't Mean Environmentally Friendly

This is a classic example of mainstream environmentalists falsely equating "less carbon" with "environmentally friendly". There is often a correlation between the two, but that's the extent of it: it's merely a correlation, not causation. Anyone who's taken basic statistics knows this, so why have mainstream bright green environmentalists forgotten this?

The NYT article proudly shames incandescent bulbs by saying that each additional month that incandescent bulbs are sold will result in 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide that might have not been emitted. Suppose this is true; I don't even doubt that it is. Clearly, this is a bad thing. The logical fallacy that bright greens make is saying that the inverse — moving away from incandescent bulbs, and emitting 800,000 tons less CO2 — is a real boon for the environment. Not so fast. All the sustainability hype about CFLs and LEDs is a complete lie. Virtually most, if not all, environmentalists that I know, many of which previously embraced CFLs and LEDs for a time, now swear by incandescent lighting, myself included. Energy-efficiency does not necessarily mean “environmentally friendly”, yet these two are often religiously equated. Those familiar with Jevon’s Paradox, the contradiction that efficiency can lead to more consumption, may have some idea of how this could be applicable. Blindly embracing a technology because it uses less energy is an almost certain recipe for disaster. Environmentalists need to evaluate technologies holistically, considering all of their nuanced impacts. Many people know that CFLs contain mercury and emit UV radiation. But CFLs have been on their way out for years, now; LEDs are the new norm. However, LEDs are not immune from other risks they share with CFLs, such as emitting low levels of RF radiation and producing dirty electricity. LEDs (and CFLs) run on AC power also flicker at low frequencies, which is detectable by some individuals and can cause severe accessibility issues, even seizures.

Does any of that sound "environmentally friendly" to you?

The physiological trade-offs in health and well-being are not worth it. Do you not consider humans part of the environment, too? How can a technology that has documented ill impacts on humans be considered “green”? Why has incandescent lighting, the most natural form of artificial lighting, become vilified, downright demonized? Incandescent lighting is the safest form of artificial lighting, as it is simply converting electricity into thermal energy (including infrared radiation, which is also good for you). When the mainstream has all but sought to ban incandescent lighting, the artificial lighting of choice amongst environmentalists and health nuts, something has gone terribly awry in environmental discourse. I don't care how much less energy LED bulbs use than incandescent light bulbs. I refuse to endorse coerced solutions which hurt people to “help the environment”: this is a disgusting form of environmental bank fraud.

Truthfully, this doesn't even scratch the surface. The excellent book "Bright Green Lies" offers a glimpse at the grimmer realities of LEDs:

The production of LEDs is much more complex than that of incandescent and CFL bulbs. LEDs are built around a silicon chip called a “die.” Each die consists of layers of high-purity crystalline semiconductor usually made from gallium arsenide, gallium phosphide, or gallium arsenide phosphide. As the name implies, two of these elemental combinations contain arsenic, a known carcinogen and environmental toxin.…
Components of LEDs are easily traced to atrocities. Yttrium, cerium, and gadolinium are rare-earth elements which naturally occur together, and they are mined in aggregate. As you may recall, the massive open-pit Bayan Obo mine near Baotou, China, is the singlelargest source of rare-earth metals, and it has ruined everything nearby. Local fields can no longer grow crops, and livestock grow sick and die. One local resident told journalists that “all the families are affected by illness ... diabetes, osteoporosis, and chest problems.” Many have been reduced to such poverty that selling sludge from tailings ponds to reprocessing plants is their only income…
Monazite is also a common source rock for gadolinium, which besides being used for LEDs, is used in nuclear reactors (especially nuclear submarines), in fuel cells, and for nuclear medicine. As for the LEDs themselves, their levels of copper, lead, nickel, and silver have gotten California to declare all but the low-intensity yellow diodes “hazardous.” — Bright Green Lies, Ch. 7 (Efficiency)

Don't forget: the same folks urging "environmental justice now!" are also calling for LEDs everywhere, now!

And speaking of 800,000 tons of CO2, how many tons of CO2 are wasted in the U.S. alone due to wasted lighting? How much lighting could be saved if people got up "on time" as opposed to sleeping in? Why are incandescent bulbs to blame, as opposed to our lazy, high-energy, wasteful industrial lifestyles? Because making incandescent bulbs the victim is the easy way out and allows us to continue ignoring the real consumption crisis elephant in the room. It doesn't matter whether we use incandescent bulbs or LEDs. Neither is "green" and either way, we're using too much energy and causing harm in one form another. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, two wrongs and a right — whatever phrase you want to use, it ain't so.

Carbon dioxide is a huge problem, but focusing on raw numbers of CO2 to measure "progress" is wrong and can lead people very awry. This is a great example why.


Count on mainstream environmentalists to get the environmental facts mixed up repeatedly, again and again, but phasing out incandescent bulbs is environmentally and morally wrong. If you want to accept the trade-offs and use LED bulbs, go ahead; nobody's stopping you. However, to actively prevent people from using the safest form of artificial lighting - particularly people who may be sensitive to light in ways that most people are not, and people who are disabled - is wrong. This is about more than carbon dioxide. This is about basic human rights to healthy environments, and the ability to choose incandescent bulbs over LEDs is a personal choice that shouldn't be refused to anyone in the name of faux "environmentalism". This is just another corporate agenda being rammed down everyone's throats (and surprise, surprise, the lighting industry is benefiting big time from it). As has become typical in recent years, this is just another example of the low quality of many New York Times articles and its reporters. There is a whole other side to this story, and it's not even mentioned, let alone discussed. But even more importantly, it demonstrates just how ingrained these environmental falsehoods have become, and just how much "double speak" exists in the environmental movement today.

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