I fear the incandescent light bulb has become the scapegoat du jour, as we address and tackle the growing magnitude of our ecological problems. Recent political announcements by Australian Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling for a ban on incandescent light bulbs by 2012, are actually counterproductive to working toward a viable sustainable future, because statements such as these do not present all the facts or aspects of the issue, and instead mislead the population into thinking there is a “quick fix” solution.
In particular, this call to arms against the incandescent light bulb has suggested that the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is the answer. But what is not mentioned is that CFLs contain mercury, and that by potentially solving some of the problems that incandescent sources present—high carbon emissions and electricity output—another equally as serious problem is introduced: An increased volume of mercury-containing lamps into the marketplace and environment that will need to be properly disposed of so that they do not sit in land fills.
Also absent from the political incandescent/CFL debate is the issue of Quality of Light. CFL technology is variable, and color temperature ranges limited. In fact, there is a condition known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, where fluorescent lighting can actually make people sick. Bottom line: The right source must be used for the appropriate application. To design strictly based on technical or economic criteria without an awareness of aesthetic issues would be to negate design itself.
Rather than treat the incandescent/CFL debate as an “either/or” proposition, what it should do is encourage us to focus energies on the research of more efficient lighting sources of all types, including incandescent. The fine print of Philips Lighting's March 2007 announcement of its support of the newly created Lighting Efficiency Coalition's proposed legislative action (See "Philips Leads Lighting Efficiency Coalition"), clearly advocates a switch to more energy-efficient lighting systems, and a structured phase-out of inefficient incandescent sources, not a complete or immediate ban. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) has weighed in as well, supporting energy-efficient lighting, but arguing that proposed legislation here in the U.S. and abroad, which suggests an all out ban, is misguided. In a prepared statement NEMA President Evan Gaddis points out that product bans “do not encourage technology innovation, and fail to take into account market and application needs of the consumer.” It will be interesting to see in the coming months the market place's Darwinian effect on new products and technologies.
Certainly there are instances and applications in which changing an incandescent source to a CFL makes sense, and there is no doubt that of the approximately four billion screw-based light sockets in the Unites States, not all need to house incandescent sources, or of the potential energy savings—approximately $18 billion in the U.S. alone. But if we are to create a more socially responsible and environmentally friendly world, it has to stem from more than just a change in equipment, it has to be a change in attitude, habit, and behavior. It won't matter how many incandescent light bulbs are changed to CFLs if we continue to drive oversized fuel-dependent vehicles instead of favoring mass transit or walking. It won't matter how many incandescent light bulbs are changed to CFLs if we continue to avoid researching and funding viable renewable energy resources. It won't matter how many incandescent light bulbs are changed to CFLs if we don't each personally come to a better understanding of our own consumption footprint. Changing a light bulb is only one piece of a far larger and more complicated environmental puzzle. To be sure, a first step, but not the only solution.