Congress Can't Even Change a Light Bulb

07/18/2011 08:23 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

Evidence of the growing ideological purity of the Republicans in control of the U.S. House of Representatives was provided by the incredible light bulb debate of 2011. Apparently tired of trying to run the country into a default ditch, these folks have managed to define an effort to provide energy standards for light bulbs as an assault on our American way of life. According to Sean Collins Walsh of the New York Times:

The new standards, which would require most light bulbs to be 25 to 30 percent more efficient by 2014 and at least 60 percent more efficient by 2020, have become a symbol of what conservatives see as an unnecessary intrusion into the market.

About 90 percent of the energy used in a standard light bulb does not contribute to making light but is thrown off as waste heat. A number of energy efficient bulbs are in the market and more are on the way. The energy savings from changing our light bulbs is enormous and is some of the low-hanging fruit of America's energy crisis. Americans waste enormous amounts of energy. Our homes are poorly insulated. Our autos still use far more gasoline than they need to. Go to a hotel in any other part of the world and when you leave your room, the lights shut off. American hotels prefer to light empty rooms. When we think about ways we can improve our standard of living without harming our environment or balance of trade, increased energy efficiency is a logical answer.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. is devoting a growing share of its GDP to energy consumption. While we are nowhere near the highpoint historically of energy cost per unit of GDP, we are moving in the wrong direction. This was true even before the recent spike in energy prices and the reduction in our GDP growth rate. According to the Energy Information Administration's analysis of "Energy Consumption, Expenditures, and Emissions Indicators, Selected Years, 1949-2009," this percentage grew from 8% in the pre-energy crisis year of 1970 to a peak of 13.7% during the recession that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. It then shrunk to a low of 5.9% at the turn of the 21st century and has risen steadily since then. In 2007, the most recent year reported by this federal agency, the percentage grew back to 8.8%.

While the Congress failed in its attempt to eliminate the new light bulb regulations, it voted to eliminate the funding that the Department of Energy requested to enforce these rules. I suppose this is a new Tea-Party method for ensuring respect for the laws of the land. If you can't repeal laws, let people know it's OK to ignore them.

Behind this latest idiocy out of Washington we can find several profound and disturbing tendencies. The first is some incredibly cynical and manipulative political rhetoric. The issue has been defined as the freedom to use whatever light bulbs you want in your own home. The idea is that government's regulation and the community's force of law ends at your front door. That is, of course, not true. In a complex, interconnected and mutually interdependent world, our community, city, state and nation set many rules governing our behavior. This includes stuff we do in the privacy of our home. When these rules are done well, we call it the rule of law; when it is done poorly, we call it an abuse of power. Without rules on zoning, disturbing the peace, child abuse, and a myriad of specific regulations on consumer products and their safety, we would live in a far more dangerous and uncertain world. It is also a more crowded world, as most of the world's population now lives in cities. To quote New Yorker Paul Simon's famous lyrics, these days: "One man's ceiling is another man's floor." Most Americans are not lucky enough to live on a thousand-acre ranch in Wyoming. Most of us can see, hear and even smell our neighbors.

On a crowded planet, we need rules that promote responsible social behavior. We need to be careful that those rules do not deny us individual freedom of expression and other fundamental rights. The right to bare light bulbs (excuse the pun) is not one of those fundamental rights. When we did not import much energy and we didn't understand the impact of fossil fuel extraction and combustion on the biosphere, energy use was a more private matter. Today wasteful energy use affects the entire community. That does not mean that the only way to influence behavior is through command and control regulation. We can use prices as well. Perhaps those freedom-loving Member of Congress would support a tax on light bulbs based on the bulb's energy efficiency: Probably not.

If the transition to a more environmentally sustainable economy is to be accomplished without impairing our standard of living, we need to improve the efficiency and long-term costs of energy in that economy. Renewable energy must be developed that takes advantage of technological advances in energy generation and storage. Unfortunately, some of those new technologies will take many years to develop and adopt. Energy efficiency is here now. We know how to make light bulbs, cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and computers that use less energy and produce the same benefit. It is in our economic and national interest to encourage the adoption of those technologies as soon as possible.

If we are to achieve sustainability management, it is critical that our political institutions get past the type of destructive debate we just witnessed over the light bulb. This should have been an easy and almost automatic bit of very minor reform. It is a mark of the growing dysfunction of our national politics that we can't even manage to do the easy stuff any more. Yes its true, Congress can't even change a light bulb.