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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light
Editorial: Banning bulbs may be an idea before its time

In December, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Among the 822 pages of the document, which includes such measures as increasing automobile fuel efficiency and allocating funds to the development of alternative energy sources, was a law that requires 25 to 30 percent greater efficiency for common light bulbs within the next six years. The move will essentially ban the standard, screw-based incandescent (A-line) lamp as we currently know it, preventing manufacturers from making it and retailers from importing it. In 2012 we’ll say goodbye to the 100-watt bulb; in 2013 its 75-watt counterpart will follow. By 2014 you won’t be able to find 60- and 40-watt bulbs anywhere but on the black market. 

While many have been aghast to learn that the familiar light bulb, with us since Edison first ran current through filament some 130 years ago, will soon be consigned to the pages of the history books, this particular piece of the legislation is nothing shocking. In fact, it repeats a pattern we must be all too familiar with: A fringe group with cultural cachet (in this case environmentalists) decries a product, idea, or individual; the media picks up the call, trumpeting it far and wide; and finally politicians, always watchful for easy targets, jump on the bandwagon for a bout of grandstanding. Before you know it, whatever it was that first got pilloried by interest group X is public enemy No. 1, and, shortly thereafter, illicit. 

The problem with this cycle is that no one in the chain from picketer to senator (with special emphasis on the media) really knows what they’re talking about. In the case of the incandescent bulb ban, the nation’s lighting designers, supposedly those who know the most about our lighting needs, were not consulted. Of the lighting designers we surveyed for this issue, one heard about the ban on the Today Show, another was shocked to hear that it had happened at all. Even the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), the body that looks out for the profession’s interests, came late to the party. In March, the organization issued its response to the legislation, stating unequivocally that there is presently no technology to replace certain uses of the incandescent lamp and that before we outlaw this remarkable light source for its much-publicized inefficiencies we should make sure that replacement technologies are really any better. 

These concerns carry weight, as there are currently significant shortcomings in the A-line lamp’s two nominated successors: Compact fluorescents (CFLs) don’t render color nearly as well, they can’t be dimmed properly, and they come bundled with throwaway electronics, while most LEDs are even less efficient than incandescent lamps and require large aluminum heat sinks that increase their carbon footprint. 

It remains to be seen if manufacturers can make up for these deficiencies in the timeline provided by the act, or if we’ll just have to learn to live with inferior electric light. It would be a real shame if the latter turned out to be the case. It goes without saying that we all want to live in a more environmentally friendly world, but we have to be careful that in our rush to reduce our carbon footprint we don’t limit our access to tools that, with thoughtful application, could continue to light our lives in a sustainable way. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the design community to make sure this happens.

Aaron Seward