TCS Daily

How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb?

By William Arthurs - January 17, 2008 12:00 AM

Perhaps it is unfair to blame commercial organisations for rent-seeking. But the government's contemptuous attitude to the public is another matter: it seems that consumers' reluctance to take up CFLs despite their stated financial advantages is enough to demonstrate conclusively that ordinary folks cannot understand what is in their own interests, and therefore they need to be forced to change their ways - a disreputable notion that was familiar to mediaeval princes and popes.

On a hillside a few miles from where I live in Buckinghamshire stands a stark memorial to the intolerance of past centuries[1]. A granite obelisk commemorates Protestant martyrs of the early 16th century who were burnt at the stake for worshipping God in their own way at a time when the state religion of England was Roman Catholicism. King Henry VIII, at that time a zealous supporter of the Church of Rome, was a firm believer in the inherent authority of the sovereign. There could be no rule of law in a state whose monarch's whims included tinkering with statute law to suit his own taste.

King Henry would have been proud that his habit of reserving immense discretion to the executive is commemorated in the so-called "Henry VIII" clauses included in many modern English laws, which typically give the government powers to create and put into force additional regulations or to decide at a later date the details of how a law is going to be implemented. But I imagine even Henry VIII could not have foreseen the constitutional framework now in force in the UK where the government can get its own way with a mere threat of legislation.

In September 2007, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs announced the timetable[2] for a "voluntary initiative which is being led by major retailers and energy suppliers", to phase out conventional tungsten filament lightbulbs (now anathematized as "energy-guzzling lightbulbs") over the next few years "ahead of possible actions by the EU to ban these products altogether". A flurry of press commentary in the UK at the start of 2008 recognises that this is no mere drawing-board idea, but a programme that is actually going ahead.

The government recommends compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) because they "reduce carbon emissions and contribute to tackling climate change" and are "cost effective". The government claims "around £60" in savings in electricity costs over a CFL's lifetime, which would dwarf the additional purchase cost of the CFL compared to a tungsten filament bulb. So you'd assume that if both were available, the superior, modern product would drive Edison's invention off retailers' shelves without further ado? Wrong. In 2007, fewer than three in 100 lightbulbs sold in the UK was a CFL.[3]

The unpopularity of these products indicates that consumers perceive negatives which outweigh any cost savings. CFLs on sale in the UK hitherto have been relatively expensive, aesthetically unappealing and in some cases have not lived up to manufacturers' claims about their lifespan. Who would want to recreate at home the fluorescent strip-light atmosphere of the average workplace? Lighting designers have been aware for many years of the dismal ergonomics of traditional workplace lighting design, and developed the alternative model of low-level background illumination allied to controllable spot illumination for specific activities - equally as popular in the modern kitchen as in the restaurant or the boutique - applications for which halogen bulbs have proved well suited. Ingo Maurer, pioneer of halogen lighting in the 1980s, and now a leading designer of light-emitting diode (LED) installations, says of CFLs: "Low energy lightbulbs, the ones with the spirals, are just white things giving off very indifferent light... People don't realise what they do to our well-being. Of course we should save energy, but not by ruining our lives."[4]

Quite apart from the perceptual and aesthetic problems of CFLs, sufferers from migraines[5] and lupus[6] have genuine and specific medical concerns about their use, while the safe disposal of CFLs is controversial because of their mercury content.[7]

Manufacturers have been suspiciously ready to go along with the UK government's plans. This may be an anticompetitive desire to stanch cheap imports of tungsten bulbs from the Far East, or maybe just a readiness to let the government take on the burden of advertising a "green" product which can command a higher margin in the short term.

Faced with the choice between practising the detailed ritual observances of the official religion, and being stigmatised as evil, the 16th century martyrs set an example, at great cost to themselves, that we still commemorate today. But the UK's "green" religion seems to require the ritual micromanagement of the most minute aspects of life, as has become clear from the government's lightbulb policies. Perhaps it's time for a candlelight vigil for the incandescent lightbulb, before they ban candles too.

William Arthurs is chairman of the Transatlantic Institute, London, and a director of Audley Energy Associates. Mr Arthurs is a member of the Royal Economic Society and of the British Institute of Energy Economics. He is also a qualified occupational health and safety practitioner.

Mr Arthurs is a trustee of the London Society and is on the advisory board of the international environmental art foundation, the Landscape and Arts Network. He is a graduate of Oxford University.









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