On the issue of lightbulbs…

By Joern Fischer

So, apparently some Republicans in the US think that energy-saving lightbulbs are a bad thing, as Barbara Ferreira reports in her nature network blog. These lightbulbs are a bit of a symbol of efforts towards sustainability in many ways, and that’s why I felt it’s worth adding my two cents to this debate.

Do they save energy? Clearly, yes.  Assuming they don’t produce too much waste that requires specific disposal methods, this means they’re a good thing. At least to my simple mind, I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that. So I don’t agree with those Republicans in the US, just to get that straight.

But there’s one thing about the symbolic value of the lightbulb debate that I find interesting, and that I have in fact had some quite heated discussions about.

To me, energy saving lightbulbs are the symbol of the little things that we can all do to contribute towards a more sustainable world. Sustainability debates time and time again get stuck on these kinds of issues. If only we all used energy saving lightbulbs. If only we all drove hybrid cars. If only we all had triple-glazed windows (used to be double, but hey, that was the past). And so on.

Well – then what?

Personally, I think then we’d still be far short of some sort of dependable sustainability at the global scale. This boils down to the question if we actually believe that lots of little things will ultimately amount to enough; or whether it’s qualitative, fundamental changes that we need.

So far, the statistics seem to indicate that things at a global scale continue to go downhill. Cars might use less petrol than they used to, but there are more cars. Similarly, we replace our technology frequently, we update our domestic environment on a regular basis, and in between we fly from conference to conference. What chance to lightbulbs have of making much of a difference in this context?

My view is that we need to be pragmatic (so yes, do change your lightbulbs), but we must not fool ourselves that all those little things will somehow, mysteriously, result in a sustainable world. For that, just intuitively, I believe we need to dig deeper. We need cultural change, or social change – away from an obsessively consumptive society towards something qualitatively different. I don’t believe that we need to give up all material comforts at all: that’s not the point. The point is that the hope that lots of little things will just magically be enough is quite likely overly optimistic.

So, this is where at times I take issue with campaigns about energy saving lightbulbs, fuel-efficient cars, and things that fall in a similar category: they give us the feeling that if only we did those things, or bought those cars, all would be good. They give us the feeling that recycling our coffee cups is enough to reach a sustainable world. Arguably, they stop us from reflecting and looking a little harder what actually needs to be done.

What actually does need to be done? Well, that’s for another blog entry. But more than lightbulbs, that’s for sure.

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One thought on “On the issue of lightbulbs…

  1. Pingback: Joining forces to close the sustainability gap | Ideas for Sustainability

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