Bulb ban will make black market for incandescents

April 27, 2007

On Thursday, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn announced he’s going to save me $50 a year by removing incandescent light bulbs—a bad habit I cannot seem to break on my own—from the retail marketplace by 2012. Mr. Lunn would prefer our using compact fluorescents, illuminated by a thrifty 24 watts of electricity versus the profligate 60 of my clear incandescents, and he’s determined to force a switch regardless of consumers’ wishes.

The only drawback I see to a compact fluorescent conversion is that the lighting in my 95 year-old home will henceforth be hideous. The refinished hardwoods, elegant banister, French doors and plaster archway will fail to be so splendid under a colour of light typically associated with such places as call centres, intensive care units, and auto parts stores.

Governments worldwide are seemingly annoyed that consumers still favour Thomas Edison’s 128 year-old invention. They’re cheap, but “inefficient”—ostensibly to a degree that would have their sale criminalized. Will this create a black market for incandescents? A War on Edison?

Many consumers haven’t gone fluorescent for the same reason I haven’t—it looks and feels nasty. Not all lighting is created equal; beyond brightness, there are qualitative elements. Which explains why so many upscale retail stores eschew fluorescents for halogen (incandescent) lighting. And it isn’t just my intuition telling me fluorescent lighting is evil. Dr. John Ott, a pioneering researcher into full-spectrum light, experimented with mice and found found that, “…[T]he life span of the animals was more than doubled under full natural light, as compared to those under the pink fluorescent light.” Indeed, a number of scientific studies have linked fluorescent lighting to depression, impotence, headaches, eye strain, sleeping disorders and skin cancers.

Drawbacks of fluorescent lighting aside, the banning of a product on the basis of its inefficiency sets a terrible precedent. If governments are going to intervene in the marketplace over light bulbs, why stop there? Let’s ban registrations of fuel-inefficient vehicles, starting with V-10, V-8 and V6 engines by 2012 and extending to anything that isn’t hybrid-electric by 2015. Let’s ban meat. Ban dairy, gasoline lawnmowers, leafblowers, flushing after only peeing, falling asleep with the TV on, and single detached homes. If we cut enough corners in life, make these small sacrifices for the good of the collective, we can meet Kyoto’s challenge, thus saving the planet—right?

Frighteningly enough, there are a lot of people in Canada who would welcome many of the absurd steps in this hypothetically radical left-wing agenda. Surreally, it’s a Conservative minister that is initiating a market intervention to remove an long-established and satisfying product from stores. But perhaps that makes sense. What might be the reaction if it were provincial NDP or the federal Liberals introducing this?

The incandescent bulb, a powerful invention that has changed our daily life in so many ways during the 20th century, makes for an odd scapegoat amid all this global warming razzmatazz. Lighting constitutes but a fraction of the typical household energy consumption. And to me, it’s worth $50 a year to enjoy the sort of lighting I prefer. I recycle, shop locally, don’t drive, carry my groceries in a backpack rather than a plastic bag, and my compost bin is on order. If I want to shell out for lighting that doesn’t feel like poison, why does the government want to stop me?

Maybe there’s more to it than just inefficiency. It seems to be part of a general, unconscious trend within society to embrace a brute rationality at the cost of aesthetic values. Neo-classical and terra cotta buildings, for example, are supposedly impossible today because, although our economy is wealthier than ever, the construction costs demand minimalist concrete, glass and steel. Where wearing a suit was once mandatory, the new office uniform is khakis and a golf shirt—often with sneakers. Dining room conversation during family dinner has given way to a new ritual of silently zoning out in front of the TV.

If bulb manufacturers aren’t outraged at being forced to shut down their incandescent manufacturing, it’s because the market gap will soon be filled with demand for more expensive (and profitable) compact fluorescent bulbs. Somehow I think they’re more excited than annoyed.

Meanwhile, I’ve found a way around this. For the next five years I’ll be stockpiling boxloads of classic incandescent bulbs up in the attic—enough for dozens of lifetimes, since they are so cheap. Not only will I never have to suffer using compact fluorescents, I’ll have made a smart investment. When prohibition begins, and your money is looking for incandescents, talk to me and I can sort you out—just so long as you’re not an undercover.