Over at The Village Voice, Nick Pinto ponders the horrifying possibility that "the toxic right," as personified by Michele Bachmann, has a point when it objects to the impending federal ban on conventional incandescent light bulbs (which do not meet the government's new energy efficiency standards). Although offended by Bachmann's "shrill lightbulb libertarianism," Pinto has to admit that compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), the least expensive alternative to the soon-to-be-banned bulbs, contain mercury—a fact that alarms people Pinto trusts, including the progressive cartoonist Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow. Perkins flew into a panic after breaking a CFL in his son's bedroom, egged on by a rather alarming set of cleanup instructions (PDF) from the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Unlike concerns about the price and performance of CFLs, Pinto suggests, fears of the mercury inside them are legitimate, even though they are fanned by rabid reactionaries like Bachmann, who has introduced legislation to repeal the bulb ban:
Could Michele Bachmann be right?
Experts dismiss Bachmann's more florid predictions of the ecological doom threatened by twisty lightbulbs. But she isn't wrong that the disposal of CFLs poses a real problem.
Even so, Pinto says, the potential hazards of CFLs need to be weighed against their environmental benefits:
Energy-efficiency activists say the net environmental impact of the bulbs is still positive. Just looking at the mercury emissions, even if every CFL wound up broken in a landfill, by replacing traditional incandescents with CFLs, we still come out ahead.
"You can look at the toxicology globally or locally," says Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "Globally, because of the avoided power generation, which puts mercury into the atmosphere, you're better off even if the mercury in the bulbs is not disposed of properly. Nonetheless, locally, if it's in your house, that understandably bothers some people."
Persuading nervous home owners of the importance of the global over the local isn't always easy.
"It can be a hard argument to explain to people, because they're just looking at the mercury in their home," says Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate at New York Public Interest Research Group.
"You don't want to downplay the risks, but it's a matter of triage when you're working in the environmental movement—you have to work your way down the list of hazards."
Let us pause to savor the delicious irony of activists who never hesitate to hype a hazard suddenly trying to put this particular danger in perspective because it works against their regulatory agenda. But you know what? NYPIRG is right about this environmental threat. (There's a sentence I never thought I'd utter.) Yes, mercury is toxic, but CFLs contain tiny amounts of it ("far less than what you find in other household items like batteries, thermometers, and thermostats," as a spokesman for light bulb manufacturers tells Pinto), and agencies such as the Connecticut Department of Health are needlessly sowing alarm by treating a broken bulb like a nuclear meltdown.
My "shrill lightbulb libertarianism" nevertheless leads me to defend the right of consumers like Dan Perkins to reject CFLs because they're worried about the mercury in them—or for whatever reason matters to them, whether or not I share their concern or consider it rational. I personally do not get worked up about the mercury in CFLs, but I do not like the fact that they cost much more than standard incandescents yet do not perform nearly as well. In my experience, the long-term savings that the government promises are based on the assumption that CFLs last much longer than they do in actual use. Even if those estimates were 100 percent accurate, I want the right to spend a little more on electricity (maybe a penny a day per bulb, according to the Energy Department) in exchange for bulbs that light up the room when I turn them on and work with dimmers (yes, I know there are "dimmable" CFLs, but those cost even more than the regular ones).
The bulb ban's backers say I can't have that right, because the electricity I use may be generated by methods that release carbon dioxide and thereby contribute to global warming. Since old-fashioned incandescent bulbs are inefficient, they say, they are clearly inferior from an environmental perspective and therefore cannot be tolerated. This sort of argument could be used to override myriad personal decisions that affect energy consumption, logically leading to central economic planning focused on minimizing the use of electricity and fossil fuels. But if the problem is that the price of energy does not fully reflect its environmental impact, it would be much more sensible and efficient to raise that price through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme. That approach would also be more respectful of individual autonomy, since consumers would be free to make tradeoffs based on the factors that matter to them rather than the ones that matter to people who disapprove of their choices.