It was a simpler time.
In an era before a global pandemic that turned our lives upside down, before the previous presidency, before an insurrection at the US Capitol, before cell phone videos forced us to come to a national reckoning on the issue of race, our US representatives were debating light bulbs.
Yes, light bulbs.
In 2011, the US House Republicans introduced a measure to block the phasing out of traditional lightbulbs. The Better Use of Light Bulbs Act was intended to eliminate the 2007 energy bill requirement that incandescent light bulbs be more energy efficient.
There were legitimate concerns. CLF (compact fluorescent light) bulbs contain a tiny amount of mercury, require recycling over being thrown in the trash, and often cast a light glow that has been known to cause migraines in those most susceptible. But they are also more energy-efficient than traditional light bulbs and last longer. Despite the extra cost of purchasing them to replace the bulbs in your house, theoretically, it would eventually cost you less money because over time, you wouldn’t be spending as much to constantly replace lightbulbs and your electricity bill would be lower.
The argument from House Republicans was that the market should be driving changes in the market and the government should stay out of it. But the four-year interlude between the passage of the 2007 bill and the proposal to end it all in 2011 had led to an explosion in lightbulb innovation. While it was impossible to say what was the biggest cause of the change in production and the market, the fact remained that our lightbulb technology had been forever changed.
There were still holdouts, people who complained about being stripped of their freedom to choose the lightbulbs that they wanted, but that didn’t seem to matter. Go to any home improvement store to purchase lightbulbs today and you will be presented with a whole array of LED and fluorescent lightbulbs of all kinds. The prices have gone down, the bulbs are lasting longer (although they don’t have a perfect record for being long-lasting), and you can even purchase light fixtures with the LED lighting built-in. Theoretically, by the time the lights go out on your fixture, it will be out of style and it will be time to replace anyway.
Progress is always a bumpy road. Perhaps that is why so many of us are opposed to changes, even those that will make our lives better in the long run. We have a long history of hating progress. People thought bicycles were unsafe and impractical. Now they are a common form of recreation and seen as a safe and eco-friendly alternative form of transportation. Automobiles were also considered impractical and far too expensive for widespread use. Now ownership of a vehicle is seen as necessary in most parts of the United States. Answering machines were once seen as unnecessary and annoying. Now we depend on our voicemail to help us manage our communication when we are not readily available. Laptops were initially considered impractical and burdensome. Now it seems nearly impossible to get any kind of work done without a laptop.
We humans don’t like change. It’s our nature to get used to the way things are. We don’t like discomfort. It’s the reason why so many people give up an exercise routine or diet within the first couple of weeks. Muscle pain and hunger are often enough to convince us that the end result, a healthier body, isn’t worth the struggle to get there. We know that our health matters, but we don’t want to make the painful short-term sacrifices we may need to make for a better life in the long run.
The same can be said for the way we see our role as caretakers of our planet.
For years we were told that in order to “save our planet” we had to give things up. We had to stop doing things that we enjoyed if we wanted a cleaner earthly home that would last for thousands of generations after our deaths. We had to give up foods and conveniences that had made our lives easier and, in many ways, better.
But that’s just not the case.
Yes, there are growing pains involved in progress. As a recent adopter of solar panels, I can readily tell you that there are significant initial financial growing pains involved in the decision to invest in a technology that we believe is better for our planet, our children’s future, and eventually our bottom line. All of us need to stop looking at the issues facing our world and convincing ourselves that change needs to be immediate or it isn’t worth the effort. We need to stop seeing progress as a short-term investment of our resources and instead as a long process of trial, error, learning, and growth. As we like to say in the education world, we need to develop a “growth mindset” when it comes to changes that will benefit our planet and make our lives healthier, cleaner, and generally better.
The CFL lightbulb was a stepping stone to a better and more affordable LED lightbulb. It showed that people wanted to see progress in lighting technology and that they were willing to pay for it. It wasn’t without missteps, as nearly every person who had the unfortunate experience of cleaning up after breaking one of these lightbulbs could tell you. But it was a step towards a much better lighting present and future.
Utopia doesn’t exist. Literature has shown us again and again that even attempting to achieve that end leads to disastrous results. But we can always do better. We can always work towards progress that helps humans live in better harmony with creation. We can keep trying, even when we fail.
Because that is what responsible citizenship on this planet requires.