On light bulbs, politics, and psychology

Dan has (understandably) been quite outraged at efforts in the Republican-controlled House to eliminate energy efficiency standards for light bulbs (which have been inaccurately portrayed as a flat ban on incandescent bulbs, even though new substitutes are being developed).  While these efforts might be seen as purely ignorant orjust  politically-opportunistic showboating, I think they in fact reveal a more fundamental problem in environmental law.

Traditional incandescent bulbs have a lot of good qualities:  They produce light that is warm, yellow, soft and appealing (at least in this culture – apparently in many Asian countries there is a preference for cooler, whiter color light).  The vast majority of us grew up using these kinds of bulbs for many, many years, and we have an understandable attachment to them.  So perhaps it is unsurprising that there is a reaction when we are told (again, somewhat inaccurately) that we can’t use them anymore.

This may in fact be an example of what cognitive psychologists call “status quo bias” or the “endowment effect.”  The latter concept refers to experimental results in which psychologists have found that people will value the exact same object more when they believe they have a right to it, or they have had possession of it.  The former concept is more general and used to describe a range of observed phenomena in which people place higher weight on activities, items, or states of being that they already experience, as opposed to hypothetical or future ones.

We are used to the warm, yellow, soft glow of incandescent bulbs.  Getting used to the new light of fluorescents or other bulbs is a difficult transition.  So the popular reaction against the light bulb energy efficiency standards can be understood as a natural human reaction.

That doesn’t mean that we should give into that reaction.  There are tremendous environmental benefits to the changeover.  But it does mean that we should think about how to manage or reduce that reaction.  For instance, instead of a flat ban, you might set up a transition system in which increasing taxes or fees are placed on the less efficient bulbs over time.  That might spread the transition to the new bulbs out over more years.  That has an environmental cost (in that we don’t get the efficiency benefits of the new bulbs sooner) but might reduce the political backlash.  (Having said that, I do not support the repeal proposals in the House.  If the choice is between keeping the standards as they are, and repeal, I would support keeping the standards as they are.  And given the political realities, that is probably the only choice we have right now.)

The problem of regulating long-standing activities comes up again and again in environmental law, where we often don’t discover the negative impacts of human activities until after an extended period of time (whether because of delays from the harm, or the slow, cumulative accretion of harm from many individual activities).  It’s a problem that will come up again and again in climate change, where we will have to deal with the global impacts of the individual activities of seven billion plus people.  (I’ve written some about how we might want to address these problems in the context of climate change.)  The light bulb fight is just one example of it.  We’ll see many, many more of these in the future.

Reader Comments

3 Replies to “On light bulbs, politics, and psychology”

  1. I still think most of the opposition to the “ban” is inspired people’s opinions about political philosophy, not their preferences as lighting consumers. I suspect most consumers just buy the cheapest and most familiar looking product. When incandescent bulbs are no longer available, they will continue to do so without complaint, buying CFLs without really knowing or caring.

    However, many Americans who don’t care what kind of light comes out of their bulbs nevertheless strongly feel that a regulation that takes a not-obviously-dangerous product off the shelves–whether such regulation is a ban or a performance standard with ban-like effects–is inconsistent with our country’s political values/culture. This is another front in the larger war that includes the rollback of Congress’s authority under the Commerce clause, the challenge to the Obamacare individual mandate, the best-selling revisionist histories of Glenn Beck, etc. The movement is the opposite of a “status-quo bias,” because it would ditch the present balance of power between state and individual/corporate liberty in favor of a romantic (and impossible) return to an imaginary Lochnerite 19th century idyll.

    Strangely, therefore, the foundational, ideological task of promoting an alternative popular political philosophy that connects environmental regulation to a richer understanding of the foundations of American prosperity is currently more pressing for environmentalists than practical tasks like optimally phasing-in regulation or soothing the hackles of home lighting connoisseurs.

  2. There are many good ways to save energy and emissions
    Banning light bulbs is not one of them…

    It is a Ban,

    not just in that any product not allowed by a given standard is obviously banned,
    but in effect on incandescent technology too =
    all those supposedly “allowed” halogens etc banned too before Jan 1 2020 on the 2007 Energy Act 45 lumen per Watt specs, and they are of course different from simple incandscents anyway in light quality etc, as well as price)

    …..and it is wrong…

    Bulbs are not being banned for being unsafe to use,
    but simply to reduce the energy used in generating electricity.

    Using USA example
    Not only is there less than 1% energy use and only c. 2% grid electricity saved by lighting regulations – on DOE etc official statistics – but there are also much more relevant generation, grid distribution and consumption waste ways of energy reduction, as seen:
    http://ceolas.net/#li171x

    Even disagreeing with that,
    if bulbs must be targeted:

    Whether according to Right-wing or Left-wing Ideology,
    the alternatives,
    Market Competition and Tax respectively, are both better than regulations…

    1. Market Competition rather than Regulation,
    gives not only reduced energy use by say competing utilities keeping
    down energy cost in generation and grids,
    it also gives desirable energy saving products, which people have always bought,
    and which could be marketed properly (compare with Energizer bunny etc
    commercials “Expensive to buy but cheap in the long run”)
    New start-ups including of energy saving lights can be supported temporarily.

    2. Tax is not as good, but still better than bans, for all sides.
    A bankrupt state like California, and the Budget solving Democrat
    Federal Government could (as you indeed say)
    Tax instead of ban popular but energy using Cars, Buildings, White
    Goods, TV sets, Light Bulbs etc
    Gives a big California/Fed Govmt income,
    but – and this you seem to miss-
    it can also help finance cheaper
    energy saving alternatives so people are not just “hit by taxes” (and
    they know that a ban is the alternative).
    Or can finance other environmental initiatives,
    all-in-all therefore Tax can be more environmnetally friendly than regulations

    Fed Govmt = GOP keep Choice, Democrats get Funding, tax easily
    adjusted according to new market conditions and entrants – a
    politically fair proposal.
    Tax is still wrong in being similar to regulations,
    but better than regulations, also for currently pro-regulation Governments.

    So GOP or Democrat,
    regulations are not the best choice…

    Tax/Competition alternatives to regulation
    http://ceolas.net/#li23x
    .

  3. There’s also another lack of logic in the ban:
    In some states, all the CFL campaigns and handouts is leading to a greater CFL uptake
    In other words:
    1. If people are using more energy saving bulbs – why a ban – little savings
    2. If people prefer simple incandescents – why a ban – that is what they want to use

    There is no free lunch, energy saving mandates change bulb characteristics (and increase price),
    and there are as said much more rational ways to save energy used in electricity generation, than to ban any end-product safe use of choice, by paying consumers.

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Eric Biber

Eric Biber is a specialist in conservation biology, land-use planning and public lands law. Biber brings technical and legal scholarship to the field of environmental law…

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