The great light bulb and toilet controversy

The recent headlines on Congressional hearings on light bulbs and toilets prompted the NY Times to do a Room for Debate feature, which I contributed to. They confine us to 300 words, so I didn’t get to say much, but for the record, here’s what I weighed in with:

Let’s re-write the question. The trope of “offended consumers” is a trap set by the PR folks at climate denier central: in fact, Americans are believe strongly in energy efficient appliances, love the financial payback, and appreciate the chance to help the environment.

Rand Paul, on the other hand, sure looks like he’s trying to provide a large and quick return on investment to his two largest campaign contributors. Those would be ARP, a repeated safety offender from the industry that is doing the most to stop the shift to clean energy—coal—and the Koch Brothers, notorious oil barons, climate deniers and stealth political donors.

This “debate” about light bulbs and toilets is a page from of a playbook we’ve seen time and again. For years, the tobacco industry framed their attempts to hook consumers on an addictive and dangerous product through the prism of individual choice and freedom. The junk food industry set up the Center for Consumer Freedom to scare people into thinking that the government wants to take away their Twinkies. The dirty fuels industry is now doing the same, perhaps because public opinion is turning against them.

A January survey by the Consumer Federation of America finds that 95% of Americans support more energy-efficient appliances and 72% support federal minimum standards. Ninety-six percent consider the financial savings important, and they’re also motivated by reducing air pollution (92%) and cutting greenhouse gas emissions (84%). But the industry saw an opening here, as only two-thirds of the public even know that the government sets standards.
Isn’t there some aspect of consumer choice? Yes. But the small segment of the market that wants the outdated products can still get them: while the big producers move on to provide cheaper, cleaner products, a few legacy companies can provide the old bulbs or appliances. That’s not what Rand Paul or Michele Bachmann want—they’re out to torpedo energy conservation and the shift to clean fuels. But it’s time to expose this well-worn trope for what it is: an under-handed attempt by polluters to escape public accountability.

For the whole debate, including the many comments it generated, you can go to:

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2 Responses to “The great light bulb and toilet controversy”

  1. suz says:

    I’ll share this with students. Thanks.
    (One of my students is currently reading Plentitude.)

  2. Juliet Schor says:

    Hope they like it! Thanks for writing. Juliet

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