Let There Be Light: Freedom vs. Common Sense In Environmental Policy

Americans are a competitive bunch to say the least and we normally don’t like to be beat to the punch when it comes to ‘doing the right thing’ when the world is watching. We consider ourselves world leaders, pioneers and trendsetters. Yet, when it comes to environmental policy we seem to be caught in an endless internal debate that increasingly prevents us from blazing the trail or even keeping up with those who do.

China, on the other hand, isn’t the first country you’d think of when you hear the words ‘environmentally friendly’.  The massive size of the country, huge population and industrial focused economy means that they’ll almost always appear at the very top of any number of lists for who’s contributing the most to a specific environmental problem.

But, that also means that when they do decide to implement nationwide environmental policy it can have an incredibly large effect on the worldwide problem. And though it may have gone unnoticed to many, China has been making some unbelievably progressive steps recently when it comes to ‘doing the right thing’ in environmental policy.  And instead of taking it as a wakeup call here in the US, it’s instead begun to shine a light on how paralyzed we’ve become as a nation to enact change while a battle between personal freedoms and common sense consumes us.


The first time I noticed China making big waves in the eco-world was back in 2008 when the announcement was made that they were completely banning the free distribution of single use plastic bags throughout the entire country. It’s hard to even fathom what a huge shift this was. At the time, China was the biggest user of plastic bags throughout the world and therefore the biggest contributor to the plastic bag pollution crisis we now face. By instituting the nationwide ban, they were able to reduce their plastic bag usage by over 66 percent and saved an estimated 1.6 million tons of petroleum in just the first year alone.

Almost four years later, the United States is still struggling with its plastic bag addiction and fretting about high oil prices and consumption at the same time. Plastic bag bans have passed in various cities and towns (our eco-friendly and progressive town of Boulder is somehow still working on it) but nationwide change is seemingly still a long way away.  Why?  In a nutshell, the American people have grown increasingly skeptical and don’t want our government telling us what’s good for us or the planet.  Americans hear the words ‘plastic bag ban’ and our sense of freedom and independence immediately feels assaulted.  It’s difficult for many people to even rationally understand what’s at stake because the mere idea of our government telling us that something like a plastic bag is evil makes us automatically think of an out of control Big Brother.  And so, we immediately turn to protecting our personal freedoms above any common sense approach to the issue.

Here’ s the thing though.  Plastic bags are REALLY bad.  Maybe we didn’t always realize it but we’ve known it for years now.  They don’t biodegrade, which means that unless it’s been incinerated (bad idea), every single plastic bag or piece of plastic that you’ve ever used and anyone on this planet has ever used is still around and will be long after we’re dead.  It may be broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, but it’s out there, in our oceans, streets, lakes and ponds.  I won’t get into all the depressing facts, but if you’re not aware of how big of a crisis it is please just take a few minutes to do some research and read up on it.

The plastic crisis is a scary thing.  But our internal debate and paralysis in dealing with it makes it apparent that the mere idea of an over-reaching government scares some of us more than almost anything in this country right now.  Even more than a floating island of plastic twice the size of Texas.

In protecting our independence from Big Brother, most will never take the time to actually understand what a plastic bag ban even means.  The word ‘ban’ is enough for most people to form an opinion and ignore the issue on the spot. If you happen to fall into that category, here’s the most important thing to understand about a plastic bag ban:

A plastic bag ban doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to find a disposable bag at the grocery store anymore or that you’ll be forced by the government to buy reusable bags (though honestly you really should make the switch to reusable). When implemented correctly, all a plastic bag ban really means is that the free non-biodegradable, petroleum-based plastic bag we’ve all grown up with will be eliminated while other nearly identical looking, yet much more eco-friendly and biodegradable bags will move in to take their place.  You will hardly notice the difference, but the planet certainly will.

Your freedom isn’t at stake, your independence isn’t threatened but yet four years after China set the bar we’re still unable to pass real reform in this country (wasting millions of tons of oil in the process) because the basic fear of government involvement has overshadowed our collective common sense to fix a major problem.

Let There Be Light

Fast forward to the present.  Just last week, China again jumped into the spotlight when it announced that it was completely phasing out incandescent light bulbs nationwide within 5 years. Now, we all know that here in the U.S. in recent years we’ve seen CFL’s (compact fluorescent lamps) surge in availability and come down in price.  It should be an absolute no brainer if you’re buying light bulbs today – CFL’s last much longer and use around 75% less energy to produce the same amount of light.  Any extra cost upfront ($1-$2 per bulb currently and dropping) is completely outweighed by how long they last and what you’ll save on your energy bill.  Let's say that again, you will absolutely save money by spending a dollar or two more upfront on CFL bulbs (LED’s are right around the corner but it will be a while still before the cost comes down enough).

But the impact goes well beyond your personal savings.  It’s estimated that China will save 48 billion kilowatt hours of power per year and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 48 million tons every single year once the bulbs are phased out. Lighting alone accounts for 19% of global electricity use, a country like China reducing its energy consumption this drastically is going to have an unbelievable impact worldwide.

It’s undeniable that we’re faced with a very real energy crisis on this planet.  Let’s be clear that when it comes to the discussion of light bulbs and energy use that this has nothing at all to do with any controversial topics like global warming or asking you to protect a species of animal you've never seen before.  This is as black and white as it gets – we have a quickly growing world population and we need to reduce our energy consumption and waste so we can continue to live on this planet, no if's and's or but's about it.

Amazingly enough, technology has actually provided us with improved bulbs which not only reduce energy consumption and reduce waste, they also come with a huge bonus of actually saving us billions of dollars which will go back into our economy all at the same time. And it’s not an experimental, future technology – it’s available right here and right now.  We should all be behind that right?

Well, not in the United States.

This July, a bill was actually successfully passed by House Republicans which sought to repeal a 2007 initiative to raise light bulb energy standards beginning in 2012 and to strip all funding from government programs promoting energy-saving light bulbs (the standards being repealed were actually supported by Republicans in 2007 and signed by George W. Bush) .

Here’s what Texas Republican Michael Burgess, who sponsored the bill, had to say:

“The federal government has no right to tell me or any other citizen what type of light bulb to use at home. It is our right to choose.”

And Joe Barton, the other Texas Republican who sponsored the bill: “This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom.”

Now, let me be clear, I’m a big supporter of limited government, personal freedoms and the free market – there’s plenty of times when we can and should solve a problem without the need for government regulation.  But, common sense should prevail above all and I don’t even know where to begin on how backwards this all is.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, the United States will save more than $12.5 billion every single year once these new standards are fully implemented.  It will also eliminate the need for 33 large power plants and of course all the pollution they would have generated.  The average American will save about 7 percent on their annual electric costs (around $85 per month) and according to Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, “the savings from the lighting standards would be like getting a free month without a power bill, every single year”.

What’s remarkable is that the standards that House Republicans have been fighting against aren’t even close to a full ban on incandescent bulbs like China just approved.  While many of the proponents of the repeal would like you to believe otherwise, nothing in the new standards tries to take away our beloved Thomas Edison style light bulb or force us all to buy CFL’s or LED’s – it’s simply a requirement that more efficient incandescent bulbs be used.  The more efficient bulbs will look just like the incandescent bulbs we’re used to, turn on and light up the same way,  but be designed to waste less energy and save us all money.  That’s what a majority of members of our House of Representatives (presumably backed by their constituents) called an attack on our freedom and voted against.

Just like the plastic bag ban, the misinformation surrounding the issue speaks directly to our desire for personal freedom and limited government so it’s easy to rally people behind.  You like your light bulbs the way they are and who is government to tell you otherwise, right?  Getting people to care about the environment without incentive is usually the hardest part, but in this case the anti-establishment fear of Big Brother somehow outweighs even our desire to save money and fix our economy.

Now, the good news is that our environmental policy isn’t decided with one vote in one branch of the government.  The repeal that House Republicans succeeded in getting through likely ends there as it doesn’t have the support of the White House or the Senate.

But, the fight against energy reform isn’t over.  Texas Governor (and presidential candidate) Rick Perry went so far as to sign a new Texas State Law which says that incandescent bulbs – if made and sold only in Texas – do not involve interstate commerce and therefore aren’t subject to federal regulation.  In other words, since the repeal won’t pass federally, Texas aims to ignore the federal law and maintain their low energy standards as a freedom of choice.

The Texas law likely won’t hold up to  a court challenge (nor will it even actually be feasible – it turns out tungsten isn’t mined in Texas which makes it impossible to truly sell a ‘Texas-made’ incandescent bulb) , but it again goes to show that this internal battle is far from over. This isn’t just about Texas by any means either, a number of other states including South Carolina and Arizona have launched strong movements to fight the new energy standards.

We’ve got people unemployed and starving in our country, quality education plummeting, environmental crises looming and yet a majority of our House leaders and more than one current Presidential candidate (Michelle Bachmann is also a strong proponent of repealing the energy standards) are fighting to the bitter end to protect our freedom by ‘saving’ an outdated and inefficient technology.  All while the nation of China not-so-quietly leapfrogs ahead of us with an environmental policy that will pump billions of dollars back into its economy and help the planet at the same time.

America: The Stubborn Teenager

What I find most interesting about all of this is that it seems to go against every environmental debate I’ve seen in the past.  Most environmental arguments seem to come down to the battle between doing the right thing vs. having the money to pay for it. It’s a fact of life that being greener often costs more than taking the easy path and we’re not always capable or willing to pay more to do the right thing. Especially when doing the right thing often involves a ‘crisis’ that may hardly affect us personally and only seems to benefit future generations.

As a lover of the great outdoors and the planet we live on, I’ll almost always err towards the small personal sacrifice whenever I can afford it.  But I completely understand the conflict that arises when you have to spend more to do the right thing and I often have to make those tough choices myself.  As individuals we just can’t always justify spending more money trying to fix long term environmental issues when our main concern is keeping a roof over our heads, putting food on the table and finding happiness in our own lives.   This type of eco-financial conflict will most likely continue until the end of time because it requires an incredibly tough compromise between global compassion and personal happiness right here and now.

But, the battles being fought over things like our plastic bags and light bulbs is something else entirely and a discouraging sign of things to come.  It's not about asking to raise taxes or destroying an intrinsic industry to create a new, greener one.  It's simply asking our citizens to adapt to using a better bag and a better light bulb because it will actually save our nation money and help the planet at the same time. Yet, a significant number of our leaders and policy makers are rallying the troops and essentially saying  ‘We don’t care if we’d be able to save money, boost the economy and protect the planet all in one shot, we just don’t want the government to be involved in the process’.  It’s a battle cry waged in the name of freedom and independence which makes for great political currency but actually goes against the greater good of our country and our planet.  It makes America seem like a stubborn teenager intentionally trying to do the wrong thing, maybe even knowing that it’s the wrong thing, but doing it just to exercise a sense of freedom and spite any authority who would try to help.

Barring any major new attempts to derail it, the new energy standards will thankfully go into effect and we’ll begin to take a small step towards the huge reform that China has just made.  Because of the lack of support, the plastic bag issue will likely play out slowly in cities and counties long before it ever reaches a federal level.   We’re taking baby steps and fighting progress every step of the way all in the name of freedom without realizing its cost.  To me, our freedom means that it’s okay to support limited government and the free market, while still making crucial exceptions for some of the real reform that’s only possible with a nationwide policy.  It’s why we, and even our politicians, are allowed to agree with Democrats on some issues, Republicans on others and everywhere else in between.  Flexibility in our beliefs is a crucial part of the freedom we have.

We should always ask tough questions and protect our freedoms, but sometimes we need to accept that our government can and should fix problems that affect our country and our planet.  Nationwide policies and reform have helped us to move on from issues like slavery and civil rights and we should never be afraid of enacting tough national standards that make the world a better place. Our quest for a sense of independence is built into our DNA as Americans and we should never forget it, but it should never be so blind that it hinders our common sense to do the right thing.

Back to blog