Is it ethical to use low-energy bulbs?

Our ethical columnist on the benefits of sitting in the dark.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

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Dear Ethan,

This week, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has organised a ‘lightbulb amnesty’ so that people can trade in one or two bulbs for low-energy versions. But I read that these low-energy bulbs can cause pollution because they contain mercury. Even though they will help with climate change, is it ethical to use these bulbs?


Joe Swann,

Dear Joe,

Forgiveness is one of the great virtues. If people are willing to honestly repent for their sins, then we should accept their contrition and move on. And so it is with those who have, forgive the pun, seen the light over their energy guzzling ways.

Moreover, I think the idea of calling it an ‘amnesty’ makes one thing clear: you only need an amnesty once you’ve accepted that a behaviour is criminal. And using old-fashioned lightbulbs is truly criminal. So, once the amnesty ends on Sunday, I look forward to ‘Green’ Ken sending the police to break down doors in dawn raids and arrest anyone found using a non-energy-efficient bulb. While I heartily approve of Dr Matt Prescott’s brilliant ‘Ban the Bulb’ campaign to stop the use of incandescent bulbs – which has led to the government announcing that it will soon be impossible to buy these eco-weapons in the UK – we must surely now take the next step and ‘Ban the Bulb Users’.

Once they have been incarcerated, perhaps such people could then be set to doing ‘community work’ as a punishment for their reckless disregard for the planet. As I’ve said before in this column, forcing such people to produce some ‘juice’ using pedal power for a few weeks would soon make them realise the value of electricity – and why we should use as little as possible (see Is it ethical to use a computer?)

However, Joe, you are right to point out that many energy-saving bulbs are currently quite polluting. They contain mercury which is very toxic. That’s why Gaia locked that liquid metal into rocks so that it wouldn’t hurt the animals and plants. But mankind has split open the rocks to steal the mercury. How ironic that it is this very mercury, inside thermometers, that declares to us every day how much hotter the planet is getting! There are alternatives to these ‘compact flourescent’ bulbs: light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs are getting better all the time and don’t contain mercury at all. Great news!

There are people who complain that energy-efficient bulbs aren’t very good. ‘They don’t give out enough light’, they say. ‘They make the room look very cold, and aren’t very good to read by.’ Well, since when was it the job of a lightbulb to make a room look warm? In fact, why do you want a room to be warm at all? And as for reading… well, let’s just say that if a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge must be a lot worse.

I must confess that at Greenhart Towers (our little nickname for our house, we’d never have anything so anthropocentric as a tower!), we do have a grand total of five energy-saving bulbs. But they are strictly powered by solar energy that we’ve stored up or by the treadle pump in the basement. What’s great about that is it really limits how much you can use these bulbs.

Which only goes to show that the most ethical thing to do is to live in darkness as much as possible. Of course, in the winter months, this means there are really very few hours in which to get anything done. In December and January, my day starts at 8am and finishes about 4pm. After that, anything else we do means someone – it could be me, my lovely if somewhat sceptical wife Sheba the Unbeliever or my sons Fritz and Hansen, will need to pedal away to light usually one room where we gather for the evening.

This is the natural way. We have seasons. In the spring and summer, new life rises from Mother Earth. In the autumn and winter, nature rests. Humans should rest, too. We should store up lots of food then go into semi-hibernation. Who could possibly complain about getting more sleep, especially when it’s so cold outside (though with the climate changing, we don’t seem to get winters anymore – clearly a disaster).

The problem with the hurly-burly world that we live in is that we don’t have enough time for simple contemplation. We rarely consider the great philosophical questions. Why are we here? More importantly, given our disastrous relationship with nature: should we be here? This kind of thing is so much easier when you can’t see a thing!

So, to return to my earlier pun: if you really want to see the light, sit in the dark!

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}. Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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