Lighting the way to prosperity

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on July5, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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In extraordinary times, the ordinary can be salvation. The thirsty need water, the locked-down want fresh air, the darkened desire light.

I sure did. While shaving a few months back, the lighting seemed strange. Hazy, like bad day in Beijing hazy. I looked to our above-mirror light fixture to see the problem: a set of Reagan-era lightbulbs. Worse, their over-the-top energy use seemed stubbornly stuck on the Cold War’s doctrine of “overwhelming force.” They were practically nuclear.

I never cared about bulbs before. We bought our house three years ago and my approach to lighting was casual indifference. The bulbs came with the house like carpets and toilets. I knew there was light, that it mattered in the dark, and that was about it. Like a good trust fund baby, I inherited my wealth, and lived off its interest, daily.

Mostly from the shock and awe of the clumpy dust on those oldie-timey bathroom bulbs, I ran out to the local hardware store. Despite the virus, they were open as an essential business. I bought a six pack of 40-watt replacement LED bulbs—that actually used about 3 watts per bulb. It was so satisfying.

Screwing them in provided this instantaneous mini-flash of warmth, a quick little flood of joy, like a single candle’s glow against the darkest black. When Covid-19 has killed more Americans than all the post-World War II conflicts combined, triggered mass unemployment, and racial upheaval has injected lighter fluid on an already big-burning fire—the mundane act of changing out an old bulb makes a great opportunity to reclaim some control, reaffirm capitalism, and regain a sense of satisfaction so sorely lacking for so many these days.

Instant addiction. But the good kind. I started to scrutinize other light bulbs. I found a group of three 50 watt bulbs and replaced them. Then I moved on to the motherlode. The basement, the living room, and the girls’ room collectively carried eighteen 65 watt bulbs. I went online and estimated the switch from olden-days-incandescent to LED would save well over $100 per year in just these bulbs.

I didn’t stop until all 38 bulbs in the house had been changed. I killed 2000 watts. We dropped from bulbs using up 2300 watts to a mere 300 watts. Our estimated annual savings is just over $200. Our first month with the new bulbs, the electric bill dropped 10 percent, compared to the same month last year.

Of all the ways you could illuminate Andrew McAfee’s thesis from his recent book, “More from Less,” I can’t see a better way than by bulb. McAfee pointed out that while it used to take more energy to produce more stuff—now, modern capitalism’s finally broken the relationship between economic growth and energy use. Sometimes this can be hard to see.

But not if you’re looking into the light. Human ingenuity and market incentives have cut the price of lighting by a factor of 500,000 over the technology’s long-run course, turning it from something scarce and precious to ubiquitous and plentiful. We now get way more from way less.

Even more important, the lights look better. Normally I can’t do anything right when it comes to home stuff—the family joke is I don’t know which end of the hammer is up (is there an up?). Bulb-switching doesn’t take any special skills, just a little trial-and-error (and a hardware store with a solid return policy). I can now tell you about different types of light, which levels to aim for, and a little bit about what’s most appropriate and fun in different places.

Besides, while we’re all ‘safer at home’ering, what better way to boost personal productivity than a no-brainer efficiency play. When life seems a little dark, go out and make your own light.

 

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