Why Fighting Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs Is So Stupid

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There’s dumb, there’s dumber and then there are the House Republicans—nearly all of them—who voted this morning to set the U.S. back on energy efficiency. By a quick voice vote, the House approved an amendment that would prevent funds from a 2012 spending bill to be used to implement federal light bulb standards. The amendment came after a similar separate bill failed to garner a two-thirds supermajority earlier this week in the House—although it did win a simple majority and all but 10 Republicans in the House voted for it, along with five Democrats.

The amendment stands little chance of surviving the Senate—not to mention President Obama’s veto powers—so today’s voice vote was mostly symbolic, like so much else Congress seems to be devoting its time to these days. But that symbolism is, frankly, terrible and stupid. What’s all the more amazing is that Republicans are attacking a light bulb efficiency standard that was passed in bipartisan fashion back in 2007, and signed by President George W. Bush—a man who will not exactly be remembered as the “environmental president.” The bill requires bulbs to burn 25% to 30% less energy by 2012 and 65% less energy by 2020. It does not—as conservatives have argued again and again—ban incandescent bulbs. What the law does is mandate better-performing bulbs, be they CFC, LED or yes, even incandescent—and in fact, Phillips and other manufacturers are already making more efficient incandescent bulbs. Light bulb-makers aren’t opposing the new standards, and they seem more than capable of meeting them.

More from TIME: Energy Efficiency: America’s Untapped Energy Resource

But this isn’t about facts or even light bulbs. It’s about ideology, a hardcore ideology holding that the government should not be able to install simple standards on public products for public aims if they in any way infringe on an individual’s right to choose. It’s an ideology that in its purest sense has no place in a world of 7 billion people, where we will inevitably run up against the limits of this planet. It’s not about the rights of business, or even what’s best for our economy, which would only benefit from less energy waste. It’s about taking away our ability to collectively chart a better course through a hotter, more crowded and scarcer world—and make no mistake, these choices have to be made collectively, as a country and a society. The world is too small for any other path.

That doesn’t mean that it will always be the best policy for the government to set standards on options like energy efficiency. I met today with the head of 1E, an IT company that focuses on energy efficiency in the dotcom world. 1E has been very effective—through their energy-efficiency software, which reduces the amount of power wasted at PCs and servers, they’ve saved their customers over $1 billion and prevented more than 4 million tons of carbon. Obviously government standards that would require more energy-efficient IT would be a boon for 1E, but Karayi would prefer to let industry make its own standards. “With high technology, business is often going to be ahead of government,” says Kumiya Karayi. “You risk having inferior technologies frozen in place.”

Photos from TIME: New Ways to Boost Energy Efficiency

It’s a smart argument, and one that the Reason writer Jacob Sullum made in a piece defending opposition to the light bulb efficiency law. It’s about consumer rights—personal rights. Fine. But we’re all affected by the decision of some to be wasteful of energy, whether through national security (think of the trillions spend on the Middle East), pollution and of course, climate change. In a bigger world, maybe that didn’t matter—but that’s not a world that we live in anymore. If we take away government and society’s tools to even attempt to respond to a world of limits in a collective fashion, I’m not sure how we’ll survive. The very least thing we can do is start with a better light bulb.

More from Ecocentric: While China Cuts Energy Waste, the U.S. Just Wastes