Light Bulbs and The Choices We Make

We sat on the deck and enjoyed the cool air of the evening. As we sipped red wine, steaks and veggies were taken from the grill and served with a crisp salad. We laughed and told stories about the events of the last few weeks. One week after moving into our new home, we were enjoying guests for dinner. It was a welcome change after the pace of the move.

Toward the end of dinner, I raised a new topic. “I have an ethical dilemma,” I announced. The former owners of our home appeared to have no concerns for energy efficiency. Among other things, none of the light bulbs in the house were energy efficient. In the process of settling into our new home, we replaced traditional incandescent bulbs with the compact fluorescent variety. A much more expensive step was replacing 27 flood light bulbs from ceiling fixtures with an energy efficient version. After completing the task, we were left with two boxes of perfectly good light bulbs that used a great deal of energy.

My ethical dilemma: what to do with the old bulbs? On the one hand, I wondered if it would be worthwhile to donate them to a service agency that would give them to people living in poverty. Light bulbs can be expensive, especially the flood light variety. But then, someone else would just be using a lot of electricity to burn the bulbs. Our decision to change the bulbs was an attempt to decrease the use of fossil fuels burned in making electricity. Buying all the bulbs we needed to change in our home was definitely not a cost saving measure because of the expense of the new bulbs. The alternative to someone else using the light bulbs until they burnt out was to leave them with the weekly trash where they would just become part of a landfill. Wasn’t that just a different kind of environmental pollution?

For about twenty minutes, we discussed light bulbs and the pro’s and con’s of various options. We each recognized the dilemma: there was no good option. Any choice resulted in environmental pollution. How frustrating!

While the dilemma is not one that rocked any of us to our core, it does exemplify the problem of attempting to live based on one’s values, especially values to preserve and reverence the life of the planet. Many of us strive to find ways to lessen our carbon footprint and to conserve resources. Yet, the decisions we make to live based on those values do not always prevent environmental pollution. Our best decisions often result in trading one kind of polluting action with another. The problem with the light bulbs is no different from my choice to drive a car with a hybrid power source. While the hybrid engine does use less gasoline, the natural resources required to manufacture the battery, ship the battery from Asia to the US, and then dispose of the battery safely probably equals the impact on the environment of using the gas.

When there is no real reduction in overall pollution, why take the extra steps to change our habits and install energy efficient technology? Whether it’s light bulbs, hybrid cars, or recycling other products, steps taken now toward greener living support the development of better green technologies for the future. The impact will result over time. The greater the consumer demand for green technologies, the more new technologies will emerge. In the long run, there will be benefit to the environment.

Back to the light bulbs: one final suggestion came my way from a colleague. The bulbs could be used to make Christmas tree ornaments: home-made presents to friends. Given that my artistic abilities are best expressed through the written word, I’m sure my friends will be glad that I am not pursuing this option.

The dilemma of our light bulbs is a small but illustrative case of the challenge we face to live in tangible ways with our beliefs and values. My friends all share values for safe-guarding life on earth by reducing our carbon footprint. We believe it is our responsibility to take steps to keep the world inhabitable for all living things. The conundrum is that because of the lack of sustainable options for living on Mother Earth, it’s often unclear what are the best choices to make.

The boxes of light bulbs were put out with the trash the following week. Our decision was this: in a society driven by a market economy, creating a demand for green products will help make more of them available. With no good option available, I think we made the best choice in our circumstances.

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Light Bulbs and The Choices We Make

  1. Terri says:

    A thoughtful and thought provoking post. We’re fortunate in BC to have a recycling program for our used light bulbs, did you think to look for one in your area rather than put them out with the trash? I know that far too many areas in both the United States and Canada don’t offer an easy recycling solution.

    Thank you for illuminating us! (pun intended 🙂


  2. Lou says:


    Thanks for the comment. Overall, Canada has made recycling much more convenient for residents than in the States. After checking several sources, there were no recycling options available in my area for standard light bulbs. Compared to most parts of the US, there are a number of good recycling options. But I still haul some things to a recycling station.

    Best wishes.


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