In defense of incandescent light.

Scrutinizing culture.
Jan. 30 2008 6:20 PM

In Defense of Incandescence

Congress bans beauty as an environmental hazard.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Let us now praise incandescence—and, while we're at it, let's damn fluorescence.

Last year a woman compiling a unique kind of anthology asked me for a contribution. She was getting a number of writers to do essays about one word, their single favorite word.

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An intriguing assignment. But months went by, and whenever I thought of it I just couldn't make up my mind. I couldn't commit myself to a single word (spare me the psychologizing, please). I missed the deadline.

I felt bad about not delivering on a promise, but I didn't want to be seen consorting, so to speak, with a word that I didn't think lived up to the glorious singularity I would be bestowing on it. Now at last I've found it. I've found my word!

Incandescence

Let us now praise incandescence. Not just the word but the phenomenon, the warm radiance of glowing coals, the soft flare of tungsten filament fire.

Let us praise it because its beauty is suddenly under siege. For certain grimly utilitarian environmentalists, aesthetic beauty is not an especially important environmental value. Beauty's glass slipper can't compete with the environmentalists' tiny carbon footprint. 

Yes, the idiots in Congress, too torpid and ineffectual to pass a health-care bill for children, have busy-bodied themselves in a bumbling way with the way you light up your world. In December, they passed legislation that will, in practice, outlaw incandescent bulbs because they won't be able to meet the new law's strict energy-efficiency standards. The result: Between 2012 and 2014, incandescent bulbs will be driven from the market. Replaced by the ugly plasticine Dairy Queen swirl of compact fluorescent lights.

From a purely environmental perspective, this move is shortsighted. CFLs do use less energy, which is good. But they also often contain mercury, one of the most damaging—and lasting—environmental toxins. Not a ton of mercury, but still: A whole new CFL recycling structure will be required to prevent us from releasing deadly neurotoxins into the water table. CFLs: coming soon to sushi near you.

Failing to properly recycle your CFLs won't be the same as putting an Evian bottle in the wrong slot. It'll be genuinely hazardous, particularly dangerous to children. Way to go, congressional dimbulbs! 

And God forbid you break a bulb. If you do, you are advised by some experts to evacuate the room for 15 minutes to escape the release of mercury vapor, then scrub the area as though there'd been a plutonium spill, virtually wearing a hazmat suit as you dispose of the glass shards. 

Good luck. But the greater crime of the new bulbs is not environmental but aesthetic. Think of the ugly glare of fluorescence, the light of prisons, sterile cubicle farms, precinct stations, emergency rooms, motor vehicle bureaus, tenement hallways—remember Tom Wolfe's phrase for the grim, flickering hallway lights in New York tenements: "landlords' haloes"?—and, of course, morgues. Fluorescents seem specially designed to drain life and beauty from the world. Don't kid yourself if you hope Hell is lit by fire. More likely fluorescents.

Yes, fluorescents. Buzzing, flickering, able to cause epileptic seizures in the susceptible, in addition to headaches and other neurological symptoms. Let's smash all the incandescent lights and replace their glowing beauty with the harsh anatomizing light of fluorescence. The flickering tinny corpse light of bureaucracies and penal institutions. 

Not fair!, say the CFL advocates. Our new fluorescent technology is not your father's fluorescence, it doesn't drain blood from complexions like a vampire, it doesn't buzz and flicker the way the old ones did.

I've tried the new CFLs, and they are a genuine improvement—they don't flicker perceptibly, or buzz, or make your skin look green. There is a difference, and I'd be in favor of replacing all current fluorescent bulbs with CFLs. But even CFLs glare and blare—they don't have that inimitable incandescent glow. So don't let them take lamplight away. Don't let them ban beauty.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a plea for Ye Olde Times, for gaslight and quill pens. It's just a plea not to take for granted the way we illuminate our world. Not all change is improvement. Why do I put such a premium on incandescence? For one thing, I am a bit romantic about it. A lamp fitted with an incandescent bulb and dim translucent shades casts a lovely, painterly glow on human faces, while the light of fluorescents recalls a meat locker.

Why do you think there is such artistry to so many lampshades? They are the lingerie of light.

Admit it, there is romance to incandescence. The flare of a match lighting a cigarette in a film noir, the sparks that fly up from the glowing coals of a fireplace. The auroral glow of sunrise and the amorous blush of sunset. We "carry a torch" for someone, not a flickering tube. (At least one hopes so.)

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