2006/09/08

The lightbulb revolution!!!!

(I'm cross-posting this, even tho it fits better in raze the ladder, because it's news you can use and I know there are those who avoid the political blog.)

Here's a breathless article ostensibly doing boosterism for the ultra-efficient compact flourescent lightbulb, altho doing at least as much boosterism for Wal-Mart. Even so, it does a good job driving home how amazing these lightbulbs are. They not only save electricity, reducing greenhouse gases and pollution, they also last for 5-10 years (10-40 times longer than conventional lightbulbs), saving huge amounts of energy and resources currently expended on the production, packaging, distribution, and disposal of conventional lightbulbs. And because they're more energy efficient and last so much longer, they also save the consumer quite a bit of money in reduced electricity bills and lightbulb replacement costs (GE's new packaging promises $38 in saved energy).

The main problem is that the efficient lightbulbs cost a lot more than conventional ones up-front ($3-$4 vs 30-50¢) and most people aren't aware that they'll not only help the environment but also save money by buying them. The author of the article sees Wal-Mart as the Lenin of the lightbulb revolution, both lowering prices and educating consumers thru a promotional blitz.

The writer is wide-eyed and enthusaistic in the face of Wal-Mart's attempts to portray itself as environmentally responsible. He passes on this touching story:
"Last fall," says Kerby, "we had had two hurricanes"--Katrina and Rita--"we had oil production disrupted, we had millions of people displaced in the South, and at a Friday officer's meeting not long after Katrina, Lee Scott said, 'Our customers are hurting, our customers' dollar is not going as far as it could.' He challenged everyone in the room to find relevant rollbacks, to lower the price of living and make a difference for our customers." (Wal-Mart-ers really talk that way among themselves.)
I guess the reporter knew this because Wal-Mart executives told him so?

(Kerby, a vice president and divisional merchandise manager, is the same person who at another point refers offhandedly to "Our friend Oprah".)

The writer sees Wal-Mart's massive market power, its ability to decide the rise and fall of entire industries, as unproblematic - even beneficial, given Wal-Mart's efforts to protect the environment and "make a difference for their customers". Nor does he see anything wrong with the fact that Wal-Mart's patronage will give GE a stranglehold on the efficient lightbulb industry.

He also suffers from a bit too much enthusiasm about the potential of energy efficient lightbulbs. If every American family replaced a single convential bulb with an efficient one, he writes, the energy savings could power a city of 1.5 million people. So the potential really is huge, and Wal-Mart really could be a force for good - if we look at the issue in a highly circumscribed way. Yet to pretend that solving the environmental catastrophes that consumer capitalism is crafting for us will be as easy as changing your lightbulbs (and saving money in the process!) is a bit naive. We have to consume better, but what's more important is consuming less.

2 comments:

ariel said...

of course you had to post this the day i purchased 6 evil, energy-wasting light bulbs...

anyway, i think it is a bit unfair to criticize the reporter for swallowing wal-mart co.'s beautiful line about saving victims of katrina/reversing an economic downturn/eliminating world hunger/etc. all through energy efficient light bulbs. i mean, this guy works for fast company magazine, whose self-described mission is to provide "management, leadership, and career advice for business executives." it's like expecting the journal to be critical of the free market or forbes to reject massive accumulation of wealth or the boston globe not to suck.

meshugah said...

i'm not sure. the business press elsewhere does a better job analysing the competing agendas of labor, capital and the state (i'm thinking of the economist or financial times). or at least they take seriously the idea that other agendas have a role. does anyone know how the overseas press played the '90s tech boom? were they as slavishly devoted to corporate boosterism as the average business hacks here?