What’s driving George Will’s warped views on environmental issues, including his criticism of compact fluorescent light bulbs?

| April 5, 2009 | 10 Replies

On issues relating to the environment, George Will’s strategy has been to draw his curve, then plot his data. As of late, he’s been denying far more than climate change; he’s denying the data relating to climate change. It has gotten so bad that he’s been pointing to changes in the weather to attempt to rebut evidence that there are changes in climate, an unfair tactic that even fourth-graders know enough to criticize. Throughout his arguments, Will delights in sprinkling in pointy little reminders that the government is always misguided, as though we should trust in the “free market.”

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

This week, in an article published by the Washington Post, Will has employed all of his favorite forms of paltering in a full-scale attack on compact fluorescent light bulbs. He doesn’t like compact fluorescent bulbs for a variety of reasons that he enunciates. Without citing any statistics, he claims that some of those bulbs might not last as long as the bulb life indicated on the package. Because of the existence of mercury in the bulbs, he gripes that we can’t just toss them away in the general trash when they break or cease working. Will also complains that CFL’s are not all-purpose bulbs—they don’t work in hot places with limited airflow. And they take a bit to get to their full brightness. Down with CFL’s!

The gist of Will’s attack is that compact fluorescent bulbs are not perfect. He therefore seeks to dispense with the option of using CFL’s without bothering to note that incandescent bulbs threaten us with a huge energy-drain in a world where energy is getting disproportionately precious and therefore expensive. In other words, Will seeks to attack an alternative to energy-gulping incandescent light bulbs in isolation, hoping no one notices that anything can be attacked in isolation because everything is imperfect. Will appears to be hoping that his readers will all be so utterly distracted by his petty gripes that they forget that most CFL’s are more than three times as energy efficient as incandescent bulbs. Yes, George, compared to those incandescent bulbs you adore, those CFL’s are incredible energy efficient. Yes, George. We actually have an energy crisis and using less energy will help the cause.

Smashing Will’s arguments is like shooting fish in a barrel. For instance, see how Will’s arguments were obliterated by Get Energy Smart! Now!!! On the issue of product life, Will doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “average” life. Will’s arguments can also be exposed as hypocritical. Is he really worried about the mercury in the bulbs? If so, why isn’t he expressing concern about the massive amount of mercury being released by coal mining?  And see here.  If he’s really so perturbed about the need to take special steps to dispose of CFL’s, isn’t that a good reason to stop manufacturing computers too? After all, because of the presence of toxic metals in computers, responsible people shouldn’t throw them in the regular trash either.

Will’s blindered approach to energy issues make it clear that he’s emotionally committed to being only part of the problem. Based on his article this week, I suspect that George Will has never screwed in or turned on a compact fluorescent bulb. His tone reminds me of my proudly ultra-conservative neighbor who, when he saw me bringing home a package of compact florescent bulbs stated, “You should buy real light bulbs.” He added, “Those bulbs are sissy bulbs.” My neighbor believes that CFLs are emasculating. Using them is not manly. Real men do things like eschew diplomacy and wage wars. Real men eat red meat, not arugula. On the issue of energy, real men drive massive energy-wasting vehicles. Real men certainly can’t be bothered to conserve energy. How dare those liberals tell us how to live our lives!

“Real men” revel in conspicuous consumption, because it makes them feel important. Wasting resources is a Darwinian display that elevates one’s social status. Look around at the huge houses and cars in the well-to-do conservative suburbs. Then consider that human animals are no different in this regard than most other animals. Consider, for example, the peacock’s tail and the hundreds of other examples catalogued by Amotz Zahavi.  And see here.

I realize that my mini-evolutionary-psycho-analysis of George Will is speculative, but I also think it’s time that we tried to get to the root cause of the widespread resistance so many conservatives exhibit regarding the proven strategy of conserving energy. The problem is deep and emotional; most conservatives are too smart to blame their resistance to conservation on ignorance or insanity. Again, my guess is that many conservatives consider it emasculating to save energy through conservation. They need to get over it, because their country needs their brains to prevail over their emotions on this issue.

It’s time for George Will and his red-meat-eating conservative base to take a close look at another trait often considered “manly”: courage. Is George Will a “courageous” writer? Not at all. Courageous people put their opponent’s best foot forward before deciding to attack it. Courageous people are self-critical of their own facts and opinions; they attack their own positions even more than they attack the positions of their opponents. Courageous people ask themselves whether their own attacks are even-handed. Courageous people don’t settle to score cheap political points in order to make a buck. Courageous people take the time to know the facts and to acknowledge that real solutions to complicated problems won’t be perfect or easy. Courageous people work hard to become part of the solution.

I’d suspect that George Will hasn’t had much time to actually try out CFLs (or research their benefits), since he has been too busy fantasizing that he can somehow turn back the clock to 1950. It will never again be 1950, though; we can never again afford to be carefree about energy production and usage. Will needs to take a long deep look at his own motives and fears, and then get over them, in order to become a positive force for addressing a huge and pressing real-world energy crisis.

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Category: Economy, Energy, ignorance, Psychology Cognition, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. And "real men don't use mice".

    I especially like incandescent bulbs for their efficiency in the infra-red part of the spectrum, over 90% ;-). So I am hamstering a stash of nice carbon fiber and Edison style bulbs, the last ones of which can still be found in the shops here in Holland before a EU ban is imposed later this year. Hopefully they will last the rest of my life for my physics demonstrations.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    CFL may not last as long as advertised in some applications, however, I have found they last considerably longer than incandescent bulbs in most applications. In my hose, I have three light fixtures that can't use CFLs: The outdoor security light which requires a weatherproof spot lamp, the bathroom, which uses two low-wattage candelabra style bulbs, and the chandelier in the dining area which uses 5 decorator bulbs that are slimmer than any CFL.

    I generally have to replace the incandescent bulbs several times per year, but the CFLs tend to last two years or more. Yes the CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, but all bulbs, CFLs and incandescent contain a much larger amount of lead, found in the solder that connects the filaments to the threaded base, which is as toxic as mercury. and much more of a hazard. The main benefit I have seen however is the savings from fewer replacement bulbs and reduced electricity use.

    The Manly-man machismo excuse to conspicuous consumption reminds me of Jay Leno's "Last of the real cars" video . However, I suspect that conspicuous consumption is not gender driven but a result of a materiel obsession promoted by the media.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    I use weatherproof 16 watt CFL flood lights outdoors on dusk-to-dawn switches, replacing my old 90 watt halogen floods on motion sensors. CFL's age more from each ignition than do incandescent filament bulbs. I once worked out the total cost of buying and using (proportional to overall energy consumption) and found that frequently switched lights actually do use less energy if incandescent, whereas long cycle lights are much more efficient if fluorescent.

    I also got a case of "dimmable" CFLs. They are safe to use on a dimmed circuits. But don't expect a cozy light. They just get slightly dimmer and buzzier until they safely turn off.

    I eagerly await LED lamps that emit as much light intensity as CFLs. These have much longer duty cycles (100,000+ hrs), and there is no start-up penalty. Organic LED lamps are also contenders for future lighting.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I'm now seeing some of those LED lamps in stores now, and I actually bought a few. Terrific light to energy-used ratio. Far greater than CFL's. From this site, a 3W LED is equivalent in output to a 45 W incandescent.

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      Erich's EarthEasy.com link has a fuzzy view of the science behind lighting. While it may be true that a 3w LED can produce as much light as a 45 w incandescent in one direction, overall they don't produce as much light over the full sphere.

      They also cite numbers without context. They claim that an LED light produces 3.4 btu/hr compared to 85 for incandescent. Apples, oranges?. One watt is 3.41214 btu/hr no matter what device consumes it. That's the heat released per watt of music, light, blender, or air conditioner.

      I bought a couple of 1w LED 110 volt lights for $35 last year. They are about as dim as a 25 watt bulb straight ahead, and much dimmer to the sides. Not quite ready for prime time, IMHO. Like CFL's around 1990.

    • TonyC says:

      Although LED lamps are not yet ready for prime time in all circumstances, I'm really looking forwards to installing them.

      I have a lot of dimmers in my home (what can I say – we like variable light levels) and CFL's don't cut it.

      We also have a lot of candelabra style bulbs (dining room, kitchen, bathrooms, some standard lamps, etc). I can't wait for LED lams in that form factor (fewer dimensional packaging issues, for sure).

      Given the pace of improvements in LEDs & OLEDs, I expect usable, full spectrum, white LEDs in usable omnidirectional bulbs within the next three years. And CFLs to die out within five (if you get better performance, longer life, in a better form factor, for similar money, you'll replace with LED).

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I'll have to look for the cfl floodlights. Iam already using CFL post lights for the front and back entrance lights.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    The Washington Post is willing to print almost anything these days. See this post by Balloon Juice.

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/?p=19602

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    From Media Matters:

    Despite George Will's history of misinformation on global warming, The Washington Post published a column by Will on June 25 that cited a widely disputed study "supported" by an oil-industry-funded think tank and rejected by the Spanish government to suggest that Spain's high unemployment rate is "partly because of spending" to promote green jobs, and thus suggest the Obama administration should not pursue similar policies. This follows a pattern in which The Washington Post has allowed Will to repeatedly distort data in order to call into question the overwhelming evidence that humans are causing global warming — distortions that have elicited widespread criticism

    http://mediamatters.org/research/200906260033

  7. Tim Hogan says:

    Will gets away with it because MSM kowtows to the right by running any claptrap the right vomits forth in the interest of being "fair and balanced."

    I call it "F'N'B!"…f-g b-t!

    So, everytime a rightist spews vomitus regarding any isssue where the facts/science/evidence is/are undisputed or strongly indicative of some view not held by the yappers, the MSM dumps its objectivity and critical review functions and abjectly regurgitates the vomitus in the interest of "airing qualified viewpoints of an opposing opinion (how does George Will qualify as an expert on Spanish economics and policy in the 21st Century?)."

    I think the whole thing once again confirms my view of the far right wing bias of the media, or that the media are just quisling cowards. The Washington Post used to be a great newspaper, now it's suitable for wrapping fish or lining a diarrhetic bird's cage.

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