And the winner of the worst essay by an environmental ethicist goes to … David Henderson. One guess who printed his op-ed.

Where else but the Washington Post editorial page — that bastion of un-fact-checked disinformation — would you find a misleading and misguided piece attacking federal efficiency standards written by a guy who “teaches environmental ethics”?!  Or is that “!?”

Now I can see a libertarian writing a misleading op-ed in defense of inefficient incandescent light bulbs — heck, they don’t much like government mandates for air bags.  But a true environmental ethicist would be shouting from the mountaintop — or at least from his blog — that we have grievously violated every principle of intergenerational ethics in creating this global Ponzi scheme, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations.  We have been stealing from our children and grandchildren an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all “” a livable climate.

But David Henderson (pictured above), who “teaches environmental ethics in the philosophy and religion department at Western Carolina University,” says government has no business creating environmental or efficiency standards for lightbulbs.  His muddled piece, “Let There Be (Incandescent) Light,” perpetuates one enormous myth — that somehow clean energy generation alone without energy efficiency can solve our energy and environmental problems — and a bunch of smaller ones.

On the one hand, Henderson acknowledges that the 2007 federal “minimum efficiency requirements for lighting” do not actually ban any technology (as the EU standards do) and that “there may very well be some improved incandescents on the market that will” meet the standard.  On the other hand, he keeps calling the minimum standard a “similar ban” to the EU asserting “this ban is still a bad idea.”

It’s not a ban.  As the NYT reported in a major article back in July, “Incandescent Bulbs Return to the Cutting Edge”:

Caption:  “A standard incandescent bulb, left, and a more efficient one using Deposition Sciences technology.”

When Congress passed a new energy law two years ago, obituaries were written for the incandescent light bulb. The law set tough efficiency standards, due to take effect in 2012, that no traditional incandescent bulb on the market could meet, and a century-old technology that helped create the modern world seemed to be doomed.But as it turns out, the obituaries were premature.

Researchers across the country have been racing to breathe new life into Thomas Edison’s light bulb, a pursuit that accelerated with the new legislation. Amid that footrace, one company is already marketing limited quantities of incandescent bulbs that meet the 2012 standard, and researchers are promising a wave of innovative products in the next few years.

Indeed, the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.

“There’s a massive misperception that incandescents are going away quickly,” said Chris Calwell, a researcher with Ecos Consulting who studies the bulb market. “There have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years than in the last two decades.”

… Osram will introduce a new line of incandescents in September that are 25 percent more efficient. The bulbs will feature a redesigned capsule with higher-quality gas inside and will sell for a starting price of about $3. That is less than the Philips product already on the market, but they will have shorter life spans. G.E. also plans to introduce a line of household incandescents that will comply with the new standards.

Some people might well consider this a resounding success.  Given that the entire world — including rapidly growing markets like China and India — are fast moving towards aggressive energy efficiency policies, pushing U.S. industry towards cleantech is a doubly smart strategy.  It reduces pollution while generating new jobs.

As Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter “” arguably America’s leading authority on competitiveness “” explained in Scientific American way back in 1991, “in the broader economy, strict standards may actually foster competitiveness” (see “Why the United States REQUIRES a strong climate bill to remain competitive“).

But Henderson wants none of it:

That this change is manifest in our daily lives makes it a meaningful and encouraging option, but it should be just that: a voluntary option. Light bulbs are a poor choice for regulation. Is there an overriding reason to regulate how Americans light their homes?

It’s true that compact fluorescent lights are widely appreciated among those with heightened “green” sensibilities. They are a welcome option for those who are trying to reduce their environmental impact. Replacing bulbs may be a small measure, but it is also something that can be done by people who may feel powerless or frustrated before the larger problems besetting our planet.

There is of course one very practical, overriding reason to put in place national energy efficiency standards.  If the federal government doesn’t do it, then individual states will put in place standards and that will severely complicate things for lightbulb manufacturers.  Indeed, back in the 1980s, the makers of many energy-consuming products actually went to Congress asking for national standards precisely because individual states were starting to regulate appliances and doing so inconsistently, forcing companies to meet multiple standards.

But, for now, let’s take this critique strictly on the basis of environmental ethics — not a policy or political or competitiveness perspective.  And on that basis it is absurd.  Lighting remains one of the biggest energy consumers and an unbelievably inefficient one at that.  As the NYT notes, the voluntary approach hasn’t worked that well:

Despite a decade of campaigns by the government and utilities to persuade people to switch to energy-saving compact fluorescents, incandescent bulbs still occupy an estimated 90 percent of household sockets in the United States.

For those who don’t care about environmental ethics, I suppose that is reason enough to do nothing.  But we owe it to future generations not to use up all their resources and leave them a ruined climate.  And the rich countries have an ethical obligation to act first — since we are responsible for most of the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and since we got rich polluting.

But wait, says Henderson, government shouldn’t focus on efficiency, it should focus on direct emissions:

The environmental benefits of using only compact fluorescent bulbs are indirect — and less than what could be realized by changing standards governing, for example, coal use. Consider: The benefit of “reducing inefficiency” depends on where the energy is coming from. Improving efficiency without eliminating a harmful source may just free energy that is then used elsewhere. If there is no net reduction in energy use, where is the benefit? Direct regulation of harmful activities, such as putting firm limits on carbon emissions, is more likely to achieve the desired environmental result. (And this would only indirectly influence my bedroom decor.) A great deal of the wasted energy in lighting comes from excessive nighttime lighting in public spaces, which is an excellent issue for government to address. Banning traditional light bulbs as used in private homes seems an effort in the name of environmental protection that has very little payoff.

Yes, it is hard to believe that was written by someone who teaches “environmental ethics” as opposed to, Bjorn Lomborg, who preaches a smorgasbord of half-truths aimed at persuading people not to act on the gravest environmental threat facing humanity.

First, apparently unbeknownst to Henderson, Congress — which is to say the American people — has been requiring the Department of Energy to institute energy efficiency standards for appliances for decades.  These technology forcing standards — combined with federal efficiency R&D have achieved staggering benefits — were analyzed by the National Academy of Sciences (see “Energy efficiency, Part 5: The highest documented rate of return of any federal program“), which found a staggering $30 billion payoff on an investment of just several million dollars:

Three energy-efficiency programs, costing approximately $11 million, produced nearly three-quarters of this benefit. Most significant were advances made in compressors for refrigerators and freezers, energy-efficient fluorescent-lighting components called electronic ballasts, and low-emission, or heat-resistant, window glass. Standards and regulations incorporating efficiencies attainable by these new technologies ensured that the technologies would be adopted nationwide, thus dramatically compounding their impact.

Second, the appliance standards to do not “just free energy that is then used elsewhere,” whatever the heck that means.  They save immense amounts of energy, as has been well documented.  Here, for instance, is the savings just from refrigerator standards (see long article here):

Refrigerator Energy Use in California

This is some $20 billion a year savings!  Some 40 large power plants were never built — and no doubt a lot of those would have been fossil fuel plants.

Third, Henderson seems unaware that the President and Congress, are, finally pursuing direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions — but that all of the environmentalists and scientists and politicians involved in developing those regulations understand that energy efficiency standards are a cornerstone of achieving the maximum emissions reductions at the lowest possible cost (see “The triumph of energy efficiency: Waxman-Markey could save $3,900 per household and create 650,000 jobs by 2030“).  The standards are needed precisely because there are several well-known barriers to individuals optimizing efficiency.  As but one example, consumers typically invest with a much higher discount rate than is justified on environmental grounds.  Indeed, an environmental ethicist would normally recommend government use a discount rate in standard setting that is perhaps one-tenth that of the typical consumer buying an appliance.

Fourth, the payoff is huge.  The new light bulb standards that Obama announced earlier this year, which include (and extend) the the phase out of inefficient incandescent products Congress mandated in 2007 (i.e. under the Bush Administration) — which, again, is not “Banning traditional light bulbs” — will achieve the following benefits:

The new standards announced will save up to 1.2 trillion kilowatt-hours over thirty years, an amount about equal to the total consumption of all homes in the U.S. in one year.  Businesses and consumers will gain up to $35 billion in net savings and global warming carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by up to 594 million metric tons, an amount equal to the annual emissions of nearly 110 million cars.

Not chump change.

Fourth, relatedly, it is a complete myth that one can tackle climate change by focusing on power plant emissions while ignoring energy consumption.  Carbon-free energy is not limitless nor is it free nor is it without its own environmental impact.  That should be obvious to an environmental ethics teacher.  Anyone who doesn’t understand this, such as Henderson, must watch this talk by the brilliant physicist Saul Griffth.  I have been meaning to blog on this — and I’ll try to do a separate post soon.

Henderson ends with this stunning argument:

There is more political will behind environmental reform than is generally appreciated, but it is not unlimited. We should invest our political capital where it will be most effective, not burn it in compact fluorescents. Congress should regulate matters that require the force of law, such as banning mountaintop removal in coal mining and new coal-burning power plants. Leave people to change their own light bulbs.


An environmental ethicist making an argument based on his estimation of “political will.”  I’m not certain what the point of being an environmental ethicist is, if your final argument comes down to, “well, future generations, it was okay for me to recommend policies wasteful policies that take your resources and destroy your climate because I thought we lacked the political will needed to recommend what in fact ought to have been done on ethical grounds.”

What’s funny (or sad) about this particular argument is that Henderson gets it exactly backwards.  There has always been more political will for energy efficiency standards — that’s why we’ve had them for decades and the one that he is pointlessly complaining about was signed into law under the administration of George Bush and Dick Cheney!  He apparently failed to notice that, on the other hand, this country has failed to ever regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new coal burning power plants — and Bush and Cheney actively blocked efforts to do so.

So, yes, this is easily the worst article ever written by an environmental ethicist I have ever seen, but that just means its another typical piece of crap published by Fred Hiatt and the Washington Post.

See, also, “Let’s Ban the Light Bulb Confusion” by Dr. Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

Related Posts:

About 22 percent of all electricity generated in the United States goes to lighting. In our homes, lights account for about 11 percent of household energy or almost 15 percent of household electricity. This translates into about $58 billion we Americans spend annually to keep the lights on. More energy-efficient lighting choices can reduce residential energy use by 50-75 percent.

23 Responses to And the winner of the worst essay by an environmental ethicist goes to … David Henderson. One guess who printed his op-ed.

  1. Dr. Matania Ginosar says:

    Joe, thanks to your wise comments. I do not know where else to put this request. But the following from the “United Nations Environment Programme” seems very important information about the gravity and urgency of Global Warming.
    Could you please review and comment about this for us.

    Impacts of Climate Change Coming Faster and Sooner: New Science Report Underlines Urgency for Governments to Seal the Deal in Copenhagen

    Washington/Nairobi, 24 September 2009 -The pace and scale of climate change may now be outstripping even the most sobering predictions of the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC).


    [JR: I’ll get to this grim report, but none of it is news to CP readers.]

    To download the full report, visit

  2. mike roddy says:

    Looking at the photo, I would say that our professor has been smoking too much wacky tabacky. Those smoke rings of the mind can end up in a lot of places.

    I am a distributor for entergize, a hotel key card system that saves 25-45% on room energy use. It’s the same technology that the whole world uses, except here in the US: your room key goes into a slot, and an RF signal goes to the thermostat, turning it to the default setting. When the guest leaves, it drifts to setback temperature. No more burning up kwh’s in empty hotel rooms, and a very fast payback period. Easy sale, right?

    No. Hotel GM’s and engineers mostly still want to beat on their maids to turn down the PTAC unit, and are terrified of giving the guest an excuse to go down the street. Meanwhile, guests actually like it. Resistance to go ahead and save energy comes from some strange cultural source that I can’t even fathom, and even appears in unexpected places, such as with our snake charmer from Appalachia.

    Hotels pretty much already have flourescents. Even GM’s can figure out that much.

    If you’re on the West Coast, my email is

  3. paulm says:

    Time and time again govements keep hidding the truth from the public. They cant really appreciate how dire the situation is. Why?

    Significant failure in reporting tar sands greenhouse gas emissions
    The extent of greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations is much worse than reported due to the failure of oil companies and governments to account for emissions from forest destruction

    Britain’s reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases are misleading, according to the government’s new chief scientist.
    Professor David MacKay told the BBC that greenhouse gas emissions created by Britons are probably twice as bad as official figures suggest. The figures are distorted because developing countries now made the goods that Britain buys, he said.

  4. paulm says:

    Tars have got to be shutdown. Happening now….

    Greenpeace strikes again: Activists occupy Shell upgrader expansion site in Fort Saskatchewan
    Nineteen Greenpeace activists have struck again. This time they have scaled three stacks at Shell’s operation in Fort Saskatchewan to expose more of the climate crimes of the tar sands and send a Climate SOS to the world.

  5. Matt Dernoga says:

    I thought this guy was off the wall, and had the same “huh?” reaction.

  6. ken levenson says:

    My conspiracy theory is this: Henderson and Roger Pielke Jr. are buddies. Pielke has gotten too radioactive…. Hiatt turns to Henderson…..if you ask me, all these guys are related in a bizarro libertarian suicide pact…

  7. hapa says:

    it’s true, though. forced switch to less user-friendly lightbulbs will generate grumpiness. it’s not the same as fridges that work the same or better at lower operating costs.

    with so many changes coming, convenience and joy factor need to be up there in priorities.

  8. john says:

    Just to amplify Joe’s point about Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and his support of environmental regulations: In the late 80’s Porter set out to show how Massachusette’s stringent environmental laws were hurting industry. A funny thing happenned — they weren’t. Being intellectually honest, he set out to find out why. It turns out that laws that set performance standards (as does the lighting standard) actually spurred innovation and improved corporate bottom lines.

    Basically, Henderson was writing out of sheer ignorance, and he found the one place ignorant enough to print it: Fred Hiatt’s fantasy op-ed page — a fact free, content-challenged piece of pulp fiction, not suitable for bird-cage liner.

  9. ecostew says:

    It looks like September may be a record warm month:

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    The fact is that the management of the Washington Post has decided that it is in the financial interests of their corporate owners for the Post’s editorial pages to join the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal as aggressive purveyors of fossil fuel industry-funded denialism and deceit.

    That’s why Fred Hiatt is employed there: because he is a conscienceless liar.

    There’s no sense complaining about their lack of “fact checking”. They aren’t publishing these lies by accident or incompetence. They know exactly what they are doing: deliberately deceiving their readers, for money.

  11. Eric says:

    Quite the thorough rebuttal! Did you write a letter to the editor, by chance? Newspapers are a dying breed but the Washington Post still has some clout.

  12. 2012 says:

    Is global warming real or fake. For an objective starting point, go here:

  13. Ben Hale says:

    Hey Joe:

    Here’s a response to your post.

    It’s a little defensive, but I mean it constructively. I wrote it in a hurry as my son was tugging at my leg. I’ll get back to some further comments in a bit. I think Henderson needs a little defending, which I’ll write maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, I want to defend environmental ethics against your characterization of it.

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    hapa – “forced switch to less user-friendly lightbulbs will generate grumpiness. it’s not the same as fridges that work the same or better at lower operating costs.

    with so many changes coming, convenience and joy factor need to be up there in priorities.”

    I switched to CFLs long ago. I really can’t see them any less user-friendly. Yes, the first ones were a bit slow to reach full output, but that was minor. Current CFLs are “same or better” in my book. You turn on the switch and the light comes on.

    And “convenience and joy factor”?

    I haven’t changed a burned out light bulb in almost 20 years. That’s pretty convenient and brings a smile to my face….

  15. ken levenson says:

    The NY Times also had a tantalizing article on a new LED from Philips that could soon change the world. See my post “I love this light bulb”

    And while CFLs were horrendously rolled-out and caused wide spread prejudice against them, there are great CFLs. The best common sense guide I’ve found for the uninitiated is at the Environmental Defense Fund. See my post “Best Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Guide”

  16. BBHY says:

    “…the Washington Post still has some clout”

    No, as far as I’m concerned they day I saw Ann Coulter in there they lost any clout or credibility or any other positive value.

  17. Leif says:

    Another interesting lighting technology that is on the horizon and even more efficient than LED. Their blurb…
    “Eden Park Illumination is an innovator in the research, development and commercialization of Microcavity Plasma (or “microplasma”) lighting technology. This platform technology is an new light source innovation, and offers unique advantages over both traditional light sources, such as incandescent and fluorescent, and the newer lighting technologies light emitting diodes (“LED”) and organic light emitting diodes (“OLED”). Microplasma lighting technology is distinctive from existing light sources, and should be considered a separate product family from any lighting products currently commercially available.”

  18. Eli Rabett says:

    OK, the real hole in Henderson’s argument is that energy generating systems are constantly either being built new, or replaced. If that energy is not needed because of more efficient use, the unit will simply be retired.

  19. Dan K. says:

    Thanks for mentioning the Nicholas school again, we appreciate it very much!!


  20. Anna Haynes says:

    I talked to David Henderson, and just so you know, from everything I could tell, he’s not an inactivist. Here’s what he said –

    The point he wanted to make was that since this was a small action where large actions are called for, it’s likely to be counterproductive, and that it’s an action that’s likely to provoke a backlash.

    His decision to write and submit this op-ed grew from responding to this post on The Green Grok (from the Nicholas School at Duke)

    And he’s no relation to David R. Henderson of the Independence Institute, Hoover Institution, etc.

    and he wasn’t familiar with Fred Hiatt.

  21. David Henderson says:

    Thanks for the spirited discussion of my article.

    I’m not opposed to efficiency laws. I’m glad for the refrigerator improvements.

    I’m not a libertarian either, certainly not of the suicide pact variety. I would be very happy if the Dark Sky Association’s model lighting ordinance were adopted nationally.

    I’m not against all laws that would be resented. But we should treat this resentment as a downside to the proposal, as something that will cost us political capital. The pay-off must be worth it. I’d sign the petition to ban plastic packaging in a heart beat.

    I am against needlessly ticking off the nation when we most need their cooperation. While refrigerator efficiency standards are fairly transparent to the consumer, the light bulb change won’t be (or probably won’t be). It will be hated. This will hinder further environmental reform.

    I’m also against the kind of moralism that focuses on petty small things at the individual level, while major systematic problems remain unaddressed. This kind of approach saps energy from real progress. It advances the myth that small changes are what is needed. And it breeds cynicism and resentment.

    And I’m generally a bit skeptical of fancy-tech solutions to environmental problems. Especially when efficiency is promoted without discussion of production and disposal costs.

    Does this help?

    PS. It is still a ban, just a more sophisticated one. It bans light bulbs that don’t meet certain efficiency standards.

    [JR: Those aren’t arguments from ethical grounds, but from your own personal perspective.

    If you think appliance standards are “moralism that focuses on petty small things” then you are at odds with the facts. And they certainly don’t focus on them “at the individual level” — they apply across the board nationally, which is why they achieve such staggeringly large results. But in any case that is an odd argument coming from an environmental ethicist.

    Finally, we banned cars without seat belts. We’ve banned cars without passive restraints. So bans, per se, are not inherently flawed, as your PS seems to imply.]

  22. Eli Rabett says:

    Henderson threw low flush toilets down the memory hole. Took a while to improve, lots of people whined. They worked.

  23. I hope a blog that invites comments also publishes comments that are critical…

    [JR: Most blogs invite comments and most blogs moderate. I’m snipping most of the rest of this because it is simply too much nonsense to debunk and because it doesn’t actually address most of the points that I made, but merely reassert a bunch of inaccurate or unjustifiable assertions.]

    In my view, David Henderson is right.
    In fact, contrary to what he also seems to suppose, the light bulb ban savings are not that great in an overall perspective,

    [JR: Snip. Already debunked.]

    If energy use does indeed fall with light bulb and other proposed efficiency bans, electricity companies make less money, and they’ll simply push up the electricity bills to compensate

    [JR: Snip. No evidence provided for this assertion and in fact completely untrue in a great many states.]

    Conversely: Since energy efficiency in effect means cheaper energy, people simply leave appliances on more than before

    [JR: Snip. Again, the rebound effect is well known, well documented, quite small, and factored into energy-saving calculations.]

    It may sound great to “only have efficient products”, unfortunately inefficient products can have a range of advantages including performance efficiency, appearance, construction as well as cost.

    [JR: Again, this is actually the exact opposite of the truth in most (but not all) cases, as I have documented at length in my book “Cool Companies.” Typically, new more efficient technologies have a variety of other benefits.]

    Energy and emission problems can and should be dealt with directly: Light bulbs don’t give out any gases, power stations do.

    [JR: snip. If you want to comment here, you need to read the links to core arguments, rather than merely reasserting statements that have been debunked here.]