Joan Wickersham

Show me the light

Unclear writing on light bulb law keeps consumers in the dark

(Sylvia Nickerson for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Wickersham
August 5, 2011

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IT WAS a peaceful, relaxed Sunday morning, about a year ago. My husband and I were drinking coffee and reading the newspaper - and suddenly we were fighting about incandescent light bulbs. Banning them is wrong, I said. They may waste energy, but we already do a lot to conserve - we recycle, we don’t drive an SUV, we turn off the lights when we leave the room - and I don’t want the government telling me that instead of my nice soft light bulbs I have to be stuck with the cold wormy light of a compact fluorescent.

My husband said that saving the environment was more important than my personal taste in light bulbs.

I said that he was being a jerk - but that’s another story. The argument fizzled out when we both recognized that we were fighting about an issue neither of us really understood. We needed to learn more. But as I tried to follow the story over the following months, I got more and more confused. Under Congress’s 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, were incandescents being banned or weren’t they? Every time I read a story that seemed to answer the question, the next story contradicted it; and the spat we’d had in our kitchen was happening now in Congress, with a new and ugly political spin.

I began to suspect that the issue wasn’t just the environment, or personal freedom versus government regulation. It was also writing - the story itself and the imprecise way it was being told.

Let’s start with adjectives. In newspapers and on websites, supporters of the 2007 law applauded the phasing out of “the inefficient [i.e. bad] incandescent bulb.’’ Opponents deplored the phasing out of “the traditional [i.e. good] incandescent bulb.’’ But writers on both sides were ignoring - or perhaps exploiting - the fact that the English language has an inherent ambiguity about whether an adjective is being used as a restrictive or non-restrictive modifier. When you write that “the inefficient incandescent light bulb is being phased out,’’ do you mean that all incandescent light bulbs are being phased out because they are inefficient? Or do you mean that among the universe of incandescent light bulbs only the inefficient ones are being phased out?

Again: Were incandescent bulbs disappearing or weren’t they?

Recently I’ve read a number of articles asserting that no, not all incandescent bulbs were being banned - only the inefficient ones. The new ones, featuring a new technology, were described as “halogen incandescents.’’ So maybe both versions of the story were correct. The traditional incandescent was about to disappear; but a new efficient incandescent would take its place.

Now let’s talk about packaging. Having done my research, I decided to go shopping. I thought I understood what I would find in the store: compact fluorescents, LEDs, and these new efficient incandescent bulbs. I went to both the hardware store and Home Depot, and found aisles full of baffled customers, and harried salesmen trying to explain an array of unfamiliar-looking light bulbs, few of which were labeled with terms that corresponded to what I’d been reading about. I was especially eager to try the new incandescents - but not one of the new bulbs had the word “incandescent’’ on the packaging.

To be fair, part of the reason we’re not getting a clear story is that the story keeps changing. These new standards were intended to be a spur to manufacturers, not a hardship for consumers. New technologies are evolving, and new products are and will be appearing on the shelves. Still, when a story is not told clearly, it becomes vulnerable to misinterpretation and manipulation.

I am an ordinary consumer, well-read, curious, concerned about the environment, somewhat resistant to change but willing to be convinced by well-stated facts. But I’m confused by what’s going on right now with light bulbs. I think we’re in the middle of an awkward, badly explained transition which some people are embracing, some people are trying to exploit as a political rallying cry, and some people are trying irritably to understand.

Journalists and environmentalists: Tell me clearly what’s going on and what my options are. Manufacturers: Tell me clearly what you are offering. I want to be on your side. But for now, I’m hoarding.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is