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Dark side of the light

The light bulb, a simple device made of glass, metal and ceramic that directly emits a wonderful, bright and warming light, must disappear from our lives. In favour of the so-called energy saving light bulb, which is said to save 80 percent more electricity than the so-called incandescent light bulb. So followed the decree by the European Union Parliament's Committee on the Environment of 17 February 2009.

Where there is bright light there are also dark shadows – this critique has fallen on deaf ears when it comes to energy saving lamps. And here we are not even talking about bright light. But this does not alter the fact that there obviously is "a dark side of the energy saving light bulb", which Thomas Worm and Claudia Karstedt explore in their book.  For one, the energy saving lamp is everything except a lamp. Instead it is a small electrical device that contains a host of electronic parts, which increase in number the more the energy saving lamp tries to imitate the uncontested advantages of the incandescent bulb. Also, when it reaches the end of its life, the energy saving bulb becomes hazardous waste, and its environmentally and climate friendly disposal is no less problematic than the production of its original components.

Thomas Worm and Claudia Karstedt are right to title their study "lying light", because there is little truth to what energy saving bulbs promise. Above all, they shed a false light. Thanks to their discontinuous spectrum, with a high-energy blue spectrum and weakened red spectrum, they essentially and substantially distort light. This has an impact on health; when eating this light literally turns your stomach. Most notable, however, is the aesthetic impact. We no longer see things in the right light anymore. And that brings us – with Worm and Karstedt – to the cultural history of light. This explains why, with such a difficult issue as light in purely physical terms, technical arguments – which the authors competently explain – are consistently misleading.

Light is an exemplary case that concerns ecological efficiency and not just energy efficiency. The discussion launched by the authors about contemporary climate politics was long overdue. From a global perspective, environmental protection is often short-changed within climate politics. For example, because the entire lifespan of the energy saving lamp is not taken into consideration. The study "Energiesparlampe als EcoTopTen-Produkt" (the energy saving lamp as a top-ten eco product) "completely ignores" the issue of transport, as the Oeko-Institute in Freiburg, which was commissioned with the report, admits. Not only is the light of the energy saving bulb false, but its proponents are also not telling the whole story.

An energy saving lamp can be a fine thing – in the right place, where lights are left on for long periods of time and the quality of light is not so important, such as in the laundry room or the basement. But it must meet different requirements in living quarters. In order to achieve this, the energy saving bulb was upgraded at great effort – and at the cost of higher energy consumption during production and use. And now it has become a regular bulb – from its form to the temperature of its light and its switching capacity.

Decision-makers in politics and business also know that something is not right if a poor copy is pushed through while the good original is outlawed. That is why they talk about a "transitional technology" as we learn in Worm and Karstedt's chapter on florescence technology. But what comes next? We already know the answer: the LEDs. And they bring with them – at least for now – all the things that are taboo for the energy saving lamp.

As we read in Worm and Karstedt's book, there is still much discussion about the rebound effect for LEDs, a contentious issue already with the energy saving bulb: could energy consumption actually rise because consumers think that the energy efficiency of the LEDs, which can be used everywhere as decoration, counteracts their increased usage? Also the physiological impact of light – flatly denied on all sides in the context of energy saving bulbs – is being discussed for LEDs: when used properly, LEDs can calm fidgety children, as tests in schools have proven, and cheer depressed office workers.

Is this why billions are being invested in a "provisional light technology"? Does the incandescent bulb have to disappear, so that in the age of the manipulative LED light we quickly forget its simple light that cheerfully illuminated our rooms and our lives? Is this why the climate protectors are banning us to a universal basement of energy efficiency, so that we – tired and sick from the cold light of the energy saving light bulb – will welcome LEDs with open arms?

And all this is happening at a time when in the foreseeable future we will be able to generate so much renewable energy in an absolutely climate neutral manner – without the need for atomic energy – that we won't have to think about saving electricity, in contrast to oil and gas. High time to make a stand for the incandescent bulb.


Thomas Worm, Claudia Karstedt: "Lügendes Licht. Die dunklen Seiten der Energiesparlampe". S. Hirzel Verlag, Stuttgart 2011

The article was originally published in the Tageszeitung on 3 October 2011.

Brigitte Werneburg is the Visual Arts Editor for the Tageszeitung.

Translation: ls

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