lit by knowledge and the fireflies above


Even when we were in school, I thought Earth Day was boring, and I still do. Despite being a rabid, frothing environmentalist, there was always something so kumbaya about the whole thing, and my only tangible memory was being a Cub Scout and having to plant little saplings outside the power plant in Cedar Rapids, IA. It was hot, we had shitty shovels that couldn’t dig a big enough hole, and honestly, I just wanted to go home and watch Mork.

It’s impossible to speak about your environmental convictions without putting your audience into a coma. I don’t mean arguments about global warming, which always descends into a slugfest if you happen to be hanging out with Republicans, I mean talking about composting and recycling and all that shit. I was recruited by SEAC (the Student Environmental Action Committee) at Carolina because they thought I could make the whole thing palatable to your average student, but it’s pretty hard to make the Dioxin Problem sexy.

That said, I thought I’d use this Earth Day to show you something:


That’s my bedside table, and yes, that’s a convertible Carolina blue Volkswagen radio/iPod player, and guess what, I’m already married so I don’t have worry what the chicks might think. More importantly, however, is the bedside table lamp, which is an LED light bulb.

It looks and behaves just like an ordinary light bulb, but is technologically ahead of both your ordinary incandescent bulb and even the new compact fluorescents. It replaced the 15-watt bulb I used to keep there (low light so I wouldn’t bother Tessa when she was sleeping) but it uses 1.4 watts. The bulb I used to have in there was rated to last 1,000 hours; the LED bulb will last 100,000.

I think that’s frickin’ awesome. I bought it here and it’s only a matter of time until LED bulbs come down in price and shoot upwards in brightness. In fact, that’s why I took this picture. It won’t be long until all lights are LED (aka solid-state, or SSL) and this was our first. Consider it a picture of a guy standing proudly next to his Model T in 1909.

Here’s the problem with new technology: the first edition of anything can ruin its reputation. For instance, CFLs – compact fluorescent lights, the twisty ones you now see at Walmart and Home Depot – spent a few years putting out ghastly, bright, blue-white light that looked like the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano.”

Those days are completely over, but it’s hard to convince anybody. I’m here to tell you that we swapped out every last incandescent bulb in our house and replaced them with CFLs, and if/when you visit, you’d never know. They come in ordinary bulb shape now, they emit a nice comforting yellow-white light, and many of them are dimmable. We get ours here (with the ordinary-looking ones here), but as long as they have a color temperature of 2800K or below, you can get them anywhere, cheaper by the day.

Sitting in our house in Los Angeles, I added up all the wattage we use for lighting, and it came to 1055 watts. After replacing them all, it came to 155 watts. 155 watts to have every light on in our entire house at once. We just lopped our lighting power bill by 85 percent, and the bulbs last around 10,000 hours.

Okay, I know several of you just fell asleep, but THAT, my friends, is SEXY. 22% of all power in America goes to lighting. Just think of the possibilities for a split second, and then you can forget about Earth Day.

0 thoughts on “lit by knowledge and the fireflies above

  1. LFMD

    I just turned off one of the lights here in my cubicle. I don’t need three going at once.
    Thanks for the bulb education. I’ll have to get some of those things.

  2. ls

    And, bag the bottled water that comes in plastic bottles!!! People buy these like crazy, and even if recycled it takes petroleum to make plastic. Get a filter, buy a bottle meant to be reused over and over again, and drink up!!

  3. emma

    I have been replacing old bulbs in my house with the CFLs for some time. I haven’t done a complete conversion, but I’m getting there. Something that I never knew that Neva mentioned to me last time I visited was that because of the merury in CFLs, you need to be careful about disposal of these bulbs and, if available, take bulbs in a sealed plastic bag to a hazardous dump site. This does not discourage my use in any way, but something that is not advertised enough. Those responsible enough to use the bulbs probably want to know the proper way to dispose of these bulbs.
    What about the LEDs? How are they disposed?
    Thanks for keeping us up to date on the newest and best in earth friendly lighting.

  4. SSM

    Question about CFLs that I have not seen an answer to despite looking online. What do you do if your toddler topples a lamp and the bulb shatters on the floor? This happened to me and I freaked because of the mercury I knew was in it. I opened all the windows and swept/scrubbed the floor. What have you heard? If there is that much risk with the mercury I wonder if it is worth it?

  5. Anne D.

    All right, that was inspiring. I’m going to ask my employer if they would consider giving every office new fluorescent twisty light bulbs to replace our incandescent ones. I have a strong aversion to overhead fluorescent lights, so I keep mine off and use a few normal lamps and a desk light instead. But I know they burn up a lot of wattage. Time to go green.
    As we move gradually into our new house in the coming month or two, I will try to transition over to the energy-saving lights everywhere.
    See? You made environmentalism sexy, Ian. At least, sexy enough for this ol’ broad. ;-)

  6. Claverack Weekender

    I too have taken the plunge to LED lighting, at least for lamps, etc. Cool running, mercury free, and really nice light quality. I have CFL’s in the ceiling, those hard-to-reach outdoor lights, etc.
    The sad thing is that there will be a bazillion mercury-laced CFL’s in landfills before the economics of LED lighting make sense.

  7. Sarah

    SSM — You could keep a bottle of powdered sulfur around. If a bulb breaks, just sprinkle sulfur over the area and then sweep it up. Sulfur will bind to the mercury and soak it up (why it’s also called “mercaptan”).
    As far as where to find the sulfur, I’m not sure. (perhaps a hardware store?) But I’m a chemist, and that’s how we do it!

  8. killian

    God, I love this blog—the things I learn! SSM and Sarah, my dad used to make us put on this sulfur powder before we went picking blackberries to keep the chiggers off–so maybe a drugstore in the “repellant’ section?

  9. Chris M

    That didn’t hurt a bit.
    Plus LEDs are more fun. They’ll have a variety bold colors to add to your home decor.

  10. Lee

    LFMD, What in the world were doing in your cubicle at 5am??? No wonder you needed 2 lights. Have you told your boss that’s uncivilized??

  11. Ian

    The bottled water in the pic has actually be re-used for about three weeks – I refill it and take it to hoops and back every time I go, so I figure I’m getting an abnormal amount of use out of it.
    As for CFLs, the ones I’ve dropped were the “normal bulb” kind that actually encases the spiral part inside another frosted glass, and thus no mercury escapes. Although CFLs are more rugged than incandescent, you do have to be a little careful with the spiral types. I don’t think breaking the occasional CFL around the house is enough to be a problem. I’d be way more concerned eating solid white albacore tuna and skate fish.
    You can recycle your old CFLs at any Ikea, but remember, they’re not likely to burn out until 2009, when more options will be available. As for recylcing LED lights, you’re talking more like 2011 and beyond.
    Jason, the keyboard part we use for “Mozambique” is busy enough that we don’t add the other vocal. It feels more seamless (to us, anyway).

  12. Alyson Peery

    I was talking to my friends about this issue of making environmentalism sexy just today, actually. Oprah did a show about going green on Friday, in honor ot Earth Day, and I think she has the right idea. She takes the approach that everyone must already know that the planet is in bad shape and that it is affecting human life and lifestyle. So she had lots of guests come on and talk about the small things that anyone, regardless of income or laziness, can do to use fewer resources and less energy. It all made a lot of sense, and I can see people doing those things who aren’t already environmentally conscious in practice. Also, there’s the cult of Oprah, which makes it all the easier to stomach. The old way of guilting people into doesn’t work. I think it has to be trendy, which is interesting.

  13. Annie

    BTW, for anyone who was watching that Oprah show on Friday (LFMD) I just want to announce with utmost pride that my best friend Simran Sethi was a guest! She works at treehugger ( and she is incredible, an incredibly bright light (LED, of course). She has been near and dear to my heart since the first time I saw her on the first day of 3rd grade, wearing pigtails and gold wire-rimmed spectacles. She’s sharp as a tack, devoutly loyal, intensely curious, sweet as pie and above all PRECIOUS.
    I guess the above sounds like a sort of commercial. For people who watch Oprah reruns! I wish I could watch that one (missed it–in car).
    Does anyone tape Oprah?

  14. flaco

    Thanks for the LED link Ian, will have to check those out. We have replaced all of our bulbs with CFLs. The dimming CFLs are quite wonky though.


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