Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The Return of the Monkish Virtues

“[The author of Leviticus] posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with ‘demonic’ power – the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. Not only can one defy God but, in Priestly language, one can drive God out of his sanctuary. In this respect, humans have replaced demons…..[The author of Leviticus] also posits that the pollution of the sanctuary leads to YHWH’s abandonment of Israel and its ejection from the land….Israel pollutes the land; the land becomes infertile; Israel is forced to leave.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus

“Pollution ideas are the product of an ongoing political debate about the ideal society. All mysterious pollutions are dangerous, but to focus on the physical danger and to deride the reasoning that attaches it to particular transgressions is to miss the lesson for ourselves….Pollution beliefs trace causal chains from from actions to disasters…Pollution beliefs uphold conceptual categories dividing the moral from the immoral and so sustain the vision of the good society.” – Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.” – David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

The era of the 100 watt incandescent light bulb came to an end in America on January 1st. Lower wattages will soon join them in a phaseout over time. As I noted previously, this will mean factory shutdowns in the United States and the migration of the light bulb manufacturing industry to China. The most common replacement type bulbs, compact fluorescents, are not “instant on,” generally fail to provide a proper light spectrum, contain poisonous mercury, and burn out sooner than advertised. CFL boosters claim none of these are real problems and that CFLs are a slam dunk for benefit/cost reasons, but the cold reality is that despite significant promotion, they never received widespread consumer adoption voluntarily. Given how eagerly consumers slurp up even bona fide more expensive products like Apple computers when they are perceived to be superior, I’m inclined to think the consumers are on to something. I’ve tried out CFLs myself and thought they basically sucked.

The supposed rationale for imposing an inferior product that did not receive the desired traction in the the marketplace is to prevent climate change. I went searching to try to find exactly what the impact of light bulbs on greenhouse gas emissions was and have found it quite difficult to obtain. The various sites touting CFLs all note the high output of CO2 from electricity generation generally, how much CO2 changing this or that bulb will save, etc, but as for what a wholesale elimination of light bulbs would achieve, that’s harder to find.

According to the EPA, residential electricity accounted for 784.6 million metric tons of CO2 in 2009, or 11.8% of total US human greenhouse gas emissions. How much of that is from light bulbs? It’s not broken out in the EPA’s report (even the detailed version), but I’ll attempt an estimate of aggregate CO2 savings. (If someone has a direct link to this information, please let me know).

The Guardian reported that an Australian incandescent ban would save that country 800K tons of CO2 emitted per year and a UK ban would save 2-3 million tons. It also reported that China could save 48 million tons per year by banning incandescents.

The US is bigger than Australia and the UK, but similarly advanced developmentally. China is a bigger emitter than the US, has far more people, is less advanced developmentally, and is a bigger user of coal for electricity generation. However, all three countries project similar per capita emissions reductions from incandescent elimination. If the US savings were at the upper end of their range, it would have CO2 savings of around 15 million tons a year. That’s only 0.2% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the US saved the same 48 million tons as China, it’s only 0.7%. I’d be skeptical of anyone claiming the US would save a lot more CO2 per capita than these. Some maybe, a lot, no.

In short, swapping out incandescent light bulbs is not going to be a major contributor to solving the problem of climate change. I’m not aware of anyone claiming it is. So why pass a law that is unpopular in many quarters and cram CFLs and other type of bulbs consumers haven’t chosen to buy on their own down their throats? It seems to be a purely provocative move of a mostly symbolic nature with little real substance that is sure to only harden opposition to the real changes we need to make to actually make material reductions in GHG emissions. (One might say the same of other items like mandatory recycling or banning plastic grocery bags).

The answer is that the symbolism is the substance.

The sad reality is that rather than make policy cases based on benefit/cost or other technical considerations, for political or personal reasons sustainability advocates have decided to model their cause on the template of religion. In it we have an Edenic state of nature in a fallen state because of man’s sin (pollution) for which we will experience a coming apocalyptic judgement (damage from climate change). Thus avoiding the consequences becomes fundamentally a problem of sin management. The proposed sin management solution is again taken from traditional Christianity: confession and repentance, followed by penance, restoration to right standing with God (nature), and committing to a holier life.

There are two basic problems with this. The first is that while the religion template taps in to a deep psychological vein in the human spirit – some have suggested humanity may even carry a so-called “God gene” – most people already have a religion and aren’t likely to convert to a new one without a major outreach effort.

But more importantly, the notion of penance, and perhaps of asceticism more generally, has never sold with the public, even in more religious eras. David Hume (a vigorous religious skeptic it should be noted) referred to the values resulting from this lifestyle as the “monkish virtues” and noted that they have “everywhere rejected by men of sense.” Or as Carol Coletta put it more recently, people don’t want to be told to “eat their spinach.”

It strikes me that while perhaps environmentalists don’t really want to force a particular lifestyle on people, there is a fundamental desire to see people engage in some sort of public penance for our environmental sins. I believe this to be the root logic underlying a lot of feel-good (or perhaps more accurately, “feel-bad”) initiatives like getting rid of incandescent light bulbs. It is a form of penance and embrace of the monkish virtues.

I can’t help but notice that even Christianity itself has moved away from promoting the monkish virtues. While things humility are of course still preached and expected to be modeled, modern Christianity mostly rejects the notion of an ascetic life. Most Evangelical churches actually preach that God wants humans to be happy. The idea is of a God who wants us to be unselfish, but not unhappy. A not insignificant number of churches actually preach the so-called “prosperity gospel” in which God will provide earthly blessings to His followers. In the Catholic tradition, monasticism itself has been in decline for some time. (I liken the reports of upticks in interest in joining monasteries as similar to the perennial “return of the suit” articles in fashion magazines).

Whether these theological points are accurate or not is beside the point of this article. They appear to be attractional. For example, well-known prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen runs the largest church in the United States, with over 40,000 attending weekly.

What might the environmental movement have looked like based on a different template? I’ll refer again to the work of Bruce Mau. If you’ve ever seen him present on this topic, he likes to start by noting that if we brought the entire world up to US standards of living, it would take four Earth’s worth of resources given our current technologies and approaches to make it happen. He thinks that’s a good thing, because the patent impossibility of that “takes that option off the table.” He then goes on to talk about all the super-cool new stuff we are going to have to invent and scale up to address the challenges of the future. If you haven’t, I might suggest getting his book Massive Change, which I reviewed a while back. It’s difficult to come away from one of Mau’s books or lectures without being excited about the possibilities of the future.

I don’t think Mau has any different view of the fundamentals of climate change than your typical orthodox environmentalist. But his approaches to solutions (which are admittedly not always short term practical action plans) and the sales job on them is very different. As a designer, he knows he needs to create something that’s aspirational and attractional in order to get people to want it. It’s a shame too few people have followed that lead.

The monkish virtues are just never going to sell. Perhaps you can get a room full of the sustainability in-crowd to buy into it, or even focus on top level political success as with the bulb ban. But ultimately I think this is self-defeating.

In the short term I’d suggest ending any efforts to impose direct consumer mandates. I don’t think that’s where the money is, so to speak, in GHG reductions. Instead, let’s focus on the producer side of the equation in ways that are largely transparent to consumers and don’t involve significant costs. More fuel efficient vehicles might be one. Replacing coal with natural gas is another possibility. (The EPA report I linked earlier cited this as a big contributor the decline in GHG emissions in recent years). New technologies are clearly needed and should perhaps be invested in even though as we know this will lead to many failures along the way.

As the financial crisis in Greece and elsewhere shows, people rarely confront structural problems, no matter how serious, until the crisis actually comes. At least if “austerity” (a monkish virtue if ever there was one) is the major part of the proposed solution.

If an environmental equivalent of austerity is required to save the planet, then I’m afraid we should prepare for the deluge. I personally don’t think we’re at that point, given that we’ve had huge gains in energy efficiency for many decades now while our lifestyles have actually improved. More of that, not the promotion of monkish solutions like CFL lightbulbs, is what it will really take to drive further environmental improvements.

PS: If you don’t think people are really promoting or embracing monkish lifestyles in support of environmentalism, read this article from the Guardian about people giving up on daily showers. Or think about the people trying to completely go “off the grid.” Even if CFLs don’t fit for you, clearly there are plenty of examples. I pick CFLs because they are an institutionalization of monkish virtues, not just the passion of the small minority, which has always been the case.

Topics: Sustainability

18 Responses to “The Return of the Monkish Virtues”

  1. Bert Green says:

    I fail to see any cogent analysis in this post. In my experience, with a little bit of research, I discovered that CFL bulbs were a great help to my business in reducing our electricity usage by almost 1/3. I own a 4,000 square foot art gallery which was lit with 45 halogen flood lights, 90 watts each. Once I was able to locate commercially available CFLs that would match the color temperature of halogen in 2010, I replaced all the bulbs at a cost of $300, and immediately saw a decrease in my electric bill from $250 per month to $95 per month. The new bulbs are 23 watts and cost about $8.50 each versus $6 each for the halogens. The new bulbs paid for themselves in energy savings in less than 3 months.

    In addition, at any Home Depot today, anyone can buy a good selection of CFLs or LEDs which are sold in a variety of color temperatures.

    In my own home I have changed many of the bulbs to CFLs and have realized similar savings.

    There is a compelling public interest in reducing electricity demand, and by extension, greenhouse gas emissions. If even a small percentage of people can achieve the type of energy use reductions as I was able to manage, this should be a good thing.

  2. Eric says:

    Excellent post. I consider myself to be an environmentalist–in fact I have a BS in environmental geology. But I’ve always objected to the stereotypical Green’s fear of technology and support of shame-based minimalism.

  3. AIM says:

    Huh? Your conclusion tells us that we should pursue energy efficiency after you spend an entire column deriding one the easiest and lowest-cost ways for people to save energy and money in a very painless way. I get it – you hate CFLs. But I’ve replaced most of the lightbulbs in my house with CFLs and haven’t experienced your litany of complaints. They work just fine and where you can’t see the bulb itself, you would be hard-pressed to tell me whether a particular light fixture has a CFL or incandescent bulb. Like my energy efficient washer and dryer, CFLs have allowed me to reduce my energy usage significantly which means money in my pocket. Why people would want to waste their money unnecessarily is a mystery to me but there is a segment of US society that seems to revel in wasting resources.

  4. If fluorescents work for you, excellent. In fact, I think they are great in some applications, such as lights that stay on perpetually or for extended periods of time. The common areas of my building are lit with fluorescents (including in some swank Artemide fixtures). I was all in favor of this move.

    The question is whether those who don’t find them of value and don’t like them should nevertheless be forced to use them. I think this is a bad move practically and turns people off on sustainability generally.

  5. CityBeautiful21 says:

    The key problem with this post is that it fails to acknowledge that we live in a political realm where the policy choices that can be implemented are often 2nd-best, 3rd-best, or all the way down to 17th-best ways to address an issue.

    At the policy level, the most efficient ways to address CO2 emissions, like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade/auction, are just not able to move through the American political system and become policy.

    So instead of comprehensive policy or carbon pricing, you get things like incandescent lightbulb bans. But are these suboptimal policies worse than nothing happening due to gridlock? No, we’re much better for having them.

    This legislation was signed by George W Bush. Here’s some background.

    I don’t see how it is any different from the rising fuel economy standards Obama signed, that you seem to endorse above. The goals are the same. More lumens per watt of electricity, more miles per gallon. Government is setting the goals and getting out of the way on methods. Bert described many of the new products you can buy in stores today, and the marketplace is solving the “I don’t like the light the CFLs give off” issue that inspired this post.

    Regarding efficiency, my findings are the same as Bert’s. I lived in a townhouse a few years ago. When we moved in, it took me a few months before I thought “hmm, I bet we could lower the bill and the CO2 emissions by going to CFLs.” We swapped every bulb that made sense to swap. (we had one dimmer at the time, no dimmable CFLs then) Our electricity bill dropped by about 10% and stayed down. We added a programmable thermostat about 6 months later and dropped another 10-12%. I got a tax credit or deduction for the latter.

    Those extra dollars in my pocket were probably spent at local businesses in my urban neighborhood. If you can identify a loser in that chain of economic adjustments beyond the utility company, let me know.

  6. Peter says:

    This site has become a joke.

  7. aim says:

    In my area, utilities are some of the biggest pushers of CFLs and other energy efficiency efforts. Part of that comes from state mandated requirements. But there’s also an economic case to be made for holding down the growth of energy. Generation plants and transmission systems are capital intensive and often require decades to pay off the investment. As regulated monopolies, those kinds of costs can hurt the ability of these companies to generate profits for their stockholders. Many of them are seeing that by putting some limits on the growth of demand, they can continue to wring money out of their existing capital investments without having to invest big dollars to deal with demands that only occur at infrequent peak periods.

  8. @CityBeautiful21, politics is always a reality. But I believe that, at least partially as a result of the bulb ban, we are very unlikely to ever see another piece of climate change legislation make it through Congress. What progress that will be made will be done through administrative rule making, but I don’t see much more happening legislatively.

  9. CityBeautiful21 says:

    In the scope of barriers to climate change legislation, any bulb ban backlash (which I agree would materialize somewhere, despite Bush signing the bill) is sure to be dwarfed by other influential variables in the policy process.

    The biggest one that comes to mind is the Grover Norquist “never raise taxes no matter what pledge” that mid-twentieth centure Rockefeller Republicans would have described probably as “well-meaning, but misguided and limiting.”

    Having a price on carbon means somewhere, somehow, a tax probably needs to be raised or a loophole for a fossil-fuel producer needs to be closed. Both will raise government revenue, and thus are virtual nonstarters as policy options to one party’s members unless they want a primary challenge in the next election.

    I think you’re right that monkish behavior doesn’t sell, but I don’t think this ban passed because of rhetoric suggesting we adopt monkish behaviors, because the anti-monks, which you seem to channel in your original post, would have then voted “no” for reasons rooted in our culture wars.

    The arguments surely had more to do with efficiency, cost savings, and less dependence on foreign fuels, which are exactly how the auto fuel standards arguments go. Some folks make the clean air argument, too, but most of the time in our legislatures, the economics are the heaviest emphasis.

    I see your PS note, but comparing policymakers in the US with activists in other countries is an apples/skateboards comparison. Find me five members of Congress skipping showers for the earth and I’ll be glad to come back and say that worldview has more traction than I ever imagined.

    PS. Bert is right. Go down to a hardware store and try some of the new halogens or CFLs with different color grades. By 2014, we may have CFL/LED disco balls.

  10. This post sounds just like what happened with the introduction of low-flow toilets. It’s the same “I got one of these new-fangled things and it sucks, therefore they all suck and will always suck, so I went back to my old one.” Once the plumbing companies put some real engineering into their toilets, they now vastly outperform their high-flow ancestors. Yes, the first generation tended to be kludges, but things have changed significantly.

    The same is true for compact fluorescents. Yes, early ones weren’t great, and if you get the absolute cheapest ones you can find, they probably still have issues. Nevertheless, color rendition has improved markedly, you can dim them, and most if not all of them now are instant-on. Even so, what’s wrong with a half-second delay? The mercury content is a concern, however in places that get most of their electricity from coal, more mercury gets released by the power plant generating electricity to run an incandescent bulb than is used in the manufacturing and powering of a CFL. Also keep in mind that aside from the direct energy use of the bulb, there’s also the energy required to air condition the space they’re used in as well. My apartment gets quite hot in the summer time, and using 100 watt incandescent bulbs or halogen torch lights simply doesn’t make sense. It’s also a very inefficient use of energy for additional heating in the winter, so that’s not an argument that can be used in their favor.

    One problem with CFLs that hasn’t been completely solved is that they don’t perform well in very cold temperatures. I think that modern electronic ballasts have solved the issue of getting them started in the first place, but their light output diminishes severely in temperatures below freezing, especially when used in fixtures that weren’t designed for them. This is one reason some supermarkets have switched to LEDs in their frozen food and refrigerated display cases, because they like the cold. LEDs also don’t have the mercury problem, and like CFLs, they’re quickly improving in both brightness and color rendition. They haven’t caught up yet, but I think they’ve finally gotten some good white light out of them, and they’re now bright enough to use for street lights. They’ve had dimmable ones for a while, and those don’t have the color shifting that can occur with dimmable CFLs. Once the price point comes down a bit, I think we’ll see them replace most if not all CFL installations, and maybe even a lot of tube fluorescents as well.

  11. First, there are many similarities between environmentalism, or other sociopolitical movements, and religion. (There have been numerous books on this idea: Godin and Nelson to name just two.) For the most part, I agree with the premise and don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. I think it points to a common human desire to live for something greater than ourselves and that perhaps there is something about religion that we as humans need (whether we want to admit it or not).

    Second, to dismiss so flippantly a list of virtues that includes traits like humility makes me a bit uncomfortable (for more on the virtuous aspects of humility, see John Dickson). Moreover, I think there’s a lot to be learned from the monks of old in this era of endless information and stimulation. Were they a bit off in some regards? Sure. Should most of their virtues be called vices? Definitely not.

    I’ve posted a more extensive comment on at

  12. Jason says:

    Higher efficiency standards is good for the country and good for individuals. There’s nothing “monkish” about this change, the new light bulbs are all around higher quality products. There’s already plenty of discussion around about why more efficient bulbs didn’t instantly take off, but it’s not because incandescent bulbs are a better technology.

    And for all the complaining about “politics,” the entire post is just a long right wing rant about big government shoving things down people’s throats, and costing jobs, and bla bla bla. As soon as the change happens and people actually start using the new lightbulbs, the “issue” will instantly disappear and republicans will look silly for giving it so much attention.

    The move to the new light bulbs is a clear and reasonable one.

  13. Joseph E says:

    Aaron, no one is being forced to use CFLs. The law only requires that lights meet a certain efficiency standard, about 20% better than old-fashioned bulbs. Almost all halogen lights already meet this standard… and halogens are a type of incandescent light source, with all of the benefits of old light bulbs, but with longer life and better efficiency. And LED technology is rapidly improving; LEDs provide instant-on function and very good directionality, like halogens; in a few years they should be a good alternative.

    Certainly there are some “monkish” folks in the green/environmental movement, but the push to improve lightbulb efficiency isn’t part of this. No one is taking away your halogens. And everyone will save tons of money in the long term, due to both the lower energy costs, and the longer life spans of better bulbs.

    Facts to counter the spin:

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, I think you’re making the same mistake that Yonah Freemark and Robert Cruickshank are making in their defense of CAHSR, only in reverse. You say,

    In short, swapping out incandescent light bulbs is not going to be a major contributor to solving the problem of climate change. I’m not aware of anyone claiming it is. So why pass a law that is unpopular in many quarters and cram CFLs and other type of bulbs consumers haven’t chosen to buy on their own down their throats?

    You’re essentially making an argument from small numbers – Robert and Yonah say that HSR costs are small compared to GDP, you say that CFL benefits are small compared to total emissions. But what needs to be evaluated is both costs and benefits, and the compliance costs of this regulation are tiny. The institutional CFLs from the 70s are pretty bad, but the newer ones at supermarkets aren’t – personally I find them better than incandescent bulbs, which have the wrong color temperature.

    Put another way: CAHSR’s costs are much lower than those of, say, putting everyone in the US through college – but the benefits are also scaled down. And the benefits of switching to CFLs are lower than those of, say, a national traffic restraint program – but they do not require a significant lifestyle change.

  15. Thad says:

    I’m no consumer behavior expert, but the reason that CFL’s probably didn’t immediately take off on their own is not only due to the poor quality issues when they first came on the market, but also the simple fact that they were like $1-$2 more than incandescent bulbs (not friendly to bulk buying which I assume is how most people purchase light bulbs). And I know when I’m buying a light bulb, I’m just getting something that will fit into the light fixture and turn on. That’s vastly different than purchasing a Macbook when you are taking into consideration performance, user friendliness, frequency of technical issues, etc. Apple products have many more considerations, uses, and features that would justify paying more than a similar, cheaper, non-Apple product.

    Your argument boils down to “I don’t really like doing that and feel inconvenienced by this minor change, so we shouldn’t do it all.” All of the little changes and decreases do add up and if we are going to dramatically lower our GHG emissions (and save habitats and preserve biodiversity, and reduce our wastes) to the tune of 75%, then we all have to make adjustments, even the ones we feel are going to put us out (like changing light bulbs)

  16. Nathanael says:

    CFLs don’t fit your post.

    The mandate was an efficiency mandate. There are already sufficiently efficient incandescents thanks to research since the mandate law was passed and before it went into effect, so you can buy them.

    More importantly there are already LEDs which are far more efficient and provide whatever light spectrum you want.

    And there’s an exception for scientific research and other specialty bulb needs.

    The lightbulb efficiency law was an example of a coordination problem, where no company wanted to be the first to make more efficient light bulbs (that costs money!).

    So I didn’t read most of your ignorant discussion; I skipped to the end.

    As for the “monkish environmentmentalists”. I’ve known the type since the 1970s; you can spot them because they do things which are obnoxious or a lot of work and don’t help much at all (or even hurt) like preferring composting toilets to city sewers. Yeech.

    There are *far fewer* of them than there used to be. The ones from the 1970s are now running techie solar panel companies. (Et cetera.)

    The “off the grid” folks come from a different tradition, one which we usually think of as “right wing” — the survivalist who expects disaster and is hunkering down. But they are the left wing version.

  17. Nathanael says:

    Let me say that you should simply apologize for and remove this entire article. If you’re trying to make a point about monkish virtues, find a real example. If you’re trying to discuss the lightbulb efficiency law, find out some facts about it first.

  18. Nathanael says:

    By the way, LEDs are definitely the future. Still expensive right now, but I had the capital, so I replaced every bulb in my house with good ones (you have to get good ones, the bad ones suck). Massive electricity use savings, and the light’s marvellous.

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