Why Turn Off the Lights?

Every so often, I get a question from someone about turning off the lights: does it really make a difference? This question has always puzzled me a little, since math dictates that even small things (the amount of energy you save by turning off the light) add up to big things (the amount of energy you and others save by turning off the light over the course of a year), but the question seems to be a reoccurring one, so maybe it just seems too good to be true that such a small action really can have a significant impact. I’ll try to clear it up here:
Of course, it is true — the really beneficial effects of such practices are usually evident when many people adopt energy-saving practices, but some benefits come even at the individual level. For example, turning off light bulbs and saving energy simply make economic sense: for more info on the economics of turning off the lights (and which practices are most cost-effective for different types of light bulbs), the following link is very helpful and about as non-“hippie” as you can get. (Though the fact that a cause is espoused by hippies does not necessarily make it wrong-headed; sometimes hippies get it right!)

http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/lighting_daylighting/index.cfm/mytopic=12280

But what if you’re not paying for your energy or have all the money in the world to spend on leaving the lights on?

As far as the effect on developing countries goes, our energy consumption has an impact on the rest of the world. Higher energy consumption drives up the demand for energy, which in turn raises the global cost of energy. A rise in cost of energy that is merely an inconvenience in the US may be devastating to developing countries: one quarter of the global population still lacks electricity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and rising costs of energy will only make this problem more difficult to fix.

You will also be saving energy/cutting down on carbon emissions: lighting accounts for 15% of a home’s energy use. People making the individual choice to make small changes really can make a difference: for example, if each household in the US switched just one incandescent light bulb to a more fuel-efficient carbon fluorescent light bulb, we could save enough energy to light 3 million homes, save $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent the emission of 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gases.

There are always going to be some people that say, “We can’t solve this problem within 30 years, so why bother?” or “The chances that other people are going to join me in making these attempts at change are slim, so what’s the point?” I think the problem with this kind of reasoning is best manifest if one applies this logic to areas other than sustainability.

For example, a dollar is a relatively small amount of money, so by the “light bulbs don’t make a difference” reasoning, the loss or gain of a dollar would make a negligible difference in your life. However, if someone demanded a dollar from you everyday because –hey, it’s just a dollar! — my guess is that you would not be too crazy about the system because you would be troubled by the amount of money you would eventually lose via these individually small transactions. Similarly, using the “light bulbs don’t matter” reasoning, I might make the argument that there is no point in giving food to a homeless shelter/foreign aid to developing countries, because no single effort of mine is going to solve the problem of poverty overnight/in our lifetimes. Unless I’m willing to throw up my hands in despair at any complicated problem, the “turning off your light bulb doesn’t make any difference” argument makes no sense.

So, keep turning off those light bulbs! And, if you’re feeling really ambitious, switch to fluorescent light bulbs. You can make a difference!

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