Pro-Life Environmentalism

Not long ago I was part of a rather heated conversation about light bulbs. One member of my family was arguing that the mandated use of CFL bulbs is a restriction of freedom and a threat to people’s health. It is true that CFLs contain small amounts of harmful chemicals including mercury. It is also true that they use 25% of the electricity of a traditional incandescent bulb. The argument that day was over the idea that the government is putting energy conservation above human health. “They care more about the earth than the people.”

This has often been the concern of conservatives and religious people regarding environmentalism. We have believed that concern for the environment means caring for the well being of dolphins and spotted owls more than the well being of our human neighbors. The fact is, though, that care for the earth and care for human health are far from mutually exclusive.

CFL light bulbs have created some controversy. Even though CFL bulbs do use a quarter of the electricity of incandescent bulbs, they do contain dangerous chemicals. Some say that the danger of CFL bulbs outweighs the benefit. They say that even though we save a significant amount of electricity by using CFLs, we are still creating dangerous pollution.

If we hash through all the rhetoric and fear-mongering we find an interesting fact: the total mercury footprint of a CFL bulb is 1/4 that of an incandescent bulb. CFL’s reduce power consumption to such a degree that pollution and environmental danger from power plants is reduced considerably. Over its lifetime, a CFL will produce 1.6 milligrams of mercury (this includes the mercury present in the bulb, which can be recycled). By contrast, producing the electricity needed to power incandescent bulbs for the same amount of time will produce 5.8 milligrams of mercury.

This means that that the use of CFL bulbs will reduce toxic chemicals in the environment, save energy, and save money.

This CFL vs incandescent debate highlights the fact that environmental conservation issues are directly tied to issues of health and life. Mercury in our food, water, and air (most of which comes from coal fired power plants) causes brain damage, birth defects, and shortens life. Concern about pollutants such as mercury should be central to our expression of faith.

I believe that one of the greatest environmental tragedies is that pollution and environmental dangers nearly always have a disproportionate effect on the poor. The most helpless people in our society are in the most danger.

Children in the depressed neighborhoods of the Bronx have higher rates of asthma than most other parts of the country. This is likely due to the extremely large amount of diesel truck traffic delivering trash to waste processing plants in the Bronx.

Poor people who live in coal mining communities of West Virginia have been plagued by toxic water which is a result of the mining of coal on the mountains where these people live.

Poverty stricken parts of India experience the highest rates of birth defects on earth. They also experience unrestricted amounts of pollution in their water and soil.

Many scientist believe that the extreme weather (including drought) all around the globe has been brought on by the deforestation of South America. Extreme weather has a devastating effect in places that are dependent on agriculture (usually poor , developing countries).

There are thousands of other examples of environmental irresponsibility (or ignorance) taking a terrible toll on human health.

This should concern us greatly. It should concern us that the amount of trash we throw away causes inner city children to suffer. It should concern us that the amount of electricity we use contributes to cancer in mountain communities. It should concern us that the products we buy are often produced by corporations who have little concern about the impact they have on the poor of India, China, or Bangladesh.

Isaiah 58 is God’s condemnation of the religious practice of His people.  “You do as you please and exploit all your workers,” God accuses in verse three. The chapter goes on to say that the behavior that is pleasing to God is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke . . . to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”

God’s concern is always for the poor and helpless. He is concerned about justice for those who are oppressed by systems of greed. Environmental concern is not just a matter of caring for the earth. It is a matter of justice, kindness, love, and life–especially for the poor. We should not defend of the sanctity of human life unless we are also willing to demonstrate concern for the environment. Environmental concern is about life.

This is why I will use CFL bulbs, why I will support low impact forms of energy, why I will try to produce less waste, why I will support environmental restrictions, why I will walk rather than drive, and why I will turn off the lights when I leave the room. Because life is important–to me and to God.

2 Responses to “Pro-Life Environmentalism”

  1. “….Over its lifetime, a CFL will produce 1.6 milligrams of mercury (this includes the mercury present in the bulb, which can be recycled). By contrast, producing the electricity needed to power incandescent bulbs for the same amount of time will produce 5.8 milligrams of mercury….”

    Can you explain this please and/or link to the source material. Thanks.

    I am curious to know how and where do incandescent lightbulbs produce their mercury? The trouble with CFL lightbulbs is that they are very dim which means people will tend to have more of them on (4 CFL lightbulbs = 1 incandescent bulb = the same amount of electricity being used but using 4 lightbulbs). Also CFL lightbulbs get thrown out in the trash and end up in landfill. The mercury then leaks out and enters the rivers (flowing out into the sea) as well as the general underground water supply.

    This is why I am interested to know *where* exactly is the 5.8 milligrams of mercury which you claim is produced by incandescent lightbulbs. Is it produced in the factories or does it end up in nature like with CFL lightbulbs?

    • A 13 watt CFL produces the amount of light equivalent to a 60 watt incandescent bulb. CFLs do not appear dimmer. Even if a person was not satisfied with the brightness of a 13 watt CFL and opted for a 23 watt bulb instead (nearly twice as bright as a 60 watt incandescent bulb) they would still be using half the electricity of the incandescent bulb.

      CFLs also last much longer than incandescent bulbs. That means less waste.

      A CFL contains 0.4 milligrams of mercury. An incandescent bulb contains no mercury. If the bulb were the only element of the equation, the incandescent bulb would certainly be less dangerous. The real issue here is the production of electricity. Producing the electricity to power one 13 watt CFL for 8,000 hours will produce about 1.2 milligrams of mercury. Producing the electricity to power a 60 watt incandescent bulb for the same amount of time will produce 5.8 milligrams of mercury. Even if I crush my CFL (releasing its 0.4 mg of mercury) and then throw in into a landfill, this bulb’s impact is only 1.6 milligrams of mercury compared to the 5.8 milligrams of the incandescent bulb.

      Below is a link to a great article that lays out this information very simply. If you don’t like this one, a quick internet search will give you loads of references about power consumption and pollution.

      Construction of the largest coal-fired power plant in my state is being proposed right down the road from my home. The mercury (in addition to other toxic chemicals) that will be pumped into the air by this plant is of far more concern to the residents of my community than the use of CFL bulbs. In fact, if most of us replaced our old-fashioned light bulbs with CFLs, we would eliminate the need to build new power plants which are usually a danger to the region they call home.

      CFL bulbs are not perfect, but they are a step in the right direction. Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

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