Hipsters are known for many things, but they do give the impression of being eco-conscious, what with their love of bicycles, single origin coffee and reuse of old junk. But I’m beginning to wonder if an impression is all it is, as fashionable venues have become the last refuge of the incandescent light bulb.
Now, this isn’t the only example of hipsters being less green than they seem: overseas flights to Brooklyn or Berlin emit way more carbon than a fixie could ever offset, almond milk is draining California’s water supplies, and gallons of beard oil are undoubtedly pouring into our waterways.
But today at least I’m most bothered by those decorative, ‘Edison’-style bulbs that dangle low over your dukkah egg and polenta soldiers. Because really, they contribute nothing other than appearance. The appearance, apparently, of resisting new-fangled, soulless, Nobel Prize-winning, high-efficiency technology.
It’s all about retro, and the old-fashioned look that Thomas Edison—the Steve Jobs of his day—first made popular in the late 19th century.
Now, this is ironic when you consider that hipsters are normally so fiercely pro-Tesla, but perhaps that’s trumped by the whole steampunk vibe, that longing for the good old days of child labour and cholera. Frankly though, if you absolutely must show off your Victorian values, I’d rather you stick to something safe like gluing cogs to your top hat.
Because the trouble is that incandescent bulbs are pretty much the most inefficient form of electric lighting you can think of. If you remember your high school physics, wasted energy ends up as heat—and the more inefficient a system is, the less useful work it does for the amount of heat it produces.
But incandescent bulbs start with heat, in the hope that simply by making enough of it you’ll get some visible light out.
It’s no wonder then that they’ve been superseded by such things as curly-tubed compact fluorescents—which somehow never seemed to catch on with decorators—and light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which can be made to look as pretty as you want.
LEDs are semiconductor devices that give off light when electrons fall into 'holes', i.e. atoms that are short on electrons. If you don’t understand what that means, then all you need to know is that they’re so elegant and efficient that they won their creators last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.
Possibly by now you’re thinking, hang on, I’ve heard something about this—didn’t they ban those old-fashioned bulbs? Well yes they did—sort of.
In 2007, then Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia would be the first country in the world to phase out incandescent bulbs. And since 1 October 2012 you can no longer buy 'fancy' lamps (their terminology) that use more than 25 watts of power.
That 25 watt limit seems to have been put in to allow for small, decorative lamps for which people would have struggled to buy bulbs, but which use so little power that no one really cared.
Except that left a loophole big enough to drive a food van through. Limited supply creates increasing demand, and suddenly bam! Everyone now wants to buy 25 watt bare bulbs: classic hipster capitalism.
Being so inefficient, these bulbs produce very little light for the energy they use. I went down to my local lighting shop to check the specs: a multi-filament, 25 watt Edison bulb is rated to give off only 90 lumens (a lumen is a measure of the total power output in visible light; your typical candle emits about 12.5 lumens).
By comparison, you can buy faux-Edison LED bulbs—or as I like to call them, LEDison bulbs—that use only 5.5 watts and emit 400 lumens. That’s roughly 20 times more efficient, for something that basically looks the same anyway so why buy the inefficient one?
The incandescent bulbs are so dim (like their owners, ha!), you need a lot of them to light your “warehouse space”. And they add up. Two bulbs, totalling 50 watts, use the same power as running a small TV (an LED one, of course), or even my kitchen fridge (based on its star-rating sticker that claims only 463 kilowatt-hours used per year). I repeat, A FRIDGE.
Now, there is a case to be made that we shouldn’t put the onus on individuals to solve climate change, and that large-scale political action is the way to go. After all, the ozone layer was saved by government bans on chlorofluorocarbons, not by people choosing not to spray Louie the Fly.
However, I think the problem of Edison bulbs proves the opposite. The government already tried to ban them, but hipsters found a loophole and used it because they like the look of them. And maybe to stick it to the man, with the man here being, I don’t know, Al Gore perhaps, or Nobel laureate Shuji Nakamura (or possibly Malcolm Turnbull, but I doubt it because hipsters seem to love him).
There is a loophole to the loophole however, with the government rules allowing for a future ban on incandescent bulbs below 25 watts, depending on the availability of suitable replacements.
Until that happens though, I’m going to take it on myself to shame hipster restaurants, cafes and shops that use multiple Edison bulbs for lighting, with the hashtag #IncandescentRage.
Sure they’re legal, but don’t pretend you’re being environmentally friendly while using them.