Light Bulb Study: Why Republicans Don't Want to Buy Greener, Costlier Light Bulbs


We all know that Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree when it comes to taxes, foreign policy, and Chick-fil-A, but a new study hopes to add another item to that contentious list: light bulbs.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that as environmentalism has become more politicized and partisan, personal politics is now deciding whether or not consumers forgo cleaner, cheaper light bulbs – even when they know the benefits. If environmentalists don’t find a nonpartisan way of framing the issue, incandescent light bulbs might become another thing that red America “clings” to, albeit more uncomfortably than to Bibles and guns.

The UPenn study safely establishes what we all already know: Attitudes towards the environment are intrinsically political. The study sampled 657 individuals to find out if their opinions on greener, more efficient light bulbs correlated significantly with their political identifications (they did). A smaller group of 210 were briefed on the benefits of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which last drastically longer than incandescent light bulbs and cut energy consumption by 75%. Armed with that information, volunteers were asked to choose between regular incandescent light bulbs and slightly more expensive CFLs, identified by a sticker touting their environmental bona fides. Unsurprisingly, Republican volunteers opted for the cheaper, incandescent bulb, while Democrats splurged for the greener, more efficient CFL.

Both sets of consumers knew that CFLs actually save money over time, but volunteers still chose largely along political lines. To Democrats, environmentally-friendly light bulbs, which last about 9,000 hours longer than traditional bulbs, are a good in and of themselves, a sign of our inevitable progress towards a greener, more rational society. To Republicans on the other hand, “green” light bulbs are seen as just another way liberal tastes and preferences are being stuffed down their throats – with a helping hand from Uncle Sam.

This, for environmental advocates, has always been the elephant in the room. Though we spend a lot of time and energy identifying Congress and corporations as the primary obstacles against smarter, greener policies, the truth is that they are only part of the problem. As far as environmentalism is concerned, we have found the enemy, and it is us. Our party identifications guide not only our policy preferences, but also what kind of music we listen to, what kind of books we read, and, apparently, how we light our homes. Other studies have shown that Democrats and Republicans even drink different beers. Heineken, for example, is a solidly Democratic brew, while Miller and Coors Light fare better with Republicans. We like different cars, makeup products, and car insurance (Democrats prefer Progressive, zing!).

This might all seem trivial. Of course, it doesn’t really matter if red and blue consumers drink different cheap beer. But light bulbs are more than just a cultural signifier. The seepage of our extremely partisan political culture into our consumer choices becomes worrying when it affects how we react to the environment, which was a bipartisan issue not too long ago. After all, the modern conservation movement began under the Theodore Roosevelt administration, which quadrupled national parks, and Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency. However, over the past 40 years both parties have turned the environment into a partisan cultural and political issue – the right by increasingly associating itself solely with business interests, and the left by articulating green arguments in a condescending and counter-cultural tone.

That work now needs to be undone. Someone's politics should not affect whether or not they help protect the environment – and save money in the long term – by buying a 21st century light bulb. Partisan politics might (occasionally) work in Washington, where all progress boils down to the matter of passing a bill, but to get red-state America to buy a greener light bulb, we need to remove environmentalism from partisanship altogether. If we don’t, and continue to rely solely on the government to improve society, don’t be surprised if Republican voters buy these light bulbs kicking and screaming, protest outside CFL factories like they do abortion clinics, and vote dozens of non-binding resolutions through the House “rolling back” Obama-bulbs. Currently, the left owns the environmental movement, a partisan achievement that does nothing more than let us feel good about ourselves. A new way of talking about this is needed. Let’s start with light bulbs.