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Decarbonization Dilemma: The Tragedy of the Common(s) Light Bulb

image credit: Illustration 144871774 © Vectortatu -

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb.

As in the case with many technologies, the original inventor of something is not always the "inventor" of the first commercial transformation of it into a product. The electric incandescent light was actually invented by Humphrey Davy in 1802, and several individuals improved on it in the decades that followed. Edison filed his first patent for "improved electric lights" in 1878.

But before we get too far on the timeline, let's pause at the year 1838. That is the year that a British Economist named William Forster Lloyd published a now-famous pamphlet that introduced the concept of the "Tragedy of the Commons". 

The commons in this case was the Town Commons, i.e. the land in the center of a town that was considered public land and owned by everyone in common under the idea that anyone could use it. Forster hypothesized that if farmers used the Town Common for grazing their cows as much as they wanted, none of them would have any incentive to preserve the Common, because the other farmers using it would then have an advantage over them. Lloyd said that therefore the farmers would use up the land on the Common until it was exhausted and ruined.

This concept, at least from the standpoint of economic theory, did not immediately catch on. That could be because over the next hundred-plus years and natural resources seemed unlimited and impossible to ruin. 

It was not until 1968 that the theory was re-introduced. An American biologist and philosopher, Garret Hardin, wrote an article in which he said that the "Commons" now meant any shared resource, including the atmosphere, fish stocks, oceans & rivers, roads & highways, etc. (you can also think about the office refrigerator if you want). let's bring the light bulb back into this discussion.

The White House has recently moved to reverse regulations that were put in place to eliminate incandescent light bulbs due to their low efficiency and the availability of other more efficient lighting options. The main reason being given for the roll-back, as far as I can tell, is that eliminating the incandescent would harm customer "choice". It would mean that customers would lose the ability to choose an inefficient light bulb.

This raises an important question. Should we have energy efficiency regulations at all? Why shouldn't producers and consumers be able to make and buy whatever they want?

But what if I change the question?  What if it is "should we have any environmental regulations at all?  Should we have clean water and clean air rules?" Setting aside the many efforts by the current administration to roll back regulations in those areas, I would say that the answer came in the 1970s 1970's and the subsequent decades via the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other laws and regulations. These new policies recognized, even if implicitly, that the Tragedy of the Commons was in play and unconstrained pollution was occurring with no one having the incentive to stop it.

But what is an energy efficiency regulation when you come down to it? Isn't it environmental regulation? Isn't the idea that something that uses less energy should result in less adverse impacts on common resources?

Today the tragedy is playing out with a new, insidious pollutant - greenhouse gases. It is insidious in that unlike the obvious, in-our-faces impacts like rivers on fire and forests dying from acid rain, the impacts of greenhouse gases are not as obvious. They are also not as timely. The impact lags behind the contribution. The impact becomes become "baked-in" as concentrations build whose impact is not immediately observable.

Choice is an important, and sometimes sacred, tenet when it comes to consumers and commerce. I spent many years working on the introduction of choice in retail electricity. But that was introducing choice where none existed before. It was introducing choice where previously there was a monopoly providing retail power. Choice in consumer products is also important (although I cringe every time I shop for things like toothpaste because the variations are so many yet so subtle that I sometimes feel paralyzed to make a purchase)

But when it comes to the environment, and especially when it comes to climate change, choice cannot be sacred. The Tragedy of the Commons cannot be allowed to play out, and one of the key reasons for the government to exist is to make sure that a balance exists between individual freedoms and what is good for the whole of the community, state or nation. 

When energy-inefficient products are produced, purchased and used, the commons are being unjustly ruined. Yes, those consumers are paying more for energy, so one could say that they should be allowed to do that as a choice on how they spend their money. But absent a carbon tax, that extra money paid is not going towards offsetting the additional emissions that come with energy inefficiency. It is not going to the preservation of the commons.

Government must try to mitigate the tragedy of the "climate" commons. The commons are not going to be preserved simply and solely by innovation and the marketplace, at least not in time to meet the projected emissions timeline.

William Forster Lloyd likely could not have envisioned the challenges to the commons in 2020 when he put out his pamphlet in 1833. He probably could not even imagine what kind of "commons" was being threatened today. But he soon would have recognized what was going on today, and he would have quickly said that those in power needed to step up and act on behalf of the common good. He would be right.



Dan Delurey's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 19, 2020 7:55 pm GMT


"But what is an energy efficiency regulation when you come down to it? Isn't it environmental regulation?"

Dan, though the answers to your questions are 'no', you seem to pose them rhetorically - as though we should assume their answers are 'yes'.

Consumption of energy itself has no environmental impacts, and efficiency improvements don't necessarily prevent them. CO2 resulting from the generation of electricity with fossil fuel does, however - it's the primary driver of climate change. If electricity generation is provided by sources which emit no carbon/CO2, the only direct benefit of efficiency is cost savings - there's less electricity to generate.

Intermittent renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, often considered "clean" energy, aren't clean in practice. When unavailable, both must be backed up by burning natural gas. Indirectly, emissions are thus a consequence of adoption of renewable energy, and exacerbated by inefficient consumption. Wouldn't a source of energy that didn't create carbon emissions, nor require backup with fossil fuels, solve our problem? If the fuel costs of our source were negligible, wouldn't considerations of efficiency be irrelevant?

The answers to those questions are 'yes', and fortunately we do have such a source: nuclear energy. With nuclear, efficiency becomes 100% irrelevant - use as much energy as you like, to your heart's content. You are causing no harm to the environment, and only limited harm to your pocketbook. 

Today in the U.S. we operate in an energy economy where the decline and elimination of nuclear energy is assumed, but the only basis for the assumption are irrational fears and associations going back half a century. Eliminate those misperceptions, and our problem goes away.

Maybe a solution to climate change isn't as formidable as it seems.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 21, 2020 4:00 pm GMT

Today the tragedy is playing out with a new, insidious pollutant - greenhouse gases. It is insidious in that unlike the obvious, in-our-faces impacts like rivers on fire and forests dying from acid rain, the impacts of greenhouse gases are not as obvious.

Such an important point-- despite the volumes of science and forecasts of what will happen without action today, it's too easy for those who want to ignore climate change to do so because the effects aren't yet visible to them personally. And unfortunately when they do become visible, we risk it being far far too late to reverse course

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