Sunday, July 6, 2014

Light...By the People and For the People

Kickin' it the Merkan way with my boy U-Sam in Troy, NY.
Snap by George Gruel.
In a recent LI discussion group post about the role of government regulation in lighting, one ornery contributor took issue with my use of the term “environmental justice,” referring to it as a “silly term” coined by meddlesome “statists.” This made me realize that perhaps some people out there may not see eye-to-eye with me about shaping the regulatory environment around lighting, could it be? So I thought I’d better explain myself on this idea in a forum where the shouting is somewhat more filtered out.

I love it when I’m deeply ruminating on something (in this case it was the entire idea of government and how we believe it’s generally irrelevant) and I read a piece that neatly sums up a position and conclusions I’m already coming to on my own and points to a path of action. In this case it was Nathan Heller’s brilliant piece on the current clash of real people and the invading technocracy in my hometown San Francisco, California Screaming in the July 7 New Yorker. Here he points out that government is pretty much the opposite of innovation (kissin’ cousin of the recently mortally wounded meme whose name is Disruption) and the exquisitely efficient transfer of information that has come to define our culture today. Government is slow, participatory, painful, endlessly iterative, analog, and frustrating, but it still works. (It does, OK? Who builds the roads and delivers the water?) The really radical thing for Silicon Valley companies and people to do would be to embrace and enhance government as it is rather than constantly trying to reinvent it, or turn it into software-driven private enterprise. Of course information technology has made many functions of government infinitely better, like paying parking tickets. That doesn’t mean that the idea of government is over, or dead. That’s basically what Ted Cruz and the Tea Party want you to believe.

EPA (an agency I’m not always in agreement with) defines environmental justice as “…the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Also, “EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” That works for me: equal distribution of income, equal protection, equal opportunity. If that’s silly to you, call me a communist, or worse, a liberal. But if you’re not participating, step aside. I’ve got work to do.

My radical idea is to consider the built environment, especially indoors, where we spend almost all of our time, as probably the most important part of the “environment,” especially when it comes to lighting. This is something we’ve never really done before as far as I can tell. I mean, sure, jungles and spotted owls and rivers are worth saving for future generations, but let’s also focus on buildings, cities, all the built environment in the public domain, and apply ideas of environmental justice to its financing, regulation, design, construction, maintenance, and use of materials, energy, and water.

We’re still at a global tipping point with lighting. We have suffered far too long from crappy lighting in most of the global built environment. Incandescent lights have acceptable quality, in fact they’re mostly what we still recognize as lighting when we’re not at Walmart or in general commercial office wasteland, but now we know they use way too much energy. Fluorescent lights have to go- we hate the way they make things look, and they don’t save enough energy. LEDs will provide wonderful light in the future, save a lot of energy, and solve most lighting problems, but only if we get the regulations right. With incandescents being phased out globally, manufacturers will continue to just make the cheapest LED lighting they can and consumers and businesses won’t have much choice unless we get involved. We won’t revert to incandescents and we won’t suddenly adopt more CFLs- that’s a dead technology. LEDS superior in all ways than incandescents are already on the market, it’s just a matter of how quickly they’ll be adopted. Rapid adoption of LEDs is good for reducing global energy use sooner, but their quality has to be as good as incandescents. It already is, most people just don’t know it yet. Regulation will play a catalytic role in making better LED lighting widespread. We all have to get much more involved in order to make this happen, and we have to believe that getting involved matters and that government works- they do, trust me. You can help, more on this below.

I started a Facebook page on July 4th last year: People Against Bad Lighting. It was tongue-in-cheek and part of a product marketing effort, but there was some real political purpose there beyond selling LED lights. In the process of doing this I got to riff on the Declaration of Independence, which involved actually reading it, something I highly recommend. Lately I’m realizing that on some level, I’m still proud of being an American and of the basic blueprint of our government, flawed and tenuous and constantly embattled as it is. In my mind the best thing about it is that it contains instructions for ongoing reinvention, retrofitting, and renovation. If that makes me a “statist,” one who believes in the idea of “states,” with participatory government, then I’m guilty as charged. I’m not exactly sure what the viable alternative to being a “statist” is today, unless it’s reverting to tribal nomadic social structure. Ghengis Khan did the nomadic thing pretty well actually, but he evolved into a statist, and one with startlingly modern notions about religious freedom and equal distribution of rights and resources. Besides, he’s been gone kind of a long time and there are a few more people on the planet now than there were in his time.

Environmental justice in lighting means that all people have the right to high quality lighting indoors and out, just as we have the right to high quality water and air indoors and out. Egregious violations of our basic environmental rights as humans with lighting may not seem as life threatening or heinous as water and air pollution and carcinogenic pesticides, but they’re still important- more so because they’re largely unrecognized.

There is global awareness of the problems of light pollution, overlighting, and encroachment in outdoor lighting- all exacerbated by the recent rapid adoption of high blue spectrum LED light, harmful to humans and other living species. Public outdoor lighting has historically often been highly contentious and politicized, as it should be. We’re trying to figure out the extent of negative health effects from poor quality indoor fluorescent and LED lighting, but it will be quite some time before we can draw enough conclusions to effect real legislation around this issue. In the meantime, the fact that bad indoor lighting is ugly and demoralizing as well as too energy intensive is enough to consider it a serious environmental problem.

There are other important benefits to encompassing lighting within the concept of environmental justice. From my experience in green building, I know that lighting retrofits are responsible for “jump starting” a huge number of energy efficiency projects, as lighting is the single most visible use of electricity. Projects that start with the “low hanging fruit” of lighting replacement very often go beyond that as people start to look at buildings more holistically. And while LEDs now may still seem to many to be too expensive and only for richer people and fancier buildings, the technology will soon become prevalent and widely available to everyone, in high quality. In fact it will also provide electric light for the first time to many who have not yet adopted incandescents or fluorescents, just as many people in developing countries who never had landlines now use cell phones.

For those in the lighting world, and for that matter anyone concerned with energy use, “resilience, “sustainability” and global warming, now is the time to weigh in on proposed changes to California’s Title 24 energy code around lighting. Here’s where to start participating In addition, I and some of my colleagues will be providing summaries of the proposed changes and recommendations about how to comment. Do this even if you don't live or work in California, or the U.S. as the quality provisions being considered here will affect lighting far beyond the state.

The best example I’ve seen so far of true participatory “redesign” of government was the UK’s Government Digital Service’s revamping of government websites. This is inspiring to me as a designer, a writer, a marketing person, a web developer, a researcher, and a citizen. If we could have this level of effort and results in lighting regulation and the subsequent transition to a new lighting and energy infrastructure, there would really be justice in the world.

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