Do a Google search for "Karen De Coster" and you'll turn up a photo of her—a few photos, actually—wearing Daisy Dukes and a sky-blue tank top, her short blonde hair tied beneath a black paisley bandana. She's brandishing a giant assault rifle, crouched on a scrubby hillside, in a defensive position, like she's confronting an unseen enemy.
If you had showed me this picture and said De Coster is a woman who stockpiles guns and ammo, I'd believe you. If you told me she is saving up canned food for when the Chinese storm America's coasts, I'd probably believe that, too. De Coster may indeed be doing both of those things. But she's recently become notorious for hoarding something else altogether: Light bulbs.
Over the past year or so, De Coster has become something of an unofficial leader for a small group of Americans who hoard incandescent light bulbs. Beginning in January 2012, producing standard 100-watt incandescent bulbs became illegal in America, thanks to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. As others in Brazil, Australia, and Switzerland are already doing, Americans are being compelled by the new law to purchase light bulbs that are markedly more efficient than the traditional incandescent ones we've used for decades now. In January 2013, 75-watt incandescent bulbs will also be outlawed, followed by the 40- and 60-watt versions the year after that.
It won't be illegal to own the light bulbs, or for stores to sell the bulbs they already have in stock. It will only be illegal to manufacture them and import them. It's this loophole that De Coster, a self-professed libertarian, is using to strike back against what she calls "a totalitarian green scheme on the part of massively powerful special interests."
"It's yet another government attack on civilization," De Coster writes about the bulb ban in an email. "It's a condemnation of our standard of living, and an attack on human comfort, with the ban of one of civilization's stellar inventions."
At her home in Detroit, De Coster sits on what she estimates to be between 400 to 500 incandescent light bulbs between 60- and 100-watts. "I don't know if I will get a whole lot more for my own use," she says, "but if I do, it'll be because I see favorable resale prices and/or a good market for them after they become difficult for the public to find."
Though people like De Coster are not legion, she is not by any means alone. The phasing out of traditional incandescent light bulbs—and what that says about an overreaching government—have become trendy talking points for right-leaning pundits. People blame Obama (for a law passed by George W. Bush).
"In three weeks and one day it will be illegal to sell a 100-watt incandescent light bulb," Rush Limbaugh told his listeners late last year. "And who did this? The federal government. ... The Democrat-led federal government is taking us backwards."
Last March, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann told a crowd in New Hampshire that getting rid of old incandescent bulbs was akin to rejecting one of America's most beloved scientists. "I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb," she shouted. "And I think darn well, you New Hampshirites, if you want to buy Thomas Edison's wonderful invention, you should be able to!"
Dozens of other congressional Republicans, led by Joe Barton of Texas, took such issue with the new efficiency standards that they banded together to try and repeal them, but the bill died in the House last July. After that, a rider attached to a spending bill in December eliminated the funds the Department of Energy needed to enforce the ban. But by then, it was too late. Light bulb producers had already begun phasing out their old technologies.
What many Republican critics of the incandescent light bulb ban fail to mention, of course, is that it's not really a ban—it's an efficiency requirement. Consumers can and will be able to buy incandescent bulbs well into the future, they'll just have to buy ones that are less wasteful than the incandescents of old. In fact, light bulb manufacturers are already producing incandescent bulbs that use 27 percent less energy than their predecessors. Unlike virtuous but expensive CFL and LED bulbs, these bulbs—halogen types, for example—only cost about $1.50.
"Everyone in the industry knew that [the efficiency standard] was set at a point that we could still make incandescent light bulbs," Randall Moorhead, vice president of government affairs at light-bulb manufacturer Phillips told Climate Progress last July. "Today, under the efficiency standard, consumers have more choices, not less. They still can choose from more types of incandescent light bulbs that will be more efficient."
So it appears that De Coster and other incandescent bulb hoarders are tilting at windmills. But that fact has done little to diminish their outright lust for the inefficient old bulbs. Last year the New York Times interviewed a handful of designers who were stockpiling incandescent bulbs out of concern the updated versions would cast ugly light:
Darren Henault, a Manhattan decorator, has already splurged on light fixtures in his Millbrook, N.Y., farmhouse, which dates from the early 19th century, and he is fearful that the bulbs sold in the future won't be up to snuff.
"We went to great pains to keep it looking like an 1800s farmhouse," he said. "We used reclaimed woods, kept the old hardware and the old doors." He also added a dozen custom light fixtures, he said, including "one in particular that cost an arm and a leg, and only works with these particular incandescent bulbs."
On Ebay recently, a seller offering 40 100-watt incandescent bulbs warned, "Compact fluorescent lamps are more efficient than traditional light bulbs, but they also contain toxic mercury. In addition, CFLs radiate a light spectrum that is different from that of incandescent lamps and many people prefer the incandescent's warm, steady glow. Stock Up Now!!!" Last I checked, someone had bid $31. (While CFL's do contain mercury, which is a point incandescent bulb proponents bring up often, it's certainly not an amount the average person should fear.)
At Amazon, too, the bulb hoarders are out in droves. On the product page to buy 24 100-watt Sylvania bulbs, one customer review reads, "They work well, shine bright, and—best of all—make me feel constantly proud to be screwing the eco-nazis. Screw you, Al Gore! Keep your hands off my thermostat, light bulbs and recycling bins. I worked hard for my money; I'll spend it however I choose."
New technology often inspires awe and lust. But if you couple that new technology with words like "energy efficiency" and "climate change," many people get turned off. Add to that a government mandate, and for some Americans, you might as well be suggesting to light a house with dog shit. Some people simply don't want to be told what to do, regardless of how good it is for them or the world. They'd rather just hoard the outlawed bulbs.
For her part, De Coster had a lot of the same complaints as others in favor of keeping conventional incandescent bulbs around. Freedom. The light is better. The CFLs are toxic. But when I email her to ask her why she won't simply buy the new, more efficient incandescent bulbs, she says she shouldn't have to. "It is like saying that I love to eat beef, and I occasionally like to eat chicken, but prefer beef," she writes. "Should the government ban me from eating beef—on the basis of political-special interest hogwash—and ask me if replacing all of my beef with chicken is acceptable, because government has deemed that chicken is more efficient, or politically palatable? Of course, I desire both, and banning beef and telling me that chicken should be an acceptable 100 percent replacement is still totalitarianism, and so, no, it is not acceptable."
It is a strange world. And some people like to be kept in the dark.