Non-fiction review –
Screw Light Bulbs

Screw Light Bulbs
Donna Green & Liz Minchin
UWA Publishing

Screw Light Bulbs coverScrew Light Bulbs was written when its authors got to the point of having written or read one too many articles suggesting that the best thing individuals could do towards fighting climate change was change their light bulbs. Recognising that this was at best a bandaid solution for an ulcerous wound, the book – and the attitude – was born.

The book aims to give advice as to what people can actually do towards fighting climate change in their daily lives – and for those who can’t be bothered to read the book, there’s a summary in chapter 7. A lot of these are things we’ve heard before, like limit your consumption, and buy better appliances, and why offsetting carbon emissions doesn’t really work. While the advice may not be new, the reasons for doing so are outlined explicitly and the mathematics involved is described at least superficially. I personally am searching for a specific calculation to use that can tell me, for example, whether it’s more environmentally friendly to buy cans or bottles of soft drink, or drive a ten-year-old car or buy a new, more efficient one, with all the inbuilt emissions. Screw Light Bulbs doesn’t do that, but it does give a good idea of what kind of things need to be involved in your calculations and where you can start looking for the information to complete that kind of assessment. There’s a very nice reference section at the back which I am sure I will have nerdy, nerdy fun with.

My favourite chapter, and probably the most relevant for Sydney, is the one dealing with cars versus public transport. There’s an excellent section on the perverse incentives to drive more, and a discussion of various failures of our state governments to provide appropriate public transport, even when it’s what the electorate specifically wants. A Melbourne survey is cited, in which 1500 people were asked about their priorities for a sustainable Melbourne; less than 10 people mentioned freeways or new roadways, while the majority asked for better public transport. Oddly, the money since then has flowed into new roads, not trains or buses.

Possibly the most interesting section is on the failed development of a fast train linking Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, now running between seven and twenty years late (depending on who you ask and where you date it from). At a minimum, this train line should have been constructed by 2003; work has yet to begin, and successive governments have ducked the question of whether it will ever be funded. The contribution towards reducing emissions would be fantastic, but it’s just not on the agenda.

A more obviously relevant chapter discusses the pros and cons of nuclear power, and dismisses ‘clean coal’ as the fairytale it is. While the industry likes to talk about the possibilities of clean coal for a sustainable future, the reality is that the technology does not yet exist, and even if it did, is not viable for the majority of coal-based power stations in Australia. A less heralded opinion deals with the sustainability aspect of nuclear power, and factors in the use of water as a coolant, something I haven’t seen elsewhere. They find once the water usage is factored in, nuclear power is looking less appealing than ever, and I agree, despite disagreeing with their assessment of the dangers of nuclear power: it’s a bit reactionary and doesn’t consider more recent assessments such as Stewart Brand’s excellent and adversary Whole Earth Discipline.

I do have a few nitpicks; the chapters are largely broken into titled segments, which while breaking down the text for easy reading, does slow progress down. There’s also a tendency to use cute phrases to end segments: I find it irritating, particularly the repeated ‘renovation of the nation’ to conclude segments on pages 126 and 142. These are however minor stylistic points which not everyone will agree on, and I generally admire and would promote the book.

Georgia Claire

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  1. What an excellent title! Thanks for the review – looks interesting and (sadly) appropriate. Hard to believe nuclear power is still on the agenda *sigh*

    1. Hi Clare,

      I don’t hate nuclear power as much as I used to, but I’m still not thrilled it’s the closest thing we have to a clean energy policy at the moment. Sigh.

      Great book though, and I used to work with Dr Green, so I can tell it’s all good stuff and worth it.

  2. Why can’t we make the technology for clean coal exist? Given, I’m not a scientist nor science teacher. But holy moley – we are rich, and we should be smart. Lets get our kids designing solar panels like Garrat said, lets make that clean coal that doesn’t exist…..
    Oh is it too difficult? Well, I’m sorry.
    Yeah. Look, I’ll go back and do maths and science properly if you do. 🙂

    1. Hi Sally,

      It’s not that technology for clean coal couldn’t hypothetically exist. It’s that at the moment, it doesn’t, and it would take a bare, bare minimum of ten to twenty years and a LOT of investment to get it up and running. This is money that could be put into energy that IS renewable, and it’s not like we have unlimited money to go around. It would more efficiently be put towards renewables.

      There’s also a problem in that the clean coal technologies proposed at the moment will only lower emissions by around thirty percent (by memory), and also that it requires you have a very specific site setting, including stable underground caves and other geological features that just aren’t present at a lot of our power creation sites. The Hunter Valley power stations, for example, couldn’t use clean coal technologies as there’s nowhere to store the emissions. Then there’s the ridiculous expense of retrofitting clean coal technologies to existing power stations. Long story short, it’s just not viable.

      As for designing solar panels… do you know the number one technology for solar panels WAS developed in Australia? The manufacturer languished here for twenty years, begging for government investment. Then one day he got sick of waiting and went to China, where he’s a multi millionaire. We’re really frakking bad at this.

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