The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 6, 2008

Obama’s f—ing lightbulbs

The highlights of Newsweek’s Special Election Project, released yesterday, include this unsettling tidbit:

The debates unnerved both candidates. When he was preparing for them during the Democratic primaries, Obama was recorded saying, “I don’t consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, ‘You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.’ So when Brian Williams is asking me about what’s a personal thing that you’ve done [that’s green], and I say, you know, ‘Well, I planted a bunch of trees.’ And he says, ‘I’m talking about personal.’ What I’m thinking in my head is, ‘Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective’.”

Obama is right, and he’s wrong.

He’s right that simply changing lightbulbs will not solve global warming. But he’s wrong to think that changing lightbulbs is irrelevant. Changing lightbulbs can help to change people’s minds. Changing lightbulbs is a gateway action that can lead to other kinds of changes: changing the way a person votes, for example. Individual actions help to create awareness, and it’s awareness that creates the climate for political change. Because WE are the government. And the government doesn’t change unless we do.

I’m a little disappointed that Obama’s vision wasn’t broader the day he made that comment, and I’m hoping it was simply the result of campaign exhaustion.  Here’s the letter I sent to him yesterday.

Next week, I’ll publish more ideas from plastic-free bloggers who have joined the Posse and are hoping that their individual actions will make a difference. We don’t plan on giving up any time soon. In a comment yesterday, Clif wrote of the idealism that we share that keeps us going and gives us the hope that others will be inspired by our vision of a world bigger than our backyards. But some people will not be inspired until they actually change that first lightbulb or begin to carry a reusable grocery bag or water bottle. Clif writes, “Let’s be the first civilization to make the ideal real. Action on global warming by individuals at a personal level would be an encouraging start.”

Obama’s “collective” is made up of individuals, dreaming and hoping and acting one by one by one. Let’s write to him and remind him of that fact.

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15 years ago

To paraphrase HGTV, “change starts are home.”

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Noelle — that’s why I think it’s so important for our leaders to “walk their talk.” Al Gore’s carbon footprint does bother me. Not the air travel — that’s a necessity to get to speaking gigs which have a very positive impact — but the energy used in his home. When that story broke, I was so disappointed. Of course Obama can do much more with his power than change a few lightbulbs. But he ALSO needs to change those lightbulbs to set the example for the rest of us.

If someone says, “Al Gore has a huge carbon footprint and he’s asking me to inflate my tires? Forget him…” then Al Gore hasn’t done his job, as far as I’m concerned.

How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. They all have staff to do it for them. All they have to do is give the instructions for it to be done. I, on the other hand, have to climb up on a ladder.

15 years ago

I agree 100% Beth, and I wrote about it today as well in the abstract. He knows better, though – and I think he was just frustrated with the reporter. But, many environmental pundits say the same thing, and I don’t like to hear it from anyone.

15 years ago

I’m not too bothered by the comment. I can tell that he’s frustrated by the question. As a Presidential candidate, he wants to talk about what he can do with the big picture, because he’s one of the few people in the world who can deal with the big picture. Asking what he did personally is irrelevant, because he has the power to do so much more.

Besides, questions like that, that focus on the personal lives of our leaders, rather than the big picture of what they can do, lead to traps that get used by anti-global warming to brush off making change: “Al Gore has a huge carbon footprint and he’s asking me to inflate my tires? Forget him…”

15 years ago

I was feeling a little down, because I’ve been frustrated with how very plastic I am. I’ve made a few small changes, but I’m nowhere near where I could be. But then at church, a lady told me that her husband had bought a tiffin because he loved mine so much, and the whole family had bought Kleen Kanteens. And, because of a discussion of being less disposable at church, we’re making plans to change from throw-away plasticware to silverware and re-usable plates. I still can’t get my husband to remember to bring and use the re-usable grocery bags, but I am making a difference, no matter how small – ripples.

15 years ago

I just discovered you via BlogHer and am impressed by what you are doing here. I read your list of ways to avoid plastic and will subscribe to your feed. Thanks for working so hard on this issue.

15 years ago

Of course changing lightbulbs is important, as is using [at least mostly] non plastic shopping bags, or decling the use of any bag for a small purchase. Ultimately it will save YOU $$.

Good for the environment, good for you.

And what is it with you Yanks about hanging up clothes on a clothesline? Cheap, effective [ maybe not in a northern winter] and cost free. It is the norm most everywhere else!!!

15 years ago

A couple thoughts here on Obama’s comments, besides the obvious pressure…

1. Sounds like Obama’s overthinking the question. Brian wants to know if Barack has changed anything in his personal life, and Barack is trying to give the best answer without coming off sounding like something people might consider trite like changing lightbulbs.

2. I imagine that someone with Obama’s life doesn’t do a lot of the household things that we do. He’s not doing his own grocery shopping where he can use canvas tote; he’s not doing his own laundry where he can hang vs using the dryer. And the demands of his schedule are such that he’s not walking or taking the bus many places.

But he has planted a bunch of trees and changed his lightbulbs, which is something he can do and more than a lot of people are willing to do.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Everyone — I don’t suffer from split personality disorder! There is another Beth Terry and she reads this blog!

And yes, it freaks me out each time she comments or sends me an email, but then again I freak her out too.

Okay, now I’ll get back to reading your comments. Just wanted to clear that up.

Beth (aka Beth Terry, NOT the motivational speaker.)

15 years ago

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in promoting his new book “Flat, Hot, and Crowded”, always repeats a key line from it, that it’s more important to change your leaders than your lightbulbs. Here is one place he does so.

Cheap Like Me
15 years ago

Maybe it was green exhaustion? I feel like we’ve done the easy changes (changed all the light bulbs in our house, except for ones on a dimmer where I need to get around to changing the switch; put in low-flow aerators; always bring my own bag; switched to a Diva Cup) and some of of the less easy (joined a local organic CSA; hanging up all our laundry; minimizing toilet paper) — and yet I fill out some resource calculator and still see that we’re wasting more than many people around the world use, and while our house is an energy hog I’m freezing and miserable all winter … and it gets so discouraging. And meanwhile my friends have the heat cranked up and drive a huge SUV … Sigh.

Maybe just a little of that crept through.

Thanks for the reminder to keep the faith. No matter what.

Green Bean
15 years ago

“gateway” – that is exactly what lightbulbs and canvas bags are. They are our first steps, our first stirrings of awareness, of personal power, the awakening of activism.

Nicely put, Beth. And the other Beth too.

15 years ago

In related political news, the latest from New York City:

“In its struggle to make New York more green, the Bloomberg administration has tried discouraging people from using plastic bags. It has taken out ads beseeching residents to use cloth bags and set up recycling bins for plastic bags at supermarkets.

But now the carrots have been put away, and the stick is out: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has called for charging shoppers 6 cents for every plastic bag needed at the register.

If the proposal passes, New York City would follow the lead of many European countries and become one of the first places in the United States to assess a so-called plastic bag tax.”

Whee! Bring it, Mr. Tax Man!

Juli in NYC

Ken Mott
15 years ago

So the question is, Did he really change his light bulbs?

15 years ago

Some twenty years ago I worked as an energy efficiency advocate. I had this light bulb discussion with more people than I can count (what difference will changing one light bulb make, you can’t really believe that makes a difference). Even truly obdurate arguers backed down in the face of the same reply you are making here.
It’s got to be hard campaigning and knowing everything you say will be dissected a hundred ways, especially when “what have you done” can also mean what legislation have you drafted, proposed, what have you changed on a big scale. And knowing that if you answer with little stuff, someone on the other side is going to throw that back at you in an unflattering way.

15 years ago

Comments to yourself ROCK!

The little things do matter, but I am loving that Obama realizes that he needs to step up and push the BIG changes. That’s what we’ve been lacking. We have such an awesome grassroots movement, but we need help in Washington. I think it needs to come from the top down and the bottom up.

I actually took the comment as a positive thing – like we can’t just tell people to change their bulbs and be done with it! We have more responsibilities here.

That said, I have, of course, changed all of our light bulbs, and hope everyone else does the same. Our baby steps and bigger steps, combined with help from Washington, can really make things better.

15 years ago

Love the comments to yourself Beth! :)

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi Beth! I’m not really freaking out. I still have a mad crush on the guy. Just don’t want him to end up like Al “Do As I Say Not As I Do” Gore with his energy-eating house. Obama’s an example to the rest of us now, and I just wanted to point that out.

But really? Was I too hard on him? I hope he doesn’t take me off his holiday list cuz that would suck.


Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi Beth – Beth the speaker here. I can understand your frustration with Obama’s answer. Yet, from the perspective of a professional speaker, I have had months where I gave 20 speeches in less than 30 days. I can’t imagine getting on an airplane for two and three flights a day, month after month, to give comments in cities thousands of miles apart.

I tend not to get too worried about off the cuff comments by any candidate during the pressure cooker time right before an election. Their brains are fried by September. I’ve been giving speeches professionally for almost 30 years, and *I* still get confused and frustrated when I’ve got too many speeches scheduled. It’s hard to remember where you are, let alone your own name.

He said he would listen. He needs a little time to figure out how to fix a world completely screwed up by the Bushies. Let’s send him our concerns. But ease up on freaking out about soundbytes. I have faith that a lot of things will be addressed in due time.

And, for the record – I changed every bulb in my house. And – thanks to you – I now carry canvas bags in my car and even in my suitcase when I travel. So you’re doing a good thing here. Keep up the great work!