Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Strange but true: Energy-efficient light bulbs and hybrid cars are hurting our nation’s budding efforts to fight global warming.

More precisely, every time an activist or politician hectors the public to voluntarily reach for a new bulb or spend extra on a Prius, ExxonMobil heaves a big sigh of relief.

Scientists now scream the news about global warming: it’s already here and could soon, very soon, bring tremendous chaos and pain to our world. The networks and newspapers have begun running urgent stories almost daily: The Greenland ice sheet is vanishing! Sea levels are rising! Wildfires are out of control! Hurricanes are getting bigger!

But what’s the solution? Most media sidebars and web links quickly send us to that peppy and bright list we all know so well, one vaguely reminiscent of Better Homes and Gardens: “10 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet.” Standard steps include: change three light bulbs. Consider a hybrid car for your next purchase. Tell the kids to turn out the lights. Even during the recent Al Gore-inspired Live Earth concerts, the phrase “planetary emergency” was followed by “wear more clothes indoors in winter” and “download your music at home to save on the shipping fuel for CDs.”

Nice little gestures all, but are you kidding me? Does anyone think this is the answer?

Imagine if this had been the dominant response to racial segregation 50 years ago. Apartheid rules across much of our land and here are three things you can do: Take time, if possible, to feed three negroes who seek food at your lunch counter each month. Consider giving up your use of the N-word, or at least cut down. And avoid vacationing in states where National Guardsmen are needed to enroll blacks in public schools.

Obviously, there are times in history when moral, economic, and national-security wrongs are so huge that appeals for voluntary change are not only wildly insufficient but are themselves immoral as a dominant national response. By 1965 we had appropriately banned racial discrimination in housing, employment, voting, and other realms of national life. The majority of Americans understood this to be the only appropriate response to a colossal national injustice.

Light bulbs are held up as a planetary solution, but they are just one part.


Meanwhile, global warming represents an even greater source of potential human suffering, not just to us, but to all humans — and not just now, but for centuries to come. And yet there is precious little popular discussion of banning the abusive practices that directly create violent climate change. Like Jim Crow practices, we must by law phase out completely the manufacture of inefficient light bulbs and gas-guzzling cars, as a serious start to fighting this problem.

Next time Aunt Betty goes to buy bulbs at the CVS, there should only be climate-friendly fluorescents for sale. When she shops for her next car, there should only be 50-mpg models across the lot, the sort even Detroit admits it can readily build.

Of course, there are politicians and activists already out there passionately calling for dramatic statutory responses to global warming. But they are mostly drowned out by the “10 Things You Can Do” chorus. And it turns out the voluntary “green your lifestyle” mantra may in fact discourage even individual change. One British study found that people tend to respond in one of two ways when told simultaneously that global warming is a planetary emergency and that the solution is switching a few light bulbs: they conclude that a) the problem can’t be that big if my few bulbs can fix it, so I won’t worry about any of it; or b) I know the problem is huge and my little bulbs can’t really make a difference, so why bother?

While I do believe we have a moral responsibility to do what we can as individuals, we just don’t have enough time to win this battle one household at a time, street by painstaking street, from coast to coast.

Here, finally, are the only facts that matter. First, global warming is a full-blown emergency and we have very little time to fix it. Second, ours is a nation of laws and if we want to change our nation — profoundly and in a hurry — we must change our laws. I’d rather have 100,000 Americans phoning their U.S. senators twice per week demanding a prompt phaseout of inefficient automobile engines and light bulbs than 1 million Americans willing to “eat their vegetables” and voluntarily fill up their driveway and houses with the right stuff.

The problem at hand is so huge it requires a response like our national mobilization to fight — and win — World War II. To move our nation off of fossil fuels, we need inspired Churchillian leadership and sweeping statutes a la the Big War or the civil-rights movement.

So frankly, I feel a twinge of nausea now each time I see that predictable “10 Things You Can Do” sidebar in a well-meaning magazine or newspaper article. In truth, the only list that actually matters is the one we should all be sending to Congress post haste, full of 10 muscular clean-energy statutes that would finally do what we say we want: rescue our life-giving Earth from climate catastrophe.