Last month, folks from our local utility showed up at our house with a box of energy-efficient bulbs. The utility men went around our house, unscrewing the regular incandescents, and screwing in the compact-fluorescent bulbs.

The next morning, at breakfast, I asked my 6-year-old to run down to the basement to grab something. She flipped on the light switch, looked down the stairs, and said, “Daddy, it’s not very bright down there!”

I have this experience regularly with products labelled as “environmentally friendly”: they don’t work as well as the products they’re replacing.

My environmentally-friendly shower head was really just a shower head that made my shower less showery. I’m told cars with large-capacity engines are much less fuel efficient, but I’ve noticed how much better they respond. Even when the product touted as “green” works as well as its counterpart, the tradeoff is often a higher price.

It’s analogous to low-fat food. Make potato chips low-fat (a benefit) and they become less tasty (a cost).

Now, of course, there aren’t always trade-offs. Sometimes the gains in healthiness or environmental friendliness come with gains in taste or efficacy. But as consumers, we have limited knowledge before we buy a product, and it’s reasonable to assume that if they’re touting things like health or environmental benefits, that’s an effort to excuse inferior taste or efficacy.

In high school, my very charitable baseball coach, when asked about my skills by a local reporter, explained I brought great work-ethic and hustle to the team. The implication was clear.

So I was totally unsurprised to see a result in a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. 

The result: most people become less likely to pay a 200% premium for an energy-efficient bulb if you slap a “Protect the Environment” sticker on it. 

The study divided its participants up by ideology, and along that axis, aversion to the sticker wasn’t uniform: The most liberal participants were more willing to pay the premium for the efficient bulb if it had the sticker on it. Moderate liberals, centrists, and all conservatives all became less likely to pay the premium once the sticker was attached. Generally, the further Right you went, the more of a turnoff the sticker became.

See the chart below

But in our blogosphere, every bit of data is processed as confirmation of preexisting political biases. One prevalent bias in the liberal blogosphere: conservatives are evil, anti-science, and they hate the Earth.

Hence, most of the coverage of this made it sound like only conservatives were turned off by the label, and that it was clearly for petty reasons. While really, most people, including generally liberal people, became less likely to buy the bulbs with the label.


All of this mis-coverage led some liberal commentators to mis-conclusions. Kevin Drum saw it as a sign that renewable energy is “another front in the culture wars.”

Andrew Sullivan concurred: “This is really a form of tribal nihilism. One party has become entirely about a posture, not a set of feasible policies.”

So, are those liberals with a -0.6 ideology index in that study — meaning they’re closer to the far Left than to the middle — also “tribal nihilists”? Have they become “entirely about posture?”

Here’s what seems more likely to me: everyone assumes that labeling something as good for the planet suggests a tradeoff in efficacy, and liberals are more willing to accept that tradeoff.

p.s. Let me add this passage from the study:

In addition, it might seem surprising that the environmental label did not produce a large increase in preference for the energy-efficient CFL bulb among more liberal individuals. We speculate that these participants may associate energy- efficient options with environmental benefits spontaneously and do not need a label to call the benefits to their attention.