The Benefits and Consequences of the Light Bulb
By Mackenzie Kashchy
The human-driven world that we are so familiar with is known as The Anthropocene. While the geological time scale can be confusing for those who have no previous knowledge on the specific time periods, The Anthropocene is relatively easy to understand. The most recent age of modern history and proposed geological epoch was given this title based on when human activities began to impact Earth and its ecosystems. In order to determine how to identify the Anthropocene, there are several objects that have held quite an impact on shaping the world to be as we know it. One of these objects is Thomas Edison’s 1879 invention of the light bulb. The creation of the light bulb demonstrates the strides of progress that humans have overcome since previously using only fire and oil for light, as well as acts as a starting point for future electronic inventions. While the light bulb has allowed humans to advance technologically, it has also increased the use of fossil fuels as a source of energy, furthering human-induced damage on Earth. Although the light bulb can be proclaimed as a significant object to represent the Anthropocene, it is important to consider that even in the 21st century’s electronically driven and dependent world, there are still lesser developed countries that do not have access to electricity.
Prior to when electricity as a source of light was an option, humans used the resources that were available to them in order to survive. This meant light was created by either using wood and kindling for a fire, candles or lighting an oil lamp. The simplicity of being able to flick a light switch and suddenly have light available is taken for granted. But, with this new form of simplicity comes further progression for future, similar inventions to come. Thomas Edison held the future in his hands on the evening of New Years Eve 1879. It is documented that, “more than 20 inventors before Edison had experimented with electric light. But he was the one who refined it — testing more than 3,000 filaments before settling on carbon — into a practical, affordable and commercially available technology.” Edison’s dedication to refining the technology to be the most realistic and reasonably priced for an entire nation is representative of how advanced human knowledge was at the time by being able to manipulate and perfect technology. The progression of humans throughout the Anthropocene is unbelievable. Previously, humans were only able to use the resources around them to live a comfortable lifestyle, or to survive. Today, and in the 19th century, demonstrated by Thomas Edison, humans have the ability to manipulate materials, chemicals and resources in order to create complex inventions such as the light bulb.
In less than two years after the debut of light bulb in 1879, Edison unveiled a complete system of commercial lighting and power. The lighting system has since developed and been perfected in America as well as across the world. In response to creating such a reliable technology Edison stated, “I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others. I find out what the world needs, then I go ahead and invent it.” Since the proved success of the light bulb, Edison’s invention was known as “Edison’s Electric Light” as he literally illuminated history. One hundred years after Edison’s birth in 1947, The Science News Letter acknowledged that, “although Edison died in 1931, his discoveries and inventions are still providing, in an atomic age, new comforts and conveniences to millions throughout the world.” At the time, it was deemed that humans were in need of electric light, and Edison created it. While many benefit from Edison’s inventions, today there are still billions of humans who are unable to experience the advantages of electricity.
To understand the Anthropocene and the people who contribute to recorded impacts on Earth’s ecosystems, one must know that energy use from electric objects like the light bulb also have consequences. Today, lighting a home can come at a high price. Although several places in the world are transitioning into using more renewable energy sources, many places are not. For example, in Madison, Wisconsin alone, Madison Gas and Electric obtains 70% of their energy from burning coal. Processes like this, and the repeated act of burning fossil fuels have not only created a fear of using up all of the Earth’s resources, but also contribute to rising emissions of greenhouse-gases that continue to harm the atmosphere and are a main factor of climate change. Given the opportunities and further advances that electricity and the light bulb have created for the world, it is objects like this that can help explain why the Anthropocene is determined by detrimental impacts on Earth, and not helpful ones.
Today, humans strive to back track and find alternative sources of energy to eliminate further repercussions that excessive energy use may have on Earth. The light bulb itself has since been manipulated into a more renewable technology. Creations such as LED based light bulbs are proven to use, “90 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs.” Although alternative sources of energy have been established, they are often expensive, and cause humans to continue using the energy sources that they already obtain, like burning fossil fuels, regardless of the negative impacts they bring to Earth. A world that used to rely on natural resources for survival, now takes advantage of these exact resources in order to accommodate a more luxurious or comfortable lifestyle.
Edison’s creation of the light bulb ultimately jumpstarted the developments towards an electronically-driven world, but there are still places to this day that do not have access to electricity. Today in 2016, “more than 100 years after the invention of the light bulb, over 1.6 billion people around the world do not have access to electricity.” Unfortunately, since the insertion of the light bulb and electric energy into modern day life, human quality of life has become dependent on access to such energy. The presence of energy “plays a crucial role in human development, contributing not only to economic growth and household incomes, but also an improved quality of life that comes with better education and health services.” Those who have access to electronics and electricity have proven to have better qualities of life compared to the billions that are not fortunate enough to have that advantage. The 1.6 billion people who are unable to flourish from the benefits of energy and electricity are examples of a consistent theme throughout the Anthropocene, uneven development.
Since the beginning of our geological time period, periphery countries have often experienced the consequences of uneven development. While core nations, such as America and Britain, as well as most of Europe, began to make advancements in both technology and intelligence, several locations were left behind. The countries who did not have the money or resources to advance as quickly were then used for labor and land, while core nations made a profit. The theme of uneven development has been carried out throughout the Anthropocene, as new inventions such as the light bulb only began to intensify the gap of development across the world.
An object like the light bulb is only one of many that can tell a similar story in order to explain the Anthropocene. While the light bulb created opportunities for others to invent electronically-based technologies, it also contributed to the negative human-induced impacts that the Anthropocene is defined by. Whether future generations will continue to have an appreciation for how humans once lived in a candlelit world, it is crucial that those generations make appropriate changes in their technologies that will prevent further negative effects on Earth and its ecosystems. The act of turning on a light bulb comes to most without thinking twice. The simplicity that the light bulb has provided for today’s common lifestyle is a blessing that people 300 years ago would have dreamed of. Unfortunately, there are still billions of people today who continue to dream to have such access to energy.
The word Anthropocene is derived from ‘human’ (anthropo) ‘life’ (cene). Although it is often debated when this proposed geological time period specifically began, the contributors to the explanation of the world are pretty clear. Humans continue living at ease without considering what repercussions their actions are bringing to Earth. It is people like Thomas Edison who most likely did not intend for their creations to be dependent on resources that if used, ultimately lead to destruction of the atmosphere and ecosystems. With out a doubt did the light bulb open a door for a vast amount of opportunities for technologies to come, but it is those technologies that have increased the concern that the Anthropocene is full of self-induced human destruction. Although inventions like the light bulb highlight the successes of our geological time, it is important to understand the consequences that come with living the way we do.
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