Should You Ask Someone to Turn Off Their Lights? It Depends

Switching out a light barely registers in terms of overall household energy consumption but there's reason to still do it.

Woman's hand on a light switch showing that she is turning off the power and electricity to conserve energy

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I have a family member in town that likes to occasionally berate me when the light gets left on. It’s understandable, really. She, my mother, cares about saving energy, is worried about the climate, and grew up during the days of the incandescent light bulb when the lighting really was a significant driver of household energy consumption. (She has also seen the dedication in my book on climate hypocrisy, in which I light-heartedly berate my kids when they happen to leave the lights on.) 

Here’s the thing, though: LED lighting technology has developed so far, and so fast, that it means switching out a light barely registers in terms of overall household energy consumption. It’s why Treehugger's Lloyd Alter now says windows should now be about well-being and beauty, not saving energy through daylighting.

Of course, all things being equal, it still makes sense to turn off a light when you leave the room. In fact, leaving anything on when we aren’t using it is not best practice.

As with so many things in the world of "green living," we need to be able to differentiate between the action itself, and whether it is worth our time, energy, and social capital to talk to others about also taking that action. 

This holds true for individuals. And it holds true for movements too. In fact, this is one of the reasons (one of two, to be precise) that turns climate activist and conservation scientist Charlie Gardner off about Earth Hour, the event in which communities around the world are asked to switch off their lights for the climate. 

It is essential to note energy consumption isn't the only variable— we also need to be mindful of the impact of light pollution. As such, the importance of switching off the lights varies by region. On the coast, for instance, requests to turn off lights are often focused on helping sea turtle hatchlings to navigate their way to the water. Another example: At night, migrating birds use the stars to navigate and bright artificial lights can throw them off their routes.

The Impact of City Lights on Birds

An estimated 365 to 988 million birds are killed annually by building collisions in the U.S. According to the National Audubon Society, for every collision victim bird found, three more typically aren’t discovered. They either fly somewhere out of sight before they fall or are taken by predators. Birds are often drawn into a city by the lights at night.

I happened to ask my followers on Twitter about this topic and they too, in general, tended to fall on the side of "live and let live." (Or ... live and let light?)

This is a lesson that stretches well beyond light bulbs:

This is, of course, a topic I’ve covered once or twice before. Yet in an age where both politicians and corporations would love to focus our attention on pointing fingers at each other, it’s always worth remembering that unsolicited advice on green living, sustainability, or any of the other buzz words of lifestyle environmentalism comes with a cost. 

Every time we talk to each other about our small habits—especially if the person we are addressing has not indicated they are interested in our opinion—we erode our ability to get them on board when their buy-in really matters. So if you find yourself on the verge of offering some eco-advice to a friend, family member, or acquaintance, I’d suggest playing it through in your head first: 

  • Is what I am advocating for a genuinely meaningful change?
  • Has the person I am addressing asked for my advice, or expressed an interest in the topic? 
  • What’s my relationship with that person? Do I have their trust and respect? Do they regularly seek my counsel? 
  • How likely are they to actually change, based on what I have to offer? 
  • Would I be better placed spending my time and energy recruiting them into collective, organized action—rather than micro-level, individual change?
  • Is there a way for me to reframe the conversation? (For example, when it comes to turning off lights, educating people about light pollution and its impact on animals can be enlightening.)

There are no hard and fast rules on this. And there are no absolutes. I, for example, do try to teach my kids to turn out the lights, just as I teach them to brush their teeth or clean their rooms. But I don’t tend to tell my adult friends and family to do the same ... even if they really could use that advice!

We live in a culture that loves to reduce complex, systems-level challenges into individualistic narratives about willpower and personal morality. And we only have so many hours in the day. So while it’s important to be creating new, climate-friendly social norms, we also have to keep our powder dry. That means saving our advice, our recommendations, and our calls to action—especially when unsolicited—for when our opinion really matters.