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Mr. Bright Idea

Steven Hamburg asks how many light bulbs it takes for Wal-Mart to change the world.

Last year, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's president and CEO, invited the ecologist Steven Hamburg to give a briefing on climate change. Hamburg, the director of the Watson Institute's Global Environment Program at Brown University, knew the behemoth retailer could use a few lessons. Wal-Mart has paid out millions in fines for breaking environmental protection laws, including violations of the Clean Water Act in more than 10 states. At the meeting, Hamburg offered a way to limit Wal-Mart's environmental impact and to encourage its customers to do the same. His bright idea was as simple as screwing in a light bulb.Hamburg, 53, urged Wal-Mart to market modern-day, energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. "The CFL is a perfect example of the effect that the retail market can have in transforming technology that's employed by people," he says.Hamburg's negotiations helped formulate a revolutionary pledge from Wal-Mart: to sell 100 million CFLs in 2007 by aggressively marketing them to consumers. If each of Wal-Mart's 100 million customers trades in a 60-watt bulb for a CFL, electricity costs will be cut by $3 billion. The estimated 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases saved by customers switching to CFLs will dwarf the impact of any of Hamburg's previous efforts as an environmental steward.
We need to use the retail sector to encourage people to purchase on the cutting edge of technology.
In comparison with old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, CFLs save customers money ($30 per bulb, in electricity costs), they lighten the load on the power grid (using 75 percent less electricity), they reduce greenhouse gas emissions (emitting 450 pounds less carbon dioxide), and they even save space on the shelves for other Wal-Mart products. "We need to mitigate the amount of carbon we emit," Hamburg says. "Light bulbs are a wonderful way to start. After you've lived with CFLs, you don't even notice them." He would know: He's been using the bulbs in his home for 15 years.Hamburg points to cars, furnaces, and air conditioners as technologies with similar potential, but cleaner options are stuck in a price bracket out of reach for most consumers. "There are gaps between the average and the best products [for the environment] in all of these areas," he says. But through marketing and discounts, stores can "encourage people to purchase on the cutting edge of technology."Hamburg hopes his students-whom he teaches to bridge the gap between science and policy-continue his legacy in the real world. "One of the highest callings," he says, "is to take society's knowledge and work toward a greater good." And Hamburg sets a fine example: Though Wal-Mart won't release sales figures, more than 16 million CFLs have been sold nation wide since January.

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