Sacrificing Safety for Our Environment

After we moved to Germany, we quickly recognized that Germans value environmental stewardship. Pervasive recycling programs and dual-flush buttons on the toilet were the proof.

One day, we found ourselves coming back to the apartment well after dark. We opened the front door and walked into the stairwell. To say it was insufficiently lit would be to imply there existed any photons in there at all. I couldn’t see my feet.

“Man,” we said. “The Germans are a little crazy with the energy efficiency thing.” But we were in awe, and perfectly willing to play along. In the US, they would probably put floodlights on every floor! “Ha ha”, we laughed with each other. “Isn’t it nice to be in a country that values our natural resources?”

We turned on our cell phones, and held them a few inches from the stairs, feeling our way up.

“This feels unsafe,” Alissa said.

“Yeah, but I dunno. Maybe the lights really take up a lot of energy? How often do people walk up stairs at night?” We reached our apartment and immediately flipped on all the lights.

Later that week, we got up the courage to poke some of the strange toggle switches that were liberally sprinkled all over the building. Would they sound an alarm? Ring a doorbell? Let’s press one! Be ready to run!

Light flooded the hallway. We laughed a lot and promised not to tell anyone what we did.

That was well over two years ago. Yesterday, I entered the bathroom at work, and walked to the back where the urinals are mounted. “Gah.” I thought. “Stupid bathroom lights are broken again.” I peed in the dark. When I went to wash my hands, I mis-judged the distance to the soap bottle and knocked it on the floor. Since the area under the sink was particularly dark, I had to feel around for it. I washed my hands again. Just as I finished up and went to open the door, someone else pushed it open and we almost crashed into each other.

“Woah!” he said, “I didn’t even know anyone was in here, because the lights were out!” He reached over and turned on the light. I played it cool. Yeah, I like to turn the lights out right before I open the door. Saves just that little extra bit of energy.

Now we have to ask some tough questions.

  1. What if someone is pooping in the back, but you don’t know it? What kind of hell will you accidently impose on them by turning out the light as you leave?
  2. What if a germaphobe doesn’t want to touch the light switch? Do they wait until someone else goes in first?
  3. Does turning the light on and off all day really save much energy? How often are people not using the bathroom?

The worst part is, I never learn. I just can’t adjust to public restrooms that don’t have the lights on all the time. I have, however, adjusted to turning the lights on in public hallways. In fact, I feel a little guilty when I do it. Do we really have to light the entire stairwell for a single person standing at the top? Couldn’t this switch just turn the lights on for this floor, and I can continue to press switches as I descend? There’s just no reason to have the lights on at the bottom of the stairs right now. Nobody’s using that light at all. We could save that energy, and use it in our bathrooms.

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