Tune in, turn off, hang up

In 1988, as an eighth grader in Mr. Cedric A. S. Paine’s Introductory to Physical Science class, I tried to create the greenhouse effect in a two-liter Coke bottle. It kind of worked, but more importantly, the project made a powerful impact on me that remains to this day.

In 1989, a writer from the Adirondacks published The End of Nature. It was the first book for a popular audience about global warming or what has come to be known as climate change, and even more recently as “global climate disruption.” The author, Bill McKibben, now refers to the phenomena as “global weirding.”

Obama art.

Bill McKibben wants Obama to save the world through solar panels. Image: jeanbaptisteparis via flickr.

Recently, McKibben drove from Maine with a van full of Unity College students to the White House. They sought a meeting with the president in the hopes to encourage the administration to put solar panels on the executive mansion. To their dismay, they were essentially rebuffed and nothing happened for weeks.

Then there was a change of heart. Now there will be solar hot water and some photovoltaics at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This was seen as a grassroots victory. I saw it as a setback.

Tear down those panels, Mr. Carter

First, this gesture was an overtly polarizing, political rallying call with roots in recent history; Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels when he moved into the executive mansion in 1980—a sore point for environmentalists for thirty years now.

Second, the money a family would have to spend to get a solar hot water heater (often with a five to seven year payback) or solar panels is what stops most red-blooded Americans from installing them. As much as White House solar power might inspire the nation, and as helpful as the 30% federal tax credit is for some (you have to make enough money to qualify in the first place), it’s very hard to lead people to do what they can’t afford, particularly in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Third and most importantly, it was the wrong message. Currently renewables  provide about 7% of total US energy (or 9% of electricity) with most of that in the form of large hydropower and wood. And renewables will only account for 17% of US power production by the year 2035, according to the Energy Information Administration.  While any move in the renewable direction can be seen as a helpful gird against greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, it’s really the smallest piece of a much more important puzzle.

McKibben’s White House pitch addressed only the production side of the energy equation. It didn’t address consumption, lifestyle or behavior. Worse, it helped continue a Pollyanna view that we can consume energy at current rates as long as we get the technology right. Poppycock.

We need to conserve.

We need the president to model behavior that all of us can do, regardless of household income. The Put Solar On It project risked taking us farther from these goals.

A more effective action would be for McKibben, who has a sort of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood vibe anyway, to ask Obama to put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat. While this might also have been polarizing and political—because this was something that President Carter advocated in the ’70s—it would at least not have wasted the moment in promoting technological solutions to what are essentially problems of consumption and behavior. Let’s face it, nearly every American can afford a sweater or find one at Goodwill. And even if you can’t afford a Lux TX1500 Smart Temp Programmable Thermostat, most adults with opposable thumbs can certainly turn a dial up and down.

Technology might save us, it just might not be the technology we expect. Image: johnnyalive via flickr.

Technology might save us, it just might not be the technology we expect. Image: johnnyalive via flickr.

The presidential action that Project Laundry List has promoted since before the 2008 election, in cooperation with a California marketing firm, is installing a clothesline at the White House in a visible, though tasteful location. We feel this would send a powerful message to the world that we’re willing to meet them in the middle by beginning an energy diet—by conserving in easy, relatively painless ways.

One important way, in my view, is hanging your clothes out to dry on a line.

Time and again the benefits of line drying are extolled by everybody from Martha Stewart to your great aunt Mabel. Clothes smell fresher, feel better, last longer, and you don’t burn up a bunch of money paying the utility company’s ever-increasing rates.

Hung out to dry

The problem is that technological solutions, like solar panels, seem sexy, fun, futuristic, and offer a promise, however illusory, that we can keep on with business as usual. Encouraging folks to line dry their laundry, on the other hand, asks for a shift in behavior, culture, and even perspective that can serve as a gateway to greater changes.

Studies show that people are much less likely to embrace giving something up (in this case, stopping using a dryer), and that they don’t take kindly to the idea that they are losing something, such as convenience, or their freedom from the world of labor and toil. Further, the advent of modern appliances lead people to equate line drying with poverty, a stigma that remains to this day. With that in mind, the key to changing behavior is in letting folks know what they gain by line drying their clothes. We can make line drying as fashionable as backyard chickens, farmer’s markets, or walking instead of driving—all things that also used to have a stigma to them—by focusing on the benefits of leaving the dryer behind.

Money is always a big motivator, and without a doubt, saving on expenses in a time of economic crunch matters, particularly to the unemployed or otherwise cash-strapped individuals. Savings of $25-$125 a month on utility bills or laundry vending machines can go a long way to meeting other financial needs. And avoiding the purchase of new machines every ten years or so offers a huge saving for homeowners.

Some are motivated by pure altruism—the folks eager to “save the planet” see a no-brainer when it comes to line drying. These are the ones who need to kick it up a notch and start talking up line drying to their friends.

A clothes line can be fashionable, fun, a source of endless variety and creativity. Image: Felixe via flickr.

A clothes line can be fashionable, fun, a source of endless variety and creativity. Image: Felixe via flickr.

But for others the sell might be harder. For open-minded but less-than-enthusiastic folks I believe we should make the case that the “slow living movement” includes basic home chores, taking care of personal business in a mindful, aware way. This activity can offer time out-of-doors, soaking in some vitamin D while meditatively hanging up or taking down the clothes. It doesn’t really take that long to do one’s hanging and folding yet just pausing to do it can help slow down the frantic pace of everything else. And involving kids in the process is a great way to teach responsibility and strengthen family bonds while meeting household needs.

In every one of these cases we still must be clear that conservation is a necessary, perhaps the most necessary, aspect of our individual and national energy plans.

Leading by example

Now, does the leader of the free world need to line dry his boxer shorts for all to see in order for us to “get it?” Few would probably embrace that and in today’s political climate, it would likely become fodder for ridicule in the distorting blogosphere and cable news echo chamber. But the White House could certainly dry all its table cloths, napkins, and sheets while remarking on their own “indoor line” for the family.

Think of social media. In just a few short years Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites have transformed the world, with individuals influencing each other’s choices through things as simple as “liking” and “sharing” the issues, ideas, products, and projects that any one person finds interesting. Such an approach has allowed many things to go viral, transforming the cultural landscape. Similarly, when politicians lead by example, they send a powerful message that makes a difference in behavior throughout their district, state, or the nation. Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden offers one recent and striking example of this. Now it’s time for everyone to up the ante and lead more on conservation.

With the Worldwatch Institute reporting that 51% of greenhouse gas emissions stem from the meat and dairy industry, many people feel that a first family commitment to join Sir Paul McCartney in his campaign for Meatless Mondays would be fab. Okay, fine, why not? But we have to go further, faster, and we have to begin now.

No matter what action you think is right for the president to take, it should be one that can be embraced more broadly by a large cross-section of Americans from every income bracket. It should be free and clear from the energy controversies of previous White House denizens and it should send a message that we must reduce our energy consumption first, to meet the developing world half way, and then pursue the technological solutions that will allow us to live comfortably with a much, much smaller energy footprint.

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  1. says

    Nice article. I wish there were a few more suggestions in it than not eating meat on Mondays (which seems like a passing afterthought) and clothesline drying.
    Since moving back to the United States, I’ve used a dryer. I don’t know why. For many years, whilst living in Europe, I used a spin dryer and hung my clothes on a rack, and I never thought too much about using a dryer here or even when I made the switch. I think I’ll switch back as soon as I can find an indoor rack.
    I’m wondering about dishwashers now.

    One day a week not eating meat is not going to be enough.

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