Thoughts on a laundry line

27 Jul

How does this:

lead to this: ?

And how is this:

related to this: ?

Many people have very skewed perceptions of how to conserve or save energy. Understandably, I think. Many of us have heard for years that we should turn off light bulbs when we leave a room, or use CFLs, or turn our computers off at night. Which we should! But it turns out “green fatigue” is a real thing, and just as research has shown that our we can wear out our will power (“self control is a limited resource”), we can wear out our desire to do right by the environment. This is especially true when we underestimate the power of our actions, and lose desire to further reduce our carbon footprint after, say, changing out all the lightbulbs. If a little more environmentally aware, it’s easy to bargain with yourself. I do this all the time: for example, I tell myself, “well, it’s OK to drive downtown today instead of bike, because I didn’t eat any meat over the past few days.”

Mean perceptions of energy used or saved as a function of actual energy used or saved for 15 devices and activities. The diagonal dashed line represents perfect accuracy. Inset: Individual regression curves for 30 randomly selected participants. (Attari et al 2010)

Shahzeen Attari and colleagues published a study last year examining the disconnect between consumers’ perceptions of how much energy a certain action uses or conserves and how much that action actually uses or conserves. It turns out, unsurprisingly, there’s a big gap, as shown in the figure excerpted from their paper. We are pretty accurate at estimating the energy use of low-ticket items, like replacing bulbs or unplugging electronics, but really bad at estimating the potential savings from line-drying our clothes and finding alternatives for big-ticket appliances like central A/C, dish washers, and space heaters. Note that the figure is charted on a logarithmic scale…meaning that the big ticket items are thousands of times more energy consumptive than the smaller ones.

Their findings, combined with the green fatigue concept, show a part of the reason why it’s so hard for us to reduce our overall energy consumption: if we perceive that unplugging our desktop computer is just as good for the environment as line-drying our clothing, any sensible person would do the much easier one. But in reality, turning off the clothes dryer is about 30 times more energy conserving than unplugging the computer. With green fatigue, we do the easy one, genuinely think we’ve done enough, and then…stop there.

That’s where the flooding comes in. False certainty about energy use means we’re not in control of our energy-driven carbon emissions, which are contributing to higher and higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet is heating up and more heat in the oceans and atmosphere means more severe weather events of all kinds, from this summer’s global heat wave (and last summer’s too, for that matter) to flooding in the midwest, Australia, Pakistan, and elsewhere around the world. The current concentration of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases in the atmosphere is 391 parts per million, and scientists have said we need to get back below 350 ppm to avert climate catastrophe.

So let’s line dry our clothes. It takes longer, it’s true. I’ve been doing it for the past two years (except in the dead of winter) and I hate hauling clothes around. But it gets me outside, it keeps me in touch with the weather. I don’t have to save as many quarters for my coin-op basement machines. I talk to my neighbors more. They call me if it looks like rain and I haven’t noticed yet.

As a matter of fact, it’s time to go do some laundry right now!

5 Responses to “Thoughts on a laundry line”

  1. Jennifer July 29, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    Interesting thoughts. I didn’t realize there was such a disconnect between perception and actual energy savings. My own attitude is that I should be doing as much as I can, in whatever ways I can. I don’t get burned out so much as complacent; the challenge is always for me to get off my butt and push myself harder.

    During the summer I sometimes line dry clothes overnight. I got some pretty funny looks from the neighbors a few weeks ago as I put my clothes up at 10pm. But hey, they dry well and don’t fade the way they do in the sun!

    • elizacava August 1, 2011 at 12:16 am #

      Thanks for commenting, Jennifer! Yeah, I was blown away when I saw one of the authors of that paper present her work. It made me think about true effectiveness, and making sure that we invest attention, energy, money, and the effort to convince others into things that are really worthwhile. Kind of like how those debt-restructuring advice coaches say you should pay off your highest-interest loans first, no question, because it’s such a no-brainer and saves so much interest money. Until we orient our thinking around that advice, though, it doesn’t feel like it makes such a difference because money going out to pay the bills is going out one way or the other. Does that make sense? I’m working on a presentation I’m giving later in the week and I’m thinking about metaphors and creative connections with an audience. Tell me if the one about debt restructuring was a flop and I’ll think of something else.

      By the way, I like your blog a lot. My bookshelf has some things in common with yours, and some things very different. I have read Silent Spring, and I highly recommend it not just because of its historical value but to look at how Rachel Carson communicated about science and the environment. She struck an apocalyptic and fearful tone right from the beginning of the environmental movement, encouraging people to imagine a world without birds. It worked, of course, but now that we have averted the immediate threat of some particularly harmful chemicals, what more does such a message have to offer us in terms of inspiration to confront such new and difficult challenges as climate change?

  2. Elizabeth July 31, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Yeah, that’s one that I really am bad at – especially since Mike and I tend to procrastinate on doing laundry until there are two huge loads to do at once. But you’ve inspired me to haul out the clothesline I bought ages ago and actually figure out a place to hang it up! So, congrats.

    • elizacava August 1, 2011 at 12:10 am #

      Yay! Clotheslines are a pain in the butt…and sometimes fun…I like watching my t-shirts flapping in the breeze and seeing my politics and clothing statements on display in the back of the shared driveway. I hang the undies indoors though!

  3. Terry Tasker August 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    This article serves as an inspiration to those of us who have suffered bouts of “green fatigue” to snap out of it and give greater consideration to reducing the energy use of big-ticket appliances. Line drying clothes is a terrific first step in that direction. Great article!

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