Friday, April 12, 2013

A Film About Clotheslines

I grew up in the bucolic far reaches of the greater Pittsburgh area in western Pennsylvania. I always enjoyed those lazy days of summer, when gentle breezes punctuated the thick humidity, making the climate bearable, sometimes even pleasant.

My family was large, and even though we owned an electric clothes dryer, my mother often hung sheets and other laundry to dry on clotheslines strung across the length of our small backyard. I enjoyed the lingering sweet smell and the warmth of the sun left behind on the laundry as I helped my mother fold.

I had forgotten about those sensations and about the calming effect of seeing laundry billowing in the wind, having long ago surrendered myself entirely to the convience of the modern dryer. Indeed, for many years I had even adopted the practice of sending my laundry out to be laundered. As a lawyer, my time had become too valuable to waste it on doing my own laundry.

Then in 2005 I married a German-Austrian. He moved to the US, and we made our home in New York City. Now we were sending all of our household laundry out to be laundered. My husband seemed torn. He could appreciate the luxury of having someone else launder our clothes. At the same time, he missed the stiffness in his shirts and the crunchy quality of towels hung dried, as he’d dried his things in Europe. I had problems understanding his perspective, until we moved to Germany in 2009.

In German households, there are two very common conditions with respect to laundry. First, most households, even those based in rental apartments, have washing machines. (Laundry mats, in fact, are quite scarce.) Second, most households with washing machines do not have dryers. 

That factor alone, that I do not use (or pay someone to use) a dryer for drying my laundry, greatly reduces my ecological footprint. 

So why all this talk about laundry and dryers? 

About ten years ago, I met Alex Lee, the founder of Project Laundry List, an organization that promotes clothesline drying to reduce energy consumption and impacts to the environment. The PLL website describes its founding, “in 1995 when Dr. Helen Caldicott gave a speech at a Middlebury College symposium in which she said, ‘If we all did things like hang out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear industry.’”

Dr. Caldicott’s statement was not hyperbole. However, hanging our clothes out to dry is easier said that done in the US these days.

A new film by White Lantern Films called “Drying for Freedom” very eloquently explains a few of the obstacles. The film begins with historical roots of the American culture of “living better electrically,” a cultural phenomonom born in the 1950’s thanks to a targeted  marketing campaign by General Electric. And who better to spoonfeed it to us than Ronald and Nancy Reagan who appeared in GE’s television ad campaigns. Combine the persuasiveness of the advertising campaign with a form of urban planning, hinged on strict conformity rules set by home owners associations, and hang drying’s days were numbered.

According to the film, the US has over 300,000 home owners associations (over 40,000 in California alone). It is a dominent form of modern living in the US, and I imagine that living in these housing developments is a symbol of financial stability and the staid American middle class. The rules set by these HMAs, put in simple terms, dictate how people maintain their properties. Besides banning clotheslines, they may dictate the color of one’s home and other cosmetic factors intended to maintain the orderly look of the community and thereby keep property values high.

After the film takes us on a tour of the historical underpinnings of clothes drying and clothesline bans, we meet several people across the US who are in the midst of battles to uphold their right to hang dry. The film finishes in India, where our energy appetite is put into a global perspective.

In arriving at that global perspective, let’s begin with a statistic: The US population is just four percent of the world population. The US population uses 25 percent of the world’s energy. (This statistic comes from the film, and I believe it to be roughly accurate.)

Several years ago when I was teaching at Tufts University, I traveled to India to attend a conference. The trip fell during the dark, short days of December. I landed in New Dehli, then traveled by chartered bus into the late evening deep into Rajistan province. I remember marveling at how dark the landscape became as the sun dipped below the horizon. Across the pitch black, I could see flickering lights, candles and oil lamps that lit the multitudes of homes without electricity. My mind wandered to a statistic I’d heard in a presentation by one of my students: If you hang your clothes in a closet and keep your food in a refrigerator, you are wealthier than 75 perecent of the people in the world. I don’t remember the provinence of the stastic, but its force brought tears to my eyes as I looked across miles and miles of twinkling lights.

India has a population of approximately 1.2 billion people. According to the film 400 million Indians -- nearly 100 million more than the entire US population -- live without electricity. Just imagine if the entire population of India, a country that is rapidly industrializing, had the same appetite for electricity as the US. It would be a catastrophe of epic proportions. Yet, why should the US and the global north be entitled unbridled use of world resources to the exclusion of the rest of the world? The simple answer is that they shouldn’t. 

The world is in desperate need of more sustainable and just models of energy usage, and we all can help. Start by seeing the film. “Drying for Freedom” is being screened in venues in the US and beyond during “Hanging Out Festivals” between April 19 and May 5.