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Who’s Responsible for Reducing Global Energy Use?

November 10, 2011

In thinking about the context of energy conservation, there’s an interesting clash between developed and developing countries regarding energy consumption.

Historically, developed countries cashed in on all of the benefits of industrialization and opened up the world to numerous environmental woes (i.e. climate change, ozone depletion, global warming etc.). Now, environmentalists from those nations are trying to make things right and recognize that this may need to involve some lifestyle changes*. Enter “Drying for Freedom” who are fighting for our right to … use clotheslines. This is a hugely contentious issue in a society where clotheslines=poverty=low status. As Sociological Images explained, many of the rules of homeowners associations have everything to do with showing how high class the neighborhood is rather than encouraging any kind of environmental action:

Homeowners associations require many things intended to increase the “curb appeal” and property value of homes.  Many of these things specifically function to make the home and yard appear decorative instead of functional. Rules prohibit visible vegetable gardens, parking cars in the driveway overnight, allowing your cat outside (lest they poop), and failing to clean oil stains left by leaky vehicles.  They turn driveways, curbs, front yards, and porches into communal space designed to advertise the luxury of having non-functional spaces.  They say “this is a lovely neighborhood where we can afford to curate flowers instead of vegetables and preserve pristine concrete by taking our cars to Jiffy Lube.”

This is fascinating to me because it has a very specific cultural resonance in American society. We take it for granted that we have a high likelihood of being offered access to a dryer/other time-saving appliances. In the “Drying for Freedom” trailer, they even say:

We are exporting our bad habits. In places like India and Brazil a section of the population is becoming more wealthy and they are willing to imitate the American lifestyle – perhaps creating a huge problem for the future. The developing world can see that the most profligate countries (America, Europe) are doing something. The developing countries say “ok, we’re more likely to join in the fight”.

Really? They’re going to “join the fight”? This seems wildly optimistic to me in a world that is increasingly buying into the idea that high consumption=high status. I’m not convinced that developing nations even believe that climate change is their problem. I am reminded of my experiences in Kiritimati as a student in SEA Semester. I learned that Kiritimati may be submerged in as soon as 10 years as a result of projected sea-level rise. Their president is very concerned about this. As he explained to the press in 2008: “To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that.” Yet, in talking to the people of Kiritimati, I learned that many thought their President was foolish. Their immediate concerns were limited food resources and access to water rather than whether they might become the first “environmental refugees”. Clearly, the people of Kiritimati have a different perspective than their President, who has flown all over the world raising awareness about climate change.

But there’s even more to this problem than whether or not developing nations will “do their part” to reduce the effects of climate change that the developed world set in motion. Energy consumption has huge implications on the lives of women around the world – because in most parts of the world, these energy-intensive appliances are time-saving devices for tasks relegated as “women’s work” (i.e. laundry, cooking, cleaning). In a TED Talk that I discovered via Sociological Images (love that blog), Hans Rosling explains that we (as people from developed nations) have no right to tell people in developing countries what to do as long as we are still consuming exorbitant amounts of electricity per person. Because technology like washing machines can open a whole new world for people in developing countries, just as it did for us:

And what’s the magic with them? My mother explained the magic with this machine the very, very first day. She said, “Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry; the machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.” Because this is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children’s books. And mother got time to read for me. She loved this. I got the “ABC.” This is where I started my career as a professor, when my mother had time to read for me. And she also got books for herself. She managed to study English and learn that as a foreign language. And she read so many novels, so many different novels here. And we really, we really loved this machine.

*But do there have to be lifestyle changes? This point can be argued – but I fall in the “It really wouldn’t hurt to combine energy conservation and energy efficiency strategies to maximize our total energy savings” camp.

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