Friday, 8 April 2011

Convenience vs Conservation

Hank's former flat-mate from London ("room-mate" for the American reader) just posted an amusing article on Facebook.  Like me and Hank, she is back in DC after several years in the UK and is reflecting on the lifestyle changes.  The article (below) is a witty insight into the difference between European and American domestic appliances, and (important for those who don't subscribe to the First Amendment) it's pleasantly non-jingoistic.

European appliances, certainly those readily available in the UK, are not always built with convenience as the main priority.  The writer of the article comments that the inconvenience is probably government-sponsored, to discourage excessive use of high-energy appliances.  Well yes, but sceptically,  I'd point out that domestic appliances still tend primarily to affect a woman's workload, so I wonder if there isn't a gender agenda here.  During my time in Japan, where housework was almost always a woman's work, it was astonishingly labour-intensive: making a simple bento box for lunch could take nearly two hours in the morning,  Japanese washing machines still ran on cold water and in a country where everyone had an electric pencil sharpener, I knew ONE person with a dishwasher (an American).  Women were so disempowered that until 2001 it was illegal to have contraceptive pills in the country.  I don't want to make Japan out to be a place where women were ill-treated - the lady of the house usually received a lot from her husband in return for her efforts - but I did feel strongly that such a high-tech country would have made greater advancements in technology if the appliances primarily serviced salaried men.

Gender issues aside, there is a broader issue of convenience vs conservation.  A tumble dryer eats electricity and gradually attrites your clothes.  I discovered recently that my black running tights, now tumble dried five or six times, have slowly become almost entirely transparent.  To think that I'd been wearing them running with the dog, and - horror!- for weeding the front garden. 

Despite these occasional minor glitches,  I truly love the convenience of US culture.  I adore the easy-open, easy-reseal bags for groceries which keep food so fresh.  My kitchen sink has a handy hose for spraying the dishes.  There are cup holders everywhere in cars.  The GPS in buses tells my iPhone app exactly how many minutes away the bus is before I even leave home.  AMAZING.   

There are of course things which the conservationist struggles with.  I'm still not sure that garbage disposal via sinks doesn't bring rats into city sewers.  And of course, driving everywhere in really big cars...  I know you have less traffic, petrol is cheaper and it really is a joy to drive in the USA but ....

It would be a terrible shame if American the Beautiful were sacrificed for America the Convenient.

But telling Americans to buy smaller cars would be like telling Londoners not to use the Underground.   Until cheap, reliable alternatives exist, people will default to what they know.


Two of my neighbours recently petitioned the local Council to cut down three diseased trees in our  street.  The same couple polled the remaining neighbours and generously bought the most popular replacement: plum saplings.  The pair were clearly happy to have had the chance to choose which trees are on our street and they hope to replace all the other trees in the future.  To me, though, tiny saplings look a bit odd on a street of Victorian townhouses.  A part of what I value is heritage and to the British eye,  old homes are part of an establishment, naturally complemented by imposing old trees.   A young tree not only looks oddly small but also deprives the street of some of its old charm.  This is a classic cultural difference in viewpoint.  My neighbours value the convenience of designing their environment, I value conserving what was already there. 

I've paid the price for this preference to conserve; the Victorian windows I refused to replace in my London flat were draughty and noisy and drove my heating bills through the roof.  I, of course, wore more clothes to keep warm (THAT is the British way!) but my flatmates probably found it inconvenient sleeping in long johns under mountains of hot water bottles and quilts.   I recall also being intermittently boiling hot and freezing cold when staying at Hank's; he never found out how to operate his central heating.  I fear the instructions were thrown out with the recycling.

As I write this, I'm looking out of my window at the new plum saplings bending in the wind, their tiny boughs heavy with beautiful plum blossom and deep red leaves.  Perhaps I am being a grumpy old woman.  The trees are a perfect fit in the New World.  I guess a part of me still clings to the Old.

Read the original article here.

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