Clothesline logic

I love hanging clothes on the line. Robins, orioles, song sparrows and black birds serenade me. I enjoy the warm sun, the breeze, the smell of clean sheets and the solitude of hanging out the laundry. I have always liked hanging clothes on the line to dry. My mother taught me how to do it “right.” Don’t waste space and clothes pins. It was always a challenge for me to see how many loads I could get on the lines. There were a limited number of clothes pins, so saving on the number used by pinning two items together was essential to maximizing the number of loads hung. Shirts aren’t hung by the shoulders, pants by the cuffs and dish towels can be folded in half to save space. I like to hang like things together. I always sort and fold the laundry as it comes off the line. The job is just more pleasant when listening to the birds and feeling the afternoon breeze. I love the sight of a well-hung line with all the colors, shapes, textures and movement as the clothes blow in the wind.

Apparently some folks see clotheslines as a sign of lower social status, a holdover from tenement living. The arguments against clotheslines are not that they are a hazard or that they produce toxic pollution that kills bees or something. Apparently the notion that clothes lines are used only by poor people who can’t afford a clothes dryer, i.e., people who live in low rent housing, causes a drop in the value of whole neighborhoods.

The value of using solar energy to dry clothes has gained credibility. Some states have even passed “right to dry” laws which supersede community and homeowners association bans on clothes lines. Clothes hanging can be regulated, but not banned.

Banning clotheslines seems silly. The negative reaction to clothing hanging outside to dry is based on emotions and outdated perceptions of propriety and status. It is also based on assumptions about the costs of using modern clothes drying technology. When dryers became the norm back in the 1950s and 60s, no one understood the implications of filling the air with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. Energy was cheap and the affects on the world around us were not understood. The emotional and social objections to sun drying clothes seemed to outweigh the environmental costs.

I confess. I put socks and underwear in the dryer all the time. I dry many of our clothes in the dryer in the winter. I use the dryer for things that might need ironing if dried on the line. Using the sun for drying laundry does save money, reduces atmospheric carbon, and, for me, is something I enjoy. The reality is that modern dryers are much more efficient than they were fifty years ago and there are things one can do to reduce the electricity or gas burned while using them. In comparison to the production of greenhouse gasses by other parts of our lives, clothes drying is really a minor part.

We use a similar kind of flawed, ban the clothesline, logic when we debate other issues. Recently, Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven both came out in support of The North American Alternative Fuels Act which would repeal section 526 of Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Section 526 prohibits federal agencies from buying certain fuels unless the contract specifies that the alternative fuel emits less greenhouse gas than fuel produced from conventional petroleum sources. Because of this, section 526 prohibits certain Federal government agencies from buying transportation fuel produced from coal, oil shale, and oil sands.

The senators argue that repeal of this section will enhance “North American energy independence and energy security.” Energy independence and energy security have become an argument that seems to have a similar emotional and illogical basis as banning clothes lines. Is energy independence secured at the cost of adding to climate change worth it? Will the use of these dirty fuels really add to our national security? Isn’t energy just as much a global market as food and other goods? The argument sounds reasonable on the surface, but what are the costs? Who really benefits from the government’s ability to use fuels from these dirty energy sources? The greenhouse gasses produced from other sources of fuel are also too high. Why would we encourage the use of even dirtier fuels?

Who in the state of North Dakota really benefits from an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy and who will eventually pay the costs? Even if all North Dakotans gain some benefit from burning coal, oil shale and oil sands, will the long-term costs be paid by our grandchildren?

I love hanging clothes on the line. As much as I agree that we can reduce our energy consumption by cutting back on clothes dryer use, there aren’t enough clotheslines in the world to turn back global climate change. Our elected officials need to seek policies which look at the long term costs of energy usage and not be fooled by short term arguments of energy independence and security. Real independence and security will only be gained by reduction in the burning of all fossil fuels, not rushing to use fuels that add even higher levels of carbon to the atmosphere.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains