Friday, October 26, 2012

So why do I hang my laundry?

For some time now, I've been meaning to write a blog entry—or several—about the book All the Money in the World, by Laura Vanderkam, which my mom loaned to me a couple of months ago. Subtitled "What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending," it's an analysis of the ways in which having and using money does, and doesn't, make us happier. I've recently started rereading it, aloud, to Brian, and the chapter we went through this morning was "The Chicken Mystique," which discusses the trend toward urban homesteading and self-sufficiency, as epitomized by backyard chickens. Vanderkam says that as a childhood fan of The Boxcar Children and Little House on the Prairie, she can understand the appeal of this kind of lifestyle—but ultimately, she questions whether it's really worth it for most people. As she points out, raising your own food and making your own clothes aren't the only way to live a meaningful, sustainable life. For someone like herself, it makes more sense to devote her limited time to her "core competencies," which include writing and caring for her family, and then use the money she earns from her writing to buy food and clothing produced by others (for whom growing food and making clothes are their true life's work). She backs this claim up by crunching the numbers on home-raised eggs:
A small batch of chickens might lay you two dozen eggs a week. Organic free-range eggs cost about $4 a dozen in the store...The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you could clear $6 an hour, then your chicken work would have to take you less than 1.33 hours per week to be economical...and that doesn't include the start-up costs, which are highly variable.
Well, okay, fair point. I do think that she's overlooking one of the key benefits of home-grown food, which is that having our country's food production more widely distributed is an inherent good. When we depend for our food on a few big growers, than anything that hurts one of those growers can potentially threaten our entire food supply. When food comes from many sources, by contrast, losing one of them is less of a disaster. But then, the producers of organic free-range eggs tend to be small growers anyway—so I can buy Sauder's Farm eggs at the store and still support local growers rather than huge agribusinesses.

However, her strict dollar-cost analysis came back into my mind later, as I was hanging out my laundry on the clothesline. I'd made a point of doing the wash today because the weather forecast was calling for a mostly sunny day with highs around 70—the kind of perfect laundry day we probably won't have many more of before winter sets in. Yet as I sorted through the wet clothes and pinned T-shirts up on the line, I found myself wondering, "Why do I do this? Is it really a good use of my time?"

Asking this question at all felt a bit shocking—in fact, almost blasphemous, from an ecofrugal standpoint. After all, line-drying clothes just seems like such an ecofrugal no-brainer: why on earth would you use fossil fuels, for which you have to pay money, to dry your clothes when the sun will do the job for nothing? But I recalled Vanderkamp's observations about how chicken farming, and many other money-saving activities, have large costs in terms of time—which, unlike money, is an inherently limited resource. Most of us could find some way to make more money if we had to, but no one can increase the number of hours in a week. Throwing my wet clothes directly into the dryer would take me two minutes; hanging them on the line takes ten to twenty minutes (plus another five or so to take them down at the end of the day). Why, exactly, do I consider this time well spent?

Well, for starters, it does save me some money. But it's not that much money, really. Michael Bluejay, who calls himself "Mr. Electricity," claims on his website that clothes dryers use up "a whopping 12% of electricity use in a typical household"—but our household clearly isn't typical. For one thing, we do only one or two loads of laundry per week; for another, our dryer runs on gas rather than electricity (though the tumbling does use some). Bluejay estimates the cost of a single tumble-dried load of laundry at 49 cents for an electric dryer, 24 cents for a gas dryer (based on the energy rates we pay here in central Jersey). So by hanging my laundry, I'm taking at least 10 minutes to save at most 24 cents. That means that my hourly wage for this activity is, at best, a paltry $1.44—less than a quarter of the federal minimum wage, even after taxes.

Okay, but hanging my laundry to reduce energy use doesn't just save me money—it also helps shrink my carbon footprint, right? Right—but again, not by that much. According to Bluejay's calculations, drying a single load of clothes in my gas dryer uses about a quarter of a therm of gas. One therm of gas, according to the EPA, produces roughly 0.005 metric tons of CO2. Our household's carbon footprint for the past year, according to Carbon Footprint, is 8.73 metric tons (well below the average for the US, but still above the worldwide average, and much higher than the level of 2 metric tons per person that they cite as a reasonable target for mitigating global warming). So each time I hang a load of laundry, I'm shrinking our household's carbon footprint by less than one-thousandth of one percent. Every little bit helps, no doubt, but it's pretty clear that hanging all our laundry isn't going to get our footprint down to the target level.

So, given that the financial and environmental benefits are so tiny, why do I willingly, even cheerfully, spend 20 minutes on this chore, once or twice a week? Why not just spend that time on something else productive and pay a little more to Carbonfund each year for my carbon offsets? If I'm being totally honest about it, I think I have to admit that I hang laundry because I enjoy it. I enjoy it partly because of the admittedly illusory sense that I'm doing something to lower our energy bills, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and stave off global warming apocalypse. But if that were the only reason, I could just admit that it's a silly reason and put my time to better use. No, I think there must be more to it than that. I like hanging laundry, quite frankly, because it gives me an excuse to spend 20 minutes outdoors on a nice, sunny day. It gets me out of the house and doing something active, even if 20 minutes of pinning clothes on the line doesn't qualify as much of a workout. It gives me a sense of connection with the natural environment—even if it's only the environment of my own back yard. It helps me feel in tune with the cycle of the seasons; it makes me pay attention to how the amount of daylight changes from month to month, and how the temperature gradually drops throughout the fall. It makes me more aware of winter when I have to stop hanging my clothes out on the line because it's below freezing even in the daytime—and it makes me more aware of spring when I can celebrate the arrival of the first warm day by ceremonially hanging out the first laundry load of the year. And I think those benefits, frankly, are more than enough to justify the use of 10 or 20 minutes of my time. Sure, I could have spent that time working and (at least in theory) earned a few bucks that I could spend on something that would increase my happiness down the road—but being out in the open air, feeling the sun on my back and the wind in my hair and the wooden clothespins between my fingers, makes me happy right now.

Raising chickens to save a nickel per egg, on the other hand, I can live without.

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