I rarely iron a piece of clothing. Most of what I buy and wear doesn’t need it—I’ve become accustomed to popping clothes into the washer, transferring them to the dryer or to drying racks, and then transferring the warm, dry clothes directly to drawers or hangers.
Every now and then, however, I buy something that needs special care—or I find that I’ve bought something that I don’t know how to care for. Today, I washed a Himalayan-made blouse for the first time, and found that it had no sewn-in care instructions. I figured that I was safe washing it in cold water, but I wasn’t so sure about the dryer. Should I put it on the sweater-drying racks, instead? When I pulled it out of the washer, it looked so wrinkled. I found my iron and plugged it in, realizing that it had been years since the last time I’d used it.
As I ironed the blouse, I thought about my mother, who taught me to iron, something like 40 years ago. She spent a good deal more of her life ironing than I have. I don’t know whether my mother always used an electric iron, or if she might have used irons that were heated on a stovetop. I imagine that my grandmothers used the older sort. My great-grandmothers? Did people iron, in those days? I have no idea how old the practice of ironing is.
All ironing uses energy. In my case, I believe the electricity for my iron was generated partly from hydroelectric power, but also significantly from fossil fuels. An event that I attended, last week, made the point that prosperity in the industrialized world has always depended on nonrenewable resources—it’s the only way we know how to have prosperity, and the only example we’ve given to people who seek more prosperity for themselves and their families. I may not pull out the iron all that often, but I use my natural-gas dryer regularly and frequently. I would miss it. A lot. At least, at first.
And my gas stove? My microwave? It would be lovely if my microwave were completely powered by renewable energy sources. I suppose I might someday live in a sufficiently solarized house to manage that. But I grew up with an electric stove, and I know how much more responsive gas is—I wince at the idea of cooking on an electric stove, again, much less at the idea of cooking with a solar oven. But it’s something I need to consider, because humanity as a whole can’t afford the lifestyle I’m used to. Since I have the privilege of thinking well beyond my immediate survival, then if I cling to a way of life that endangers our whole biosphere, that would make me not only privileged, but an exploiter, right?
In a conversation about living more sustainably, a few months ago, a friend of mine said, “I don’t want to be good!” I admire her honesty. I do want to be good, by my own standards of goodness, but I often flinch away from the cost involved.
Sometimes, the cost isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. As a tiny example, I thought I would miss Honey tangerines from Florida, but I find that I’m more satisfied than I expected to be with citrus fruit from my local farmer's market. I like knowing that it uses a lot less fuel to reach me.
Sometimes, new technologies can help. Perhaps, eventually, new technologies will make a truly sustainable prosperity possible for all. I hope so. Certainly, I’m on the lookout for good options in this area. But I’m dubious about a sustainable form of prosperity being fully available to me, in my lifetime, let alone being available to the rest of humanity.
Meanwhile, we are all facing choices of whether to ignore the present and future costs of our prosperity, or whether to make it a priority to reduce what our prosperity is costing people who have much less. Doing the right thing will probably involve some sacrifices, and I hate that. But maybe it’ll be easier if we do it together. Maybe convenience would feel less important if our lives included more mutual cooperative support. Maybe it would be useful, and even soul-nourishing, to think about a wider definition of prosperity. I’ll look at these questions if you will.
Please comment with your thoughts about this essay:
1. Today, I’m particularly interested to your emotional reactions to this essay—how do you feel after reading it?
2. What are your thoughts about less fuel-intensive ways that we might define prosperity?
3. Constructive suggestions for change are always welcome!