October 3, 2001
Christian Science Monitor


Browse in Commons

My friend John Francis maintains that we must be the change we want to see. When he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in the early 1970s, he swore off motorized transit for almost 20 years. When he saw people spouting opinions but not listening, he stopped talking, too, so that he could learn to listen better.

John walked and listened all the way across the United States, and down most of South America as well. He observed how changes in himself rippled out into his surroundings. Since he wasn’t talking, family and friends had to communicate by letter – a small step, as it were, for literacy. Since he walked everywhere, others had to adjust their pace to his. Life slowed down where John went. So, when we first spoke about recent events, it was not surprising that John didn’t dwell on feckless jingoism and the rest. Instead, the talk turned to clotheslines.

Yes, clotheslines. This nation’s entanglements in Central Asia and the Middle East arise largely from its appetite for oil. This appetite leads to trouble continuously. Already there are efforts in Congress to use the terrorist attacks as an excuse to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, supposedly to make us “energy independent.”

Yet, if terrorists could find a way to blast into the Pentagon, how hard will it be for them to hit a pipeline meandering through hundreds of miles of Alaskan tundra? Besides, the Alaskan oil wouldn’t start flowing for up to 10 years; and even then, it would provide gas for only about 2 percent of the nation’s cars and trucks. When it ran out we’d be back to the Mideast, more dependent than ever.

That brings us back to homely clotheslines. Some 5 to 10 percent of residential energy use in the US goes to washing and drying clothes. Use cold water to wash, and you cut energy use on the washing side by 85 percent. Hang the clothes to dry and that’s 100 percent on the drying side. Together it’s the British-thermal-unit equivalent of at least a third of the oil in the Arctic refuge. In other words, genuine energy independence.

John Francis and I both use clotheslines, as do many of our friends. It can seem a bit inconvenient at first. But soon that feeling flips, and it seems idiotic to pay a power company for something the sun provides for free. The clothes smell fresher and last longer. The environmental impacts are totally benign. As for terrorism, even the most determined adversary would have problems trying to knock out all the nation’s clotheslines.

Of course, not everyone can use a clothesline. But the point here is how small steps can make a large difference. The war on terrorism is shaping up as another government production. We are told our role is to just watch and shop. But we can never win this battle unless ordinary citizens start to take responsibility. As John Francis says, “If we can hang out flags, why can’t we hang out laundry, too,” as a sign that we are really serious about our independence?

Start in the laundry room, and pretty soon we get to the driveway, where the potential savings are so great, it’s practically ridiculous. If just 3 to 4 percent of US cars were as efficient as the new hybrid cars, it would save the equivalent of all the oil in the Arctic refuge, observe Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. This is energy no terrorist could touch, because it’s energy we wouldn’t use. It would reduce both the opportunity for terrorism and the geopolitical urgencies that feed it.

Cutting our dependency on oil would mean little increase of power in Washington, moreover. One of the deeper ironies of the current situation is how the Bush administration, once so dismissive of government, is embarking on a major increase in its reach into our lives. Higher fuel-economy standards seem mild by comparison.

To some degree, more surveillance and the like is necessary. But then, should we not seek to minimize the need for it? Should we not curb the energy waste that invites trouble of so many kinds? Somehow, we have bought into the notion that strength lies in appetite, and that progress means doing less with more, when the ages show the opposite to be the case.

Let us hope our leaders start to see this. Let us hope that, while they launch a war on terrorists, they will encourage modes of energy use that make us less vulnerable to terrorists. Meanwhile, the rest of us don’t have to wait. We don’t have to accept the role of dutiful shoppers who watch the government do the job on TV.

“It’s when we commit ourselves to do something, it’s when we take that first step, that we become a participant – a committed participant,” John Francis says.

“And in being a participant we change the world.”

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.