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Warming the world to dry our socks

By Bill McKibben
Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, July 16, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Once, visiting a friend, I helped wash the dinner dishes. I soaped the plates and cups, and she rinsed them and stacked them in a dish rack. When we were finished, I asked where the dish towel was so I could dry. "Oh, don't bother with that," she said. "That's air's job."

This brings me to a very modest proposal, perfectly suited to summer. If you're wondering what (prior to Nov. 2) you can do about our deadly dependence on foreign energy, or about ever-rising utility bills, or about the flood of carbon into the atmosphere that's steadily raising temperatures, here's one answer: Let air and sun and wind do their job.

To be specific, buy 50 feet of clothesline and a $3 bag of clothespins and become a solar energy pioneer.

The average American family devotes 5 to 6 percent of its annual electric budget to the motor and heating coils inside its clothes dryer. Undampening your socks ties you into the vast world energy grid, with its legacy of mountaintop-removal coal mining, terrorist-vulnerable natural gas pipelines and all the rest. Which is OK -- right? -- because we all need dry socks.

But in fact we all had dry socks long before the invention of the clothes dryer. As late as 1960, according to Northwest Environment Watch, fewer than 20 percent of American households had automatic dryers.

And perhaps you've noticed that lint in your dryer trap. That's your clothes disintegrating from the endless tumbling. You won't find a small drift of lint under your clothesline.

Some people don't use clotheslines because they can't. According to the crusaders at a group called Project Laundry List, thousands of homeowners associations, condominium complexes and even whole suburbs ban clotheslines because they believe that clothes on the line are ugly. "It's akin to graffiti in your neighborhood," the president of the California Association of Homeowners Associations told reporters a few years ago. Property values could drop 15 percent, he estimated, if clotheslines flourished. Violators can be sued.

But even people who could hang out their laundry often hesitate. I was standing with another friend on the back porch in a pricy suburb not long ago. She had a perfect angle from deck to tree for a line, and I was all set to install it. "But everyone would be able to see our underwear," she said.

True enough. But drop by any mall: The average American teen-age boy is fully devoted to displaying as much of his underwear as possible, simply by failing to wear a belt and buying jeans two sizes too large. MTV might as well call itself The Underwear Channel. Our grandparents may have been prudes by contrast, but when it came to their laundry, they let it all hang out.

There are a few signs that we're beginning to regain our courage. Fort Lauderdale recently passed a resolution designating a National Hanging Out Day, noting in its official proclamation: "For many people hanging out clothes is therapeutic work. It is the only time during the week that some folks can slow down to feel the wind and listen to the birds."

Some people think that clotheslines are simply old-fashioned -- too low-tech. Like President Bush, they're waiting for something like a hydrogen car before they get around to saving energy. But say you dubbed it something sexier: a Solar Activated Linear Evaporation System, perhaps -- maybe that would spur SALES.

Whatever you call it, the clothesline is the most elegant solution to the problem of drying clothes in good weather. And if it storms? Just leave them up until they dry again -- you'll be able to boast about rain-washed clothes.

If we all used clotheslines, we could save 30 million tons of coal a year, or shut down 15 nuclear power plants. And you don't have to wait to start. Yours could be up by this afternoon.


Bill McKibben is the author of many books on environmental issues, including "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina , Kan.