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Journal Interrobang's Journal: The Environmentally-Friendly Angel in the Off-the-Grid House 3

This interesting paper by Sherilyn MacGregor looks at the way much of "environmental citizenship" involves making lifestyle changes that inevitably (I blame the patriarchy) wind up increasing the amount of uncompensated labour expected of (primarily) women. Since, by and large, women still do the majority of family, relationship and household maintenance tasks (many while holding down full- or part-time jobs outside the home), many of the most frequently-touted "personal changes" we hear about guessed it, more work for women (generally).

Switch to cloth diapers? Great, but someone, probably mommy, winds up swamping out diaper pails (you could not pay me enough) and running the washing machine all those extra times.

Switch to environmentally friendly, biodegradable cleaning products? Also great, but someone, most likely the female someone who does most of the household shopping and provisioning, has to first find and buy such products (which, with the exception of vinegar-and-water, are not readily available at every grocery store here), and then apply the extra elbow grease they all seem to require.

Switch from sending Lunchables to school with Sally and Junior to packing brown-bag lunches? Definitely more environmentally friendly (and you can recycle those paper bags, too!), but someone has to make sure lunch-fixings are in the house, and someone has to pack lunches. (When I was a kid, past a certain age, I fixed my own lunch, but that's basically unreasonable below the age of about eight or so.)

Give up the second car in favour of public transportation, walking, or biking? An excellent idea, except that who's likely to find their daily commute prioritised, especially in an unequal relationship dynamic (all too common) where the male partner works full-time outside the home and the female partner works only part-time outside the home or not at all? (Judging by the experiences of friends of mine with children -- and this story by BitchPhD, I'd say it makes more practical sense to let unencumbered Hubby take the bus/train/subway/streetcar/bike and the errand-runner and schlepper of kids take the car...but that, too often, isn't what happens.)

Take up making "Slow Food"? Someone has to spend all those hours searching for the perfect raw ingredients and then spend even more hours preparing and cooking that stuff. One thing "Slow Food" proponents forget, I think, is that it's hard to savour a meal on which you've just put in four or five solid hours of back-breaking, persnicketty work.

Take up shopping locally? Watch the amount of time and effort you spend sourcing and buying food quadruple, and the amount of money you spend easily double, and that's assuming you're shopping around and bartering when you can. That has to come out of someone's time and effort budget...

All of which basically conspires to put straight, partnered women who want to be more environmentally conscious in a kind of a bind -- taking up a more environmentally friendly lifestyle will almost certainly result in a loss of quality of life for them, in terms of the amount of free time they have (cooking meals that take four hours of steady work to prepare does rather cut into the amount of time in the day one might have to, oh, say, be publically involved, or visit friends, or catch up on one's reading) and the amount of work they have to do to maintain their households. It also denotationally represents a huge regression in terms of the lifestyle afforded to women -- a return to the primacy of the home-making role as key to the maintenance of the personal environment; a very Victorian "Angel in the House" concept, if you ask me.

This problem is, of course, a lot simpler for unpartnered people (of either sex) who have no children, because it is significantly likely to be more their decision to do or not to do (social pressure and acculturation notwithstanding) whatever they want/feel like/have time for/have money for. Add in a relationship where there's a power dynamic drawn across gender lines, and it gets significantly more complex in a big hurry. Add children to that relational power dynamic, and the complexity goes off the scale. I think this is a very important issue that more people should be talking about, especially people like me, and Rustin, who are proponents of sustainable/communitarian/off-the-grid living and so on. Regardless of the environmental benefits, a green lifestyle built on egregious gender inequality is as unsustainable in the long term as rampant consumerism (for reasons that have been adequately documented elsewhere, but not excluding financial dependence, backlash against social pressure, and out-of-control authoritarianism based on gender hierarchies).

I'm not entirely certain whether you could say of women as a class that taking this sort of self-ceding action is an exactly uncoerced choice, either -- women are socialised from birth to sacrifice their own well-being for that of others, and there is already a considerable amount of social pressure to do these things for the greater good, but why (I blame the patriarchy) must the vast bulk of the giving-up, doing-without, and labour-intensive alternative living happen because of the uncompensated labour of women?

As I've been saying for years, it's equally shitty to be a reactionary git because it's good for the trees as for any of the usual reasons...

Update: Fixed a thinko, and thought of something else, based on a discussion of wedding planning and Emily Post at Pandagon. Seems to me that a lot of these lifestyle traditionalists who prize things like home-cooked meals and houses cleaned without the convenience of modern chemicals forget that for the majority of people in particularly the 19th Century, but also in other historical periods, where there was a household to be run, there was also hired help. Lots of it. To maintain a similar quality of life to a modern household using late-Victorian technology, you'd need a staff of seven, at least. (This probably explains why women haven't really seen a decline in the amount of housework they do, or feel obligated to do, since the 1920s, despite the proliferation of labour-saving devices. The labour-saving devices have replaced the scullery maid, the housemaid, the butler, the lady's-maid, the housekeeper, and the cook, putting the onus on one person and technology to do what used to be the work of six. I don't even want to get into the idea of rising culturally-imposed standards facilitated by technology, but I will venture the opinion that modern people have more and cleaner clothes and larger and cleaner houses than their ancestors of 120 years ago.) The thing is, technology is not really going to operate your mop or vacuum cleaner for you, wet-dry Roombas notwithstanding. Nor is it going to load your dishwasher (if you have one), load and run your washing machine, and put away the laundry afterward. There are a lot of "collateral" tasks that wind up needing to be done...and redone...and done again after that.

The difference being, in the 19th Century, the heads of the household paid people to do these things. A labour-intensive eco-friendly lifestyle is an awful lot of for-free expended in service to the commonweal, possibly to the detriment of the person doing the work.

This is not, of course, to argue against being environmentally friendly, but on the other hand, I'd like to see people lose a little bit of the rockstar, back-to-the-land glitz, since it's a lot of hard work -- and if they're the male half of a heterosexual couple, they may not even be aware of how much work it really is (I blame the patriarchy), since a good deal of the work is basically invisible, uncompensated, "women's" work.

In short, be mindful, because your environmentally-conscious lifestyle might actually require you to have a consciousness-raising of an entirely other sort.
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The Environmentally-Friendly Angel in the Off-the-Grid House

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  • It doesn't all have to be a pain in the ass. For example I buy some environmentally friendly cleaning products because they work better than the typical chemicals. As for cloth diapers, people I know who use them also use a diaper service so they really aren't much more of a hassle than disposables (and end up being cheaper which is also important).

    As for slow/local food you really have to enjoy the process if you are going to prepare things that take hours to be ready. There are also some shortcuts to be h
    • Yes, I wasn't trying to say that it did all have to be a pain in the ass. I actually do a lot of intensive cooking myself. I have a couple of pretty severe food allergies, so I kind of have to. (I do think that the real "Slow Food" movement types focus too much on labour, to a ridiculous potlatch sort of degree, in that they seem to be using the amount of absurd labour they can put into a dish to show off, however.) I don't do too much local/organic shopping because a) I'm po', b) I live at 43N latitude
  • "Give up the second car in favour of public transportation, walking, or biking? An excellent idea, except that who's likely to find their daily commute prioritised, especially in an unequal relationship dynamic (all too common) where the male partner works full-time outside the home and the female partner works only part-time outside the home or not at all? (Judging by the experiences of friends of mine with children -- and this story by BitchPhD, I'd say it makes more practical sense to let unencumbered Hu

In order to dial out, it is necessary to broaden one's dimension.