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Drying for Freedom: Our Future is Hanging on the Line cover image

Drying for Freedom: Our Future is Hanging on the Line 2014


Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Steven Lake and Adam Merrifield
Directed by by Steven Lake and Adam Merrifield
DVD, color, 53 min.

General Adult
Culture, Environmental Education, Social Sciences, Sustainability, History, Technology, India

Date Entered: 08/25/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Modern consumer societies tend to disconnect personal action, driving gas-guzzling cars, for instance, or using excessive packaging, from social and environmental consequences. The result is guilt-free consumption, along with the unnoticed exhaustion of non-renewable resources and environmental degradation. This compelling film about electric drying examines the unseen costs of consumer appliances.

Like so many of the appliances in the modern home, the electric dryer entered into the American home courtesy of General Electric. With Ronald Reagan as its spokesperson, GE confronted a dip in appliance sales in the early 1950s by marketing these devices as part of an electric utopia that would dramatically ease the burdens of housekeeping and free Americans up for more productive labor. “Live better electrically” was the company’s highly successful and lucrative campaign. Ronald Reagan invited television viewers into his family home, showing them the modern GE appliances that had made his family’s intense joie de vivre possible. But there was a catch: those promises of a consumer utopia highlighted the benefits and none of the environmental costs.

So thorough has the marketing of electric drying been – one is tempted to use the word brainwashing – that people have condemned and even murdered (yes, really!) those who have attempted to dry their clothes the old fashioned way: by putting them on a clothesline. Beginning with the GE campaigns of the early 1950s, Americans began to take pride in consuming megawatts of electricity, just as they began to see the right to drive gas-guzzling cars as essential to the free and democratic way of life that the Russians were supposedly trying to deny us. Getting people hooked on electric appliances also meant convincing them that the way they had done things previously – line drying, for example – was an eyesore and indication of uncouth and savage living. One did not air any laundry, dirty or clean; that meant putting something private into public view and descending rather than ascending the social-status latter.

Much of the film contains a fascinating discussion of the history of homeowner associations and how they have encouraged hostile attitudes toward clotheslines. About half of all homeowner associations in the United States ban line drying. Those associations were a byproduct of the gated communities that emerged following World War II. Homeowners associations replaced the regulation of government with the regulation of the association, which was widely accepted as somehow less onerous and more reasonable than government oversight. During the Cold War, when politicians represented government as Big Brother aiming to destroy sacred freedoms, the homeowner associations were ideologically sacrosanct, even when, from an outsider’s perspective, their passion for uniformity and social control seemed like the essence of dictatorship.

The film highlights the absurd reality of California, which is sunny almost every day of the year and yet is more hostile than any other state to clotheslines due to the influence and power of homeowner associations. Clotheslines, moreover, are viewed as a threat to property values. A rule of thumb among California realtors is that clotheslines reduce the value of a house by 15 percent. Fearing the decline of their home’s values, homeowners have become effective enforcers of the many private prohibitions against line drying.

The final third of the film shifts to India and the export of the American way of drying to the developing world. Given the large carbon footprint of electric drying, and the size of the Indian population, the adoption of electric drying in India is clearly an environmental disaster. India faces the challenge of providing electricity to 400 million of its citizens – without replicating the wasteful practices that many in the United States are now rejecting. True, many in India are aware of the need to fuel their electric dream with renewable energy, but the consuming masses and the producers who satisfy their needs will ultimately decide India’s fate. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” said Mahatmas Gandhi. Ronald Reagan’s vision, however, may be the one most upwardly mobile Indians prefer.

Even the use of more energy-efficient appliances has not stopped the consumption of energy – indeed, just the opposite. British researchers have coined a term, “Jevon’s Paradox,” which suggests that each increase in energy efficiency is cancelled out by an even greater use of electricity encouraged by the more efficient practices. Despite all the work toward greater appliance efficiency, the United States continues to consume at a level far greater than most other countries, using 25 percent of the world’s energy resources but with only 4 percent of the world’s population.

The film does an excellent job providing the historical, social, economic and political context that has transformed the ecologically friendly practice of line drying clothes into a badge of shame. It also chronicles the emergence of a counter movement, which has attempted to put some guilt and social responsibility back into the act of consumption. The development of the “right-to-dry” movement in the United States is now attempting to convince state legislatures to pass laws overriding private prohibitions against clotheslines. Laying guilt-trips on America, however, may be far more difficult than marketing guiltless consumption. GE will continue to remind the world that it brings only “good things to life,” a far more appealing message to consumers than the warning that their habits just might cause environmental doomsday.