A Free-Market Energy Blog

Cars, Washing Machines, or Both? (energy is the master resource ….)

By Greg Rehmke -- March 24, 2011

What did Julian Simon have in common with Bjorn Lomborg? Both had strong statistics experience, and both started their research believing in popular environmental and over-population fears. Both Simon and Lomborg were convinced they could employ statistical  research to document and address these problems.

However, both Simon and Lomborg unexpectedly proved themselves wrong by looking seriously at empirical evidence.  Simon’s Malthusian-paradigm-busting book, The Ultimate Resource (1981), influenced many with its optimistic pro-technology data, analysis, and conclusions. (1) Years later Wired magazine interviewed Julian Simon and put him on the cover, complete with Julian’s little red devil’s horns.

Bjorn Lomborg picked up the Wired issue at the Los Angeles airport and read Simon’s claims with skepticism and even dismay.  Simon had to be wrong! And as a statistic professor, Lomborg was confident he could document and popularize the errors.  So, another convert was born through sound statistical research.

Lomborg discovered to his surprise that Simon and later associates (whose articles were gathered in The Resourceful Earth and Ultimate Resource 2), were essentially correct in documenting technological benefits and environmental progress. Pollution levels were dropping in developed countries, natural resources becoming less scarce, and population increases brought benefits that could outweigh environmental costs.

Now another statistician, Hans Rosling, has joined this ongoing debate with a series of creative graphical presentations explaining the stunning economic progress in the developed world since the Industrial Revolution, and the value of extending these benefits to billions still living in pre-industrial poverty.

Hail to the Washing Machine! (Hans Rosling)

Rosling’s latest presentation at a recent TED conference focuses on the quiet benefits of washing machines in the lives of women.  Rosling notes that when he asks his environmentally-sensitive university classes how many don’t drive cars, a number raise their hands, pleased to show their commitment.

But then he asks how many wash their clothes by hand, no one responds.  (I actually looked into this many years ago when renting a small house in Houston.  The Whole Earth Catalog had a hand-cranked washing device. If I could have hooked it up to a stationary bicycle, I might have tried it.)

Rosling’s core points are:

1) Washing machines and electricity are great advances,

2) Billions of poor families don’t have them and and want them, and

3) Those of us in the developed world–those who can afford to attend college or pay $6,000 to attend TED conferences–should understand that washing machines are a priority for the poor.

Washing clothes by hand is hard work and has a high opportunity costs in taking time away from self-improvement and raising children.

Why do washing machines offer such a strong stake to drive into the antigrowth environmental movement?  One reason follows from mismanaged highway systems where each new car imposes a cost on others already struggling with traffic congestion.  Widespread use of washing machines doesn’t hurt us (and helps sanitize social interactions).  Another explanation might be a sense of energy “waste” as a three thousand pound car moves a two hundred pound person from place to place (though as our cars get lighter and people heavier, this ratio is changing).

First and foremost though Rosling insists that access to energy should be a top priority and at the least folks enjoying the benefits of electricity and washing machines should not actively oppose these labor-saving technologies reaching the billions of poor women still washing clothes by hand.

Most energy poor lack access to air conditioners (not such a big issue historically in Rosling’s native Sweden). There is a long list of potential creature comforts that await a plug.

Green Goals–Bad Results

But Rosling throws green energy goals into his presentation too, claiming that because climate concerns are real, rich and poor alike should adopt green energy technologies and reduce fossil fuel consumption where possible. But does he know that so-called green energy is not very ‘green’ by the nature of it being dilute, expensive, and unreliable?

Poor women of the developing world already have solar-powered clothes dryers, and solar-power washing machines are certainly better than no energy, no machines. (Solar is an expensive but effective off-grid “distributed” energy source, unlike unwieldy wind turbines.)

But if a diesel generator powers many more washing machines and clothes dryers and other machines for the same cost, surely more energy is to be preferred to less. Solar, in this regard, can be seen as a bridge energy to fossil fuels, not the other way around as often portrayed.

Fossil Fuel Prime Time

In the meantime though, private firms eager to invest in and develop current efficient oil, coal, and natural gas power plants in poor countries should be welcomed!

Such entry requires economic freedom and the rule of law as emphasized by other posts at MasterResource.  Privatization of energy assets brings resourceship, wealth creation, and wealth diffusion in areas that need it the most.

Philanthropy from the developed world also has a role to play in the transition. Could climate-alarmist foundations such as Pew and Rockefeller and MacArthur consider shifting their funding from energy policies to human-need energy outreach?

Such a shift would be heartfelt in many deserving areas of the world now living in energy poverty.

(1) For a history of thought review of Malthusianism, neo-Malthusianism, and the Julian Simon counter-revolution, see Robert Bradley, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (2009), chapters 7–11.


Greg Rehmke is program director at Economic Thinking / E Pluribus Unum films, a Seattle-based nonprofit. He is also seminar director for the Independent Institute and coauthor of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Global Economics.


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    • grehmke  

      The Hans Rosling talk discusses the benefits of washing machines in wonderful and compelling ways. My goal was mainly to draw attention to it, and to find a way counter or put a positive spin on Rosling’s brief green energy discussion.

      There must some books on the history of home machines and technologies we mostly take for granted, from the big ones like washing machines and refrigerators, to tooth brushes, toasters, and t-shirts.


  2. Susan Salisbury  

    I wish this article explored the benefits of washing machines a bit more.

    Before the advent of washers, women used to spend a whole day each week just washing clothes. The solar dryer, referred to is, of course, also known as a clothes line. It is not as fast as a machine type dryer, but it does the job when its not raining. Stoves (even wood fired ones) washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and other household appliances that we all take for granted make life enormously easier for us. They have freed women to do other tasks. They reduce food waste and increase the quality and cleanliness of food. (Refrigerating food and then heating it to a high temperature before eating destroys a lot of bacterial contamination.)

    Many urban dwellers and young people have no idea what it is like to actually live without toilets and other modern appliances as most of the third world does.


  3. Mahealani  

    I lived without electricity for years, and washed clothes using three large plastic pails. Washing entailed manually pushing down on the bucket-full of clothes and detergent about 50 times, then leaving it to soak for awhile… I’d pull weeds in the garden, or do other small chores… then another 50 squishes… an another soak. After this, the same routine to rinse the load in a second bucket, then hang them up on the solar dryer. Really not that hard at all. You’d be surprised how much you can live without… I got to where I recognized toilet paper and matches as the only two things I’d really not like to have to get along without!


  4. Greg Rehmke  

    People who don’t want to use electricity should still have that option. No one should be forced to use an electric washing machine.


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