Our expectations of comfort, cleanliness and convenience are on the rise.
ONLY four decades ago, there were almost no air conditioners in Australian households. Now they’re in two out of every three.
“More people are using air conditioning more frequently, and they’re putting them in more rooms of their houses,” says Yolande Strengers from RMIT’s Centre for Design.
She says that this remarkable colonisation is not only about the technology itself, but also about the way we’ve adapted to it. Now, our buildings are designed for air conditioning. Many houses no longer include features such as eaves or cross ventilation that help you get along without it. And in our offices, we’ve become accustomed to dressing the same way all year round.
All those things contribute to a change in our expectations of indoor comfort. And the shift is happening in a way that ratchets up our energy consumption.
Typically, green groups and governments try to reduce energy and water use by providing information and rebates, and hoping we’ll make rational decisions in response. There’s another way of thinking about these issues – one that doesn’t view them as matters of individual choice, but rather, as social practices.
One of the most influential thinkers in this field is Elizabeth Shove, from Lancaster University. In her book, Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: the Social Organisation of Normality, she wrote that much environmentally significant consumption is invisible, bound up in our daily routines.
Professor Shove analysed trends in the way we use heating and cooling, the frequency of showering and laundering, and the proliferation of time-saving gadgets and habits. She found they’d changed radically, and that many of our new expectations involved higher resource consumption (although that isn’t inevitable).
At RMIT, Dr Strengers leads a research area called Beyond Behaviour Change. “The standard message is that you can just go on as you are, but turn your lights off and change your showerhead,” she says. “But while we’ve been saying that, the general international trend is that the resource intensity of a lot of domestic practices is still going up.”
For that to change we need to think not only about the efficiency of our current patterns of consumption, but also about the patterns themselves.
“Even something as simple as shortening a shower can become ineffectual if we start showering more often, or showering for different reasons, or we build more spa baths. Those practices are always changing and at the moment they’re changing in more resource-intensive ways,” she says.
Dr Strengers says that over the long-term, many “things people think are non-negotiable are actually really malleable”.
“When you really start talking with people about history – even what they did when they were young – the changes in our expectations are incredible,” she says. “For example, showering once a day has only been common since the early 20th century.”
On air conditioning, both Professor Shove (PDF) and Dr Strengers have written about a Japanese campaign called CoolBiz, launched in 2005. In government offices, thermostats were set at 28 degrees in summer. The environment ministry sponsored fashion shows promoting looser-fitting clothing – open necked shirts and short sleeves.
The initiative reduces cooling costs and energy usage immediately, Shove observed. But in the long run, it could establish an expectation that buildings should be designed so that clothing has a key role in indoor comfort.