Scott Simon's Essays
Clotheslines and the California Energy Crisis
May 12, 2001 -- California's blackouts this week are a taste of things to come this summer as the state grapples with energy shortages. A comic strip has offered some insight into how energy conservation isn't everyone's priority. Some Doonesbury characters this week got busted by their neighborhood association after hanging laundry on a clothesline to avoid using the dryer. As was explained in the strip, some 35,000 home owners' associations in California prohibit clotheslines because they could lower property values. It seemed too funny to be true, especially when energy seems in short supply, especially when clothes dryers are one of the biggest users of energy, especially where the sun shines a lot.
But some checking revealed that the ban on clotheslines is indeed a fact of life in many neighborhoods across the country, and hefty fines await those who take their air drying outdoors. The head of the California Association of Homeowners Associations defends the rules, saying that clotheslines give homes a low-class look and makes you think of slums. It would be, he says, like graffiti in your neighborhood. Vice President Dick Cheney says conservation is not central to energy policy, that the country needs a new energy plant built every week for the next 20 years, and that Americans shouldn't have to make do with less.
But many energy experts maintain that efforts to conserve energy do pay off. Utilities in the Pacific Northwest, and even some areas of California, say energy conservation has helped them reduce their load. Some Americans, even outside of the comic strip, might just want to make do without the clothes dryer. To change Homeowner Association attitudes, though, a market approach might be needed. Perhaps the rules would bend if enough people clamor for the next big thing in home decorating: designer clotheslines. Raffia for the Mediterranean stucco house; simulated lariat rope for that rustic look; halyards for the weather-shingled Cape Cod motif; and for the Southern bungalow, plastic green vines with matching clothespins in the shape of honeysuckle blossoms.
Home and garden magazines could promote clotheslines as a way of showing off. Imagine 300-thread count cotton sheets and those $7 kitchen towels blowing in the wind. Or Egyptian cotton shirts billowing with tell-tale designer labels hanging at the collars. This is not to dismiss the concerns about home values, but blackouts and an unreliable power supply can't be good for them either. Clotheslines may not be the only solution, just an option, and options like conservation and energy efficiency deserve a good airing this summer.