My great-grandma was born in 1914 and lived until 2005, so she witnessed an enormous amount of technological and cultural change during her life. I asked her once what single thing she found most impressive or was most grateful had been invented. She answered, without hesitation, “the electric washing machine.” As the mother of 7 children with a husband who did not do housework, laundry had been the bane of her existence. Getting a washing machine that had a hand-powered wringer helped, but it was still exhausting. The way she saw it, getting an electric washing machine changed her life. Her fear of ever again having to do laundry by hand with a washboard was so great that she kept the hand-crank-powered washer next to her electric one until the early 1990s, just in case.
In this TED clip, “Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine,” sent in by Dmitriy T.M., Rosling discusses the ethical problems involved in efforts to combat climate change that rest primarily on telling individuals in developing nations that because we need to use less energy globally, they just can’t have the same appliances and conveniences, like electric washing machines, that those of us living in (post-) industrialized nations do:
Transcript after the jump.
Via Dot Sub:
I was only four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the very first time in her life. That was a great day for my mother. My mother and father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. And the first day it was going to be used, even Grandma was invited to see the machine. And Grandma was even more excited. Throughout her life she had been heating water with firewood, and she had hand washed laundry for seven children. And now she was going to watch electricity do that work.
My mother carefully opened the door, and she loaded the laundry into the machine, like this. And then, when she closed the door, Grandma said, “No, no, no, no. Let me, let me push the button.” And Grandma pushed the button, and she said, “Oh, fantastic. I want to see this. Give me a chair. Give me a chair. I want to see it.” And she sat down in front of the machine, and she watched the entire washing program. She was mesmerized. To my grandmother, the washing machine was a miracle.
Today, in Sweden and other rich countries, people are using so many different machines. Look, the homes are full of machines; I can’t even name them all. And they also, when they want to travel, they use flying machines that can take them to remote destinations. And yet, in the world, there are so many people who still heat the water on fire, and they cook their food on fire. Sometimes they don’t even have enough food. And they live below the poverty line. There are two billion fellow human beings who live on less than two dollars a day. And the richest people over there — there’s one billion people — and they live above what I call the air line, because they spend more than $80 a day on their consumption.
But this is just one, two, three billion people, and obviously there are seven billion people in the world, so there must be one, two, three, four billion people more, who live in between the poverty and the air line. They have electricity, but the question is, how many have washing machines? I’ve done the scrutiny of market data, and I’ve found that, indeed, the washing machine has penetrated below the air line, and today there’s an additional one billion people out there who live above the wash line. (Laughter) And they consume more than $40 per day. So two billion have access to washing machines.
And the remaining five billion, how do they wash? Or, to be more precise, how do most of the women in the world wash? Because it remains hard work for women to wash. They wash like this: by hand. It’s a hard, time-consuming labor, which they have to do for hours every week. And sometimes they also have to bring water from far away to do the laundry at home. Or they have to bring the laundry away to a stream far off. And they want the washing machine. They don’t want to spend such a large part of their life doing this hard work with so relatively low productivity. And there’s nothing different in their wish than it was for my grandma. Look here, two generations ago in Sweden — picking water from the stream, heating with firework and washing like that. They want the washing machine in exactly the same way.
But when I lecture to environmentally-concerned students, they tell me, “No, everybody in the world cannot have cars and washing machines.” How can we tell this woman that she ain’t going to have a washing machine? And then I ask my students, I’ve asked them — over the last two years I’ve asked, “How many of you doesn’t use a car?” And some of them proudly raise their hand and say, “I don’t use a car.” And then I put the really tough question: “How many of you hand wash your jeans and your bed sheets?” And no one raised their hand. Even the hardcore in the green movement use washing machines.
So how come [this is] something that everyone uses and they think others will not stop it; what is special with this? I had to do an analysis about the energy used in the world. Here we are. Look here, you see the seven billion people up there: the air people, the wash people, the bulb people and the fire people. One unit like this is an energy unit of fossil fuel — oil, coal or gas. That’s what most of electricity and the energy in the world is. And it’s 12 units used in the entire world, and the richest one billion, they use six of them. Half of the energy is used by one seventh of the world’s population. And these ones who have washing machines, but not a house full of other machines, they use two. This group uses three, one each. And they also have electricity. And over there they don’t even use one each. That makes 12 of them.
But the main concern for the environmentally-interested students — and they are right — is about the future. What are the trends? If we just prolong the trends, without any real advanced analysis, to 2050, there are two things that can increase the energy use. First, population growth. Second, economic growth. Population growth will mainly occur among the poorest people here, because they have high child mortality and they have many children per woman. And [with] that you will get two extra, but that won’t change the energy use very much.
What will happen is economic growth. The best of here in the emerging economies — I call them the New East — they will jump the air line. “Wopp!” they will say. And they will start to use as much as the Old West are doing already. And these people, they want the washing machine. I told you. They’ll go there. And they will double their energy use. And we hope that the poor people will get into the electric light. And they’ll get a two child family without a stop in population growth. But the total energy consumption will increase to 22 units. And these 22 units still the richest people use most of it. So what needs to be done? Because the risk, the high probability of climate change is real. It’s real. Of course they must be more energy efficient. They must change behavior in some way. They must also start to produce green energy, much more green energy. But until they have the same energy consumption per person, they shouldn’t give advice to others — what to do and what not to do. (Applause) Here we can get more green energy all over.
This is what we hope may happen. It’s a real challenge in the future. But I can assure you that this woman in the favela in Rio, she wants a washing machine. She’s very happy about her minister of energy that provided electricity to everyone — so happy that she even voted for her. And she became Dilma Rousseff, the president elect of one of the biggest democracies in the world — moving from minister of energy to president. If you have democracy, people will vote for washing machines. They love them.
And what’s the magic with them? My mother explained the magic with this machine the very, very first day. She said, “Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry; the machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.” Because this is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children’s books. And mother got time to read for me. She loved this. I got the “ABC.” This is where I started my career as a professor, when my mother had time to read for me. And she also got books for herself. She managed to study English and learn that as a foreign language. And she read so many novels, so many different novels here. And we really, we really loved this machine.
And what we said, my mother and me, “Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”
Thank you very much.
Maggie — April 2, 2011
I haven't anything useful to say, but this was totally fantastic and I'd never really thought of those implications before. So just...thank you for this link!
Anonymous — April 2, 2011
Hans Rosling is just incredible as a lecturer, he brings so many things to the table about development that just isn't there for the general public, and he does itwith so much love and passion.
It's strange to think about how much time could go into that one chore, but the lecture makes me think of swedish folksong about the daily women's work: Monday you're up realy washing clothes, tuesday you're up early rinsing you clothes, wednesday slapping your clothes, thursday you're up early hanging your clothes and friday you're up early pressing your clothes. The only days in the song that aren't about washing clothes, and those days are left for scrubbing the floors and going to church. No wonder that the washing got so much space in folk culture, considering how much times the washing machine saved.
JGH2 — April 2, 2011
I know this isn't the focus of his lecture, but the fact that washing seems to be universally classified as "women's work" (is it not?) fascinates me.
Anyc — April 2, 2011
Off topic, but: are we unable to share these posts on Facebook anymore? I know I can simply cut and paste the link on my wall, but I can no longer find a "Share" button for FB below the posts here on SI; there is only a "like" button.
azizi — April 2, 2011
While this is not about the washing machine, the invention of the electric [clothes] dryer meant no more hanging washed clothes outside on clothes lines.
And no more hanging clothes on clothes lines meant no more readily accessible ropes for (mostly) girls' jump rope games. The lack of readily accessible jump ropes (that you sometimes "borrowed" without permission) is one of the main reasons why you hardly see girls jumping rope anymore. Another reason few girls (in the USA anyway) jump rope anymore is the well meaning "interference" of adults who made Double Dutch a competitive sport but decided not to include jump rope chants as part of those competitions. So if you happen to see girls (or boys) outside jumping rope, I betcha they're seldome if ever singing any rhymes.
But, it's all good, especially since new forms of many old jump rope rhymes still live on as handclap rhymes. And especially because there are other recreational activities such as doing cheer leader cheers, and doing foot stomping routines (steppin) that have taken up some of the slack left by the almost demise of jumping rope. Thank goodness those activites include singing/chanting rhymes.
I don't know what the consequences will be of introducing electric washing machines and electric clothes dryers to women (and men) in neighborhoods of countries that don't yet have these appliances. However, I'm sure if they don't yet have washing machines and clothes dryers, they'd love to have them. I'm sure those electric appliances will help improve their quality of life, or at least will lessen the work they have to do at home.And because of that replacing hand washing with washing machines, and replacing clothes lines with the clothes dryers will probably be worth it, even though lots of children's recreational rhymes end up biting the dust.
styleygeek — April 2, 2011
I was doing fieldwork on a tiny remote island two years ago, and one of the men there was very proud of himself because he had just bought his wife a wheelbarrow to do the washing in. He pointed out that this would save her time and effort, because formerly she had had to wait for the generator to be on (it only ran a couple of hours a day), carry clothes to the washing machine, run a hose to the well, start the well pump, fill the washing machine, come back half an hour later and drain it, refill, wait, and then carry the clothes to the line to hang them to dry.
With the wheelbarrow she could dump some suds and a few buckets of water in, agitate it all by hand, tip the water out (much easier to do from a wheelbarrow than from a tub or washing machine!), rinse the same way, and then wheel the clothes to the line.
I thought it was fascinating that given the lack of plumbing and electricity, the wheelbarrow solution was actually less work.
j — April 3, 2011
There would be less need for washing machines if
1 Men washed their own clothes
2 Men would stop impregnating women all the time so that they don't have to care and wash for as many as 7 children.
So at the root, the problem is...dudes!
Basiorana — April 3, 2011
This wouldn't have affected your grandmother so much because in 1914 icebox technology was readily available, but I do think refrigeration was a more profound change for us as human beings. Think of it-- medicines (and medical supplies, like blood) could be stored and transported, diverse fresh fruits and vegetables were available year round, meats didn't have to be salted or dried to be stored, and our diets exploded in healthy diversity.
That said, washing machines are a definite close second.
Jess — April 3, 2011
Another thing that's greatly affected washing machine use is the expectation in post-industrial nations that people own a lot of clothes and only wear them once or twice between washes. This expectation grew with the availability of washing machines, so it's like the machines perpetuate themselves (skynet, ahoy!). I know that moving to an apartment building where I have to lug laundry downstairs to the basement and hope that one of the two machines is available has made me laxer about how many times I'll wear something before it's washed.
I think some pushback on the idea that wearing something more than once is 'gross' or dirty would help to reduce the amount of washing people end up doing.
DLL — April 3, 2011
Years ago we had a family reunion which included filling out a questionnaire in order to get to know one another better. One of the questions was "What is your favorite invention of all time?" A lot of people named fancy technology. At the time I had 2 small children and I named the washing machine. I'm pretty sure that many in the group looked down on my choice as very "house-wifey". But I was /am very aware of how different my life would be without a washing machine. I can go without many inventions without an immediate loss in my quality of life. Going without a washing machine would severely affect my day-to-day life in a way I don't want to experience!
Are there any organic carpet cleaning supplies, or a company that's no chemical use? — April 3, 2011
[...] “The Magic Washing Machine” » Sociological Images [...]
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Bannef — April 5, 2011
It's also a hygiene thing - I'm less sure about washing machines (although I'm guessing lice would be very difficult to get rid of without one), but I know dishwashers can prevent the spread of lots of diseases. When someone in my mother's household got mono their doctor recommended that everyone use only their own bowl, utensils, glass, etc. because they didn't have a dishwasher and hand washing just doesn't get rid of disease to the same extent. Obviously, more people get by in the developed world without use of a dishwasher than without the use of a washing machine, but these are diseases that would be especially deadly in the non developed world.
Fernando — April 5, 2011
Cool but he was wrong about Dilma, she was Chief of Staff before turning President. It was before being Chief of Staff that she was heading the Ministry of Energy.
Her election wasn't because she gave electricity to people, it was because she was going to continue the government of our previous president, which would be the one seen by the population as having afforded people washing machines.
Rose — April 6, 2011
It was my grandmother's favorite invention too. Up until she was too ill to do much of anything she used her old washing machine wish a wringer on it and hung the clothes to dry.
Though I do not have a washing machine of my own, I am thankful I can go to the laundromat and don't have to wash the clothes by hand.
Charles — April 6, 2011
I take issue with the entire thesis of this speech.
No one I know, read, listen to or respect in the world of environmentalism and (more correctly put) sustainability, says that we need to keep women doing laundry by hand over fires using water they haul up from the rivers. In fact, one of the three basic tenants of sustainability is that you can not have a truly sustainable lifestyle without true social equality. The reason for this is obvious (if people are not treated equitably and given the same opportunities the world over, then we do not have a sustainable system no matter how many solar panels and windmills are erected).
So to base a speech, and give a voice to it at TED, saying that environmentalists want to keep the luxuries of life away from people who don't already have them is preposterous and pandering to the lowest common denominator. I want women the world over to have washing machines. I want those machines to be powered with clean electricity, use less fresh water, re-use the resulting grey water for other uses and generally be affordable and available. So do the leaders and employees of the many thousands of companies we covered at Sustainable Industries. Any "environmentalist" saying differently (about washing machines, cars, or any other modern convenience), are (to borrow a phrase) part of the problem, not the solution.
The only variance from this belief system that I've seen in the world of sustainability is the movement against GMOs. Not to take this conversation way off topic, but there are some pretty awful stories of environmentalists fighting tooth and nail against GMOs that are meant to help improvished populations increase their crop yields and get more vitamins out of their food. I am not the most knowledgeable person on the subject of GMOs and their safety for us and the planet, but I do know that in many cases, the risk is vastly overstated by the green crowd and the potential good that say, Golden Rice, could bring to vast numbers of people so huge that fighting against it is morally indefensible. As this guy believes.
In that light, his point is spot on. But overall, I gotta say that he is singing a tune that sounds like it have found a place at Fox News, not TED.
Melinda — April 7, 2011
If you read what he said, he said his students make these statements in class, not that leaders of the environmental movement do so. Many (though by far not all) well-meaning student activists come from a very limited, privileged perspective, so they do tend to spout off these simplistic solutions to environmental problems that don't take into account social and economic justice. Coming to the point where you understand all the links between the various issues and how they may be balanced responsibly takes time, experience, education, etc.
Belly of the Beast » The magic washing machine — April 15, 2011
[...] of washing machines. Watch and enjoy:[Via Offsetting Behaviour, full transcript of the talk here] Green, Poverty/Development | elia | 15/04/2011 09:08No Comments No comments yet.RSS feed for [...]
No growth for you « Aid Thoughts — April 22, 2011
[...] am solidly with Han Rosling on this one when he says that we really aren’t in any position to start telling people what their per-capita carbon [...]
urbanmkr — April 30, 2011
I wonder if somebody has invented a good pedal-powered washing machine. We used to have a small portable washing machine that you lifted onto the draining board, hooked up to the kitchen sink taps and plugged it in - it would drain into the kitchen sink once finished. Anyway, I've been in a pedal-powered cinema before (a few audience members have to pedal while watching the movie) and I've danced to pedal-powered sound systems. I've also heard of pedal-powered blenders for making smoothies. Since it's only me in my household, the idea of pedalling my clothes clean for a couple of hours a week actually seems like quite a good idea (more exercise). Especially if there was somewhere I could rest a book to read while doing so.
Aurora — May 2, 2011
Rosling is a good lecturer and does a good show, but I disagree with him on this topic. Certainly, it is understandable that everyone wants a washing machine (and then a car, a clothes dryer, an air conditioner, a computer, a cellphone and so on), but he completely fails to adress how he thinks that this should work. In his talks he is completely ignorant about that to give all people washing machines and cars we would need some extra Earths. For that reason he appears in these talks as a developer, as someone who is relentlessly for economic and technological development at all costs. It is very anthropocentric at its base and basically tells people in the industrialized nations that they have no right to criticize further industrialization and the connected environmental destruction just because they were born into a culture that did this before.
So what does he say, that all 7 (soon to be 9) billion people have to be industrialized and "developed" at the expense of the remaining natural ecosystems, just because if one person or a few persons live like that, everybody has that right - even if it means to destroy this world? That is not very logical.