skud: (Default)
skud ([personal profile] skud) wrote2014-01-09 12:25 pm

Resilience vs efficiency

This is a crosspost from Chez Skud. You can comment here or there.

Just before Christmas I read Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race by Greg Foyster. This is not a book review (though it was a pretty interesting book), but rather a riff on one small phrase that sprung out at me and that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I don’t have the exact quote, but early in the book Greg is talking to people about sustainability and someone points out that resilience and efficiency are at odds with each other. That is, we can choose to do things the efficient way (but they won’t be resilient) or the resilient way (but they won’t be efficient).

As a very small example, let me tell you something that occurred to me the other day while making a zucchini slice. I had to crack six eggs which I’d got from a produce swap. I had in front of me the half-carton of eggs, a large bowl, and a small cup. I cracked each egg into the cup, and then tipped it into the bowl before cracking the next.

This was inefficient. It would have been quicker to crack them straight into the bowl. But what if one of them was rotten? It’s happened before, and I know that it can ruin the whole meal. There’s no way to separate one rotten egg from five fresh ones once they’ve been mixed together in a bowl, and I had no more eggs in the house. I was hungry for my lunch, and didn’t want to have to ride up to the shops to get more eggs if I messed it up.

Resilience often means doing things a slightly slower, messier, or more complicated way. The upside is that you protect yourself against risk and failure, either in the short term (as with my lunch) or the longer term.

I’ve gotten into a couple of twitter discussions lately that touched on resilience vs efficiency on a larger scale. The first was on the subject of line-drying clothes. I’ve grown up doing so, and consider it straightforward and completely normal, which means I’m slightly boggled by posts like this one recommending expensive equipment and talking about people who hang out their clothes once a month “for fun”.

When I started talking about this on Twitter, someone pointed out that machine-drying clothes was “more efficient”. They were mostly talking about the time of the person doing the hanging-out, taking-in, and folding of the laundry, a task that is typically undervalued and for which people (let’s be clear here: mostly women, especially mothers) aren’t usually paid.

So yeah, saving time on laundry by machine-drying is more efficient from the point of view of the individual doing the laundry. It’s also possible to do it in all weathers and at any time of day or night, and to have your clothes ready in less time. Arguably, making chores faster and more convenient shows that we value the time of the people that do them, and gives them greater opportunity to spend their time in other ways they find valuable: earning money in the formal economy, or reading a good book, or whatever floats their boat.

But what’s the cost in resilience? To machine dry our clothes, we need:

  • A dryer, which costs hundreds of dollars up front, breaks down from time to time, and needs replacing relatively often.
  • Electricity, at a cost (one online calculator tells me) of around $50 a year for typical use.
  • Ventilation, to avoid heating up your house, and/or cooling (eg. aircon) to offset the heat generated in warm weather — add the cost of the aircon unit and electricity to run it.
  • Mechanisms to prevent static cling, especially in dry climates. This usually means petro-chemical based fabric softeners, and the production facilities and distribution channels for them.
  • Clothing selected for its machine-dry-ability, which excludes eg. wool (one of the best fabrics around for warmth, breathability, and durability if you treat it right).
  • Frequent replacement of clothing that wears out more quickly when machine-dried.

Machine drying depends on an immense industrial system: manufacturing and repair of equipment, delivery of electricity, fast fashion and industrial textiles, fossil fuels, and more. If any one of those parts breaks down (a power outage, for instance, or your electric dryer literally breaking down and not working) then you can’t dry your clothes. If you depend on a laundromat and you don’t have coins or simply can’t afford the cost, or you can’t leave the house for some reason, you can’t dry your clothes. You have to buy clothes more often, and are more restricted in what you can buy. And in the long run you’re contributing to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, pollution, and god knows what else, none of which are going to be great for you personally.

On the other hand, with an outdoor line or a drying rack that costs about $10 (this is the typical price in Australia, rather than the $159 in the blog post linked above), a few minutes of my time, and a bit of forethought, I can dry my clothes no matter what happens. I don’t rely on electricity, it can’t really break down, it humidifies my house (a good thing in a dry climate, saving further on appliances and electricity), I don’t have to buy fabric softener at the supermarket, I can invest in longer-lasting clothing, and I save money that I can put toward my long-term wellbeing or anything else that I value. When it comes to time, I fit my laundry into breaks in my work day, which is good for my physical and mental health (not to mention nice to spend a few minutes out in the fresh air when the weather’s clement) making me more able to deal with whatever else life throws at me.

All this at a cost of about 15 minutes a week.

a load of laundry hanging on a rotary clothesline

I spent 5 minutes hanging out today’s load while thinking about the first draft of this post.

Of course, I personally think resilience is better than efficiency. Other people disagree with me, and have their own reasons for doing so. Sometimes their reasons are very good ones: for instance, someone with health problems or who works long hours outside the home or who lives in a vastly different climate may have different priorities from mine.

I recognise that I won’t be able to convert everyone to my way of thinking. What I most want to do is to question the idea that “efficiency” is an unalloyed good, or the only yardstick against which we can measure. I’d like to avoid constantly talking at cross-purposes with people who assume that “it’s more efficient” is an automatic argument-winner. Efficiency happens in a context, and has consequences.

For what it’s worth, the other Twitter discussion that touched on efficiency-vs-resilience was about industrial agriculture and GMOs. It was pointed out that “big ag” is a very efficient way of producing a lot of food. I’ll leave the effects of the industrial food system, with respect to resilience, as an exercise for the reader.


Related reading, especially for those in or interested in the tech industry: Anil Dash, To Less Efficient Startups.

lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)

[personal profile] lilacsigil 2014-01-09 03:09 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, but efficiency and resilience are going to be different for everyone. For example, my chronic vertigo means that putting clothes on the line (reaching above my head) can have a major cost in terms of setting off vertigo, but because that's a variable disability, I have to reassess this every time I am thinking of washing clothes. One day efficient might mean putting clothes on the line (cheap, faster, better for the clothes) and another day efficient might mean putting them in the dryer (slower, more expensive, worse for the clothes but doesn't wipe out the rest of my day).
vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

[personal profile] vass 2014-01-09 04:34 am (UTC)(link)
Someone should invent a variant on the Hills Hoist where you can lower it to waist height to hang things up, and then raise it again to above your head while they're drying. It should be mechanical, not electrical, and inexpensive and durable.
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)

[personal profile] lilacsigil 2014-01-09 06:47 am (UTC)(link)
You'd think it would be pretty easy to do based on the current model!
vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

[personal profile] vass 2014-01-09 06:58 am (UTC)(link)
The more I think about it, the more I'm surprised it hasn't been done. Elderly people, people with all sorts of balance problems (including cane users,) wheelchair and scooter users, short people, children - hanging out the wet laundry is only an inappropriate chore for young children if they can't reach.
vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

[personal profile] vass 2014-01-09 02:21 pm (UTC)(link)
That sounds like it might have been fun the first time. Maybe. At most. :/
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)

[personal profile] cesy 2014-01-10 02:15 pm (UTC)(link)
I've seen laundry hung on a rack of lines that's raised to the ceiling or lowered to a comfy height via pulley. Only works indoors with a ceiling to hang the supports and pulley from, though.

[personal profile] swaldman 2014-01-11 02:35 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes! This is quite common in Scottish tenements, which often have 14' ceilings. Drying time varies wildly with the humidity of the weather, of course. In a modern, well-sealed house, I might wonder about it making the interior damper... but this really isn't a concern in most British housing stock ;-)
geeksdoitbetter: (Default)

[personal profile] geeksdoitbetter 2014-03-25 05:32 pm (UTC)(link)
neat!

what does the current Hills Hoist do?

i didn't grow up with line drying and an image search has left me baffled by what the winchy windy handle bit in the middle of the pole does
tangent_woman: (Default)

I need all the efficiency I can get.

[personal profile] tangent_woman 2014-01-09 03:51 am (UTC)(link)
I succumbed to the multiplier factor. My first dryer was a wedding present and lasted fifteen years and three kids. With luck, my current dryer will last as long.

There are six of us, and we use the dryer routinely when we can't keep up with the laundry by line drying, or when drying is particularly time sensitive. There is not enough space in my house to rack-dry my laundry in rainy weather, but when we wash our woolen gear (seldom required), we have rack space for that.

For me, hanging washing to dry requires access to a clothes line, the ability to get the wet laundry to the line, the ability to hang it while still adequately supervising small children and the cooperation of the weather.

Laundry ventilation = open the window.
twistedchick: (Default)

[personal profile] twistedchick 2014-01-09 04:26 am (UTC)(link)
I grew up hanging out clothes in all weather, with no dryer -- but where I am now, the climate is humid and, in summer, the humidity stays around 90 percent much of the time. If we are to wear clothing that is not full of mildew and mold -- both of which cause breathing problems for me -- a dryer is a necessity. Not a desirable one -- I would rather live where I could hang clothes out, but that is not possible right now.
Edited 2014-01-09 04:27 (UTC)
terriko: (Default)

[personal profile] terriko 2014-01-09 08:51 am (UTC)(link)
This! I moved from the desert to not-really-rainforest but it's definitely damp, and now when I hang up clothes inside, there are days I have to turn a fan on in the room if I want them to actually dry soon enough that I don't have to worry about mildew. How messed up is that? I keep telling myself that it's still more efficient than the dryer, but it feels so weird to not be able to just let the air do its thing...
recessional: an owl cup without a handle with tea inside (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2014-01-14 07:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, this. Mine isn't quite so humid as to make mildew inevitable, but it IS humid enough to take two and a half days to dry - for which I do not even begin to have the space. Comparatively, clothes in the town I grew up in will frequently dry in half a day. Location makes a huuuuuge difference.
copracat: David Hewlett close up, an early movie (dark)

[personal profile] copracat 2014-01-09 07:12 am (UTC)(link)
I like your argument. And we all of us, as commenters above have illustrated, mix the air dry/mechanical dry to suit our climates/lives/resources. For me, only required to do the drying for one person and with a small wardrobe and only on change of bed sheets, a dryer is necessary in winter because I otherwise can't get my washing done and dry (small house, limited air flow, tiny courtyard with too many spiders in it) but it takes no time to put up and take down clothes near a sunny window the rest of the year. The dryer is a useful tool when I need it to keep my life working as I need it to work. For me that is resilience. But if I had a house with an airing room or space that could be used as an airing room, then I wouldn't need it in winter at all.
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[personal profile] copracat 2014-01-09 09:26 am (UTC)(link)
Definitely apropos. I was watching the Ruth Goodman/Peter Ginn Farm series over the break and the gulf in culture between the Tudor/Green Valley shows and the Edwardian one was disconcerting.
geeksdoitbetter: (Default)

[personal profile] geeksdoitbetter 2014-03-25 05:39 pm (UTC)(link)
oh wow!

a first class man is not stupid because he's strong?

and everyone else is stupid because ... they are performing only up to expectations and not beyond?
geeksdoitbetter: (Default)

[personal profile] geeksdoitbetter 2014-03-25 06:06 pm (UTC)(link)
have read the article, realized i was wrong

i first class man is ... fictional
tree_and_leaf: Isolated tree in leaf, against blue sky. (Default)

[personal profile] tree_and_leaf 2014-01-09 01:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I live in a Pennine valley in the North of England, where it rains all the time in winter, and the days are very short. I find it really hard to imagine how people managed before the dryer was invented (well: I know, they dried things in front of the coal fire, and people who can't afford dyers now dry thing on radiators. Neither is actually satisfactory, and the latter method in particular is bad for the fabric of the house).
heliopausa: (Default)

[personal profile] heliopausa 2014-01-09 11:52 am (UTC)(link)
I'm a bit hazy about the meaning of resilience in this context, but... I'll make two points anyway!

- I love the smell of sundried clothes. Taking in clothes dry from the sun is a genuine sensual pleasure - that wonderful clean, dry fragrance, the crispness of the clothes, the warmth of the sun (i.e. in my Australian backyard, which looks a bit like yours :).

- You can easily tell stale or off or fresh eggs by how they act in a bowl of cold water. Fresh eggs sink and stay horizontal on the bottom, getting stale-ish eggs (but still okay to make a cake with, say) will start to stand up, and rotten eggs will stand straight up, or worst, float. It's to do with the air-sac getting bigger as the egg ages. I hope this is useful to bring efficiency and resilience in zucchini slice making into glorious harmony!
vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

[personal profile] vass 2014-01-09 02:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I've eaten standing-up eggs that have been fine. Floating is right out, though.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

[personal profile] ironed_orchid 2014-01-10 06:48 am (UTC)(link)
I sometimes water test eggs, but still like to crack eggs individually because I trust my nose more.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

[personal profile] ironed_orchid 2014-01-10 06:57 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I haven't seen an embryo in ages, but once you've seen a couple, you don't want to take that risk.
tree_and_leaf: Isolated tree in leaf, against blue sky. (Default)

[personal profile] tree_and_leaf 2014-01-09 01:25 pm (UTC)(link)
I was boggled to discover that it's quite common in the 'nicer' bits of US suburbia for local bye-laws to forbid washing lines. (I had actually come across this many years ago as a Doonesbury punchline, but I had assumed it was satire).
recessional: an owl cup without a handle with tea inside (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2014-01-14 07:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Yup. In Canada too; it's actually part of the bylaws in my strata.

[personal profile] j_v_lynch 2014-01-09 02:23 pm (UTC)(link)
It's not just the weather that affects the ability to do outside drying. Take my house for example. It has the laundry in the basement so in order to do the drying, you have to carry a load of wet laundry up the basement stairs and out into the back yard.

My parents house, on the other hand, has the laundry in the mudroom and the line is less than 3m from the washing machine and is only down a single step.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

[personal profile] ironed_orchid 2014-01-10 06:55 am (UTC)(link)
I really like that distinction.

I sort of think that when it comes to health issues, resilience means doing the thing that keeps you functional for longer (i.e. uses less spoons), so you might choose to do something that takes more electricity, but requires less lifting/walking/standing/stretching. For me, health related resilience is about having spoons to spare at the end of each day.

[personal profile] swaldman 2014-01-11 02:33 pm (UTC)(link)
Re tumble dryers: In the UK (or at least in the specific sub-cultural bits of the UK that I've grown up in), tumble dryers are seen my many as an expensive luxury, usually with respect to the amount of electricity they use. Some households rely on them, but many have a washing line outdoors and use the dryer only when (for example) there is a gale blowing, or it's winter and it's been raining solidly for a day or two. Other people come up with other means of drying indoors, such as drying racks near to radiators.
I wonder whether this is different culturally elsewhere? (Aus? US?) And whether those differences are related to climate, or not.

On the wider point, I think that resilience and efficiency can both be good, in different scenarios, and that there's usually a continuum between them rather than a binary choice (I'm not even sure that they must always be in opposition, although I agree that they often are).

If a company wants to use a more efficient[1] way of manufacturing Barbie dolls, I'm all in favour of that[2]; but if a nation wants to convert to efficient monoculture to supply all of its food, I don't think that's a good plan. As a society, we can afford to do without Barbie dolls...


[1] Although, as you've pointed out re the dryers, "efficient" can be defined in many different ways.
[2] Well, I'd rather people didn't make and market Barbie dolls, but that's a different discussion.