The Nature of College by James Farrell


Ordinary Consumption

Ask Mr. Green” is a feature of Sierra magazine. This month, in response to a question about washing machines, Mr. Green (aka Bob Schildgen) noted that

Back in 2002, when you bought yours, Energy Star models were allowed to use about 40 percent more power and 60 percent more water than they are today. Some new Energy Star washers are twice as efficient as those manufactured under the old standard, and many use only a third as much water. A new washer can reduce your utility bills by up to $135 per year, according to the EPA, and by washing full loads with cold water and using a solar dryer (a.k.a. a clothesline), you can save even more. Compare washers by consulting the EPA’s list of some 250 at

Several things stand out in this paragraph. The first is that green consumption makes a difference, both economically and ecologically. This is particularly true in cases of “ordinary consumption,” the daily uses of water and electricity that aren’t conspicuous, and don’t shape our identity. Often, we think of consumption as the purchase of products that give us standing or status or identity, and we forget the everyday consumption that’s embedded in the ordinary operation of things like our new flat-screen TV.

The second notable fact about this plebeian paragraph on washing machines is that government regulation works. When the EPA sets standards for an industry, all of the companies need to meet them—and it’s not impossible, as corporations like to claim before the regulations are proclaimed. When “we the people” set standards for manufacturers, we replace “the race to the bottom” with a “race to the standard,” which includes a new—and better—bottom line. If we had set stringent CAFÉ standards for cars thirty years ago (when regulation was a dirty word in the Reagan administration), there would be a lot less “ordinary consumption” of oil today—and a lot less pressure to intervene with force in the Middle East to preserve our access to oil.