The Machine Washing Line

The Fed-washer Alternative



TUCSON (A-P) — One way to separate the rich from the poor is to ask, "Do you machine wash your clothes?" Among the rich there may be some sustainability extremists who may use a retro solar clothes dryer (clothesline), but only total Luddites living in the backwoods without even solar electricity (who were born in USA, Europe, Japan, or industrialized parts of the world) would hand wash their clothes. Yet about 5 billion people hand wash their clothes. (See Washing Machine Magic. line 3:02. This article offers an alternative view to Hans Rosling's hand waving view of washing machine magic, so read his offering and celebrate—or not).

No, wait, among 5 billion people, mostly women hand wash clothes. There is an underlying cultural issue here found mostly among elites or would-be elites. Why do clothes have to be as close to spotless as possible? It's about status. If a woman's husband, family, or self is clothed in less finely washed, spotlessly wrinkle-free attire than human menial labor can make it, then the slacker be shamed (withdrawal of status). Among non-elites the labor involved in washing clothes is felt in their bones, directly or indirectly, and they are prepared to settle for clean enough.

No self-respecting master, however, could risk being seen in anything less than the most immaculate attire their money could buy. If the subservient ones, of whatever gender, are the ones doing the laundry by hand or using their hands to put clothes in the machine, then they (including the machine) had better do it right, or else.

Elites in whatever culture want the best. They can afford to be clean, and the upwardly mobile crave clean and denigrate the dirty, filthy others they wish to stand apart from. Someone has to wash the laundry and historically women or slaves did as told. With the rise of the consumer society, the promise to liberate washer-bots (mostly women) by selling them on a washing machine was an easy sell.

Nearly a third of humans (2.2 billion) live on less than $2/day. If the 2 billion rich (living on > $40/day) were to share their wealth, if there were some measure of equality in the world, average income would be about $27/day, not enough to afford a washing machine in the home, but with continued growth in the economy perhaps, in just a few decades, everyone's clothes could be washed by machine as all families could have washing machines. But the rich are not going to share as that would mean giving up their washing machine until average income reached $40/day (about $14,000/year income needed to afford use of a washing machine, electric, a place to put it...).

We, the machine washing rich, have never willingly downsized, and why should we? The Rich, Inc. have a much better idea: Eliminate poverty by encouraging the poor to work harder to serve the money economy so that in just a few decades (maybe) all will raise above the $2/day poverty line and be able to afford a family bicycle, while the rich continue to get richer (and to repeat, if you machine wash your clothes you are rich by global standards—and that means you Mr. Writer and most anyone with the technology to read this).


What's not to like about getting richer? Everyone is doing it. Those making a dollar a day can aspire to work harder, earn more, and buy a better pair of shoes. Those making two dollars a day can aspire to own a bicycle, make more money, get a motor scooter, then a car..... What's not to celebrate? Well, think costs other than money—think outside the money box.

The quest to acquire/buy the good life, which implies a tolerable life, will not go very far if there isn't a tolerable planet to live the good life on (an issue which money fails to measure/value). Media talking heads will not dwell on the fact the planet is becoming ever less tolerable for most life on it, that life on Earth is being downsized, nor point out why the life-support system is begining to experience multiple systems failures. The media serves the rich (you and I) and is owned by the richest of them, so it tells their story. The elites are all about upsizing. As long as things continue to get better for the poor, however marginally, then the poor will continue to hope that someday they too will be rich(er) and so will continue to work to support the money based economy.

A family who struggles for years to save enough money to buy a bicycle (see population myth video link below near end), liberating the husband from having to walk or carry stuff on his back, who thinks that someday they'll be able to buy him a motor scooter that he'll give them rides on and use to make more money, then they will struggle on to sell such meager products or services as they can provide to the local rich(er) city folk who serve an export extraction economy supplying resources to richer folk in the consumer economy (us). When the rising tide of fossil fuel powered growth peaks, hope will fly away and willing participation in the growth culture's money economy will be withdrawn. Without backs to stand on, the rich will stop getting richer.

The media message is that of an endlessly rising tide of economic growth and this story will be endlessly retold until the tide goes down as all tides must. In the best of all possible futures that money can buy, there will be only one free media channel, perhaps having more than one name and channel number associated with it to give the illusion of choice. By 2100 world population will likely peak at 11 billion. That all must have washing machines by then may be questioned by some who have washing machines, but the poor want washing machines and if every woman gets a washing machine, every man (and woman) must have a car. Both rich and poor believe technology will provide and as long as the belief is intact, the social order (business-as-usual) will persist.

Technology alone is not enough. Technology doesn't create wealth, clever ape innovations don't create wealth—net energy, as bottomline precondition, does. Energy makes the world go around, not money. The alternative to hoping for, advocating for, striving for washing machines and cars for all is to ask, "How can poverty (gross inequality) be mitigated? What would the Federation do?"

To minimize poverty, consider minimizing dominance and subservience. Commoners are subservient to the elites. Globally Americans, Europeans, the Japanese and those in the scattered industrial areas are elites. Within some industrial societies equality may reign (Switzerland), but in others the lesser elites among them may be viewed as commoners by the more elite, so, yes, within societies there are relative commoners and elites. Those of the global growth culture in all countries are dominant, however, including their nominal poor. Others, including the planet itself, are subservient; they serve to placate the appetite of they who consume (you and I).

Selling non-subservience to the 99% via the media would be easy if the ultra elites didn't own it. The 28% who are rich (>$40/day) dominate the 72%, and among the rich, the 12 million (0.17% of humans) who are millionaires ($675/day = average millionaire) are dominate over all but the billionaires (the 1,645, or 0.000023% of humans) who want you to believe they are essential. Then there are mere billionaires and multi-billionaires, with the most multi being able to feel that they are subservient to no one other than their own wealth and special interests. Those rich enough to own the media and political systems are less than 1% of the global rich who consume most of the planet (millionaires + billionaires = 0.6% of the rich 28%—or 0.17% of all humans). Alternative is to ration energy and resources according to need and eliminate the money system, replacing it with a system of non-transferable exchange media (detailed in Envision Tucson Sustainable).

The first thing the Federation would do, before eliminating money, is prevent the elites from owning media or controlling the internet. All could add content to the internet, but content would be ranked by veracity, not by how much was spent to game the system. Were reality to creep into the media, non-subservience would be an easy sell. The quest for the holy grail of "MORE!" would be replaced by an inquiry into "enough." What is actually needed would be rationed and consumption of wants minimized, thereby replacing the money economy. Advertising would be banned; lobbyists retrained if possible. The common interest needs to superseded special interests/elite interests.

The inquiry into "enough" comes down to a pivotal question determining the line between rich and poor: "How clean is enough?" If humans shouldn't slave away washing clothes, or if there is not enough power for energy slaves to wash clothes the way their masters demand, then what needs to give are oversold expectations of whiter-than-white that people have been conditioned to accept. If a washing machine used less energy, consumed less resources than hand washing, then all could have washing machines.

Only slave masters demand clean beyond any need for clean and demand that clothes must be scrubbed, ironed and pressed, hung or folded. The Federation would consider the issue and note that clothes that do not smell or transmit disease are clean enough, and that whether wrinkles are abhorrent or admired, only thinking makes it so.

The Federation would then develop the lowest power technology to get clothes clean enough and share it. Clothes might look dirty and those who didn't like it would get over it in a few decades. Within a generation people would expect clothes to have "character" and some would feel the need, when forced to accept new clothing, to stain them to give them character.

Subservience is slavery, a form thereof, that involves willing servitude on a schedule. It is an issue associated with wealth and the money economy that supports the hyper-consumption that makes the rich richer (you and I).

Part time honorific chiefs and shamans who lived in paleolithic times may have lived in slightly better huts or got to lie slightly closer to the campfire on cold nights. With the wealth created by agriculture in the neolithic they became Big-chiefs presiding over chieftainships. They lived in increasingly palatial dwellings, with wifes, slaves, and warriors at their beck and call. Priests, in increasingly awe-inspiring temples, presided over acolytes. Far more food could be produced by cultivation than gathered, and so-called civilization of questionable civility arose as chieftainships gave way to city-states.

With industrialization, wealth and subservience increased another order of magnitude. Energy slaves replaced human slaves and ex-slaves became even more subservient but willing wage slave consumers. Dominance and subservience are old problems, but they have gotten several orders of magnitude worse in the last 10,000 years. To live as humans lived for 300,000 years in terms of privilege will take a new world order. What would the Federation do?


If the Federation was asked by the rich to design a washing machine to liberate poor consumers from hand washing clothes so they could be more productive in serving the economy, the Federation would question the need to develop high-power machines to get clothes as whiter-than-white clean as the rich thought they should be. The problem is not a technical one of designing a washing machine so cheap that the poor could afford one nor is it one of enriching the poor so they can afford one. The limiting problem is energy, not money, and the demand for high-energy clean is a cultural issue.

Solving the clothes washing problem requires a shift in cultural values away from an elite CLEAN! to an egalitarian clean enough. The alternative to hand washing would be a low-power machine that did not require electricity nor running water (neither hot nor cold), and few chemicals. Needed is a machine that got clothes a socially acceptable clean enough (didn't smell, didn't transmit disease). The Fed-washers would be manufactured by local craftspersons, per open-source hardware design, using a minimum of imported parts/materials.

The rich would have to use them. The energy and materials saved would allow the needed industrial parts to be shipped for use by local manufacturers who would also fix the Fed-washers they made, thus ending the era of throw-away machinery. The problem is not that the world's poor suffer a shortage, but that the rich have been oversold on a longage of washing machines.

When subservient humans have to wash clothes to perfection as defined by the dominate ones, they have to work hard and fast to allow time to do other things that are demanded of them. Machines, sucking up 10 times more watts, will work harder and faster, but alternative is to settle for clean enough. Clothes added to a container of water to which a bit of soap and a few drops of bleach per gallon are added, and allowed to sit a few hours, perhaps slowly tilted back and forth to circulate the water, will be clean enough. The water would be used to wash the clothes before it went to water plants.

In a few seconds the person who put the clothes in could raise a weight whose slow fall would power the low-power washing machine. One reason 5 billion people don't machine wash clothes is that they don't have electric or running water. Hot water is optional, not a necessity for clean enough. If water is heated by electric, 7 - 8 times more electric is used to heat the water than run the washing machine. The power needed to run a washing machine is often dismissed as marginal at a mere 500 watts.

But how many human powers is that? Maybe one Tour de France cyclist in their prime could pedal power a washing machine for an hour, but how many average Americans would it take to power a washing machine? Envision 15 sitting on stationary bikes with chains driving a shaft going to the washing machine and that 15 average Americans could actually pedal for an hour with breaks every 15 minutes if that was all they did that day (less than 1% of Americans cycle and we're talking average American, not average cyclist).

Alternative energy sources to fossil fuel are available, but alternatives will not come cheap nor be as seemingly unlimited. So 500W = 0.67 hp (horse power) = 15 rp (rich-human power) = 10 pp (poor-human power), or 1 sp (super-athlete power). An average car is equivalent to 330 washing machines, or 5,000 average American rps. If your car had to pull a trailer with 5,000 Americans pedaling all they had to power it, you wouldn't be able to go any faster or further than a bicycle.

The cost of a service is not the money paid for it, but the energy required to perform it. So when you see "watts" convert to pp. When the energy slaves weaken and need to be replaced with low-power machines or human power, the ultra wealthy will realize that human slavery wasn't such a bad idea. To avoid being one of them, transition now and low-power may be the better choice.

Federation washing machines, instead of aiming to provide whiter-than-white to the few, would aim to provide clean enough to humans, to all Federation citizens. What is good enough would be good enough for all. Those demanding special status could paint their Fed-washer as artfully as they could or trade services with a local artist to do so. Otherwise all washing machines would be designed to function well enough and those wanting better could hand wash their own clothes (forcing a subservient family member to do so would be considered abuse and family therapy would be provided). One person might want to do all the laundry and really like hand washing everyones clothes and another family member might do all the cooking.....but division of labor does not involve subservience).

Fed-washers would use minimal resources, including energy, and as open-source technology instructions for making them would be free. Individuals and local craftspersons could make and service them. All humans would be given laundry pons to exchange for and limit Fed-washer use. All families everywhere would not have their own Fed-washer. All living in temperate regions who needed to wear clothes would have access to village or community washer-mats housing Fed-washers next to a community garden that would use the wash water.

Some Federation citizens would not have access to a Fed-washer. Not because they didn't pay a Fed-tax, but because they lived naked in tropical forests and had no need for any. Human needs take precedence over human wants created by incessant overselling.

A Fed-washer could dump the clothes and water into a Fed-spinner, a perforated drum that would spin at high speed for a short time. One human power (pp) could do so for a few minutes or a small electric motor, as in an electric drill, could replace bicycle technology that would otherwise be needed. When making something go round and round, such as to drill a hole, electric motors are appropriate technology. So there could be two models of Fed-spinner: one human solar-powered and one electric solar-powered. After spinning, clothes would be damp. Clothes could be put on hangers and hung on a Fed-line outdoors or hung in a Fed-closet (solar heated and vented to outdoors to dry clothes) indoors. All Fed-products would be open-source technology that would be evolved by pointy-headed apes wherever they may be who get off on doing good work. No need to grant intellectual property right patents to enrich artists, designers, inventors,...clever apes who do what they like doing assuming basic human needs are met.

Because many humans live other than in their ancestral homeland (parts of Africa), clothes are needed. At times, during "good" weather, wearing clothes may be optional, especially indoors, but given that wearing clothes is adaptive, the need to wash them and replace them is part of meeting human needs. How to think about washing clothes, how to best use limited resources of human power, electric power, and water/other resources is an important case study in how other needs could best be met. If the dominate subculture demands whiter-than white, then human slavery (servitude) or energy slaves (high-energy powered machines) are implied. All technology involves cultural issues which may need to be tweaked to allow for appropriate technology solutions that enable actual human needs to be met. The alternative is to exacerbate human wants into an orgasmic frenzy, provide the highest tech options money can buy for the few, and entice the rest to want stuff and willingly work (serve the money economy of the elites) to someday get it. This business-as-usual system maximizes exponential growth (for a time—overshoot and collapse being the fruit).

Culture, what humans think or are conditioned to think and how they behave, matters. All issues are not tech issues in need of funding. Imagine a family of four where, after a long shower in hot water pushing the limits of tolerance while using a half-dozen personal care products, imagine that after toweling off, the towel is tossed in the laundry hamper to be washed in hot water (of course) and dried in the electric or gas dryer when the towel pile got low. In a real world, four towels could be hung. Each would use their own towel, put it back on the hanger, and it would be dry for next use. It is entirely possible (I've done it) to use the same towel for years until it wears out (mine hasn't yet) without washing it as it will never smell or be a vector for disease.

The difference between going through a pile of whiter-than-white towels, four or more a day, machine washing and drying them, or simply using a favorite towel until it wears out, is immense. The cost of hyper-consumption is the time humans spend to make the money (by serving the corporate state) to buy stuff and pay bills, and the cost the planet pays for in energy and resource extraction as it is turned into trash/waste/global warming.... Money is merely the enabler of the system. Energy/resource extraction powers the system unto collapse. Predict which option the consumer society will seek to normalize. Predict which option the Federation will support.

The system says everyone should have a washing machine and every man (and to sell more, every woman) a car. The hope of ever increasing wealth is an easy sell and the family who works and saves for years to buy a bicycle has bought into the consumer society and its offerings. The prospect that 5 billion people, in just a few decades (of their hard work) will be able to have a washing machine (among other things) is being oversold. If you read the transcript of the TED talk linked to above, you may not have been sufficiently oversold. To get the full treatment, as is the media norm, watch the video, but as a personal challenge, see if you can do so without being oversold. If you don't have 9 minutes to spare, the summary is: Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. Thank you chemical processing industry [Thank you global corporatocracy].

But why believe in limits? You can believe what you want to believe, so why would someone want to believe in limits? After all, overpopulation is a myth. With 20/20 hindsight that only statistics allows, it has been nothing but progress for 10,000 years. Indeed, it took nearly 4 billion years to produce humans, so clearly it's progress all the way up. The dinosaurs had to get out of the way so mammals could evolve into humans. To believe in overshoot and collapse, another myth, implies some sort of dementia. It's a free country, you can believe what you like, so why not look on the brighter side of life? (cue: Monty Python).

Should you wish to be numbered among the non-oversold, consider it a personal challenge to watch The Overpopulation Myth knowing beforehand that absolutely every factual claim is supported by cold hard data. But also recall Mark Twain's quip about "lies, damn lies, and statistics." Projecting trends into the future with 20/20 hindsight and no grasp of energetics is hazardous to your mental health, to your grasp of reality.


Back to Home Page



1920 washing machine

Soltech designs logo

Contact Eric Lee