Comfort, cleanliness and convenience: The creeping transformation of normality and what it means for energy consumption and the environment

April 24, 2001 - 12:00pm
Bldg. 90
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In Western societies the sense of changing practice is both pervasive and elusive. Over just one or two generations, expectations have shifted radically: though some people in Britain still wake to patterns of frost on the inside of the window, many more have come to take the comforts of central heating and even air-conditioning for granted. To give a second quite specific example, again from Britain, the once-a-week bath is giving way to patterns of daily showering, a form predominantly valued for its 'convenience'. Any number of devices and solutions - ranging from freezers to mobile phones - are sold in the name of convenience and sold to those who feel themselves to be harried, hurried and harassed.  Well founded or not, there is again a sense that things were not always so. Few people can pin down just how and when their habits change, but just as few doubt their transformation.   From an environmental perspective, it is important to consider the direction and rate of these somewhat inconspicuous developments.  It is not just that expectations are ratcheting up, they are also converging. Conventions that used to be confined to particular cultures are variously extending and eroding in ways that relate to the diffusion of infrastructural arrangements, technologies and standards.  In this talk I suggest that a social understanding of the process of "becoming normal" should be at the heart of energy and environmental discourse.  This represents a switch of focus.  The task is not (or not simply) one of understanding the consumption of energy but, rather, of making sense of the changing services which it makes possible.  Likewise, the job is not (or not simply) to analyze the human dimensions of individual choice and action but, rather, to comprehend the wide-ranging transformation of collective expectations.   Using a mixture of examples relating to comfort, cleanliness and convenience, I suggest that the sociology and anthropology of consumption and technology can shed light on some of these processes, and on the part that even environmental technologies play in reproducing and standardizing ultimately unsustainable ways of life.

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