The Cost of Living Comfortably

Only four decades ago, there were almost no airconditioners in Australian households. Now they’re in two out of every three.

”More people are using airconditioning more frequently, and they’re putting them in more rooms of their houses,” says Yolande Strengers from RMIT’s Centre for Design.

She says that this remarkable colonisation is not only about the technology, but also about the way we’ve adapted to it. Now, our buildings are designed for airconditioning. Many houses no longer include features such as eaves or cross-ventilation that help you get along without it. And in our offices, we’ve become accustomed to dressing the same way all year round.

All those things contribute to a change in our expectations of indoor comfort. And the shift is happening in a way that ratchets up our energy consumption.

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Typically, green groups and governments try to reduce energy and water use by providing information and rebates, and hoping we’ll make rational decisions in response. There’s another way of thinking about these issues – one that doesn’t view them as matters of individual choice but, rather, as social practices.

One of the most influential thinkers in this field is Elizabeth Shove, from Lancaster University. In her book, Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: the Social Organisation of Normality, she wrote that much environmentally significant consumption is invisible, bound up in our daily routines.

Professor Shove analysed trends in the way we use heating and cooling, the frequency of showering and laundering, and the proliferation of time-saving gadgets and habits. She found they’d changed radically, and that many of our new expectations involved higher resource consumption (although that isn’t inevitable).

At RMIT, Dr Strengers leads a research area called Beyond Behaviour Change. ”The standard message is that you can just go on as you are, but turn your lights off and change your shower head,” she says. ”But while we’ve been saying that, the general international trend is that the resource intensity of a lot of domestic practices is still going up.”

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