Sunday, March 23, 2014

Week 1: The Washing Machine Dividends

Time for post number two...

The following is a video of Hans Rosling giving a talk about the divisions between the socioeconomic groups in the world and how industrialization and access to so many amenities have made life easier for those in the developed world.  It is entitled: "Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine".

Okay, so the washing machine is obviously a wonderful piece of technology that can and has already transformed lives.  Anyone who has experienced life without one, had theirs break or run out of money at the laundromat and had to do a load of washing by hand can attest to that.  But what is Hans Rosling really trying to say?  What does the washing machine represent and how does it relate back to public health? 

Rosling utilizes wood fire, light bulb, washing machine and airplane as symbols to compare the lifestyles of people living in the different economic echelons of the world (generally between countries but also within) by highlighting what type of resources they have at their disposal.

In short, the wealthier populations have access to more technology and amenities like washing machines, which make their lives easier and save them time so that they can focus on other activities.  Those without however, toil arduously just to get through daily tasks and have little time to devote to things like education, teaching their children, fun and recreational activities, working to make money, etc.  This relates to public health through a number of ways, one of which is education.  Education is associated with higher standards of living through greater employment opportunities, better access to health and family planning services (resulting in more manageable family sizes) and increased knowledge of health and safety.  In fact, maternal education has been identified as the most influential factor impacting child survival.  Amenities also relate to health in a more direct fashion through easy access to clean and safe water in the house instead of having to spend time fetching the water and boiling it over a fire.  In addition to being time consuming, boiling water comes with its own set of risks, including an increased number of burns in the household, smoke inhalation if there is not good ventilation and the risk of musculoskeletal injuries from carrying the water over long distances.

As the old adage goes "time is money", but money can also buy time, time that can be spent doing other things.  The washing machine had an enormous impact on Rosling's mother's everyday life and as a result, his own as well.  It enabled his mother to spend more time teaching her children and to further her own education.  She was able to take her children to the library where they could develop a love of reading, which likely set Rosling on the path to higher education, eventually leading him to the successful life he has now.  The washing machine triggered the beginning of a virtuous cycle for his family from which future generations will likely continue to benefit.
Now I have to say that we do have a washing machine, so I can hardly imagine what it would be like to only ever wash garments by hand.  However, I can relate in some respects.  Coming from a low income family, I had to work all the way through my university degree in order to afford things like tuition, books and residence.  Towards the end of my degree when I was applying for graduate programs, I wondered how much higher my marks could have been if I had more time to study instead of working.  I realized that the real advantage that my fellow students from wealthy families had was an abundance of time and energy to spend reading, exercising, volunteering and enjoying themselves.  That extra time could certainly have been translated into higher marks, thereby giving them an advantage in the graduate program selection process over myself.  Essentially, the rich have a greater chance of staying rich and even accruing more wealth, while those with less must work even harder to try and get further ahead, to overcome those socioeconomic divides.

The video also discusses the environmental impacts and costs of making life easier for more people around the world by increasing access to technology and electronics based on current energy use figures.  By projecting the development of population, Rosling highlights the need for greener and more efficient energy use to curb climate change, which would certainly impact health (as it has already started to do so).  Finally, he exposes a double standard that is often present when it comes to the green movement and developmentEnvironmental activists are often opposed to the spread of mass energy and fuel consumption in the developing world because they are concerned with how the planet will be affected.  Yet the amount of energy individuals and even families in the third world use compared to the west is truly negligible.  

We in the developed world had the opportunity to expand our industries without restrictions and we have been reaping the socioeconomic benefits for quite some time despite the damage it has caused to the environment.  If we won't stop consuming the way that we do, why shouldn't low and middle income countries have the same opportunities that we had to grow their economies and infrastructure?  It is incredibly hypocritical to place restrictions that prevent disadvantaged societies from enjoying the benefits of having washing machines when wealthier populations with far more leisurely lifestyles refuse to cease using their vast numbers of machines.

I like consider myself to be an environmentally conscious individual (I do not drive, I ride my bicycle or take public transit, use reusable grocery bags and coffee cups, etc), but I have to admit that there are days when I would do anything to have a dishwasher.

(Our little 30 x 35 cm sink)

The dishes can pile up very quickly in our tiny kitchen sink and during the semester when I am busy with so many other things, the truth is that I would much rather spend those twenty or thirty minutes a day reading or even relaxing instead of washing plates.  With that in mind, I can hardly imagine how much more difficult it would be to do everything that I need to do without my washing machine.


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