Our dishwasher broke today. Instead of a spectacular failure, the machine ended its life in a slow and steady leak of suds over the past week(?), surfacing in buckling floor tiles and a drip that we could not place. Alas, repairing the floor, and tiling the kitchen is a story for another day.
I did the dishes tonight by hand, in a sink full of sudsy warm water. There are two parts to that statement that are out of the ordinary in my home. First off I hate doing dishes. The second is that we were doing dishes in the sink. I have always felt vindicated by an article I read, or was it a blog post (Ask Umbra?) that stated that a dishwasher was much more efficient than human hands in using heated soapy water to clean dishes in both energy, and water usage. That was all I needed to hear. In went the dirty dishes, out they came sparkling and clean (for the most part). No remorse here - that is what the machines purpose was, and it could do the task in a way (efficiently) that could make me feel better about the decision to use it.
However, as my fingertips turned to soggy raisins, and I passed the dishes to be rinsed to my wife, we came to the same conclusion - we'd think twice about reaching for another clean glass or plate, knowing that an extra dish to clean would be the result. That made me think: no matter how efficiently that old dishwasher cleaned my dishes, and how much water it saved over doing them manually, I had probably filled that dishwasher many times over with dishes that shouldn't have needed to be washed in the first place.
This simple epiphany could be applied to many other things in my life that were made easier by "efficient machines". How many extra trips car to the store have I taken based on its efficiency of transport. How often would I travel to the store if I were carless? How many clothes have I washed (and dried) after only a few non-strenous hours of wear? Would I be so quick to wash them if I had no washing machine? How much food have I found spoiled in the refrigerator, despite its efficient "crisper" drawer? Or, for that matter, the amount have I allowed to get "freezer burn"?
Ridding myself of these very helpful and necessary* machines is not in the cards. Nor would I want it to be. However, this bout of involuntary simplicity has taught me that some of the most efficient machines that we own may actually have been providing us with more work to do.
UPDATE: After further thought on the subject, I could take my reasoning a step further. Despite the increased efficiency of the dishwasher, the end result of its use is not only the purchase of a new machine to replace it, but also an entire kitchen floor. So, one could argue, all of the gains in energy savings, and reduced water consumption were wiped out by the need for a new floor (which it self will carry a high embodied energy and water use in its production.) Certainly the hand washing of my plates and glasses wouldn't have led to the purchase and installation of a new floor.
And another step further than that: All of the time and effort that the dishwasher had saved us in labor, was surely offset by the labor we will need to use to repair our floor.
I am reminded of Thoreau:
But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.
(*necessary to maintain my marriage vows!)
pic by ktanriover
originally posted over at groovy green.