Opinion

Saturday 23 February 2019

Mary Kenny: 'If you want to help reduce climate change, do not take a daily shower'

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

We are all environmentalists now, aren't we? We are all converts to the idea that we must save the planet by living sustainably. Young people, in particular, are embracing a "greener" lifestyle. Climate change, we are told, is the greatest threat to our universal civilisation.

And there is one simple alteration that each one of us could make, daily, in our lives to contribute to the reduction of environmental harm: do not take a daily shower.

Showering (and taking baths, too) is one of the major sources of energy usage. Climate change and water usage are inextricably linked says Aaron Burton, the Australian-born world expert on water efficiency - and Australians have learned a lot from the experience of droughts. One of the lessons learned is that we could use a lot less water than we do.

The target for personal water usage should be a maximum of 100 litres a day. Even better would be 70 litres, and during droughts, 50 litres have been perfectly acceptable. At present, the average Irish person uses 129 litres of water a day, and the average Irish household between 342-358 litres, depending on how it's calculated. (In a reassuring vignette of cultural continuity, if not outright stereotyping, Cavan has proved to be the most parsimonious in its water usage.)

I'm not getting into the various protests about water charges and water meters: but the bigger picture is that everyone in the western world should use less water.

So, if you want to do something for the planet, restrict your showers. A shower every other day is quite sufficient. For older people, a shower once every three days is fine, a policy I usually practice. If you feel a tiny bit grubby, you can always do a "top and tail" wash in a basin, which is what people did, routinely, until about 40 years ago.

The difficulty in reducing the showering (or bathing) habit is "cultural expectations", according to Dr Alison Browne, lecturer in sustainable consumption at Manchester University. Younger people are accustomed to showering not only every day, but sometimes twice a day - even three times daily. This is using up tons of water and energy - since it takes energy to produce and heat water - and thus promiscuously wasting the earth's resources.

Nobody needs three showers a day, unless they're doing three shifts digging a tunnel. Most showers are taken because it's a pleasant experience to feel warm water on bodies, not because we need to get cleaner. Moreover, we spend too long in the shower. The average is about seven minutes. A shower should be under three minutes - I would favour 90 seconds myself. And by the way, the bar of soap is having a revival, ousting the plastic bottle of shower gel.

So, how do you shift the "cultural expectations" that come with a daily, or maybe a twice-daily, shower? We have to go back to being a bit less fastidious. Cleanliness is not next to Godliness. A measure of dirt never did anyone any harm. What's wrong with an odour of healthy sweat? Napoleon thought it sexy. James Joyce thought dirty knickers were a turn-on.

It is suggested by some food experts that the alarming rise in allergies among children could be linked to the fact that babies aren't encountering enough dirt to build up their resistance. An old Cockney saying had it that "every child needs his peck of dirt", and perhaps there was wisdom in that notion.

Not only is there too much showering, but there's probably too much laundering, too. People wash their clothes more often than they used to just because there's a washing machine available. It's squandering water resources and, incidentally, increasing the housework load, usually borne by women.

Some of the cultural changes advanced for reducing water usage might be a tiny bit harder to, er, swallow. One way to make better usage of our daily water allowance of 70-100 litres is to pee in the shower. It's very environmental. Maybe a target too far, however: the flushable toilet must be one of the greatest contributions to civilisation. When Constance Markievicz and her husband Casimir attended glittering balls at Dublin Castle in the 1900s, there was only one toilet for hundreds of assembled grandees (deplorable, too, the shared loos for numerous families in the Dublin tenements).

But we've gone to the other extreme in our daily hygiene habits with en suites everywhere - the Green Party, which should be focused on saving water, introduced the mandatory en suite bathrooms in every bedsit, thus both contributing to the student housing shortage and encouraging more daily, or twice-daily, showering as well. Politicians who champion green causes should be actively reducing the cultural expectations of twice- or thrice-daily showers among the young - and the rest of us, too.

So, the next time that idealistic, angel-faced parliamentarian Richard Boyd-Barrett waxes moralistic about how climate change is the biggest challenge we face, ask the lad this: "When did you last take a shower?" The correct answer should be "yesterday". Ditto the venerable Mrs Mary Robinson, that global champion of environmentalism: hopefully, she too is allowing a little more dirt back into her life so as to save the planet.

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