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22.5.07

Your Environmentalism Cramps My Style

"Selling clothes dryers in Arizona" ought to be a cliche for exceptionally talented salesmanship, akin to "selling iceboxes to Eskimos." Walking outside here in Pinal County anytime between February and November feels like walking into a dryer. Who would be silly enough to buy a big, electricity-consuming machine to do what a few hours hanging on $2 worth of clothesline will do for free?

I spent four years living in Worcester, Massachusetts, where just about everyone (at least in my working-class and college-student neighborhood) dried their clothes on a line. And this was despite the fact that the crowded houses give you little space for clothes drying, half the year your clothes were likely to freeze (even on an enclosed porch) before they dried, and the other half of the year Murphy's Law would whip up a rainstorm to undo your work. Southern Arizona, on the other hand, has all the space, heat, and dryness you could want. Yet in the 9 months I've lived here, I have yet to see a single clothesline.

The problem is not just that people are unwilling to do something marginally more laborious in order to save money and help the environment. After all, I don't use a clothesline here either. The problem in my case is that I'm not allowed to. My apartment complex, like most of the housing developments that are springing up all over the desert, has a rule against clotheslines. And it's not just clotheslines that are banned -- fabricated communities typically have all kinds of other rules, such as bans on installing solar panels or exchanging your thirsty lawn for xeriscaping. These rules exist because too many people don't want to live next to an environmentalist. The outward signs of more earth-friendly living, like clothes hanging out to dry, cramp their own style, disrupting their illusion of a white upper-middle-class existence that has bent nature to its will. Or at least the developers and property managers who write the rules think people think that way.

Rules explicitly banning environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices are not unique to the Southwest -- Al Gore's town in Tennessee only recently agreed to let him install solar panels. But comparing Worcester and Casa Grande, geography jumps out as a significant factor in explaining the differing use of clotheslines. While Worcester's neighborhoods may be more socially close-knit, they are physically fuzzy-edged, and lack formal neighborhood governance mechanisms. But I was struck upon moving to Arizona at the way built-up land is divided into 1/4-square-mile and 1/8-square-mile blocks, each with a 4-5 foot "privacy wall" around it and a big sign at the entrace with a developer-chosen name (usually something like "Mirage at Ghost Ranch, by Villago" that sounds like what a consultant in Manhattan would think evokes a "southwestern feel.") So it's much easier for Arizona to get burdened with rules promulagted at the level between the municipality and the individual household, where you can theoretically vote with your feet, but you can't vote with your ballot or voice.

What we need, then, is a law prohibiting communities and quasi-community contractual relationships (like homeowners' associations and apartment managers) from making or enforcing rules that prohibit environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices on aesthetic or property-value-loss-due-to-customers'-aesthetic-reactions grounds.

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