Monday, August 18, 2008

The Weekly Word: Convenience

I'm going to borrow and warp a Stephen Colbert bit. Once a week (I hope), I'm going to write about a word that seems relevant to me about sustainability issues. I won't be as funny or sharp as Colbert; a lot of what I think about the language around sustainability is unclear to me. So I'm starting with this:


One of the most common words that comes up in resistance to sustainability measures is convenience. Usually, it's something like this: "why should I have to be inconvenienced to make some change?" Most technological changes in the past half-century--frozen and pre-packaged food, power steering and brakes, increased horsepower, inexpensive incandescent lights, air conditioning--have been changes toward convenience that expend a great deal of energy on the front end. To make these things cheap and convenient for us, industry had to create waste on both the front and back end; when you consume frozen food, you have to throw away a box (only recently recyclable in most places), an unrecyclable wrapper, and the unrecyclable container. But how convenient it is to have food ready and relatively tasty in just five minutes.

But is it really convenient? The implication, at least in the example of cooking, is that food preparation is an inconvenience. If you have kids running around and have been at work all day, it's probably easy to microwave a couple of things and pour a pre-mixed salad into a bowl. But meals used to be one of the essential family experiences, not an inconvenience.

Take cooking. When you make a flavorful meal with fresh ingredients, the effort takes time but rewards with pleasure--the food tastes better and is likely healthier, and you get to savor it with the family. Plus, if you can share the kitchen duties with a partner and with children, you're sharing that work. My neighbor has his children help with some aspects of preparing the meal. They clearly enjoy it, particularly knowing that they helped make the good meals they eat.

It's a strange balance of rewards, convenience versus shared pleasures. When people complain of inconvenience, I wonder what they would miss out on by inconvenience. What are the essential experiences of life these conveniences allow them to have?

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