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  • Author or Editor: Kirstin Munro x
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This chapter introduces the author and the main premise of this book. Based on qualitative interviews with sustainability-oriented but “on-the-grid” parents of young children in Portland, Oregon, in the Northwestern United States, The Production of Everyday Life in Eco-Conscious Households describes what happens when people make interventions in mundane and easy-to-overlook aspects of everyday life to bring the way they get things done into alignment with their values. Household production and social practices related to three aspects of everyday life are examined: household waste, cleanliness, and indoor comfort in hot and cold weather. Because the ability to make changes is constrained by the culture and capitalist society, there are negative consequences and trade-offs involved in these household-level sustainability practices. Ecologically conscious households devote substantial time (even more so than money) to these sustainability efforts, but their efforts frequently stimulate conflicts, and the end results are rarely perfect. Beyond depleting people physically, financially, and emotionally, many of these pro-environmental activities are ineffective at best and are self-contradictory at worse—these paradoxical pro-environmental activities inadvertently reproduce capitalist society, and in doing so enable the continued environmental devastation that motivates these practices in the first place. Thus, promoting many household-level sustainability practices may be misguided, as this transfer of institutional responsibility for environmental protection into households results in even greater burdens on households, whose time, money, and emotional capacities are already stretched to their limits. The households described in this book shed light on the full extent of the trade-offs involved in promoting sustainability at the household level as a solution to environmental problems.

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Compromise, Conflict, Complicity
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Based on qualitative interviews with sustainability-oriented parents of young children, this book describes what happens when people make interventions into mundane and easy-to-overlook aspects of everyday life to bring the way they get things done into alignment with their environmental values. Because the ability to make changes is constrained by their culture and capitalist society, there are negative consequences and trade-offs involved in these household-level sustainability practices.

The households described in this book shed light on the full extent of the trade-offs involved in promoting sustainability at the household level as a solution to environmental problems.

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This chapter provides a description of the resources that the eco-conscious households interviewed for this book have available to them to get things done in everyday life, and a description of the factors that constrain them. Households draw upon a variety of resources to get things done in everyday life, but these resources can be simplified to three major overlapping categories: money, time, and know-how. However, these resources are not limitless. In particular, households describe making decisions on a foundation of limited time and limited money, with time constraints by far the most common concern of my informants. Households are also constrained by social and cultural norms, particularly around cleanliness. Finally, information about sustainability and sustainability practices can be difficult to find, and in some cases accurate information is not available at all.

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This chapter presents a Marxist-feminist model of household production in capitalism based on ethnographic interviews with eco-conscious parents of young children. In this model, households, capitalist firms, and the state rely on inputs from the other sectors in their production process to perpetuate their own existences and, in turn, that of capitalist society as a whole. Household production can take place using varying proportions of inputs, but changing the proportions of these inputs does not change the underlying production process let alone the organization of capitalist society. This model leads to the conclusion that the reproduction of labor-power that takes place in households and elsewhere cannot be divorced from the reproduction of capitalist society, nor from the human and environmental disasters inherent to it. This helps to explain why the ecologically conscious parents interviewed for this book feel exhausted, frustrated, guilty, and as if none of the pro-environmental interventions that they are turning into mundane everyday practices are actually making a difference.

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This chapter introduces readers to a group of eco-conscious parents and their households in more detail—who they are, who they live with, their varied priorities in the sustainability realm, and their motivations for sustainability practices. These households try to make decisions for their families and balance their sustainability priorities with constrained resources, which often involves fairly major interventions in conventional ways of getting things done in order to bring their everyday practices into alignment with their values. This chapter argues that there is not a single “sustainability,” with households engaging in sustainability practices to varying degrees of intensity along a green spectrum. Rather, sustainability represents a broad set of values and beliefs for these households. The overlapping sustainability priorities of the households in this study include community well-being, the health of individual family members, nature, technology, and waste avoidance. The sustainability practices of these households are influenced by the unique combinations of priorities, resources, and constraints in each household.

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This chapter describes the conflicts that arise as a result of priorities and pro-environmental interventions in mundane practices that put eco-conscious households out of step with the mainstream. What we see is an already universally fraught situation—unique human beings cohabitating and disagreeing—exacerbated by unconventional, often time-consuming practices and heartfelt passion for environmental priorities. This chapter shows how these differences in priorities and the social meaning of practices in eco-conscious households produce conflict within these households and the close personal relationships of household members.

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This chapter describes household practices with respect to indoor comfort in hot and cold weather, bodily cleanliness, and household cleanliness. While cleanliness and comfort involve mundane habits that are easily taken for granted, the eco-conscious households interviewed for this book have made changes to conventional ways of getting things done to make their practices more sustainable. In some cases, these changes take more unwaged time but in other cases these changes—intriguingly—result in less unwaged time devoted to mundane household practices. While it has been said that dirt exists in the eye of the beholder, the same might be said for comfort temperatures, which are at once formed socially and culturally, as well as based on individual tolerance and preference. So while the social meanings of cleanliness and comfort and the things we do to feel clean and comfortable have changed in ways that place increasing demands on natural resources, my informants reveal the potential reductions in demand for resources associated with changing the social meanings of cleanliness and comfort, and, with that, the accompanying time-consuming and resource-demanding practices.

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This chapter investigates how eco-conscious households manage the disposal of household waste, including trash, recycling, composting, diapers, and toilet waste. These eco-conscious households were almost universally concerned with reducing their consumption, and for many, the waste generated by their lifestyles and practices serves as an uncomfortable reminder of their shortcomings in the sustainability realm. For some households, practices that prevented waste from going to a landfill, such as composting and recycling, are sufficient to alleviate the guilt associated with waste-generating consumption. Other households attempt to purchase items with as little packaging as possible because recycling and composting are not enough for them to feel absolved. In this sample of households, the topic of packaging elicited powerful and unexpected reactions, while practices that involve allowing organic matter to decompose in the backyard or leaving urine in a toilet bowl unflushed elicited few negative reactions. The work involved in consumption has been described as the “other side of the paycheck.” For these eco-conscious households, practices involving the disposal of household waste are the other side of the other side of the paycheck—the final phase of the consumption they wish they could avoid.

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None of the eco-conscious parents of young children interviewed for this book grew up exactly the same way that they live now, so many of them had to spend considerable amounts of time and effort to learn about sustainability and new sustainable ways of getting things done in everyday life. They talk to friends and family members, they read books and websites, and they learn on the job as part of their waged work to gain practical know-how and to acquire information that helps them make more environmental choices. These efforts might be called “human capital acquisition”—investments in productivity-enhancing skills that involved a trade-off such as time or money that could have been used for some other purpose but that was dedicated to gaining skills and knowledge. Or, these efforts might be seen as gaining “competence” in theories of social practice. And these efforts to acquire know-how that is useful for bringing everyday life into alignment with pro-environmental values can be thought of as one component of the unwaged work that takes place in these eco-conscious households—an input into the household production process.

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This chapter concludes the book by explaining why households are making interventions in conventional ways of getting things done and what this might mean for policymakers and others who are considering promoting household-level pro-environmental practices. Household sustainability efforts, while well intentioned, are most frequently aimed at addressing environmental problems that eco-conscious households view as originating at other sites and on other scales. Each household individually repeats common sustainability tasks that could be achieved more effectively collectively or on a larger scale. At the same time, environmental and social problems are caused by the organization of families into individual households, a modern arrangement that is both socially and environmentally taxing. The eco-conscious parents interviewed for this book are trying their best to do something different. And some pragmatic reforms that involve changing the social meaning of practices in ways that decrease the demand for resources may provide a practical path forward. But without radical transformations in infrastructures and institutions—including the family household—these efforts will always fall short of what is needed to fully protect people and the environment from harm.

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