Drying For Freedom: Clotheslines and a Culture Crisis

Drying For Freedom is a documentary about the very real repercussions of owning a clothesline.

Do you dare to use a clothesline? You represent a dying breed and quite possibly, a hindrance to progress.

Steven Lake, the director of Drying For Freedom, a film exploring a “new eco battlefield where communities and individuals are banned from drying their clothes naturally outdoors,” says his journey into the wild world of dirty clothes has proven to be a wash when it comes to understanding why people disapprove. Blame it on corporate America selling the dream of electric bliss with the Reagan family as poster children to post-World War II America, creating electric consumption with total disregard for the future carbon impact on the planet.

Whoever kicked it off, it’s become a U.S. born and bred disease that is crossing oceans and infecting underdeveloped countries who aren’t used to laundry convenience.

Lake says it all started when he first Googled the word ‘laundry,’ and learned from Wikipedia that clotheslines are banned in some countries. He was hooked.

“This especially interested me about a place like North America, and seemed a real contradiction about Americans and how much they’ve paid and fought for the price of freedom and that they’ve seemingly and willingly given it up by restricting themselves in their own homes,” says Lake, who seeks to understand how a simple single act which cuts carbon emissions and reduces energy bills could be frowned upon in a time of acute environmental awareness and a return to economic frugality.

Traveling the globe, talking to homeowners, neighborhood associations, appliance dealers, police and environmental advocates, Lake sought to find out why laundry hung out to dry is grounds for prosecution, fines and in one instance in Alabama, murder.

Drying For Freedom Director, Steven Lake

“That people didn’t have the desire and sometimes the right to be environmentally friendly was unsettling,” says Lake, giving the example of the state of California with 300+ sunny days and so few people hanging clothes out to dry as an example.

“It’s these little things that will save us and add up.”

According to The Guardian, by washing and drying a load every two days, an average individual creates around 440kg of CO2 each year (roughly 970 pounds), which is the equivalent to flying from London to Glasgow and back with 15-mile taxi rides to and from the airports.

“Part of the problem is that tumble dryers (like dishwashers and washing machines) generally use electricity to generate their heat. This is typically more than twice as carbon-intensive as creating heat from gas – for the simple reason that, in the case of electricity, most of the energy in the fuel gets wasted up the cooling tower of a power plant, with yet more getting lost in transmission to the home,” reports The Guardian.

With the ability to hang a rope between two trees, not only could the typical homeowner save money, they could greatly shrink their carbon footprint. But sometimes that simple gesture of putting up a clothesline isn’t up to the homeowner.

In the case of the murder in Alabama, Lake says “One man had a clothesline and the other man pulled it down, the man put it up and the man who had the clothesline shot the man who kept pulling it down.”

While Lake agrees the deeply troubled neighbor took matters unquestionably further than most of the stories he documented, it still brings to light the question of why people see clotheslines in such a negative way. What do clotheslines connote culturally for Americans, as well as other cultures?

“If you have a clothesline, it means you are either anti-progress or you just can’t afford it and that means you are the worst kind of person because it looks very ‘ghetto,'” says Lake. In the documentary, a member of a homeowner’s association calls it the same and even his association members are taken aback. In status-conscious American culture, an environmentally, economically sensible and simple act takes on shades of class divide.

AlterNet reports that 57 million Americans – approaching one person out of five – live in homes regulated by homeowner associations (HOAs). Many of these private associations hold sway not only in exclusive neighborhoods but in many more modest neighborhoods like condominium complexes.

“They have sweeping powers to enforce so-called restrictive covenants, which can control almost any aspect of the property, from the size of the house or garage down to details like changes in paint color or placement of basketball hoops. When a house is sold, the covenant goes with it,” reports AlterNet.

Often, these “covenants” include the clothesline ban and leave no wiggle room for exception.

Many have felt the law tightening too quickly with urban sprawl encroaching on older neighborhoods bereft of any stringent clothesline laws. In rebellion, some homeowners have become inspiring clothesline activists, which Lake documents in his film through inspirational tales like Clotheslines For Change.

Clotheslines For Change reports that as of 2009, “passage of ‘right to dry’ legislation in Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont, together with legislative efforts on this front in Connecticut, Oregon, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Nebraska, and New Hampshire, were largely attributed to Project Laundry List’s ongoing efforts.” Since the 1970s, Florida has also had a solar rights law that protects most property-owners from the intrusions of community associations.

Drying For Freedom Director, Steven Lake

But because diseases are contagious and homeowners are many, I asked Lake whether he thinks he can really throw a curve ball into the face of change when it comes to inspiring people to put out a clothesline and save energy.

There are a few things to take into consideration, says Lake. One is that the U.S. has sent a very powerful message to the world that we should make life more convenient and thus use more energy which is “infectiously moving on into other cultures and exporting bad habits.”

“We can also send a message out to the U.S. exporting culture which is targeting India and China not to do as we do,” says Lake, “and because we have such an infinite source of credit through borrowing and loans we can’t quite judge the value of not paying for electricity that powers our dryers and I’m not sure we will have this awareness about many parts of our lives without something terribly drastic happening.”

On the Drying For Freedom site, Lake writes: “This is an environmental documentary, but it’s also about characters; the people involved in this fight, for and against it. It’s the passion behind these individuals that drives us to tell this story. Whether you agree with them or not, everyone believes they are right and that is strength of belief which is often hard to find in people these days it’s hard to explain to people why on earth we would be making a documentary all about clotheslines! There are times I’ve doubted it myself, but I always remember why our team got so involved in the first place. It’s different and it matters to us.”

Image: This Tiny House, Drying For Freedom


Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.