Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Objects of Global Warming?

By Lydia Martens

The mediated world has in recent weeks once again been preoccupied with controversies surrounding global warming. We read the prediction that the Himalayan glaciers will have disappeared by 2035, that 50% of the Netherlands will soon be sea, and that, surprise, surprise, the fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil is financially supporting sceptics of human induced climate change. This is environmental politics with a big “P”, one might say. Meanwhile, scholars in the social sciences, humanities and arts have been asking questions which are equally intriguing, but which do not gain this level of mediated interest.

These are questions which concentrate on the unrelenting progress of interconnected sets of routine practices in everyday life, which demand the use of energy consuming objects and resources in ever greater numbers and intensity. Think for instance about the relatively recent change to daily showering practices, which not only require a good boiler, gas, electricity and plenty of water, a bathroom suite, shower curtain and soft towels to match, not to speak of the collection of plastic bottles containing soaps, body washes, shampoos and the detergent to maintain that shiny sanitised look of the bathroom’s infrastructure itself. Have I forgotten anything?

Routines of cleanliness are part of a larger set of daily routines and systems of organisation that allow those of us living life in the accelerated affluent world to be dual earner families or fast-lane professionals and accommodate the various demands and ideals that such a life encompasses. Thus we fill our homes with computers and other leisure technologies, we keep two or more cars to allow mums, dads and kids to move about, and we accrue airmiles as the latest city-break deal sounds an excellent opportunity to create that all so necessary distance from our harried lives.

The intensification of energy and consumption rich practices in domestic life appears to be an inevitable accompaniment of societal development in our world. It is without doubt greatest in the world’s most affluent societies, resulting in the observation that we would need the capacity of three Earths to support the consumption levels of everyone living on the globe, if all were to consume at the rate ‘we’ do. This is environmental politics with a small “p”, one might say, because such practices are part of the everyday goings on of private domestic life, which, whilst perhaps questioned by those amongst us with an active environmental awareness, are nevertheless hard to change in ways which make a significant impact. Such is the power of routine and social organisation!

On 4 & 5 February, I attended the first international workshop of Objects of Energy Consumption; a research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and jointly conducted by researchers at the Deutsches Museum and the Central Institute for the History of Technology at the Technical University in Munich, Germany. The Deutsches Museum was founded over 100 years ago, and is today well known for its specialism: the show-casing of technology and science. Walking to dinner in the evening, I am told by one of the Museum’s researchers that, given it is currently developing future orientated exhibition projects, the museum is not only a place where science and technology are exhibited from a historical perspective. Having said so, Objects of Energy Consumption is focused in the conjunctures between objects and history, using ‘the vast collections of the Deutsches Museum as sources’ to analyse ‘the historical mechanisation of the household from the perspective of consumption, gender and environmental history as well as museum studies’.

Intended to help the multi-disciplinary research team to fine-tune its theoretical and methodological approaches, the workshop brought together experts from different disciplinary traditions to talk about a range of topics. I was invited to provide a sociological input to the discussion, though any analysis that brings together gender, consumption and mundane domestic practice, I argued, necessarily straddles across disciplines to engage with feminist perspectives, history, technology and cultural studies. Domestic mechanisation without doubt constitutes an important facet of a gender-informed and environmental history of consumption, especially that pertaining to the 20th Century, but I suggested that this formed part of a broader enquiry about change and continuity in domestic life, in which the cultural valuation of domestic identities, domestic practices and the home come together. I pointed out that these complexities create challenges for the development of a coherent conceptual framework.

Perhaps the most interesting question for me (though clearly not for the material culture scholars attending the meeting, or, perhaps for those whose interests are more clearly and directly aligned with the environmental impacts of practices) was what the methodological and theoretical advantages are of investigations in which the object forms the central focus of enquiry. Clearly, objects may be seen as the connecting thread between different economic and cultural processes and conjunctures, including design, production, production standards, marketing, retailing, purchase, use, storage, disposal, recycling and display.

Criss-crossing with these are the conventions and configuration of domestic life and the passage of time. Speakers pointed out that objects have agency, for instance, in the sense that they have a physical presence, and, to coin a phrase used by Gudrun K├Ânig from the TU Dortmunt, they may also have a veto right, and speak back. Even so, one of the big methodological challenges facing the project’s researchers will be that the mostly obsolete objects they have selected for special attention are no longer situated in the domestic contexts through which they gained their original purposes and meanings. Another way of saying this is that when objects become objects at an exhibition, their realities and meanings change, posing problems for those who desire to understand the contribution they made to the meaning of domestic life in their various historical contexts.

For further information about the project, have a look at its website @ http://www.energiekonsum.mwn.de/. Also have a look at the current BBC History of the World in 100 Objects interactive website, which is accompanied by a series of downloadable radio programs. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/1jKTi_S6Tui36_OFk0gJ_g

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