On not owning a fridge

… nor a freezer, before you ask.

In a previous post I listed this as one of my ‘green behaviours’ – please don’t forget that I’m not telling other people what they should do, I’m describing some things that I do, and why I consider them to be ‘green’. So what on earth is ‘green’ about not owning a fridge?

Well it was never intended to have any particular implications or meaning. About – oh I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago – I noticed that I never seemed to have anything in the fridge apart from a bottle of milk, which seemed ridiculous. It was winter, so I thought I might as well turn the fridge off and do the studenty thing and keep the milk on the windowledge. To my surprise, when the next electricity bill came it was noticeably lower than expected. I had noticed the same thing, and felt equally surprised, when I’d changed the incandescents lightbulbs for compact fluorescents – I really hadn’t anticipated much of a difference.

These two little ‘experiments’ were, I think, what got me interested in the topic of energy – which is a very useful lens through which to view environmental issues. When I moved home, I sent my fridge to be disposed of and since 2007 haven’t even owned a switched-off one.

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There are two strands which make up the argument as to why not owning a fridge is ‘green’.

1. Negawatts are cheaper than megawatts.

The delightful coinage ‘negawatts’ is a way of capturing the idea that “using x amount less electricity” is the equivalent of  “x amount we don’t need to generate”. Generating less is good because – oh, you know, emissions, security, expense. Using less electricity tends to be less expensive (of resources as well as money) than generating it. So given this, using less electricity (and other types of energy as well) should be a prime policy goal.

As I have argued previously, if you think something should be a policy goal then it demonstrates good faith to implement that policy in your own life, if possible.

2. The rise in the number single person households

This means a rise in the total number of appliances (and hence electricity usage), because of duplication. This is a key point – I’m not some sort of weird anti-refrigeration nut, it’s just that as a healthy single person, living alone, in a temperate climate, who doesn’t count cooking as a hobby, I don’t feel I need a fridge all to myself. Of course I do benefit enormously from refrigeration (shops, medicine), and if I lived with other people (which I would prefer to do) then of course we’d have a fridge. In fact I often have use of a shared fridge at work in my various temp jobs (note that I said “own” not “use”), but I tend not to use it very much – just the occasional lettuce.

Aside from the question of embodied energy, you might think that the energy difference between two separate people each with a single-size fridge, and two cohabiting people with a double-size fridge would be non-existent or trivial. Not quite: larger fridges are more efficient than smaller ones because of the ratio of surface area to volume. When you get to the difference between a single commercial cold store and the equivalent chilled volume in domestic fridges the difference really starts to count.

Objections:

3. Why not just get a state-of-the-art efficient fridge?

Actually, fridges are one of the few examples where replacing an old-but-working machine with a new-but-more-efficient one is a good idea in eco-terms – with many other machines the efficiency you gain is outweighed by the amount of embodied energy you chuck away with the scrapped gadget. But even asking the question is to be sucked into a certain type of thinking which assumes that ownership of machines is good in itself and that the answer to any problems they cause is always a better machine.

4. Isn’t it dangerous to keep food without a fridge?

Fridge ownership only became universal (in the UK at least) in the sixties. Before that many houses had some sort of room/cupboard built on a north facing wall – the ‘larder’ – which was therefore cooler than the rest of the house. I remember the larder in my grandfathers house in Preston, and can just about remember him showing off his first fridge, which was of course kept in that larder. That’s what you are supposed to do with fridges, for optimum efficiency, keep them somewhere cool, don’t run them empty, allow some space at the back so the heat can dissipate and clean the dust off the pipes now and again. But of course many people aren’t what you might call technology-literate – and it doesn’t seem to matter does it?

Anyway I am able to get along safely without a personal fridge by a combination of choice of food, and keeping it in the cooler downstairs part of my flat (and before you say it, no, I don’t eat out a great deal). I could finesse this by cobbling some sort of homemade evaporative cooling device, but I haven’t yet felt a pressing need to do so. The lack of a fridge even has some beneficial personal consequences which I will discuss in a future post about food.

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Oh and I can’t resist linking to Tim Hunkin’s charming 1988 TV programme, the secret life of the refrigerator.

“Luddite”

Here’s a disclaimer which always annoys me: “I’m not a luddite but …”

This first came to my attention on one of the Open University’s internal forums. Typically, the phrase precedes a complaint about some aspect of computers: “I’m no luddite but I really dislike windows 10” or something. Funnily enough, just after I wrote the above words, I moseyed over to a quite different forum, (the internal Green Party discussion forum) only to find the latest reply starts with the words:

That is Luddite thinking,

It’s a cliché that grates with me because “luddite” is just a “boo” word. The only thing it contributes to the argument is a shot of emotion: “I really dislike this”. It is able to deliver this shot of emotion because it is generally accepted to be a Rude Word, yet it is pretty well meaningless as used in any context other than history. The Luddites were a particular historic group responding in to specific historic circumstances. (Perhaps even, you or I might have done the same in the their shoes? Or would you have willingly surrendered your livelihood?) In that trivial sense, no living person is a luddite.

If you insist that it is not meaningless at all, then the extended meaning of the term seems to be something like “hates all new technology and is therefore bad at thinking”. I do not believe there is anyone who “hates all new technology” – everybody welcomes some technological developments. So nobody is a luddite.

Equally, everyone dislikes technological developments which impact negatively on themselves (and, in realising what will truly impact on them, they might in fact be good at thinking). In that sense everyone is a luddite. By using the word as an accusation what you really mean is “you don’t like this particular innovation that I do like”. If you use the disclaimer that you are not a luddite, what you mean is “I don’t deserve to be called that horrible rude word”.

It’s quite interesting to ask what would be so bad about disliking new technology anyway – the answer is more subtle than you might think so that’s going to have to be another post. The counterpart “hooray” word to “luddite”, is of course “progress”. And that kettle of worms, or can of fish, will also have to wait to be opened.

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See also: my comments from 2013 on the similar term “anti-car”.