Soviet style apartment in St. Petersburg. Photo by lafleur.
Do you know those ugly, soviet-style apartment buildings that you can see all throughout Eastern Europe? Many of us who grew up in that part of the world have spent our childhood in those match boxes, as we called them, and we also had our joys.
Nowadays, there is one activity by which I recognize those of us who have lived in these buildings: washing dishes. The people who lived in houses, and thus in independent units that were responsible for the amount of water consumed, do not allow water to come from the faucet incessantly. They rather get some water necessary for the washing and then use it throughout the process, or just use a sponge with detergent to clean all dishes, and only then use water to rinse them. But those who lived in apartment buildings–or the majority of them–let the water run indiscriminately. This is so much so that, at times, water starts running when the process of washing dishes begins and ends running with the rinsing of the last plate or fork.
Well, you may say, to each his own–and I stand by that as well! Then, this whole discussion is in no way an intent to express moral judgments about dishwashing and water. Still, you may be well entitled to ask, “What is it to you how someone decides to spend his or her money or how someone decides to consume water?” In my avoidance of uttering any moral claim, out of fear of categorizing others and placing them into murderous boxes, I would probably be dumbfounded, unable to say anything. Of course, not paying attention to water consumption harms the environment and it is a moral affront to all the places in the world that suffer from drought, but aren’t we free agents? Can’t we decide on our own what to do in life?
Be that as it may–I prefer not to discuss such topics for the moment, or at least not here (my fear of moralizing may not work for my benefit)–the dishwashing example suggests to me that education is a very funny notion and that human nature is such that, regardless of our own claims about our moral views and behaviors, we still act the way in which it is convenient for us and the way in which life taught us. You see, in those ugly soviet-style buildings, we did not have responsibility for how much water we consumed. Every month, the building received bills for water, electricity, and gas (by the way, there are many more lightbulbs turned on in the houses of those who lived in apartment building than in those who lived in houses). These bills, summed up, were then divided by the number of people living in the apartment building, so that each would pay his or her “fair share.” I never knew exactly how much I consumed, because it was divided to all–in, let’s say, a building with 9 floors, 3 apartments per floor, that would mean the population of 27 apartments. And why should I deprive myself of the convenience of running water from the beginning to the end of the dishwashing process, especially so when my neighbor may do it as well? And if he does it and I do not, don’t I end up paying some of his share? Wouldn’t I be a fool? Why should I tell my kids to do it? Why should I teach them to turn the light off when they leave a room? Am I not preparing them for a life in which others would take advantage of them if I did so? And so we may have forgotten to turn off the water just because things were done this way around us.
In this particular case of dishwashing (and this is by no means scientific research, but rather the poor musings of someone who has many friends who used to live in that part of the world), responsibility for consuming water was produced not by moral precepts, interest in the life of another human being, or acknowledgement of the fact that we depend on each other (which I believe to be true). Responsibility for water was due to the pain one suffers for having to pay for it. Or it was due to the pain of your parents who, because they had to pay for it, reminded you always to turn off the light and to be more careful with water when you wash the dishes. This may also suggests that the step from education to action is much longer when education takes place theoretically than when education is attached to an immediate consequence on your own life. Perhaps this is a cynical view of human nature–and I am one with those from soviet style apartment buildings and with those from houses. And, after all, this is nothing more than some musings about washing dishes.
OK, you may say, but how is it that now, when people pay for what they consume, they still run the water the same way they used to do it in those ugly buildings?
Well, habit is a nasty thing.