Colourful dresses hanging on successive hangers from a rod at a clothing store.

A why of how we wear what we wear

There are many major industries operating around the world commonly perceived to be big drivers of climate change. Plastic, steel and concrete manufacturing come immediately to mind – but fashion doesn’t, even though, materially speaking, its many inefficiencies represent something increasingly worse than an indulgence in times so fraught by economic inequality and the dividends of extractive capitalism.

And even then, details like ‘making one cotton t-shirt requires 3,900 litres of water’ (source) spring first into our consciousness before less apparent, and more subtle, issues like the label itself. Why is the fashion industry called so? I recently read somewhere – an article, or maybe a tweet (in any case the thought isn’t original) – that the term ‘fashion’ implies an endless seasonality, a habit of periodically discarding designs, and the clothes they inhabit, only to invent and manufacture new garments.

The persistence of fashion trends also presents social problems. Consider, for example, the following paragraph, copied from a press release issued by Princeton University:

People perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid. … Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.

Let’s assume that the study is robust as well as that the press release is faithful to the study’s conclusions (verifying which would require a lot more work than I am willing to spare for this post – but you’ve been warned!). Getting rid of fashion trends will do little, or even nothing, to render our societies more equitable. But it merits observing that they also participate in, possibly are even predicated on, maintaining ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, demarcated by the awareness of dressing trends, ability to purchase the corresponding garments and familiarity with the prevailing ways to use them in order to incentivise certain outcomes over others on behalf of people who adhere to similar sartorial protocols.

(Aside: Such behaviour usually favours members of the elite but it’s not entirely absent outside the corresponding sociopolitical context. For example, and as a tangential case of enclothed cognition, the titular character in the 2016 Tamil film Kabali insists on wearing a blazer at all times simply because his upper-caste antagonists use their clothing to indicate their social status and, consequently, power.)

Obviously, the social and climatic facets of fashion design aren’t entirely separable. The ebb-and-flow of design trends drives consumer spending and, well, consumption whereas the stratification of individual competence – at least according to the study; certainly of likability based on status signals – sets up dressing choices as a socially acceptable proxy to substitute seemingly less prejudicial modes of evaluation. (And far from being a syllogism, many of our social ills actively promote the neoliberal consumer culture at the heart of the climate crisis.)

Then again, proxies in general are not always actively deployed. There are numerous examples from science administration as well as other walks of life. This is also one of the reasons I’m not too worried about not interrogating the study: it rings true (to the point of rendering the study itself moot if didn’t come to any other conclusions).

People considering a scientist for, say, career advancement often judge the quality of their work based on which journals they were published in, even though it’s quite well-known that this practice is flawed. But the use of proxies is justified for pragmatic reasons: when universities are understaffed and/or staff are underpaid, proxies accelerate decision-making, especially if they also have a low error-rate and the decision isn’t likely to have dire consequences for any candidate. If the resource-crunch is more pronounced, it’s quite possible that pragmatic considerations altogether originate the use of proxies instead of simply legitimising them.

Could similar decision-making pathways have interfered with the study? I hope not, or they would have strongly confounded the study’s findings. In this scenario, where scientists presented a group of decision-makers with visual information based on which the latter had to make some specific decisions without worrying about any lack of resources, we’re once again faced with yet another prompt to change the way we behave, and that’s a tall order.

A windier world

A new paper in Nature Climate Change reports a reversal in “terrestrial stilling” since 2010 – i.e. global wind speeds, thought to be in decline thanks to deforestation and real estate development, actually stopped slowing around 2010 and have been climbing since.

The paper’s authors, a group of researchers from China, France, Singapore, Spain, the UK and the US, argue that the result can be explained by “decadal ocean-atmosphere oscillations” and conclude with further analysis that the increase “has increased potential wind energy by 17 ± 2% for 2010 to 2017, boosting the US wind power capacity factor by ~2.5% and explains half the increase in the US wind capacity factor since 2010.”

Now that we have some data to support the theory that both terrestrial and oceanic processes affect wind speeds and to what extent, the authors propose building models to predict wind speeds in advance and engineer wind turbines accordingly to maximise power generation.

This seems like a silver lining but it isn’t.

Global heating does seem to be influencing wind speeds. To quote from the paper again: “The ocean-atmosphere oscillations, characterised as the decadal variations in [mainly three climate indices] can therefore explain the decadal variation in wind speed (that is, the long-term stilling and the recent reversal).” This in turn empowers wind turbines to produce more energy and correspondingly lowers demand from non-renewable sources.

DOI: 10.1038/s41558-019-0622-6

However, three of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions are concrete, plastics and steel manufacturing – and all three materials are required in not insubstantial quantities to build a wind turbine. So far from being a happy outcome of global heating, the increase in average regional wind speed – which the authors say could last for up to a decade – could drive the construction of more or, significantly, different turbines which in turn causes more greenhouses gases to be released into the atmosphere.

Finally, while the authors estimate the “global mean annual wind speed” increased from 3.13 m/s in 2010 to 3.3 m/s in 2017, the increase in the amount of energy entering a wind turbine is distributed unevenly by location: “22 ± 2% for North America, 22 ± 4% for Europe and 11 ± 4% for Asia”. Assuming these calculations are reliable, the figures suggest industrialised nations have a stronger incentive to capitalise on the newfound stilling reversal (from the same paper: “We find that the capacity factor for wind generation in the US is highly and significantly correlated with the variation in the cube of regional-average wind speed”).

On the other hand Asia, which still has a weaker incentive, will continue to bear a disproportionate brunt of the climate crisis. To quote from an article published in The Wire Science today,

… as it happens, the idea that ‘green technology’ can help save the environment is dangerous because it glosses over the alternatives’ ills. In a bid to reduce the extraction of hydrocarbons for fuel as well as to manufacture components for more efficient electronic and mechanical systems, industrialists around the world have been extracting a wide array of minerals and metals, destroying entire ecosystems and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. It’s as if one injustice has replaced another.

Godwin Vasanth Bosco, The Wire Science, December 2, 2019