Eco House Challenge
I’ve been watching the reality-TV show on SBS called Eco House Challenge because it looked interesting from the previews, and I thought I might learn something about sustainability. Given that it airs on SBS and is made by Prospero Productions —a company responsible for a number of respected documentaries—I was quite optimistic about it. Oh dear, how wrong can you get!
It’s nothing more than a cheesy reality show with all the green credibility of Big Brother. The premise is simple: two families compete to see who can reduce their dependence on four environment “hotspots”: energy, water, transport, and waste disposal. On the way they are supported by an expert who provides advice on consumption and energy saving technologies. The show starts with the four areas removed—power and water turned off; the car and the wheelie-bin padlocked shut—and the contestants are told they will get them back incrementally as they meet their sustainability targets.
For a start, the heavy hand of sensationalism is very evident: the two families chosen for the challenge have obviously been picked with a view to the conflict that inevitably ensues. Both hailing from the more self-indulgent end of Perth’s affluent suburbs, one family—the Shephards—are cast as the villains. Not since the Donahers has a more dreary, materialistic, and self-satisfied bunch of whingers been on Australian television (well, if you ignore the last six series of Big Brother). The show is clearly edited to emphasize the complaining and squabbling (the father in the Shepherd family cannot possibly as big an arse-hole as he is portrayed), and it fits nearly into the conventional narratives of reality-TV.
But aside from this, the premise is completely flawed: in each challenge the families have to reduce their consumption by a fixed percentage, something like between 20% to 60%. If they don’t save enough, they don’t get the facilities back, but get this—if they save too much, the same thing happens, and they are not told whether they are under or over the target (adds more conflict, you see). It is also the same percentage reduction, despite the fact that the good-humoured Edwards family already run a pretty efficient household, compared to the profligate Shepherds. The lesson is “don’t let the facts get in the way of good television”.
OK, it’s not a documentary on sustainability or even a how-to guide for families wanting to do something about the environment. But it is promoting itself in these terms, and delivering a sympathetic audience to advertisers who want to flog grey-water systems, energy efficient lighting, and so on. The lesson of week three, it seems, was to throw out your still-working, if inefficiently rated, refrigerator and buy a new one (with more efficiency stars, of course). At a fundamental level, this level of consumerism is as bad as the Shepherds’ three TVs and every light in the house left on. This is safe environmentalism for people who don’t want to have change their lifestyles: buy top-end white-goods, install additional technology, leave the four-wheel drive in the garage (but don’t sell it) and buy a Prius.
Being green is essential to the survival of the planet: being seen to be green is essential to the survival of the industries that do the most damage to the planet (qf the Honda Formula One racing team who now paint a green and blue picture of the planet on their V-8, 19,000 RPM, 700 brake horse-powered cars). Eco House Challenge seems like just another attempt to be seen to be doing the right thing, but with no attempt to actually change the structures of consumption that lie beneath.