Monday, August 7, 2006

Air Conditioning: "We're cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that's still habitable"

In The deluded world of air conditioning William Saletan offers a very interesting perspective. "We're cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that's still habitable".

When you air condition a building you're taking heat that's inside the building and moving it outside. That's what an air conditioner is, a heat pump. The fluids that go through an air conditioning system? They're the medium through which heat is exchanged, or rather pumped, from one place to another.

And, when we pump heat outdoors that costs energy. The energy used comes from somewhere, most likely through burning natural gas. So when we run an air conditioner and pump energy outside, that natural gas that's burned to make the electricity emits carbon into the atmosphere, which then in turn increases the greenhouse and global warming effect.

Air conditioners hasten global warming. So it's a fools journey to run an air conditioner because when you do it's just tightening a noose around your neck. Unfortunately the tightening of that noose is happening slowly enough that it's hard to connect the air conditioner with the global warming.

And, it's not just air conditioners. It's the whole range of gadgets that use electricity or gasoline. Want to clean up the fallen leaves in your yard? Are you going to get out a rake, or use a leaf blower? Want to go grocery shopping? Are you going to drive a Hummer or a Geo Metro or a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) or a bicycle? When your teenager turns 16 do they get a car immediately? Do you know what a "phantom electrical load" is?

In this hot summer air conditioning is a, er, hot topic. There are some alternatives to consider. But something I wonder about is, just how the heck did our ancestors survive without air conditioners?

Why do we have to use air conditioners when there are thousands of years of human experience that could show us how to live without air conditioning in the first place?

For example, there are herbal ways to cool down. Ways that do not require refridgeration or air conditioning.

In the Middle East Sekanjabin (?sp?) is a traditional drink. It's main active ingredients are mint and sugar. Both are known to herbalists as cooling substances that, when ingested, will act to cool the body.

How can you prove this to yourself? Let me offer a simple test from Healing with the Herbs of Life. First take a sprig of fresh mint, crush it up, and pop it in your mouth. Doesn't your mouth feel cool? Take a breath in and out. Cool?

Now take some cinnamon, just a dab, and put it in your mouth. Hot?

Mint is a cooling herb, while cinnamon is a heating herb. Healing with the Herbs of Life goes into this in extensive detail from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. But the concepts are known to herbalists of all societies.

Another example of how the thousands of years of human experience can show us how to cool our living quarters without air conditioning. A few years ago I visited some friends who own some land in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was mid-summer, on a hot day. On their land is an old one-room schoolhouse that sits out in the direct sun all day long. However, the inside of that schoolhouse remains cool all day long. How? Thick walls. Similarly in California there are many old buildings left from the Spanish. These are "adobe" buildings and the main feature is the thick walls.

Thick walls mean good insulation. You might think insulation only helps keep heat inside. Actually what insulation does is impede the flow of heat. So the heat outside the building has a harder time getting inside the better the insulation.

Another alternative to air conditioning is offered by the plant kingdom. Plant trees around your house, trees that are large enough to shade the roof. The trees will keep the heat from hitting your house in the first place. If you live in a place that that gets real cold in the winter, then you want trees that shed their leaves in the fall. That way in the winter the branches are bare and the sun will reach your house to provide some heat.

Reference: The Deluded World of Air Conditioning