Monday, July 9, 2007

Air conditioned comfort cuts you off from the world

Air Head is an interesting article contrasting different responses to air conditioning, and one persons struggles with moral issues on energy use and modern comfort. The writer lives in New York, and received an offer from his in-laws (who live in Texas) for the money to buy an air conditioner. His response? He doesn't want it, even if it's free.

There's the moral type issue, namely air conditioners are a large energy cost which directly contributes to global warming. But, he says, that wasn't the real reason he's turning it down, the real reason is much more personal.

As he puts it: I grew up on the shores of Connecticut. To me, summer has always been a time of heat, the sun baking the paint on the bottom of old wood dinghies, small waves breaking, blackberry ice cream dripping down your forearm, and some lucky kid five years your senior fooling around with a kit-built remote control car.

In other words, living with heat is part of living. It's part of the cycle of life, it's one of the seasons of the year, and our bodies evolved over kerjillions of years to be able to handle this climactic condition.

And then, extrapolating on the idea, he goes on to say: Shutting out summer with an air conditioner is like ripping the second hand off life's mortal clock. .... hmm ...

I think this is a widespread part of modern society, this separation from nature. Modern cities have very little naturalness to them, and the mainstream media presents the gleaming metropolis as if it were the absolutest of sheer beauty, and marvelous beyond dreams. But, I ask you, where are the trees, the birds, snakes, field mice, and more? The typical city has none of these things, but aren't they part of natural life?

Air conditioning is an insidious comfort. You turn it on, and suddenly you don't want to leave it, and you begin to believe life is impossible without it. That idea traps you within the bubbles of air conditioning, keeping you from enjoying the natural world. And, yes, I'm speaking from personal experience of spending lots of time in air conditioned buildings.

There's one idea in this guys article I strongly disagree with. Living in Texas without air conditioning is probably impossible. Anyone who grew up there grew up with air conditioning, as sure as they grew up with refrigerators and other modern conveniences. In Texas, you grow up with AC the way you grow up with religion.

While I don't doubt that Texas has zillions of air conditioners, and that modern Texans probably feel that way about these gizmos, this is hardly the traditional way of life in Texas with hundreds of years behind it. Air conditioning is probably less than 100 years old, meaning this particular gizmo is barely an infant in terms of human history. Humans have been dealing with the heat for millenia, and we modern humans are ignoring the wisdom of those millenia of our ancestors, wisdom we could be using to avoid the global warming crisis.

In Texas I'm sure the ancestors used adobe or similar building techniques. While a modern person might not want to live in a plaster house, the main attribute of adobe is extreme insulation. There are many ways to achieve extreme insulation, and modern materials techniques have made it so we can get glass windows with any insulation factor you desire. It's possible to build a house, using modern techniques, with the same insulating capability of an adobe house, and with as many windows as you want.

Adobe buildings stay cool inside, even during the heat of the day. Without air conditioning.

Why aren't we doing that? Why are we ignoring the wisdom our ancestors brought us?