Summertime and AC

I heard a discussion the other day on NPR on a new book by science writer Stan Cox,”Losing Our Cool”, which deals with our current addiction to air conditioning.   Just a few days before, I had heard a news story reporting a local family’s ire at having been without AC for a few days and threatening to sue the manufacturer.  At the time I was more than amused, I was struck by how soft and spoiled that sounded.  Didn’t they even realize how ridiculous they were?  Unfortunately, probably not.   

Growing up in Atlanta in the 60s was hot and steamy, but that was the norm.  There was some AC, but when I visited my father in his office in the William Oliver Building downtown, the windows were all open and fans kept the secretaries cool.  I’m sure that wasn’t ideal for anybody.  We were past the days already when the fathers in Atlanta used to go home after lunch for a cool nap in the heat of the day, then return to the office til 6 or 7 on summer evenings.  Atlanta was already becoming a busy city.  My father wore a seersucker suit,  and I remember him commenting on being pretty “damp” when he got home.   But it was just life, along with the ding of typewriters and the clunk of the elevator down the hall.  

There’s no doubt it was hot, and we were bothered.  As the youngest of 8 kids, I was at the mercy of brothers and sisters to take me to the soda fountain up the street or down to the neighborhood pool.  We warded off the heat with cold Cokes, ice cream bars, and searching out cool concrete or stones to lie on in the shade.  I remember my clothes moldering in the drawers sometimes, and how my shirt would stick to me when I was out playing in the woods, and the sound of the attic fan droning on at night (which I imagined was muffling  all kinds of wild animal and monster noises as they crept into our house).  I’d fall asleep listening to the bugs hit the screens at night and watching the lightning bugs, which lit up the night back then.   When we first got a window unit in the “new room”  — an addition like a family room — we kids would run in and line up in front of it and just not even speak.  It felt like heaven. 

But we have gone past the use of AC to stave off the swelter, to overcooling our interiors to not only the detriment of our health but also our environment.  I went camping in June for 4 days in Manchester, Tennessee (with about 90,000 friends – Bonnaroo – but that’s a different story) and it was, honestly, hot as bloody hell.  Over 100 heat index every day, and I was pretty sweaty and gross, as were all other said 90,000 people.  We all learned to drink tons of water, stand like cows under available trees or in other shade, dress minimally, and enjoy the breezes that came.  The evenings were wonderful, as I felt the wind growing cooler as the shadows gathered.  The air was soft and gentle.  It felt real. 

On my way back at 3 AM, I stopped into a 7-11 for a Coke, and I felt like I’d stepped into a meat locker.  It was so freezing!  As I shivered, I asked the cashier if she wasn’t frozen with the AC on so high, and she looked at me like I was crazy.  It didn’t occur to me until I was back on the road that my body had simply acclimated to normal summer heat over that 4 days. 

As a review of Stan Cox’s book explains, “the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price. We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often — and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global  warming.”   We spend as much electricity in the US for air conditioning to supply the entire continent of Africa with power for a year.  We have to get smarter about energy.  It’s one thing to buy CFLs and plug insulation gaps in our houses, but we have to also change our mindsets.  Although AC has gotten much more efficient over the past 20 years, it has also become more prevalent. 

It’s not just that Georgia Power is burning coal (mined in horrible fashion from the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky) and producing climate-changing carbon emissions in the dirtiest power plants in the country.  All that does mean a lot to me, and I cry when I see the videos of the coal companies blowing up the mountains, fouling the creeks and ruining forever both  human history and wildlife habitat.  The first 6 months of this year are now officially the hottest on record.  The poles are losing their ice, the glaciers are melting, polar bears are drowning — all of which also makes me cry.   

But it’s not just that.  It’s also that we are drowning.  The money we send to the power companies for AC is our time, and at 52, I can feel time’s winged chariot hurrying by, big time.   If I had half the power bill, could I take more time off?  Or could I then afford a week at the beach or another week camping?  When I think about it that way, it becomes a more imperative question.  

And even beyond that, what I’m coming to understand now is that less perceptible change in my connection to my surroundings, which realization came crashing down on me in that 7-11 at 3 AM.  I live in Atlanta because I love the place. I love the land, the river, the people, the food, the birds, the fact that I live 15 minutes from downtown but I have 60 foot pines towering over my back yard.  And while I would fight anybody that purported to separate me from those things I love, I’m just now seeing that I have myself inserted this artificial separation between myself and my place.   Its name is AC.  And I have to figure out how to change this.  

In the words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”


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