It was 97°F in Boston this week, and we didn’t turn on the air conditioner. Or fans.
That’s because we’re not home. We have vacated the heat of the city. Where we are, it’s a little chilly at night. We have the ultimate luxury. It’s not a central air system. It’s not a super-insulated house. It’s a very small, spartan cottage, on the water of Penobscot Bay in down-east Maine, which I share with my sisters.
My mom, who is in her 80’s lives here in Deer Isle, Maine, year-round, and visited tonight. She was born in Baltimore, and as we discussed the heat wave along the East Cost (consistent with the predictions of climate change), we asked how people managed to tolerate the heat in Maryland in the 1930’s. She said that her rich friends all got out of town and headed for the ocean. She said she grew to hate places like Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Maine where her friends went — she was stuck in Baltimore. She spent her summer afternoons reading quietly, under a shade tree. Perhaps it’s not ironic that she moved here with my dad in the mid-1970’s.
In the 1930’s, only the wealthy were able to travel to cooler climates. My grandfather on my Dad’s side was an English professor at universities in Ohio and Indiana, and it was my grandmother’s family who had found a small island in Maine to go to when the weather became unbearable in the mid-west. The stories of their epic travels, by carriage, train, and eventually by a ferry from Rockport (before they built a bridge) were astonishing. But then again, they came when school was out, for the whole summer.
Even as a child in the 1960’s, the trip from Connecticut by car — down to 10 hours or so once the Interstate system was finished, seemed epic. But we stayed for a month.
My grandfather and mother stayed for the whole summer. My parents came for August. Until recently, my family came for a week, or perhaps two.
I wonder if my children will have the chance to come at all?
The only noise our air conditioning makes is the waves of the frigid Maine ocean water breaking on the beach.
Before we left our Boston home, things were beginning to swelter. We have girded our house in many (if not all) of the ways possible from the elements of winter and summer. Yet my office, designed as a sun room, is not surprisingly, quite hot on a bright day, despite air sealing, insulation on all sides, double insulated glass, awnings, fans, and the like. It’s fine, but it’s not “chilly”.
Having been here a week, and with several more to come (thanks … I guess … to a solid DSL line and WiFi so I can work) I can live for a while in the comfort of the oceanfront. The mountains are good, too.
But of course the majority of folks in our every larger world haven’t such a great and incredible luxury. We had a visit to Europe in July last year, and were pleased to see that few had turned to air-conditioning, and instead lived in houses and apartments sensibly designed for the conditions — stone, shaded, small, and designed for cross breezes. And yes, fans. Rich and poor alike have eschewed air conditioners … and Paris, at least, is not a cool city.
But still, most people don’t live in Paris. Most of us in the US live in places that are downright inhospitable during one part or other of the year.
Why? Indeed, we’re flocking to places like Phoenix. Does this make sense?
Why have we created huge population centers in places that are intolerable for much of the year? Why have they grown and flourished?
Because of heating and air conditioning. And mostly the latter.
Heating is easy: build a fire, whether by wood, coal, gas or oil, we can keep warm just by burning stuff.
The physics of cooling is far more sophisticated. Actually, cooling is just a form of heating, taking the heat out of one part and moving to another (with a good deal of energy required to perform the heat transfer miracle). Other than ice, stored from rivers frozen in winter, there wasn’t cold stuff above ground until air conditioning started proliferating in the 1950’s. And below ground was a little cooler, but pretty moist.
But the cool basement, or an ice house — these are things of the past.
Now, in the cities, towns, houses, and pretty much everywhere, even here in Maine, people are able to easily buy, install and turn on air conditioners, or central air systems to keep their whole house dry and comfortable even when it’s 100°F outside. Just plug ’em in. Our cars, offices, restaurants, movie houses, and even back-yard patios are air-conditioned.
We sit on our patio in the cool evenings in Boston, where temperatures sometimes fall into the 70’s and listen to the sounds of the central air compressors running, even though there’s cool air to be had just on the other side of that window, if only it would open.
As a boy in Connecticut in the 1960’s, I remember the day when my Dad brought home a window air conditioner. On the hottest days, I would be allowed to sleep in my parents’ room, where it was installed. It was heaven — almost as good as Deer Isle (except noisy as hell). On days other than the hottest days, it didn’t run — it was far too expensive.
This shift to full-time conditioned space is a stunning development, happening wholesale, in the last 50 years or less. Even many of the least well-off folks in the US probably have some air conditioner. Just as they have heat, computer, TV and a car — things not in existence 100 year ago are now a simple necessity.
It occurs to me that air conditioning (and heating, which happened earlier, since it was easier) has allowed us to live in places not fit for the kind of busy lives we need to live to be productive American consumers.
And what has enabled this? Mostly the ready, accessibility of energy, with a few good dashes of enabling technology, and our increasing intolerance or ability to handle discomfort.
It may be true that we can generate sufficient renewable energy to maintain this rather bizarre and energy intensive lifestyle — one devoid of vacations to the sea, or mountains — one requiring work for all but a week or two of the year. We certainly have plenty of solar and wind, in the long run to power our heating and cooling needs, and we have the technology to make our dwellings and vehicles more efficient and climate controlled. I think it’s good that this is true.
But as I listen to the high tide hit the beach outside, and realize that I am a little chilly, I wonder — isn’t a trip to another place, even if costly in terms of time, travel, alternate spaces, and so on — isn’t it something we need to think about building into our complex modern lives?
Is it easy to say for me? Yes, of course. My sisters and I inherited a beachfront cottage in Maine — a behest not coming to the vast majority of the country or world.
But it makes me think: is there something we have forgotten in our lives? Is home something we cannot leave but for a week or two? Even if we had unlimited energy and super-efficient houses, there’s something else that getting away does for your view of the world.
Has the cheap energy of oil, coal, and gas, and the technology that has built around it changed our way of life to a point where whatever comes next is something that is different, but maybe not better? Could a look at our past give us an idea of what might be better?