Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Cool Expectations
distributed 6/9/06 - ©2006

Spring has sprung, fall has fell, summer's here, and it's hotter than usual.

The old ditty rings true in Denver this month. We've been setting a string of records recently -- daytime highs, maximum lows (meaning it doesn't cool off well at night), and a remarkable number of above-90 degree days for so early in the season. It is hot.

Global warming? We can't say for sure, but it matches the expected pattern. Or, it may just be the sort of hot spell that comes along as part of the normal variation of weather.

In the face of this heat wave, and in the expectation of a warmer world in years to come, my thoughts turn to air conditioning, and to some social-psychological implications.

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The church which provides office space for Eco-Justice Ministries is not air conditioned. When it was built (1920, and an addition in 1957) A/C wasn't an option. Generally, in Denver, it is still cool enough and dry enough on Sunday morning that worship time isn't a problem. For an afternoon wedding or funeral in the summer, though, the word goes out that suit coats should be left at home.

The church does have window air conditioners installed in the offices of the pastor and the administrative assistant -- two small oases of cool in an otherwise warm building. A kind soul donated a similar unit for my office, but I haven't installed it yet for this year.

There are days when I crave the gentle wash of refrigerated air as I go about my holy labors, but I've been holding off on the installation of that little box in the window. After all, I am supposed to be a highly committed environmentalist, and that relatively small air conditioner still will consume prodigious amounts of electricity to chill my office. That, in turn, will cause our electric utility to spew more carbon dioxide and a host of other pollutants into the atmosphere. That's a feedback cycle at work. Climate change brings hotter weather, so we use our air conditioners more, which accelerates climate change.

Those ethical concerns are part of the reason why the air conditioner still sits in its box in the storage shed. (Putting the thing in is a complex and time-consuming operation, too.) On some days, my office -- with its big, bright, East-facing windows -- is already 82 degrees when I arrive in the morning. By judicious use of shades, a variety of fans, and the timing of open windows, I can usually hold the afternoon temps below 88. Obviously, I can live with that, or I would have found the time to install the A/C.

What has been intriguing for me -- when the conversation turns to weather, and I mention my warm office -- is how many people think that I'm being subjected to intolerable conditions by having to work in an 85 degree office. They seem shocked, even horrified, that I have to endure such hardship.

The assumption of our society is that we can and should live our lives with substantial separation from the natural world. Homes, offices and cars should never stray far from a comfortable 70 degrees. The pacing of our lives shouldn't have to adjust to the seasons.

It used to be, of course, that life slowed down in the summer in areas with high heat and humidity. An afternoon siesta or a cool drink in the shade were survival strategies. Hot days might entice folk to the cool basement, or to a sleeping porch. The lake, or a pool, or a sprinkler, or an open fire hydrant -- places with water and a breeze offered refuge.

But now, those accommodations to the weather seem primitive to many of the folk I meet -- or perhaps they are seen as indicators of poverty to be shunned by those who can afford to be comfortable. They're certainly not seen as reasonable and attractive options.

As one who seeks a world that is ecologically sustainable, and a society which works with nature instead of against it, I'm concerned about the social values that I hear from my friends and in the media. I'm concerned that discomfort, or a little bit of sweat, are considered insufferable. Such values and expectations are contrary to the steps we need to take if we are going to live more gently and more profoundly with the earth.

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There's a luxury in writing these words from an office in Denver, Colorado. Our high altitude and low humidity do make a non-refrigerated life plausible for almost everyone.

But I grew up in hot and humid Omaha, Nebraska, and I despised the oppressive heat. My parish ministry began in rural Iowa, with a non-air conditioned parsonage. Sweat-soaked nights when I felt that I couldn't breathe helped to motivate our move to Colorado. My experiences of discomfort are trivial, though. Three years ago, the heat wave in France killed many thousands who were unable to find relief in their urban apartments. So, too, recent heat waves have taken the lives of hundreds of tenement dwellers in Chicago and New York. "A little discomfort" is a major understatement.

And it is not just a matter of our getting soft, or forgetting the tricks for dealing with hot weather. The advent of wide-spread air conditioning 50 years ago has transformed our entire society. The population explosion of the US "sun belt" is directly attributable to air conditioning. People would not, could not, live in Phoenix or Las Vegas without it. The urban and suburban lifestyles of Florida and Texas would be unimaginable. So, too, the high-rise office buildings and the enclosed shopping malls that define our experience depend on climate control.

There's just no way that we can switch off the air conditioning -- no matter how enormous the energy savings. The fact that air conditioning is a relatively new invention doesn't change its survival value. We wouldn't ask people in Alaska to go without heat, and we shouldn't expect folk in Alabama to endure without air conditioning.

But we can ask questions about how those climate controls are used. It is stupid for winter heat to be set at 75, and the summer cool at 65 -- but that does happen all too often. It is foolish to have some of the fastest population growth in the US happening in places which require astronomical air conditioning.

If we're going to move toward a sustainable society, we need to reduce the energy demands for highly-controlled climates. Some of that will come through more efficient technology, and some from putting people in more reasonable places. And some of it will come from moderate accommodation to the seasons -- being a bit chilly in the winter, and a bit warm in the summer. We need to remember how to slow down and sit in the shade.

We have the technology to avoid life-threatening heat and cold, and that is a gift. But it is also a gift to experience the seasons, to find permission for a slowed-down summer, and to be responsible in our use of energy.

Maybe I won't get around to installing the air conditioner at all this summer, and see that as a spiritual discipline. How will you experience the seasons this year?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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