Monday, July 2, 2012

Have we artificially created the heat crisis?

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Have we artificially created the heat crisis?

When I was young, we didn't have air conditioning. So when the power went out, it wasn't about being hot. We were always hot in the muggy summers and the temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees.

What we did experience was boredom. No electricity meant no TV. No fans. No lights at night. No alarm clocks to wake us up when it was Sunday and we had to go to work on Mondays. We didn't use electric shavers, so dad could still get ready for work.

We didn't have all the computers and technology that requires electricity. We sat around with candles, talked. Walked outside and chatted with our neighbors. In Chicago, homes were closer together so there were more families on one block and we would socialize. The suburbs spread us out more but even then, we would come out and say hello. even though we didn't have a stoop to cluster around.

Nowadays, things are different. And I wonder, have we been spoiled by all that we have and take for granted?

Central Air conditioning is like a mandate in homes. In the old days as a child and even a teenager and young adult, we didn't have central air. We had fans. Small fans and tall fans that we put in the hallways, or entrances to our rooms. We circulated the air. We didn't open the iceboxes -- well, refrigerators -- I still call them ice boxes. We had one when I was very young, a box with a large ice block in it delivered every two days or so to chill the meat and the milk.

We didn't have bottled pop in the house. We went out to buy it. And We didn't have bottled water, either. We did drink water from the tap.

If the electricity went out during the day, we turned on the sprinklers and played on the front lawns to cool off. We had small rubber pools with metal rims that formed Square pools. 

And then one day, it just happened. We had little window air conditioners. They cost a lot, about $400. Back in the 1970s, $400 was a lot of money. Maybe the equivalent of $2,000 today. Just to buy one window sized air conditioner that dripped water, usually outside of the house, and hung in your window with the sill pulled down to hold it in place. It drained a lot of electricity, too. We had one room with the air conditioner. Usually mom and dad's room. Then, we bought a second one. And we tried to concentrate the cold, chilled air into one or two rooms.

There were no big news reports about power outages. It just wasn't news. Maybe a big snow storm was, like in 1967 when we had all that snow and the City of Chicago was buried in a foot and a half o white, cold powdered snow. But Walter Cronkite didn't waste time telling us that we couldn't survive the power outages. He told us about the Cold War, though. And Sputnik and the Commies and the threat of war from Khruschev.

That made us more uncomfortable than the muggy, humid air.

Today, when there is a power outage, it's the main story. The media finds someone who can barely make it and now they report on the people who died. They reported abut people who died from the heat in the past but it wasn't as dramatic. 

The advent of air conditioning changed everything. But it just came in with all the other technology that changed everything, too. The cold air felt so great when the temperatures hit 100. Unbelievable. And when the electricity went out, we started to really feel the hot, humid, muggy air. It became very uncomfortable once we experienced air conditioning. Having air conditioning made losing the electricity that much more dramatic. It made it worse. The more we moved into more comfortable lives, the harder it was to experience discomfort.

Air conditioning helped the world change. And power outages have never been the same since.

-- Ray Hanania

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