In the first balmy days of spring, everything about the coming seasons feels possible.
We’re going to grow our own vegetables!
We’re going to eat healthy meals!
I’m going to love the sun!
You see, although I do love the sun (food! warmth! flowers!), I am a fickle mistress to that ball of gas. Love it until it burns hotter than about 83 degrees. After that, my affections cool rapidly. When it hits 90, the romance is more than over.
I attribute this to being a northwest native. An older northwest native (grown and raised before the weather changes we are seeing courtesy of climate change) and a norther northwest native. Growing up in Seattle in the 70s and 80s, I rarely experienced temps above 85. In my memory, that was pretty sweltering and rare. Compare to our current summer in Portland/Gresham: In July and August we’ve had 33 days at 84+–and 13 of those were 90 or above.
I’ve shared before what a streak of hot weather can do to me:
A particular source of displeasure in hot weather is our kitchen. It is located in the upper level of our split-entry, and it has two large windows that face the west. By late afternoon, prime dinner-cooking time, it feels so much like an oven that turning ours on is pretty much a no-go.
For the past three summers in our house, hot weather has meant a strict regimen of open/closing windows and doors (and nagging the kids to follow said regimen and getting frustrated when they don’t) and prepping no-/little-cook dinners in the mornings before it gets too warm. This is challenging when your kids are the pickiest eaters on the planet, none of whom are fond of dishes with foods that touch. That eliminates pretty much any form of salad.
As summer approached this year, we knew we needed to do something about the window coverings in the kitchen before the heat hit us. When we painted in the fall, we removed the mini-blinds that we both hated, and then left the windows bare while we tried to figure out what to put on them.
We dithered around all winter, looking at various window covering options and deciding upon none of them. They are expensive, and none were really what we wanted. Because, we didn’t know what we wanted.
Then the first days of really warm weather came in the spring and we knew we needed something, fast. We decided that the we’d go ahead and put on the large window the same blinds we’d put in the living room and dining room/library.
Unfortunately, those wouldn’t work for our short window over the sink. Fully raised, the blind would cover about half the window. We didn’t want that. We love the light during the cooler months.
So I decided to make curtains for that window.
Not just any old curtains, mind you. I was going to make the mother of all heat-beating curtains. I was not going to be defeated by the sun! I decided to line the curtains with a heavy insulting fabric so that they’d keep the heat out in the summer and in during the winter.
I will spare you a full play-by-play on our curtain drauma. 3 different rods before we found one that worked. (A tension rod isn’t good for a heavy curtain you want to open and close often.) Because of the rod problem, re-sewing.
After a good 2 months of
screwing around with working on them, they were finally done and hung. And I hated them.
They looked awful. The fabric I chose was too stiff, and the lining made them more so. I miscalculated on the width (I’m a measure once, cut twice kinda person), so they didn’t fully close.
But their crappy looks weren’t the worst part. The worst part was that our attempts to cool the room didn’t work. Despite the shade and the curtains and the ceiling fan we installed in the spring, the kitchen was still (for me) pretty much unbearable once we had two days in a row past 85.
In early July, I was feeling a little panicky about the coming weeks of high heat. So, Cane did something he never does. I came home one day to this:
No talking, no nothing. A window AC unit. I protested a bit, about cost.
“For the cost of two nights at the coast, we have something that will make our house inhabitable all summer,” he said.
And then I didn’t protest any more. Because it was such glorious relief for me. It wasn’t until the worst of the summer heat passed that I let myself think about the larger environmental implications of our choice.
It took me awhile to figure out what the environmental cost of air-conditioning is. I’ve linked to the most helpful sources I consulted at the end of this post, but the bottom line seems to be this:
1987’s Montreal Protocol treaty has mostly eliminated the use of gasses (CFCs) in air conditioners that were contributing to destruction of the ozone. While newer gasses (HCFCs) cause much less damage (and are now banned in the US), the rapidly increasing demand for air conditioners in such countries as India and China (where HCFCs haven’t been banned) are still causing depletion of the ozone. More importantly, the increased use of air-conditioners is increasing the demand for energy, and it is our energy demands–and what we do to satisfy them–that are increasing the temperature of the planet. So, AC units are not destroying the ozone at the same rate they once were, but the raising temperature of the planet is contributing to climate change–which is destroying the planet as we’ve all known it.
There’s a huge collision coming at us on this issue. The more energy we use, the more we fuel climate change. The more we fuel climate change, the more energy we will use to keep ourselves cool in summer (and warm in the winter).
In my own personal world, I see the dilemma playing out like this: I get to choose between my mental/physical health and the ability to feed my family nutritious and affordable meals (because, let’s get real; when we can’t cook, we’re often eating take-out) and destroying the planet.
It’s easy to say that I should choose no AC at all. I should suck it up and figure out how to prepare food that doesn’t need cooking and endure the heat and minor mental imbalance it brings. Short-term discomfort vs. long-term survival, right?
It would be easier yet to say that those who should really make the no-AC choice are all the people in India and China who are largely responsible for the increased use of window air-conditioning units. It wouldn’t be hard at all to argue that something needs to be done about the use of them in those other countries because that’s what’s really causing the problem.
But here’s the important thing this situation has helped me see: When our basic needs are being met, it is easier to think about such hard choices and assume we’d take the high, greater-good road–or that others should do so. It’s really hard to do that, though, when our needs aren’t being met.
When I don’t have AC, my basic needs aren’t being met. No, I’m not dying from the heat we have here. But it can make me sick and it becomes difficult to feed my family and I am definitely not my usual self mentally and emotionally when we have long periods of high heat. And when I’m feeling frustrated and panicky about the heat, I don’t want you to tell me that I shouldn’t have AC or that I’m destroying the planet if I do.
I’ve lost count of how many times over this summer of seemingly-endless bad news I’ve thought, Why can’t people just get along with each other? Why so much strife and violence and destruction? Why is everything between us humans so hard?
The complex problems plaguing our world lately have long, deep histories and no simple solutions. But seeing how much I can lose my usual perspective just from the prospect of living with uncomfortable heat and the inconveniences that come with it, I can begin to imagine what it might do to me if I lived in constant fear of violence or hunger or homelessness. And I begin to understand why the higher road can be so tough to take and how angry I might become if others insist I take it when they themselves aren’t making the same journey.
So I’m just going to come right out with it and admit this: We aren’t taking the high road on this AC question, even though we now know just how damaging our world-wide use of air conditioning is. We’re compromising and taking a middle one.
We have just one window unit, not whole-house AC. (Our bedrooms are still uncomfortably warm through many summer nights.) We only use it in the afternoons and early evenings, on days when the temps are in the mid-80s or above. We run it longer than that only when we’re in a streak of 90+ days, because then the house never really cools off at night.
We still keep our window opening/closing regimen and keep the windows covered on warm days even though I hate shutting out the summer light. That way we can run the AC on low instead of high.
And–more steps on the middle road–I let myself get rid of the not-right insulated curtains.
I made myself live with them for several weeks after we got the AC unit–some weird kind of penance for doing them so badly and for my solution not working at all, and, on some deeper level I wasn’t fully conscious of, for caving and getting AC when I know that’s not the green thing to do.
But then I gave up on that, too, and made some new ones. Rather than going with a heavy, heat- and light-blocking fabric, I chose a light cotton in a kitschy print that uses all the colors in our Not Ready for Prime Time kitchen (emerald green, grey, brown, beige, white–not an easy fabric to find).
Kitschy seemed the right note to strike, especially since we won’t be doing anything to renovate this kinda funky but perfectly functional and comfortable room for a long time.
Maybe these compromises are selfish and I will regret them later, but they feel like the best I can do right now. I’m guessing that in a different stage of life, I could make different choices. I hope that others, who are in a better position right now to give more on this issue, might give more. And I hope that I can keep from judging those who give less, trusting that perhaps they, too, are doing the best they can with what they have.
Seems to me that if all of us (me included) could do that more often, about all kinds of things, the planet would be a healthier and more peaceful place.
How about you?
Are you feeling the heat in different ways than you used to? How do you manage it? And what you think about energy use and how we can minimize it while still meeting our needs? We love to hear from you. As some have noted, we have such smart and thoughtful readers–we love it when you share your opinions and ideas here.
If you’d like to learn more about the environmental issues connected to air-conditioning, you can start here: