Just a little over a week ago, for the first time in over 35 years, I turned on an air conditioner in my home.
I have lived in lots of different places since I moved west in 1979, and one thing all my homes had in common was no air conditioning. Then about ten days ago my landlord came by this house and showed me something. Behind some shuttered panels—an air conditioner! WOO HOO!
Having spent my teens in Florida, I normally do fine with heat. But several 90-degree-plus days had turned my Portland home into a sauna. I could scarcely think straight enough to work. A little air conditioning gave me my life back.
Then one day last week I decided to go to a beach. And the thought occurred to me: How nice it would be to arrive home later to, say, 73 degrees as opposed to 86. So I left the a/c on. I spent hours away from home, while that little guy was tooling away.
I don’t feel guilty. But it was wrong and I won’t do it again.
At the time—that is, when I set out from my house for the beach—I was thinking of the literary event I had attended the previous night at the Old Church in southwest Portland, and the three HUGE air conditioning units jutting out from the back of the building, which kept the spacious chapel cool. I was also thinking of the guy I’d chatted with after the event who told me about his old two-story home in Southern CA, thinking of the way he chuckled as he recalled that when he turned on his air conditioners (yes, plural) in that house “the neighborhood would go dark.” I also had in mind how all the grocery stores and restaurants in town feel positively arctic when you walk into them, despite the heat. (I think that’s known as “convention weather”—overly robust a/c). And I was thinking about how infinitesimally miniscule an impact my little home consumption would make in the scheme of things.
But as I was driving to the beach, my error became clear. Multiply this “miniscule” impact by hundreds of millions of individuals who feel similarly entitled to maximum comfort and convenience and we get early planet death (or maybe just early human species death).
Conservation. Sacrifice. Why are these words so absent from the cultural conversation these days when we talk about climate change?
Most people I know make it a point to vote in elections. They say, It’s not much, but it’s the only vote we have. It’s important to participate in the democratic process.
So why don’t we feel similarly about conservation? That too is a vote (just like how we spend our money is a vote).
I’m still addicted to my convenience. I still will use my a/c if I need it to be comfortable and fully functional in my home, and when the electric fans are simply helpless against the heat wave onslaught. But I will never again leave the a/c on when I’m gone. I’ll sweat a little sometimes, when I first get home. This is really not much of a sacrifice.
Am I setting a reasonable standard of allowable convenience for myself? It’s actually probably still not sustainable on a mass scale. But I guess everybody has to decide for themselves what’s reasonable (so long as the structures-that-be still afford us that prerogative, which in and of itself is a shocking first-world privilege when you think about it).
It feels obscenely luxurious even to be given such a choice, yet I wonder: how many more years of planetary health could we conceivably buy if we simply relinquished maximum convenience?
I feel certain of this much: If we don’t do this (especially those of us who identify as “liberal” and/or “environmentally conscious”), then we do not show the politicians that we’re serious about climate change. It’s one thing to “support” stricter emissions standards for industrial polluters or to “favor” renewable sources of energy. It takes no effort to have a “position.”
But if enough people – a critical mass of people – started sending the message through their actions (i.e. markedly reduced energy consumption) that we feel the urgency of mitigating climate change, how powerful could that possibly be? Might “the great gray they” – the politicians, the leaders of industry – be compelled to respond with similar urgency?
“But it’s them, they say
The great gray ‘They’
But who are they
But us and me
And you too?”