Sunday, July 30, 2006

Summertime and the Livin' is Easy

Maybe for we who have access to a cottage rental for a week at the lake. Or the truly happy who have a cottage at the lake on a permanent basis, the livin' is easy.

Not so much for those who have to swelter in Canada's summer cities. At least those who don't have air conditioning.

I believe that air conditioning will be the ultimate downfall of society. Cold, people have manage to deal with for eons. You just pile on more layers of clothing and keep active and Bob's yer uncle, the benefits of the Nordic culture and temperate zone living start to accrue - new ways to keep warm electro-efficiently and to be comfortable, out-of-doors, even on the coldest of days. The ability to cope with the hottest of climatic variations by reducing the environmental temperature to semi-winter norms is a curse, in disguise.

Hot weather, like extremely cold weather, acted, in times past, as a form of population control. The elderly, and others with disablities, sometimes could not cope in these conditions - systems were stressed to the point that they died. Such seems to have been the case in a spate of deaths during California's recent heat wave. And so it was in most places with extremes of temperature.

Air conditioning has put an end to much of the effect of really hot weather. Homes and most public areas are now A/C equipped. I wouldn't be surprised if, for instance, in Canada the cost of A/C cooling during the warm months is well in excess of the cost for winter heating. Surely our southern neighbour, the home of 'frosti-freez', has had this experience for decades. Canada is a recent new-comer to the air-conditioned environment. Until fairly recently, the idea of open windows and fans were the only source of relief for heat-toasted canucks. Even to-day, most cottage-goers abjure the use of the AC system and open the windows to ventilate naturally. Modern cotteges excepted of course: 'cooling centres'like malls and public buildings in major cities have put paid to the cinema as a summer relief. Of course new city homes have A/C environmental systems as a standard feature and modern 'cottages' have followed suit. Living the city life at the lake has only extended the reliance on electric power for cooling.

There are two deleterious effects of the A/C revolution. First there is the obvious cost in fuel usage and the concommittent environmental deterioration that entails. Smog-laden air gains insulating qualities and adds to summer 'heat'. Summer electricity usage requires increased generation capacity - most of which uses fossil fuels and costs for this are skyrocketting. The second effect is more subtle , but no less dangerous. Exposure to a stressor has a hardening effect. Is it possible that our progenitors were able to 'stand' the heat better than we are? When one looks at photographs of clothing styles alone, one has to wonder if they were crazy, or if their 'heat waves' weren't 15 or 20 degrees colder than ours. The answer for both questions is 'no' - they weren't nuts and it was warm. They just coped better.

Could you imagine the results of a collapse of the electrical system during a bout of hot weather? Most buildings designed to run with integral A/C sytems, aren't designed to utilize ventilation for cooling - most are sealed systems and would quickly assume the qualities of a slow cooker. At the same time, many of our buildings aren't equipped to operate without A/C. We're not equipped to operate without A/C! From clothing to cooking, our activities and how we do them are not oriented toward natural heat, or its extemes. An un-cooled heat wave would result in a myriad of casualties in our towns and cities, as a population unused to such extremes would try to cope, while trying to live the same way.

The dependence on A/C is not going away, it's just that with each year of growing demand the ability to match it remains fairly static. At the same time the technology of A/C is not improving from an energy efficiency point of view and the lifestyle is becoming more and more common to people who have never felt the full effect of protracted heat, and wouldn't have clue one about how to handle it.

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