Heating vs. Cooling: A Tale of Two Power Outages

the justified sinner, Flickr Creative Commons

For some reason, Slate seems to be obsessed with air conditioning. I noticed this because I too am obsessed with air conditioning and my dislike of it.

Yesterday I read “Don’t Sweat It” and more amused than anything. I liked the idea of Brooklyn hipsters being forced to sweat it out in their favorite coffee shops. (Though, I have to say, I avoid NYC in the summer because it is such a sweltering hell hole.) Then, today, I saw another article in this series, this one called, “Is Air Conditioning Bad for You?” — but was also about how your politics influence how you perceive the weather. Slate’s preoccupation with air condition got me thinking about my own aversion to that icy contraption.

Even as a teenager, I often argued with my family about my refusal to use air conditioning. My mom would accuse me of putting the dog’s life at risk–because he slept in my room–and I would tell them I didn’t even want one of those contraptions in my window because it just took away the cross breeze. The cold would make my knees hurt, and it always seemed silly to me to crank the A/C and then have to pull the blankets up to my chin.

Even now I have one window unit in my house. It’s in my bedroom, and I’ve only turned it on three or four times all summer — and I don’t think I’ve ever left it on for more than a few hours. Usually I’ll turn it on to cool my room off a bit before bed during heatwaves. Otherwise, I prefer open windows and fans.

But there were,  in my opinion, some very obvious points lacking from the “Don’t Sweat It” article. Daniel Engber wrote:

“A certain class of Americans—let’s call them the brrr-geoisie—has come to see the air conditioner as a stand-in for everything that’s wrong with the country and the world…But for the brrr-geoisie, the two extremes of temperature reside in different moral categories. If one end of the thermostat corresponds to a basic human need—for warmth on a winter night—the other reveals a shameful self-indulgence. Heat is good, cool is evil. What’s behind this double standard? Why can’t we learn to stop worrying and love the air conditioner?” 

The obvious point to be made here is that heat actually does represent the difference between life and death. While air conditioning — for the average, healthy person — only represents comfort. Cavemen built fires…they did not build air conditioners.

Back on Halloween 2011, a freak storm knocked out the power to my neighborhood for a week. But earlier that year, we’d lost power during Hurricane Irene as well. Neither of those experiences was fun. But I can tell you, I’d rather lose my power than in the winter any day.

During the Irene-outage there was a whole lot of carrying around flashlights and reading/playing dominoes by lantern light. It was like camping without the bugs. Keeping the food from spoiling was a pretty big concern, but the air conditioner was not.

Losing power at the beginning of November was completely different. When I’d pop into my house to check on my cats, or grab some clothes, I’d have to walk around in my parka, or climb under my down comforter… and I still wasn’t warm. And it was only in the 40s! Had I been without heat in January when it’s below freezing…

I don’t even want to think about it.

As it was, I went and stayed with a friend who was also without power but who had a fireplace. Let me tell you, the warmth and glow of that fire made all the difference.

The truth is, if you spend a lot of time in an air conditioned environment, the heat with effect you more that it does someone like me. According to my thermostat, it’s 82 degrees in my house right now. It’s been a pretty muggy day, so I’m certainly not sweat-free, but I’m not uncomfortable. Sweating isn’t inherently a bad thing — and when people start to believe it is, well, I’ll let Engber tell you what I think about that:

“In June, the New York Times reported on the rapid spread of the appliance in the developing world, and the climate crisis that might result. A related piece, by the former head of the United Nations ozone program, compared air conditioning to the consumption of fatty foods—a dangerous luxury thatmakes us soft both in spirit and in flesh. Others have blamed A/C for the rise in obesity rates, a claim for which there’s no good evidence, but never mind: The idea that America’s various addictions might be linked together, that overeating and overspending and overcooling could all be part of the same disfiguring condition of modernity, is simply too delicious for some people to ignore.”

I mean, what happens when you do lose power and it’s 90 degrees outside? If you get too used to never being hot, you might end up like all those Europeans who died during an unprecedented heatwave a few years back. And yes, this goes for those of you who have chosen to make your homes in warmer climates…like Florida or Arizona. If people in India, Africa, and Mexico can live without it…so can you.



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