Foreign Policy Blogs

Being Really Cool

Maybe, just maybe, one of the lessons learned from the economic crisis of the past few years is that folks in post-industrial societies need to live within their means better and more.  Credit card debt in the US has decreased by over $167 billion since its peak of $957.5 billion in 2008.  It stood at $790.1 as of April of this year.  If the American consumer imbibes the message of thrift, and gets helps from the likes of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to avoid making bad choices, then we may yet experience the economic balance that should be a cornerstone of any society.  This needs to be true for Japan, the UK and all the other privileged countries in the OECD too.

This principle should apply as well to our consumption of natural resources and how we interact with Gaia.  The climate system is more important than the financial system, in the estimation of many economists and all treehuggers, most biologists and many policy makers.  Convergence is the name of the game for those of us who see the need to ease up on our galloping consumption in the developed world while helping to make sure that the less well off in the developing world are enabled to radically improve their lives.

An article about mergers and acquisitions among American utilities caught my eye the other day, not because of the story of the big dollar values in these deals, but in why they are happening:  the demand for centrally generated electricity has leveled off.  Because of this, the big power boys need to consolidate to protect their bottom lines.

It’s not just the global financial crisis (GFC) that has slowed down growth in electricity consumption.  “Low-power processors, smarter manufacturing plants, rooftop solar panels and other technologies are keeping a lid on electricity use.”

As the Energy Information Administration graph here indicates, the slowing of electricity demand growth should continue for the foreseeable future.  What drives continued growth, however, in their projections, is “…population growth, rising disposable income, and continued population shifts to warmer regions with greater cooling requirements.”

It’s that last bit, about “greater cooling requirements,” which should give one some pause.  There is about an 85% penetration of air conditioning in American homes.  A book came out last year, if you didn’t know, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), in which the author, Stan Cox, reports on how AC has changed our lives:  on the plus side, helping the vulnerable like the elderly and the ill survive heat waves, but on the negative side, exacerbating the production of greenhouse gases, lowering our natural ability to withstand heat and humidity, making us more prone to illness and obesity, and even altering the political environment.

In an interview at Salon, Cox said:  “It’s pretty much unanimously believed that if we had not had air conditioning, we could not have had this huge migration of population from the North to the Sun Belt, and we certainly wouldn’t have seen 70 percent of all economic growth happening in the South since 1960. This has had major political implications by shifting electoral votes to predominantly red states in the South and West. In an imaginary world where air conditioning hadn’t been invented, it could easily be the case that many of the big Republican victories in the ’90s and 2000s would not have happened.”  Fascinating.

But Cox helps us remember how we used to keep cool and looks at new ways of keeping comfortable.

Similarly, an excellent article in the Home section of the NY Times the other day, Propelled to Efficiency, puts the focus on how to enormously reduce dependency on AC.  What’s the best way?  Fans are the big ticket here.  Plus, energy-conscious design:  One architect “…pinpoints the 1920s as ‘the state of the art for ventilation.’ Houses and apartments had awnings and porches to keep out the baking sun; transoms and operable skylights promoted air flow.”

But fans can really accomplish a lot, at – surprise, surprise! – a fraction of the cost of air conditioning.  The article’s author, Michael Tortorello, performs a wonderful survey of home cooling experts and architects, and even uses his own family’s experience to illustrate the manifest virtue in getting away from air conditioning.  He looks at an array of different fans.

We are a family of three, living in New York City where, if you haven’t heard, it can get pretty hot and sticky.  But we having a ceiling fan for the living/dining/kitchen space, vertical floor fans for the two bedrooms, and a small portable for my office.  Yes, on those nights where the fans are not going to feed the bulldog, we turn on the AC in the bedrooms, but, by and large, we do just fine with the windows open, the front door open to allow more air flow, and the curtains lowered during the heat of the day on the south-facing side.  I daresay our electric bill is way below average for a Big Apple apartment in the hotter months.

So, to be really cool, rethink your options.  Check out fans and other modi operandi.  Give a popsicle and some cold lemonade to your kid, and pop open a cold one for yourself.



Bill Hewitt
Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change