Thursday, June 16, 2011


The image that opens this post shows exactly how difficult it is to break the elements up into tidy little packets, because it illustrates the interpenetration of components like air and water--the composition of clouds.

But the original perspective I wanted to pursue for this series--to borrow shamelessly from Sigmund Freud--is "civilization and its discontents," and the modern human interaction with air points to the constant modern war between need and want.

We love our air, but our desire to regulate its temperature, our inability to keep from spewing crap into it that may be damaging our genes and our general health, and our utter disregard for how we use it in general affects every aspect of our being.

We can imagine living without land, perhaps (although even living in space would involve finding a substitute), but air is right up there with water in the "absolute necessity" column. We can't live without it, but it also seems to be more and more difficult to live with what we're doing to it.

Compound that with natural events, like volcanic eruptions, and we frequently end up trying to breathe an unfortunate soupy concoction of all four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

At this very moment, in Colorado and New Mexico, citizens are breathing a mixture of smoke, fire retardant chemicals, water used to put out the fires, and dust blown by the wind and the fire into the mix. In other parts of the world, folks are breathing ash from volcanoes in Chile and Eritrea (during a bit of a respite from Icelandic eruptions).

Sometimes the ash in the atmosphere can produce beautiful effects, as it did during yesterday's lunar eclipse, or in the nineteenth century when Krakatoa's reach into northern Europe colored paintings by Edvard Munch. Even as inconvenient as modern travel becomes during eruptive phases, however, volcanic activity rarely contributes significantly to climate change, unlike the persistent effusion of CO2 from human activity.

Our search for alternative sources of energy that don't contribute to the CO2 load actually led us to use air to generate our power. Wind turbines are sprouting like so many daisies (or dandelions, depending on your perspective) all over the world--even here in Texas, which now generates an increasingly significant portion of its electricity from wind, and has the potential for much more.

An article in the Daily Poop today even compared the development of wind power in Texas and in Britain. The likelihood that Brits will soon begin to use much more environmentally friendly energy sources stems in part from the very real threat posed by rising sea levels if global temperatures continue to rise. Add to that the fact that England's fossil fuel prices are significantly higher because, despite abundant sources, costs are rising.

Texas still gets cheap natural gas (well, cheap in the financial sense; nobody can convince me that hydraulic fracturing is safe in the long term because the technology itself stinks--in more ways than one), and will continue to draw electricity from plants fueled with it because Texas itself lives, eats, and sleeps with the oil and gas industry. The state spends a good deal of its time officially denying the reality of climate change, and despite its investment in coastal economics (fishing, oil production, and tourism) it fails to worry about sea levels at all.

When states do wake up and start planning, they often pursue remedies that might in themselves prove unwise. Just last week the New York Times featured an article on what Chicago is doing to prepare for higher temperatures, and noted that they're already thinking about adding more and more air conditioners to buildings being erected--although they also plan green roofs for those same buildings. As Stan Cox and others have pointed out, however, conditioning the air engenders a never-ending cycle; hotter temperatures produce the desire for cooler indoor air, but the heat extracted ends up raising the temperature outside, generating more "need" for air conditioning.

At the core of all this is the perennial issue that I wrote about last week in "Dirt": increasing populations of people spreading out over the land, choosing to live in places that aren't always capable of sustaining them.

For example, in north Texas, the number of reservoirs built to supply an ever-growing demand for water increased by over a hundred between 1960 (when I was living in west Texas) and 2000. Just since I moved here in 1979, another 44 have been constructed, according to John Wier, Historical Chair of the Ft. Worth Branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The relationship between these reservoirs and air conditioning is subtle, but the added moisture load contributed by these artificial lakes increases the relative humidity substantially, and makes the air feel hotter and heavier because the cooling effects of sweat in drier air don't work.

While driving across north Texas in 1969 on the way to Pennsylvania, we used a swamp cooler that hung in the window of our VW Squareback to keep us comfy. Nowadays, evaporative coolers don't work around here (although they're highly effective in the California desert), because the humidity is too high. Electric air conditioners succeed in cooling us off in part by extracting moisture from the interior air and--you guessed it--transferring it back outside. It's not difficult to see how the very act of using these appliances contributes to dampening (ahem) the desire to spend much of the summer out of doors. The only advantage to this I can think of is that summers are quieter because kids aren't outside playing--they're inside playing video games in their climate-controlled media rooms.

Once again, the elements collide: land, water, air. It's unfortunate that many folks don't even think about how their daily lives affect the future, and how small choices like raising the thermostat on your A/C a few notches can have a significant effect on climate and energy use.

Over the years we've tried our best to reduce our reliance on refrigerated air by using our attic fans (although one's no longer functioning; it's high on the summer to-do list, along with insulating the attic), not installing central air (we're waiting until we have to upgrade our gas furnace, and will then have a geothermal unit put in), and being really frugal with our use of window units. We only have three, and right now, at 1 pm with the temperature at 90 F, they're still not on because there's a nice breeze blowing through the house and the sun's not coming through the west windows yet.

By 2 or 3 pm, all that will change, the windows will be closed, the shades pulled down, and the doors to this room shut (or curtains pulled across doorways). The unit's thermostat will be set at 82, and I can grade comfortably for the rest of the afternoon. Whenever possible, we open things back up when we go to bed; but if the humidity's too high, we can't sleep, so the A/C in the bedroom stays on all night, powering on and off as the temperature hovers around 80. The rest of the house stays open, and the whole place stays cool through the morning. This works for most of the summer, and on occasion, when the humidity goes below 45%, we can shut it all down and just sweat to keep cool.

When I mention all this to folks I know, they roll their eyes and affirm their belief that conditioned air is a fundamental right (like carrying guns in public places, and driving jacked up pickups) in Texas. But reading Stan Cox's book, Losing Our Cool, might help the more reasonable among us to change their ways, especially since many of the remedies he suggests are simple and effective.

Air is a genuine need; hyper-cooled air, like that in most of the buildings we work in, is not only a luxury, but a character-softening luxury. I wouldn't be surprised if the decline and fall of Western civilization hasn't been engendered by Sesame Street at all, and could instead be laid at the feet of air conditioning.

But that's another rant, and it's getting toward time to shut down the house and crank up the coolant so I can get all those projects graded.

Happy Skywatch Friday to anyone visiting who's managed to make it this far.

Image notes: The lunar eclipse was shot on June 15 by Chris G. and posted on Wikimedia Commons. The color was deeply red in many areas because of the current high volcanic ash content in the atmosphere. The clouds are from my interminable collection, begun when I discovered the nice folks at Skywatch Friday and started contributing on a semi-regular basis.


Anonymous said...

You already know I use a swamp cooler here in the house in inland Southern California and that it is quite sufficient most of the Summer.
I cool 1300 SF with one window unit.
The 3 O'clock dance of closing the blinds and windows happens here too in just a little different way. With a Swamp cooler one must arrange a couple "venting" windows at the end of the places you want air to be pulled towards, paths for exhaust and intake.Rooms are opened,closed,darkened etc.. as the sun crawls across the sky, it is a very natural thing to do,like seeking shade when outdoors.
It all takes place at 11 am when the temps are going to top 100 degrees in the afternoon and around 3 pm when it is between 85 and 99 degrees. Below that I just open the doors and windows!
I have never felt the need to chill myself like a side of beef in a locker, I just do not know why people "Need" A/C.
I know I sound like a curmudgeon shaking my fist an shouting from the front porch but really , people are just spoiled and too lazy to change.
OK , rant over (for now) soapbox put away until another day!

I always find your posts insightful and thought provoking, thank you for giving my brain something to do beside compose text for Etsy & eBay!

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU THIS EXPRESSES MY EXACT THOUGHTS ON AC UNITS DURING THE SUMMER! It does not need to be on at all times of the day and heaven forbid at 60 degrees (this is the temp my brother lives in....)
I remember as a kid I was always at my grandmother's house playing outside. If and when it would reach hellish tempretures the cousins and I would sit on the porch and be in awe at how cool the concrete was. We didn't have an ac inside it was just the pure air under the south Texas sun.

Ms. Becky said...

yeah, it's a cycle alright. I don't like humidity AT ALL and for the most part we escape it here in S E Wisconsin. but I have a window unit that I use for my bedroom when it gets into the 90's, rather than turning on the central air to cool the whole house when I'm sleeping. this is another stimulating post. it's refreshing to read something that someone has actually put some thought into. journalism in America is dead, but not here. thanks. like the NASA IOTD too.