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Heating and cooling
I read a review of a new book called The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, highlighting the death toll already claimed by excessive heat and urging people to wake up and do things to mitigate it immediately. One of the topics that caught my attention was air conditioning, because this thought had occurred to me many times: it’s ironic that the way we keep ourselves cool plays a significant role in making our world hotter. The author thinks that air conditioning is a “technology of forgetting”—a technology that allowed us to forget things that our predecessors had figured out well, over a long period of time. Mostly, that means elements of architectural design.
I live in a southern coastal city chartered in 1739. It was untouched by the Civil War; U.S. forces took it without any destruction in February 1865. Downtown Wilmington is full of row upon row of nineteenth-century houses, with a few eighteenth-century ones surviving too. They were built to be as comfortable as possible without forced-air climate control. Heating was laughably inefficient by our standards; solid dry firewood has only 57% of the energy value of anthracite coal, and natural gas beats the best coal, with none of the particulate pollution (though of course it does emit greenhouse gases). Insulation was primitive or non-existent, and there were no double-pane windows.
But look closely—or, even better, get a tour from an expert—and you quickly learn just how clever some of the key design features of these houses were—and that was no accident. Rooms, and the flows between them, were built to transfer hot and cold air to maximize heating or cooling. Surrounded by wide porticoes, the exterior walls were broken up by tall, opening windows and French doors, allowing air to circulate freely throughout the interior, regardless of wind direction. Ceilings were much higher than ours, keeping rising hot air above head height. Vents in attics and at the tops of central stairways exhausted the hot air to the outside.
Let’s stop right there before anyone gets the wrong idea; I’m not suggesting that any of us would want to live through a southern summer without AC. My parents grew up on southern farms without any more climate control than they would have in the eighteenth century, and I can promise you they loved their AC. My next-door neighbor grew up on a southern farm without air conditioning, and she never, ever opens her windows. Even on a 60-degree perfect day in October.
But we don’t have to adopt past ways of doing things wholesale to learn something useful by actually paying attention to them.
Just south of us is an expensive neighborhood built in the 1950s. The architectural style is dominated by what I’ll call (probably incorrectly) “neo-Federal”—a modern take on what was originally a Georgian style of building. These were appropriate for, say, the north of England, or New England. Rectangular brick boxes, two-story, with smaller windows and, usually, just two single-width exterior doors, one front and one back. These houses are well-set-up to keep warm, but not to keep cool. They were built for air conditioning.
Our modern approach to building habitations for ourselves is to seal them up, isolate them as much as possible from the outside environment, and then artificially heat and cool them as efficiently as possible. As a bonus, we can control the humidity at the same time—a big deal on the southeast Atlantic coast. As we develop more efficient AC technology—and we are—and cleaner, more efficient power generation—which we are—the price we pay for this should go down—if we can get the price people actually pay for it to go down as well.
But, in a more general sense, I think about what we’ve lost, and what we might gain back, by paying more serious attention to the way smart people used to do things. I have pointed out, in a public forum, that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “westerners” were by no means concerned with “sustainability” or anything of the sort. They did their very best to create the problems we are now tasked with solving—trust me. They did not leave finback, blue, and humpback whales alone so that they could continue to exist. They left them alone because they had not developed the technology necessary to kill them. That would come later.
But, like it or not, they were forced to adapt to the conditions imposed by nature in ways we are not—at least right now. One way they did that—if they were rich—was to employ what we would consider a massive amount of human labor to do hard and unpleasant things that we just mechanize or automate. Here, where I live, that labor was, literally, slave labor. We cannot set up our built world to rely on that. But I wonder how much better-off we might be if we incorporated at least some of the clever ways of living with the natural environment that our predecessors did, rather than just make everything we do in almost complete disregard of it, as if we were proud of our ability to live outside of nature. We can’t do that, and anyone who isn’t utterly delusional knows that.
The right-now problem is, we’ve been behaving that way for long enough now that we don’t usually question it—we’re accustomed to it, we accept it—and we accept its consequences.
Too many of us insist on maintaining English-style lawns, even in climates (like this one) where it is entirely unnatural. That means lots of people make and spend money on nutrient-rich fertilizers, which then run off into our creeks and sounds and rivers. Every year, most of our creeks and rivers and sounds fail state water quality standards, with poor oxygen, algal blooms, and low populations of marine animals. We accept that. Most people don’t care. They don’t think about how relatively easy it would be to change that. They want lawns.
If you didn’t know I would bring this around to things that float, you haven’t read much of mine—which is fine, but now you know. Recreational sailors accept the masthead Bermudan sloop rig as the standard rig of a pleasure boat, without question. It’s just a basic part of what a boat is. They don’t question its (serious) limitations. They don’t think of alternatives that might (and in many cases do) suit recreational sailing much better. They don’t realize that this is a racing rig, and that, for most pleasure sailors, the compromises it demands are not worth the benefits on offer. But working watermen in the few centuries preceding ours had rigs and boats that are better-suited to what most of us really want to do under sail on the water on a Sunday afternoon. They wanted simplicity of set-up and operation, and sailing performance good enough to get around but that didn’t compromise the first two criteria. They had wood and rope and canvas to work with, and those are still easy materials for one person to work.
I’m not beating a dead horse here; this horse is very much alive and kicking. When we escape the fallacy of linear progress—when we allow ourselves to learn about, and take seriously, past ways of doing things, we can learn things that might very well be eminently useful to us right here, right now. Just because we stopped doing things one way and starting doing them another does not mean that our way is better in every way. That sounds so simple and obvious to state like that. But our behavior does not, generally speaking, suggest that we understand it. We need to.