29 July 2012

Air Conditioning - The Opiate of the Masses

It was Karl Marx who said, "Religion is the opium of the people." Like many quotations, it has been taken out of context, part of a much longer discourse on religion in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It turns out, though, that others felt the same way about religion as a tool of oppression. The Marquis de Sade, in 1797, spoke of "this opium you feed your people, so that, drugged, they do not feel their hurts, inflicted by you." In 1798, Novalis wrote: "Their so-called religion acts merely as an opiate: irritating, numbing, calming their pain out of weakness." Kingsley and Lenin used the term, as well.

But even out of context, the narcotic metaphor is quite apt for what's happening during this hottest-summer-ever in North America.

Air conditioning, it turns out, acts as a sedative. Without it, people would be up-in-arms angry at their governments. Without A/C, people would need to be demanding that their leaders stop the rise in global average temperature. Without it, we would be seeing action on the climate change emergency.

Air conditioning is the general process of altering air properties such as temperature, humidity, quality, and velocity to achieve desired conditions. In North America, this almost always means the cooling of indoor air. Wikipedia says:
The concept of air conditioning is known to have been applied in ancient Egypt where reeds [that were] hung in windows had water trickling down. The evaporation of water cooled the air blowing through the window, though this process also made the air more humid. In Ancient Rome, water from aqueducts was circulated through the walls of certain houses to cool them down. Other techniques in medieval Persia involved the use of cisterns and wind towers to cool buildings during the hot season.
I'm remembering when I lived in India. It was so hot at night that I'd prepare my bed/mosquito net, turn the overhead fan on, then pour a bucket of water over my head and hop into bed to get tucked in and asleep before I dried off. (The unofficial national motto of that country is "Everything dries quickly in India.")

Nowadays, people just flick on a switch or - if they can't afford A/C in their home - go hang out at the local mall. It seems that very few people are having to actually suffer from the heat of this 2012 overheated summer, and we're not quite yet feeling the results of the widespread crop losses.

I know that air conditioning wasn't "invented" to ravage the biosphere. Indeed, it's a case of unintended consequences. (Back in 1842, for example, Florida physician John Gorrie used compressor technology to create ice, which he used to cool air for his patients in his hospital.) But even forgetting that running all those extra appliances is burning more fossil fuels, and that refrigerants like R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon, are fantastically powerful greenhouse gases (about 1,800 times more powerful than carbon dioxide), the problem is that A/C dopes us into believing that we'll be okay.

If you're a conditioner of air, please, stop. Turn it off.* Get hot. Be uncomfortable. Become unproductive. Be willing to suffer a little for the sake of the children's future. Then create some political will. Get angry! Get angry with your politicians and other leaders. They have known for decades that this was going to happen, and they just didn't care. They've done nothing to stop the quickening pace of global heating. And frankly, I'm starting to believe it's because they've got air conditioning, too!
* If you truly believe you cannot turn off your A/C (literally for fear of dying ... remembering the tens of thousands who perished in the European heatwave of 2003), then at least turn it off during the day. Do everything you can to reduce the heat in your home (close the drapes during the day, wear wet clothing). Sleep in the basement, in the backyard, or on the balcony. And if you can't take any of those measures, then at least make sure that your air conditioner is set for higher than your winter furnace. I can't believe how many people warm their homes or work places to 72ºF (22ºC) in the winter, then cool them to 69ºF (20ºC) in summer! It's sheer lunacy.

23 July 2012

Depression or Demise?

I'm currently on vacation, visiting family and friends in Hades (the hotter than hell part of Canada these days). So only a short and late post this week.
Had a lovely brunch with ecoSanity's Glenn MacIntosh a couple of days ago. Glenn is someone who deeply understands what's happening in the world, and his website/blog is an excellent source of compiled information, links and videos on the most important climate change topics. So our brunch wasn't your normal "Hey, how's life been?" sort of meal. It was a heart-rending sharing of our deepest fears about what's happening right now (heat waves, droughts, crop failures, Arctic sea ice losses) and what the ramifications are going to be – much sooner than anyone was expecting.

But perhaps the scariest thing Glenn told me is that one of his best friends, while supporting his efforts, refuses to read anything that he writes because depression runs in her family. That little story is haunting me. His friend is someone who cares and who attends rallies and protests. But she just doesn't want to learn about the depth and breadth of the climate change emergency because she's afraid she might become depressed.

The question struck me, would people really choose famine rather than depression? Death rather than depression? Extinction rather than depression? It reminds me of the comment we heard at a climate change presentation a few years ago: "Canadians (or insert your own EuroAmerican culture) would rather die comfortable than live uncomfortable." That one stunned me, too.

So there we have it. I don't want to get depressed therefore I don't care if the biosphere dies and life on this precious planet is extinguished.

Frankly, I can't think of anything more depressing.

p.s. I've suffered from clinical depression, so I know how immobilizing it can be. But potential depression is not immobilizing. And if the thought of extinguishing life on Earth doesn't motivate and mobilize us, what will?

15 July 2012

Helping Children Make Friends with the Rest of Nature

I just wrapped up my Nature Daycamp for 6 to 12 year olds. (I know, I know, I'm the oldest daycamp leader in the world!) This is my fourth year, and each year I get more and more children signed up.

Last Monday, I was feeling rather dazed with the sheer number of kids. But by Tuesday afternoon, my assistant and I had worked out some strategies for getting their attention and getting all of them engaged at the same time.

And then the magic began. Following a daily sketching lesson, these kids all sat quietly during Magic Spot Time, then eagerly showed us their drawings. They "built a tree" and played in the woods. They listened for birds at the marsh and celebrated when the osprey flew overhead. They dipped their nets into the pond and shrieked with delight and fascination at what they found. They played at the beach, floating on logs. And then they harvested vegetables from the school garden and made hand salads ... some of them eating foods they'd never tried before. We visited a farm where they fed the chickens and held some chicks. And then we ended the week with a splash – in a pond!

One of my goals, always, is to help children make friends with the rest of Nature. I've been thinking lately that the environmental education movement's move (since the 1960s) away from "naming" has been at least partly misguided. After all, what's the first thing we do when we make new friends? We learn their names! This year, my daycampers learned the difference between Douglas firs and cedar trees, between sea urchins and sea cucumbers, between eagles and turkey vultures in flight.

Only once, as we were hiking up a mountain, did I hear the older boys talking about video games, and I quickly explained that that was the one thing we don't talk about at Nature Daycamp. They respected that. Several parents told me they'd signed their kids up for daycamp in order to get them away from their computers. And we heard lots of stories of excited kids getting home and sharing every detail of their day, then sleeping soundly at night.

So I had to laugh – and I did, right out loud (a bit of a gallows laugh) – when the very first thing my youngest daycamper, a sweet little girl of 5 and a half who had loved daycamp, said to her mother at the end of our swim on Friday afternoon was, "Mom, when we get home, can I play video games?"

08 July 2012

Our Love/Hate Relationship with Change

When I talk with people who are moderately interested in the climate change crisis about why nothing is happening, they tend to all tell me the same thing. "People don't like change."

People don't like change? That can't be true. People change jobs and marriage partners and houses quite frequently. They create change by going on vacations and getting new hairstyles and trying new restaurants. Change is what we do!

Why, then, are people in North America so loathe to change to a zero-carbon economy and lifestyle?

A good friend  one who understands human beings and their motivations  suggested that people tend to embrace and do things that fill a personal need and/or that provide them with some sort of benefit.

Okay, we know that people seek change (it's as good as a rest!). And we know that people change when they see some personal benefit in it. So I still don't get it.

We can't change to save the world, but we changed to ruin the world. What's the diff? I don't get why we changed so easily over the last 100 years or so to become users of fossil fuels and watchers of consumerism-promoting claptrap, but we can't change back (or forward).

Don't we regard a viable future for our offspring as a personal benefit? Do people not view survival of their own species as a personal benefit? With the weather giving many of us a taste of hell this summer, wouldn't we want to see mitigation of the worst impacts of global warming as a personal benefit?

Here's what I'm wondering. Has our task been so simple all along, we've missed it? Is our job, as climate change activists, merely to help people see the personal benefits of staying alive and healthy? Are we simply supposed to be asking people to be open to the changes that must occur if we want to ensure a future for our children ... and our species ... and life on Earth?

It's quite likely that we've missed the boat on substituting a zero-carbon version for our carbon-intensive intense lifestyles (we didn't start the move to zero carbon energy production soon enough). But living (again, after millennia of living this way) in small communities where we grow our own food and create our own energy and look out for each other – that's a beautiful vision of the future, isn't it?
Found at Live. Love. Learn. Breathe.

01 July 2012


We have a wonderful little coffee shop in my community ... friendly owner, lovely ocean view, great coffee (apparently; I don't drink the stuff myself), and a potluck feeling of "Hey, who might I run into here today?"

My husband and I were in there yesterday, meeting with a young climate activist friend, and there was a moment during our conversation when I suddenly started crying. I can talk about this stuff rationally and intellectually, but then all of a sudden the enormity of the problem hits me. Crying is the outlet that allows me to stay in the discussion without banging my fist on the table in a public place or, worse, becoming totally depressed and withdrawn.

It was kind of funny and ironic then that another friend – a rather pregnant one – walked in and we started talking about epidurals and pain during delivery and the magic of Demerol. One person in the café explained that he was prescribed Demerol years ago following a very painful surgery. To paraphrase: "I found myself lying in bed, happier than I've ever been, trying hard to think of something negative. But I could not come up with a single problem in the world. Then I realized it was the effect of the Demerol and I had to kiss that particular brand of happiness goodbye."

Aha, I realized! Demerol is the answer to climate change! If we all take it, there won't be a climate change problem anymore! Indeed, all of our problems will be over.* [Satire alert.]

It was an interesting thought for a moment or two*, until I had to kiss that brand of problem solving goodbye. But it made me realize several things. 

  1. The psychic pain of knowing what we're doing to the Earth, to the future, to Life, can cut very deep at times – and there is nothing wrong with taking a painkiller from time to time. 
  2. Every activist who hasn't burned out has found their own painkiller. "Demerol for All" isn't the answer, but we ought to be compassionate with ourselves. Constant pain is not in the recipe for healing or health. For example, my friend Sandy Hinden (see his call for a Sacred Earth Economics Conference) uses his creative powers and energies to keep himself going in the face of "knowing." He recently said: "The powers of greed and corruption are amazing, so cunning, so smooth and deeply entrenched throughout governments, non-profits and business… yet we are approaching a biological meltdown. I think I am toughening up for something."
  3. And yet, our psychic pain of knowing is nothing compared with the pain already being felt and experienced by hundreds of thousands of the world's most climate change vulnerable. And they don't have the option of tuning out or turning away or taking a painkiller. They must stay totally focused on survival. 

So let's have a good cry or take our metaphorical or symbolic painkillers as and when we must in order to stay in the fight and the fray. As my husband just pointed out in his most recent Uprage post, "Believe me, we must save Africans to save ourselves. If we don't act on it now, by the time Africans are dying in their millions we will know we are watching our future."

* p.s. Demerol is a powerful painkiller, not to be used lightly and only with a prescription. Please note that not for one minute am I suggesting that we all take Demerol.