This week, sitting at my desk, I am at once as comfortable and uncomfortable as I’ve been since moving to Toronto.
I’m comfortable because even though we’ve had so many days of heat alert, I am no longer bleary from sweat-interrupted sleep, I’ve refrained from snapping at my roommates for actually wanting to cook their sausages, and my brain isn’t fogging at the hint of anything more cerebral than two plus two.
But I’m uncomfortable because achieving this temporary state of grace seems to be the direct consequence of turning on our energy-sapping, external-heat-blasting, blackout-inducing, completely unsustainable air conditioner.
Turning on the A/C was not a decision we made lightly. During the first heat wave of the summer — actually, spring, seeing as it was in early June — temperatures soared to over 30 C for a week; with the humidity it felt over 40 most days. The brick houses, asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks that make up this urban landscape are excellent heat absorbers, making night in the treeless (read: poorer) areas of the city just as hot, if not hotter, than daytime, as these materials radiate out heat stored during the day.
Last month, we slept under electric fans, ate popsicles, and hoped for the best. I thought a lot about Halifax’s brisk breezes, and also thought how if I weren’t actually experiencing this heat, I would assume this to be yet another sour, well-aged, central Canadian whine.
Buck up, baby! I would’ve thought. Try a category 2 hurricane or the blizzard of the century sometime!
Sweating righteously, I considered the ambivalence of a friend, a climate change scientist, who had just bought an air conditioner for his stifling, top-floor abode. And when my roommates suggested we turn on the dreaded machine, I said yes — and then no.
None of us are frail, asthmatic or elderly (i.e. in dire danger) I reasoned, and we would just exacerbate the problem — encouraging the system to make more electricity, burn more coal, and create more heat-trapping smog in the process of, oh yes, cooling our home.
The heat did go away for a while; but then it returned with a vengeance. Even young, healthy people started to get sick. One of my best friends, a farm girl from Saskatchewan, pretty much tough as they come, threw up in a grocery store after a morning of heat and smog.
Another friend, who works as a lifeguard, noted that teenaged patrons at her outdoor pool were fainting with some regularity.
Even my more environmentally minded pals began to buckle. Exchanging group emails with activist colleagues, one made sarcastic comments about another, who was stressed driving around the city to get a new air con.
“It is hot, smoggy and intolerable in this fine city because dumb-asses drive all over creation without mapbooks to serve their own personal whims and desires burning fossil fuels,” he wrote.
After a few hours, he posted a new, more conflicted email: “I’m sorry, I was delirious with heat exhaustion. It is two in the morning and my house is 30 degrees C. I work on saving trees (he’s an arborist) but I drive around in an air-conditioned diesel truck all day. I think I am going to lose it.”
At my house, we do our best. We don’t drive regularly, so we don’t contribute to pollution, smog or the heat that way. We try to buy local, organic and fair-trade products, reducing our ecological footprint. We refrain from “watering our sidewalk.”
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that something is out of whack culturally. In traditionally hot environments, there are cultural adaptations that trump the A/C: taking siestas, going away on vacation to cooler areas for extended periods of time, even just taking a slower pace of life and not expecting much work to get done.
But our work-harder, work-faster, work-now culture allows nothing to get in its way, the planet included.
And we are all, as I’m well learning, a part of the problem.