Monday, May 18, 2009

Speaking of Having No Air Conditioner...

"The Siesta" by Paul Gaugin

"Only mad dogs and the British go out in the noonday sun."
~an Indian saying

This bit of commentary was motivated by my eating of really spicy food in the middle of this very warm day in the hottest room in the house, all of which adds up to a bit of light perspiration even when one is sitting still. And then I realized that the spicy food and the perspiration actually ended up cooling me off, and I began to think of other cultures who live in hot climates, and how they live (and often eat spicy foods), and why we all sweat, and why we didn't used to work in mid-day, and all sorts of things, including how our western "advances" just might not be...

Until modern times, people in very hot climates around the world lived without electric air conditioning units or systems (many or most still do). For the most part, there was no choice in the matter, but our modern, particularly western, and maybe more particularly, American, way of hot weather living is now mostly geared to and centered around air conditioning.

When it's hot, we wake in air-conditioned bedrooms. Most often, when we leave the house, we step directly into an air conditioned car. When we leave the car, we walk straight into air conditioned buildings, and when we return home, we do this in reverse. And if any of the air conditioners in this routine happen to go out, we are miserable. Why? Maybe because we are battling nature, and when our tactics (in this case our A/C's) fail, we lose.

Ever notice that 75 degrees in very early spring can feel almost too warm, but when temperatures start dropping back down toward 70 degrees in the fall, we're just about chilly enough to pull out the sweaters? I read once that it takes the body two weeks to totally adjust if it goes directly from cool to hot temperatures. For those two weeks, the hot temperatures will feel hotter than they will when we finally physiologically adapt. But if we follow nature, there's a thing called spring that usually eases us into hotter temperatures, and physiological changes happen more gradually, more comfortably, and more naturally.

When we move continually from air conditioned environment to air conditioned environment, though, how is our body supposed to adapt? Is it possible that we're not allowing nature to take its course, and so we never allow our bodies to make the adjustment that would ease the effects of heat? Are we maybe more miserable than we need to be in the heat because we've tried to outsmart it? Might this be poetic justice? (I'm kidding.)

The same need to allow time for the body to adjust is true when we encounter large changes in altitude, as high altitude mountain climbers know well. To disregard nature's timetable in making physiological adjustments, in their case, would mean death. It's wise, and healthy, to work with nature.

But we were talking about heat, weren't we?

Nowadays, people don't often think about planting trees to shade a window in summer and, conversely, to allow light in the winter. Why should they? We have air conditioners! Not many people consider the things that used to be done, guided by common sense, to keep their homes from getting unbearably hot in summer (and I think "unbearably" used to mean something different than it does nowadays). Without even thinking about it, we tend to count on our air conditioners, and I think this can sometimes be to our detriment.

I'm not saying I'm 100% opposed to air conditioning. There won't be an air conditioner in my apartment when I move, but here at our house, I have a little window air conditioner that I sometimes turn on when the temperature reaches the upper 90's or when company is here. In recent years, I've tried not to use it, but most people aren't accompanied to sweating it out, and I don't intend to train them, so I turn it on for company without making a to-do about it.

It feels nice to walk into an air conditioned place straight off a hot sidewalk, and there are good-- even life-saving-- reasons for certain people to keep their air conditioners running, so I'm certainly on no crusade against them!

Being A/C-dependent may be one way we moderns are losing touch with our natural rhythms. In some cultures, a siesta was set for mid-day when it was too hot to work. Cultures all over the world have established rest times during the hottest part of the day.

There's some interesting info on this here:

Siesta

People have traditionally rested according to the dictates of nature. Whether or not they would have chosen this if they had been able to foil nature is another thing (because we tend to like to override nature whenever we find a way), but the fact remains that they did indeed rest (and still do in many places), and it became an established part of those cultures.

My great-grandpa was a wheat farmer in high desert Oregon in the early 1900's, and, without fail, he rested-- laid himself down right on the floor of the living room-- every day after lunch. He spent the hottest part of the day indoors and worked the rest of the daylight hours. Even intuitively, this seems good, doesn't it?

Because we are busy, taking time to rest or relax is something many people now consider a nuisance, a hindrance, or even a luxury. As we get wealthier and technology advances, we find ways to vault past the gentle, body-wise guidance and limits of nature-- like heat (we use air conditioners) and darkness (we have bright electric lights) and even natural human energy (we load up on sugar and caffeine to keep our systems up and running when our natural energy tanks are empty). This is to our peril, I think.

Natural rhythms are good ones. There is darkness, and there is light. There is a time for waking, and there is a time for sleeping. There is a time for growing hungry, and there is a time for eating. There is a time to be busy, and there is a time to stop and relax. There is work to do, and then there is rest. There is heat, and there are natural ways to stay cool.

Taking some of these natural steps are good for the environment and will reduce our power bills, but because, as a culture, we've worked so hard to find ways to outsmart nature, we haven't needed to take things like heat into consideration as we build our homes, our daily lives, and our routines. Most of us would need to educate ourselves just a bit and make some simple adjustments to the way we think if we wanted to live more naturally in hot weather once again. If.

On that note, here are a few good tips for staying cool without an air conditioner for those who are interested and don't mind perspiring a bit from time to time. Perspiring is extremely good for our health, and yet we avoid it like crazy! I wonder why. Maybe so our hair and clothing won't get messed up. :-)

How to Cool Yourself Without Air Conditioning

(I have not watched the video in this link, so I do not know what that guy there is doing with all of that liquid or what that liquid is. I hope he's behaving!)

I have have to say that I've read here and there in writings about eco or sustainable building, that people are again considering the old ways of keeping cool. So, it's definitely being done.