22 December 2004
A greener shade of warm
Old friend Fred in Floyd is much closer to the weather than most of the rest of us:
We heat with wood that we cut ourselves from our valley. We don't have air conditioning. We try to grow our own vegetables as the weather will allow. Our road becomes impassable in flood or blizzard. I suppose some would say we have romantic attachments to a simpler way of living. It is true we do find pleasure in adapting our rhythms to the season's vagaries. We are full-immersion types; a sprinkling of autumn or winter somehow doesn't seem efficacious in our relationship with the land.
But why, in this modern age, should the weather matter? With the exception of natural disasters, most Americans can control their comforts at the flip of a dial and give it not another thought. After all, isn't climate-independence a measure of our civilized victory over the elements and something we have worked long and hard to accomplish for our species?
The elements can give as good as they get, as the thermometer is about to demonstrate here on the Lone Prairie. Where we're getting disconnected, I think, is in our persistence in building big drafty castles on bare land, thinking we'll make up the difference in SEER ratings.
Until the rise of central heat and air, houses, of necessity, were built to minimize the effects of nature. The Criterion Group, a preservationist organization in central Oklahoma City, emphasizes this point:
Preserved historic structures are generally the ultimate in "green" buildings. By adaptively reusing old structures, we reduce the amount of energy and assets needed to create materials for the new structures that may replace them. Most historic structures are designed to passively heat and cool themselves, with high ceilings, southern exposures, and operating windows. More often than not, simply installing additional insulation and weatherstrip to a historic structure will drop those heating and cooling bills dramatically.
Surlywood, built in 1948 before the big switch to central air conditioning, ran up 20 percent less in electricity bills last summer than I spent on average for each of the three preceding summers in my old 1970s-vintage flat, which was 15 percent smaller and had fewer electrical appliances. I have little doubt that with energy monitoring turned up to the next level of finickiness, I could have scraped off another 5 percent or so.
I'm not at all weather-independent; I suffer some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and recent arthritis has made me more sensitive to humidity. Nor do I believe that by spending X number of dollars I can buy myself out of the cycle of the seasons. (This excludes, say, moving to Ecuador, which requires a value for X that isn't even thinkable.) This is not to say I'm in the same league as Fred, who has this mostly-cheerful modern-pioneer vibe that I could seriously envy, but I put some effort into not being isolated from the world around me. Except when it's really, really cold.
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