Stephen F. Austin State University

Crazy From the Heat (July 2011)

Crazy From the Heat
By Mathew Prosser

We usually raise the thermostat on our air conditioner at night, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. With the ongoing heat wave we've been experiencing here in Rusk County, it stays right around 80 during the day and is nudged higher after sundown.
Our hope is twofold: to keep our electric bill down, while also acclimating to what looks to be yet another long, hot summer season. In a time where it seems most places seem to keep their climates in the lower 70s, a few degrees can make a world of difference in cost as well as comfort. But isn't comfort relative?
Growing up out in the middle of rural Rusk County, we lacked central heat and air for a few years before my parents built the house in which they now reside. There were plenty of sultry days spent with a box fan propped in an open window to help keep it cool indoors. That is, when we were actually indoors.
According to a non-partisan study published last year, the energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Doubled in less than 20 years! Those early 1990s being when I remember living tolerably without central air, but what about earlier?
Much like gas prices, economics, and even our ideas about relationships, there's a "new normal" emerging about what's considered tolerable for indoor climate.
What did people do in the days when dry 70-degree temperatures indoors were impossible during summertime? How did teachers manage to keep their students from passing out from heat stroke? How did anyone work? As tense as things can get up here when we're on deadline, I can't imagine having to do it while also sweating profusely.
Can you imagine what it would be like now, if air conditioning were as much a luxury for us as it is for many parts of the world? Well, for one, I imagine things would move a lot slower. Haste is discouraged in high heat, and the three-digit days we've been having of late would make it downright uncomfortable to move any quicker than a snail's pace.
Life in and around town would look rather different. We'd certainly spend more time outside.
Renters would break open the windows that have been painted shut for decades and renovators would be besieged with requests for high ceilings and better cross-ventilation. Screened-in porches and decks would become the rule instead of the exception. Utility bills would plummet.
Families would unplug as many heat-generating appliances as possible. Forget clothes dryers, backyards would be crisscrossed with clotheslines, and the outdoor grill would easily replace the hot stovetop. Dinners would be eaten on the porch or out in the yard.
With no advantage to staying indoors during the sultry hours before sunset would mean we'd have to see more of our neighbors. Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer.
As a result of all this, a strange thing happens: deaths from heat decline. Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another during heat waves, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.
Children of all ages take to bikes and scooters, because of the cooling effect of air movement. Calls for more summer school and even year-round school would cease. Experts would find that kids don't need as much time inside, rather they need the shady playgrounds and water sprinklers that spring up in every neighborhood.
We draw closer to each other as individuals and as a community, as we become more involved in the tangle of each other's lives.
On second thought, that all sounds quite dreadful. Maybe I'm just crazy from the heat.