Monday, July 2, 2012

Heat wave? What heat wave?

The massive thunderstorms coupled with the heat wave that has struck the mid-Atlantic coast and the Midwest return me to an old theme of this blog: how unprepared for disaster the modern way of life has rendered the so-called developed world. There is irony but no comfort in realizing that one hundred years ago rural Americans were not so dependent on electric power for heat, light, and the many electric appliances that keep our food cold, keep us from sweltering in the heat, cook our food, and so forth. Those who were hell-bent on development and modernization promised, along with the electricity with which we would power our lives, prosperity from a rising tide of unlimited growth that would lift all boats--improve everyone's living standard. But, as Enrique Leff pointed out recently (please see my other blog, on Music and Sustainability, at, the environment, nebulous as the concept is, resists rationality; and it resists our attempts to control it.

I have written here earlier of how the ice storm of January, 1998 knocked out the power to rural Maine. Many were without power during that period for a week or even longer; we lost ours for three days. If you have no other source of heat for your dwelling than something dependent on electricity--and that means not only direct electric heat but also oil and natural gas heat dependent on electric motors and thermostats (which covers most of the developed world)--when the outside temperature goes below freezing you are in peril. In rural New England one hundred years ago folks heated chiefly with wood in stoves and fireplaces, and some with coal and kerosene not dependent on electricity. Today the wise rural New Englander in an older dwelling maintains a wood stove capable of keeping the house above freezing should the power go out, along with a supply of wood, even if one heats with oil or gas most of the time; and in a newer dwelling passive solar is the wisest choice. Others keep electricity generators at the ready, though these are rather expensive to install properly. 

This summer, though, the complaints from my friends and acquaintances in the mid-Atlantic states emphasize how uncomfortable it is with the temperature near 100 degrees and no air conditioning. One government official, angry at the power companies' inability to restore electricity quickly, declared that the length of time it was taking was "unacceptable," as if electric power somehow were the natural order of things. That government official might have wondered how Thomas Jefferson must have fared at Monticello without air conditioning, or how Abraham Lincoln could have managed to stay in the White House during a heat wave. Possibly that official's ancestors owned slaves during the antebellum period. Imagine a slave coming up to one of that official's ancestors cooling off with a mint julep on the veranda, and saying, "Master, it is too warm, whether my family is chopping cotton in the hot sun or sweltering in the cramped and stuffy slave hut. We find these conditions unacceptable." Fat chance.

Another one of my acquaintances writes, "Alas, I am without power and my house is sweltering. It is hard to find a quiet place to communicate and the libraries are closed and the cooling centers are jammed… We are in quite a disaster down here in [Maryland]." I would like to believe that someone who writes "Alas…" would have backup heat in winter, and be aware of the irony of the current situation; but irony is, as I say, no comfort. Given the effects of global warming, on which this and other increasing weather-related disasters such as the High Park, Waldo Canyon and other wildfires in the West are blamed, we can only expect situations like these to occur more frequently. NPR's Morning Edition excerpted an interview with a climate change expert who affirmed that although global warming is the cause, it is impossible to predict exactly when and where these events will take place--only that they will do so more often, and with more severity (please see my blog entry on complex systems for July 27, 2011, at

Of course, it gets quite warm at times here in East Penobscot Bay, but very seldom does the temperature go above the 80s. For the past three days, while the temperatures in the Atlantic Coast and Midwest have ranged around 100 degrees, plus or minus five, and in southern New England it's been in the 90s, the high here was 82. But that, too, may be changing. Certainly there's been an increase in the number of violent storms here, summer and winter. As Yogi Berra once said, "Boys, the future is all ahead of us."

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