Code Red

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A long time ago in a world that seems quaint and unreal I spent summers in Houston, Texas without air conditioning. There was a huge fan installed in the attic of our home that hummed away both day and night pulling air into the rooms through the open windows. We strategically created cross breezes to keep ourselves as cool as possible in the humid temperatures that often registered in the nineties during July and and August. I remember wearing shorts and sleeveless tops and being a bit jealous of my brothers who were able to walk around bare chested. Even as a child I got sweaty on those hot days, and the perspiration on my skin mixed with dust and dirt to form a kind of film on my neck that my mother called “grandma’s beads.”

My mother did not install an air conditioner in the house until I was in college. She only ran it when guests came to visit or at night as she became more concerned about keeping our windows wide open while we slept. It would be a few more years before she would move to another house that was fitted with central air conditioning, but even then she kept the thermostat so high that the temperature inside rarely fell below eighty degrees. 

The first home that I purchased had window units to provide air conditioning. They did only a fair job of keeping things cool. There were hot spots in certain places and areas that were freezing cold. We were on a strict budget in those days so I often attempted to emulate my mother’s saving techniques by eschewing the air conditioning during the day while my husband was at work, and only running it in the evenings so that we would be more comfortable as we slept. 

One summer my friend Linda and I decided to have a kind a contest to determine who could save the most energy and get the lowest utility bill. I knew that I was in trouble in that contest when I saw the lengths to which Linda had gone. She was cooking most of her meals outside on a grill and had set up a table for dining under a big tree in her backyard. I picked up a lot of conservation tricks from her, but soon enough had bowed to the heat and found myself using the air conditioning more and more often. Somehow I had lost the ability to bear the heat that had seemed so easy to do when I was a child.

By the time we finally installed central air conditioning in our house I was hooked on so many modern conveniences. I no longer sat mostly in the dark at night as my mother did in her quest to be frugal with her electricity use. I began to take the lights and appliances and huge utility bills for granted in ways that would have been upsetting to my mom whose frequent mantra was “turn that off and quit wasting electricity.” I rarely gave thought to my part of hurting our planet. In fact, it never even crossed my mind that I might be indulging in behaviors that were harmful to anyone or anything. I embraced a lifestyle of comfort that often raised my mama’s eyebrows as she quietly insisted that I might do well to be more circumspect in my use of energy and resources. 

I suppose that I first began to think about the environment when talk of global warming and rising seas became more than just chatter. I have to admit to being a bit dubious about the hyperbole that seemed to be associated with that movement, but over time the evidence that our world was in trouble began to mount. Things seemed to get especially bad in my own backyard as more and more heavy rain events flooded homes and businesses at a rate that I had never before seen. Even before the July 2017, arrival of hurricane Harvey I worried each time torrential downpours hovered over my city. The terrifying days and nights of nonstop precipitation from Harvey would become the face of climate changes and would awaken a realization in me that we all have to change our ways. 

The mounting evidence of our human folly is impossible to dismiss. We have unthinkingly attacked our environment with toxic emissions, fossil fuels, deforestation, pollution of waters. Instead of moderating our activities like my mother had done, we have almost thoughtlessly engaged in a proliferation of indulgence that is threatening the very existence of the planet on which we live. Instead of caring for our earth, we have all too often ravaged it as though it would just heal on its own. We have depleted our seas and our forests, and created so much garbage that we are running out of places to put it all. Now we are faced with the challenge of undoing the damage before it is too late, and I wonder if we have the wherewithal to take the measures that we need. 

Each of us can begin now to reconsider how to live. In my own case, if I were to better emulate my mother or the tricks I learned from Linda, I would be making a good start in contributing to the welfare of our planet. Sadly, even such measures will not be enough. We really do need to take steps that will surely be difficult, but that are necessary. It’s time to think about everything that we do and to consider a more sustainable lifestyle. It will mean changing habits that have become ingrained and accepting new possibilities. It will no doubt be a great challenge, but not impossible. I’ve survived heat and limited use of resources before. I am certain that I can do so again. Still I must do more than just that. The question is whether enough of us will be willing to join in the effort before it is too late. The warnings are here. I hope that we heed them or the future may be very uncomfortable and dark indeed whether we like it or not.


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