The horrendous heat of the last couple of weeks has carried with it more than discomfort. It’s been downright dangerous, as several deaths in Mississippi from heat-related causes attest.
It’s not discounting the seriousness of the health risks posed by the heat and humidity we’ve experienced lately to say that our modern-day comforts make these conditions less tolerable for us than they once were. In short, our bodies adapt to their environment, and the artificial environment we’ve created with ubiquitous air conditioning makes extreme heat take a greater toll – both physically and psychologically – when we’re exposed to it.
This won’t be an argument against air conditioning, I assure you. But think about how comparatively recently it has been that our bodies have become accustomed to air conditioning virtually everywhere we go.
Air conditioning in schools is now considered essential. Most of us over 50 never experienced it.
Granted, school didn’t start in early August for us. But those September days could be just as unpleasant as the dog days of August. The old school buildings with high ceilings at least had ceiling fans in classrooms, but a lot of the newer ones in those days didn’t. Somehow, learning happened anyway.
But it happened because it wasn’t unusual in other places besides school to be uncomfortable indoors. It didn’t require much of an adjustment.
Many stores weren’t air-conditioned, and few public buildings were artificially cooled. Some restaurants and motels thought it such a selling point that they had signs excitedly announcing that their premises provided “air-conditioned comfort.”
Most people didn’t have air-conditioning in their cars. Our family took long vacation trips in July and August in the unairconditioned discomfort of a cramped station wagon. And there was no relief, and no extreme change, getting in and out of the car as you made your daily rounds.
At home, we had a couple of rooms with window units where the family retreated on particularly oppressive days. But even in those the air-conditioning didn’t run all the time, and it was quite an experience after turning on the unit and waiting a while to enter that refreshing sanctuary.
One of the sensory memories of my childhood is taking an afternoon nap, slightly sweaty, with the soothing sounds and breezes of an oscillating fan nearby. When everyone went to bed at night, the house was cooled by a huge fan off the kitchen pantry that kept the air circulating.
By the time I finished high school, our house was centrally cooled. The transition had begun. But my first two cars and second apartment after graduating from college had no air-conditioning, which is hard for me to imagine these days.
So it’s really just in the last 30 years or so that we’ve become accustomed to a summertime lived almost exclusively in air-conditioning. Couple that with the fact that most everybody – adults as well as children – spend less time outside these days for a variety or reasons and you have the heat feeling just that more oppressive when we experience it.
Southerners in particular adjusted to the heat in the old days by the most basic of ways: They slowed down. It’s no coincidence that the slow, southern drawl developed in a hot region, and that those in colder climes speak at a faster clip. Making one-syllable words into two or three syllables is in part of symptom of that heat-induced slow pace. Notice how there’s less and less distinctly southern speech in these days of climate control? Television isn’t the only leveler of regional distinctions.
Most of us would agree that air-conditioning has changed our world for the better. But here’s a question: Is it really necessary to make it colder inside in summer than it is outside on many days in winter?
How many times have you gone into a retail establishment or a restaurant and instead of thinking, “It feels good in here,” you think. “It’s freezing in here.” It seems more places are turning the thermostat way down these days, presumably believing that we’re used to cold rather than cool because that’s the way it is in our homes, vehicles and everywhere else.
We could all probably stand to turn the thermostat up just a bit. It would be good for our pocketbooks, cut down on carbon emissions, and ultimately make the heat seem slightly less oppressive when we go outside.
It’s all what we’re used to, and maybe we could get used to an indoor environment with a little less of an arctic blast.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lloyd Gray / NEMS Daily Journal