Transitioning with the A/C

Today I caved and did something I've only done a few times over the last four years: I turned on my air conditioner. It's not particularly stifling according to the thermometer, but after 24 hours with a heat index in the mid-to-upper nineties, it was steamy inside my house. The six of us (including one 90-pound, long-haired dog) were starting to wilt. 

Powerdown weekThis moment of weakness seems an especially grave sustainability sin because it occurred, unwittingly, during Power Down Week, when local sustainers are challenged to "make their carbon foot print as small as they can" from June 25 to July 3. The week concludes with Energy Independence Day at Gordon Park in the Riverwest neighborhood of MKE. I've been away from my computer a lot these last few weeks, working on various gardening projects, so I missed the Power Down announcements on Facebook and various e-mail lists. 

Though using my A/C (especially during Power Down Week) may hurt my eco-cred, I don't feel too guilty about it. Why? Because to me, this is what transitioning to environmental sustainability is all about. I fear that for some, sustainability can become a "more radical than thou" sort of exercise, a kind of competition to see who can tough out a higher degree of energy independence. Don't get me wrong – the fewer fossil fuels a person uses, the better. And events like Power Down Week offer fun ways to raise awareness about the transition movement. But the extremism required to suffer through a heat wave without A/C doesn't come naturally to most Americans, who have been coddled by comfort and convenience for generations. Can those blessed with A/C realistically be expected to revert to nineteenth century discomfort overnight? Judging by the responses of many of my A/C-loving friends to the concept, I think not.

Enter the transition movement, a philosophy that emphasizes weaning oneself off of fossil fuels. This is the concept behind Transition U.S., which posits that "life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise." It seems clear that fossil fuels like oil and coal -- extremely potent sources of energy that have powered the pace of human progress over the last 150 years -- are unsustainable resources, especially at the rate we are using them. And yet, to a certain extent it is unrealistic to ask Americans to quit their fossil fuel addiction cold turkey. That might be possible for a radical minority, but not for the masses. With this in mind, should the more radical among us simply shake our heads sadly and wait out the end of the modern world in our wind-powered eco-villages? Or should we take the hands of our less willing friends and families and help them baby step toward sustainability?

Having many reluctant transitioners among my loved ones, I choose the latter option (though the former does have its appeal). That's one part of the reason I turned on the A/C today. Sure, part of it was because, after a sleepless night dousing my head in cold water every half hour, I reached such a point of overheating that I could not function normally. But instead of toughing it out until the cool air returned, as I've done in the past, I chose to use the perfectly good air conditioner I own, if just for a day or two. Doing so, I feel, helps keep me honest and human. It helps me to empathize with those who don't think they can lead more sustainable lives because they don't want to give up their creature comforts. It also helps me to strike a balance. I can enjoy the A/C when I really need it, while also turning it off as soon as the extreme heat passes. 

fan

To me, this is the essence of transitioning. The Transition movement is about using the resources we have more sparingly, more judiciously. It is about slowly adjusting to a slightly less comfortable existence. For me, transitioning means keeping the thermostat set at 63 to 67 degrees in the winter, instead of 75. It means mowing half my lawn with a manual "reel mower" and the other half with a gas-powered machine. It means using both rain barrel and municipal water to hydrate my gardens. And it means only turning on the A/C when there is a heat index above 95. Transitioning makes our conversion to energy independence slow but sustainable. It is a luxury we now have while energy is still relatively cheap and readily available. 

Part of transitioning involves "powering down," a little bit at a time. Another part involves shifting from using fossil fuels to using sustainable energy sources. This can be difficult for those of us who lack the funds to purchase wind turbines or solar panels. Thankfully, we can support renewable energy to fuel our A/Cs, furnaces, lighting and appliances by participating in WE's Energy for Tomorrow program. For $10 a month, a household can help fund WE's use of renewable energy (biomass, hydroelectric, solar, and wind), reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 15,264 pounds annually (and reducing waste of limited fossil fuels). Our family just enrolled. We are thrilled to know that when we cave and power up instead of down, we're supporting renewable resources when we do so.

Want to learn more about the transition movement? Here are a few more resources you might find helpful:

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Originally posted July 2, 2011, on the Wauwatosa Community blog here.

Photo: flickr/flickrsven

Heather

Heather Zydek: Local sustainability activist and writer Heather Zydek blogs about environmental issues, energy conservation, and urban homesteading. She lives on the east side of Wauwatosa with her husband and three children.
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