Friday, January 23, 2015

Op-Ed Addendum

So this Saturday I'll be publishing an Op-Ed in the New York Times! 

After I put up my blog post, “The Art of Keeping Warm,” about my 45-degree experiment, I wondered if any publication would be interested in publishing an actual article about my experience. I knew the Times’s Op-Ed pages often feature quirky, first-person stuff, so they were my first choice. They responded to my pitch, saying they’d want to see the article before they agreed to publish it. To enrich my quirky experience with interesting research, I spent a week researching countries’ excess winter mortality rates, studies on the concept of “comfort,” the thermal properties of certain clothes, and a whole bunch of other strange stuff. 

It always feels like I’m wasting time researching because 90 percent of what I read won’t have any impact on the piece, and the 10 percent that makes it in could very well get edited out. My Op-Ed was shortened from 2,000 words to 850, so I did in fact lose a lot (though, needless to say, I’m still plenty thrilled and grateful to make it into the Times). 

I imagine a few readers will wander over to this blog after reading my article, so if you’re one of those people who wants to learn a little bit more about my experiment and my research, feel free to browse the subjects below. My sources, signified by numbered brackets (ex: [1]), are listed at the bottom of this entry.

First off: Comfort is cultural.

As I point out in the article, there are cultures, like the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego, who’ve contentedly endured temperatures as low as 42˚F (5.5˚C). The Yaghan had few clothes and no access to fossil fuels [1]. On the hotter end of the dial, Pakistani office workers are comfortable in office temperatures as high as 88˚F (31˚C), which would make most any American melt into a salty puddle of goo [2]. In an essay called “Understanding the adaptive approach to thermal comfort,” researchers found that we basically determine what’s comfortable to us based on what we’re used to [3]. It's as simple as that. No need to point out that we wouldn’t be comfortable in -70˚F (-57˚C) or 120˚F (49˚C); comfort obviously has its limits. 

There are possibly some benefits to living in the cold.

It’s a custom in parts of Scandinavia for parents to leave their well-wrapped babies outside in strollers to nap in freezing temperatures. They claim that their babies sleep better in the cold [4]. Also, some researchers claim that being colder helps us lose weight through a process called “non-shivering thermogenesis.” In an essay called “The ‘metabolic winter’ hypothesis,” researchers suggest that obesity is a result of over-nutrition and constant warmth [5]. 

In cold countries fewer people die of cold-related causes. 

This was one of my most fascinating research discoveries. At first glance it makes little sense: Why would warm countries experience more cold-related deaths? Basically it’s because the colder countries are more prepared, better clothed, and have warmer winter homes than people in warm countries. 

Check out the following chart. “CSVM” (Coefficient of seasonal variation in mortality) sounds complicated, but all you need to know is that a higher CSVM indicates more cold-related deaths experienced in that particular country. Also, look at the column “Mean Winter temperature.” You’ll see that the warmer countries (Portugal and Spain) have really high winter death rates. The coldest country studied (Finland) has the lowest winter death rate of them all. 


We are not thinking about the environment when managing our indoor heat. 

According to a Harris poll, by 2010 only 4 percent — just 4 percent! — of households reduced their utility use to make their lifestyles more environmentally sustainable [6]. Yikes. 

Why don’t we just wear more clothes to keep warm, save money, and help the environment?

It’s puzzles me why we aren’t more keen on saving money on our heating bills when we could just throw on an extra layer. Writer Kris De Decker, on his website Low-Tech Magazine, surveyed the thermal properties of clothes and calculated that putting on a pair of cotton long underwear will allow you to lower your thermostat 4.5˚F (2.5˚C) without causing any reduction in comfort, while saving you more than 20 percent in heating costs [7]. (De Decker’s essay, “Insulation: first the body, then the home," was easily the best thing I read in all my research.) 

U.S. homes are really big.

U.S. and British homes are heated similarly (nighttime bedroom and daytime living room temps are typically set between 65-70˚F (18-21˚C)). [8]. But Americans use far more energy given the size of the average American home (2,394 square feet), which is two and half times larger than the average U.K. home (914 square feet) [9]. 

I confess: I use fossil fuels, too.

I anticipate the argument: “How can you speak against fossil fuels when you use them.” This is the sort of senseless argument the extractivists’ screech when they don’t like it when Al Gore, who lives in a big home, talks about climate science (as if the size of his home somehow magically makes scientific fact, independent of Al Gore, discreditable). So let me come clean: I acknowledge that I use more than my fair share of computer power, gasoline, and air travel—all powered by fossil fuels. I use a lot of energy, but, really, I have very little choice as to what kind of energy I get to use, as most things like hybrid cars and solar panels and enormous wind turbines are unaffordable for the average American. To exist and function in our country — with its fossil fuel infrastructure that's been built around us for 100+ years (well before most all of us were born) — we must use fossil fuels. The best we can do is: 1. Limit the amount of fossil fuels we do use, and 2. Publicly criticize, protest, mock, vote against, or fight the fossil fuel industry so that our culture as a whole can move on to better sources of energy. I am not dismissing the importance of fossil fuels in our lives. (I realize civilization would savagely collapse if we went cold turkey on fossil fuels tomorrow.) I’m merely arguing we need to take dramatic steps away from toxic resources, as useful as they have been. 

We use way too much energy. 

Way too much. The U.S. and Canada use about twice as much energy as Europe and Japan, yet there's no clear difference in quality of life between countries that are fossil fuel gluttons and countries that are on fossil fuel diets. One of the things I wondered was: Do fossil fuels make us happier? That’s really tough to answer, but I took my best shot at it, looking at the UN’s latest World Happiness Report that ranks countries based on life satisfaction. I looked at the happiest countries and tried to see if there was any correlation between their happiness and their fuel consumption.

Below is my list. The U.S. is the 17th happiest country in the world and one of the biggest fossil fuel gluttons, consuming 17.6 metric tons of fossil fuels per capita [10] There’s one country, the United Arab Emirates, that’s happier than us that uses more fossil fuels, but all other happier countries use less. I’m not sure what to make of the statistics (as I'm sure there are countless variables), but it makes one wonder: If consuming tanker-loads of fossils fuels is not automatically making us happier, than why are we consuming so much? 

List of happiest countries with their per capita fossil fuel consumption in metric tons

17. United States (17.6)
16. Mexico (3.8)
15. Panama (2.6)
14. United Arab Emirates (19.9)
13. New Zealand (7.2)
12. Costa Rica (1.7)
11. Israel (9.3)
10. Australia (16.9)
9. Iceland (6.2)
8. Austria (8)
7. Finland (11.5)
6. Canada (14.7)
5. Sweden (5.6)
4. Netherlands (11)
3. Switzerland (5)
2. Norway (11.7)
1. Denmark (8.3)

Americans use, consume, burn, and eat way more than we need to. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben reports that, “In 2007, the average American male had 2,600 calories worth of energy left over each day after his metabolic needs had been met.” Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book Energy of Slaves, says, “About 27 percent of edible fruits, vegetables, oils, and dairy products in North America spoil in transport, rot in the fridge, age in a grocery store, or get thrown out at home. In England, food waste may be as high as 50 percent. A University of Arizona study found that the average U.S. family squanders about $2,275 worth of food a year. The amount of energy lost through rotting or uneaten food accounts for 2 percent of annual oil and electricity spending in the United States” (p. 88-89).

I’ve wondered what this world would look like if we simply consumed only what we needed to consume. If we consumed a reasonable amount of calories, how many factory farms could we replace with forest, or smaller organic farms? If we moved into UK-sized homes and lowered the thermostat five degrees, how much fewer fossil fuels would we burn? If we stopped buying so much cheap and certainly unnecessary plastic crap, how much cleaner and less acidic would our oceans be? We talk about renewables all the time, but honest conversations about reducing consumption are far too rare.

Lastly, am I still living in a cold home?

I lived in my icebox through Christmas, then spent about three weeks in a warm home in Lincoln, Nebraska to house- and dog-sit for friends from about Dec. 26 - Jan 17. To make myself qualified for a summer job I’m applying for, I had to move to Denver, where I am currently living and enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder course. Here, the daytime temperature is set at a very reasonable 61˚F (16˚C). If I ever find myself in a house of my own again, I know from experience that I’d be plenty comfortable in a 45˚F (7˚C) home, though I can’t see myself going lower than that.


[1] Goldsmith — Use of clothing records to demonstrate acclimatisation to cold in man’, Journal of Applied Physiology, 15 (5), 776–80

[3] Understanding the adaptive approach to thermal comfort — Humphreys, Michael A; J Fergus Nicol. ASHRAE Transactions104 (1998): 991.


[5] The "metabolic winter" hypothesis: a cause of the current epidemics of obesity and cardiometabolic disease. Cronise, Sinclair, Bremer. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2014 Sep;12(7):355-61.




[9] (p.10).

[10] &

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The best books syllabus

More and more, it's becoming a struggle to find a book worth reading. The classics no longer seem relevant to my life. Contemporary novels (half of which seem to be set among the cultural elite in NYC) don't do much for me either. Travel books all seem so wimpy and unambitious. Lately, I've had to resort to nonfiction science writing and biographies. For every four books I start, three are given up by page 30. 

I'd love it if someone, whose tastes are similar to my own, would give me a syllabus of decent books to read to save me the trouble of sampling and discarding so many. With that in mind, I've decided to list my favorite books for those of you who may also be struggling to find a decent book. 

Many books that I admire and respect, but that didn't agree with me (Joyce's Ulysses for instance) didn't make this list. These are simply my favorites. Still, many of my favorites didn't make this list because I felt that they wouldn't appeal to most readers, or maybe I fell in love with them at an impressionable age. And there are many books that I liked that I've regrettably culled; these are books that I loved. I chose the following because they were enriching, entertaining, or beautifully written (or all of the above), and would appeal to the general lover of books. They aren't listed in any particular order, except by genre and alphabetical order by author. 

Fiction 1700 - 1899

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Fiction 1900 - Present

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

White Noise by Don DeLillo
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence
Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
1984 by George Orwell
Close Range by Annie Proulx
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Stoner by John Williams
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Non-Fiction - Travel/Nature

Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
On Nature: Selected Essays by Edward Hoagland
A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Larry’s Kidney by Daniel Asa Rose
Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
Voyageur by Robert Twigger

Non-Fiction - Philosophy

Consumed by Benjamin Barber

Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Abstract Wild by Jack Turner
Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

Non-Fiction - Memoir/Autobiography/Essays

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Denial by Jonathan Rauch
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Naked by David Sedaris

Essays from the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka 

Non-Fiction - History

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
The Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Non-Fiction - Biography 

Che by Jon Lee Anderson
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding
Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
Henry Thoreau: Life of the Mind by Robert Richardson
Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West
Grant by Jean Edward Smith

Non-Fiction - Special Interest

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel
Story by Robert McKee
The Conundrum by David Owen
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The best books I've read in 2014

[Update: I somehow forgot to list two other great reads: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson. I've added them below.]

I spent about the first quarter of 2014 researching books on the Great Plains—many of which were great, but few of which would interest the general public, and therefore don’t make this list (with the exception of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner).

For the rest of 2014, I struggled to find a decent book. It used to be my policy to finish all books that I start, but with millions of books out there, why waste time on a book I clearly don’t like when I could be reading something better? My new policy: If a book doesn’t grab me by the first 30 pages, I move onto something else. I must have skimmed, started, or stopped well over 50 books this year (of many different varieties), and have read in full a great deal more than are present on this list. So the ones that make this list are special. If your tastes happen to align with mine, here are a few recommendations to hopefully save you a bit of the time it takes to find something worthwhile. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Perhaps my favorite book of all time. When I get disillusioned with what passes for style and storytelling nowadays, I reread Freedom to remind me that there are still true novelists out there. Franzen has a beautiful style—rich metaphors on every page, sparkling dialogue, gleaming insights. To me, Franzen has the elegance of the best 19th Century British writers (Eliot, Hardy, Austen), yet I favor Franzen because, unlike his predecessors, his concerns speak to my own as a youngish, 21st-Century male American who's concerned about the state of the world. I think what makes Franzen so readable is that it’s clear that he’s had fun writing this book. I imagine him, at his keyboard, when he’s thought of something funny to write, tilting his head back and letting out a hearty chuckle.

“A navigational beacon in Katz’s black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was sparking back to life. Where he ought to have felt guilty, he instead was getting hard. Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick: it could see the future in a heartbeat, leaving the brain to play catch-up and find the necessary route from occluded present to preordained outcome.” 

A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy

One of my interests is American mythology: how we got to be the way we are; why we believe the things we believe; how we came to define our own particular brand of American “freedom.” Purdy goes back to our nation’s founding and finds compelling insights into, say, why we deny climate change or buy into libertarianism. Purdy is a lovable guide: it strikes the reader that he has no “agenda” except to discover the plain truth of things.

“Americans’ foremost secular creed is the belief that common sense, the heart’s impulse and the mind’s untrained judgment, solves all problems and removes all mysteries. This appealingly democratic idea has the price of honoring our habits and prejudices as self-evident truths, enabling us to hold together our radicalism and our conservatism without fully confronting either.”

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I’d read this once before, but I picked it up again because I’m writing a book about my own cross-country walk, and desired to re-familiarize myself with successful books on the subject. I read it in two days, and I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Bryson is lovable, despite being cranky and sometimes mean, partly because he’s so honest about it and partly because he's quick to make fun of himself whenever he can. The dialogues with his hiking partner, Katz, are superb.

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret."

Energy of Slaves by Andrew Nikiforuk

Nikiforuk's research is flabbergasting. He borrows from countless disciplines, taking us on an odyssey through our smoggy 21st Century world. We learn that food, obesity, social relationships, population, and (needless to say) the environment are all very much connected to our dependence on fossil fuels. Immensely readable, full of fascinating studies, philosophical theories, and jaw-dropping statistics. Should be required reading for our species.

"'It may be impossible to conceive a reorganization of society adequate for the removal of some admitted evil without destroying the social organization and civilization which depends on it.' [writes Alfred North Whitehead] 'An allied plea is that there is no known way of removing the evil without the introduction of worse evils of some other type.' … Whitehead’s assessment wasn’t far off the mark. Mechanical slaves, powered first by coal and later by oil, effectively eliminated the need for widespread human slavery and serfdom."

Stoner by John Williams

(Has nothing to do with pot or being stoned.) It’s about a young student’s journey into academe. It’s full of social awkwardness, painful shyness, stupid decisions, and absurd squabbles in academic departments. Stoner is a hero you want to root for, even if he’s far from heroic. I'm not sure if the book has a core message, but if it does, it's this: that society should endeavor to promote rich emotional lives within its citizens and that each and everyone of us ought to strive to “know thyself."

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart."

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Superb book on climate change, climate change denial, and the current state of the environmental movement. See my full review here.

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

It’s about a spell that’s cast over a suburban town that makes all the women not want to have sex with their menand what results. It’s lighthearted like a Jon Franzen read, also poking a friendly finger into the gut of liberal suburban America. The plot of the book might sound like a crafty way for Wolitzer to condemn male sexuality and champion female empowerment, but it's actually quite fair to males. Wolitzer might agree: It’s a happier world when we’re all getting laid.

"Sexlessness had awakened some churlishness in him. Was this all it took in order to find a bad side of a man? Was it like depriving him of an essential nutrient?"

Gun, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

I had some trouble reading through Diamond’s Collapse, so I was reluctant to open his magnum opus, but have been nothing but pleasantly surprised. It’s a study of why Europeans dominated the world (in a nutshell: guns, germs, and steel), but at its heart it's about something much bigger: the dawn of civilization.

"Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers. The spread of farming from those few sites of origin usually did not occur as a result of the hunter-gatherers' elsewhere adopting farming; hunter-gatherers tend to be conservative.... Instead, farming spread mainly through farmers' outbreeding hunters, developing more potent technology, and then killing the hunters or driving them off of all lands suitable for agriculture.”

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Easily the most revolutionary book I’ve read all year. Has me seriously doubting the wisdom behind conventional marriage and permanent monogamy, which has always seemed to me like a cruel and ultimately unappealing punishment. Sex at Dawn validates those feelings with hard science and keen insights into our sexual evolutionary origins.

"Only by arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human sexuality will we learn to make smarter decisons about our long-term commitments. But this understanding requires us to face some uncomfortable facts." 

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

I’ve read a lot of books on the Great Plains. This is by far the best. It’s an autobiography by Stegner about his youth on the Saskatchewan plains. His descriptions are beautiful and vivid, yet I most respect him for looking at his home and the people with a critical eye.

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.”

The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson is perhaps the greatest writer-scientist of them all. He's built his career on studying on something as tiny as ants, but he can't help himself for setting his sights on the big picture. 

“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Barnes does a superb job ensuring that a novel does what a good novel must do: to have a sense of mystery and tension on every page. One of my fascinations is with memory, the inadequacies of which are central to the plot. 

"We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return."


In 2014, two friends published books. I can’t claim partiality, but they’re as worthy of this list as any other.

Fugue in Ursa Major by David Dalton

A sci-fi apocalypse novel set in the Appalachian Mountains, Fugue is one of the most heretical books I’ve read. David is especially talented with dialogue, specifically the Socratic dialogue between teacher and student. Unbeknownst to the reader, by the end you’ve consumed more than a fair share of history, theology, and physics lessons.

"[Men] have ancient instincts in a crowded world that's much too far from nature. Oh, they can channel their male instincts into the competitiveness of sports, or the cut-throat corporate world, but those things are a poor substitute for the real thing—you know, a horse or even a boat underneath you, the wind in your face, the stars over your head, the thrill of hope, and danger, and promise. That's what men were made for."

The Chain by Ted Genoways

You’ll probably never want to eat Spam again after reading about the ghastly treatment of the animal and the workers who butcher them in slaughterhouses across America. It’s The Jungle for the 21st Century.

"I sat and watched as evidence of our national industry and know-how arrived by the truckload. Our whole history of conquering the West, industrializing agriculture, and turning hog slaughter into a 'custom meat operation' arrived... And, in that moment, an illness like PIN and all the other social ills brought on by Hormel in their quest for increased output seemed an inevitable by-product of an industry that has grown too large and gained too much momentum to ever stop or even slow down."

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Art of Keeping Warm

I wondered: What is the lowest indoor temperature I could comfortably live with on a permanent basis? 

I wondered this because, for the first time in 31 years, I’m living in a home in which I control the thermostat. Because I’ve either been living in a van or someone else’s home, I never had to deal with the responsibility of paying for utilities or the guilt of relying on fossil fuels, which are, in my current situation, natural gas and coal-powered electricity.

Since July, I’ve been living in a vacant home on a friend’s property in Nebraska. The house is quite large (three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a massive living room), and because it isn’t the most energy-efficient house, keeping the temperature at a toasty 70˚F (21˚C), especially for just one person, is unthinkable. Not only would that cost a ton of money, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of wastefully using fossil fuels when I thought a simple hat and sweater might suffice. 

I’ve often wondered: If we all set our thermostats to our own “comfortable low,” how many West Virginian mountains could we save, how many fewer communities would we frack, how much less greenhouse gas would we emit?

That’s tough to calculate, but we do know that we use a lot of (arguably unneeded) energy. In the U.S. and Great Britain, the average bedroom and living room temperatures are set between 65˚F and 70˚F (18-21˚C). When you think of the size of U.S. homes in particular, the amount of energy it must take to maintain that level of warmth throughout a house is flabbergasting. All in all, residential thermostats, UC Davis study reports, are responsible for an astounding 9 percent of all energy consumption in the U.S.

Winter finally hit a little over a week ago, bringing with it temperatures as low as 6˚F (-14˚C). My house’s minimum temperature had been pre-set to 55˚F (13˚C), so I just let it remain that way for a couple of days, figuring I should acclimate to this manageable temperature before I begin testing cooler temps. 

Before I share the results of my experiment, I should elaborate on what I mean by my “comfortable low” temperature. I would consider this low temperature “comfortable” so long as the temperature does not negatively affect my health or productivity.

I know from experience how temperature can affect productivity. In a North Carolina summer, on a 90˚F (32˚C) and unbearably muggy afternoon, I found that my mind would slow down and all I wanted to do was take a naked nap atop my sheets. It seriously affected productivity, and, before long, I'd be hankering for a cool gust of air conditioning. 

On the other hand, I know from living in a van and my tent that it’s extremely uncomfortable to type or do anything with my hands when it's, say, 10˚F (-12˚C) inside. So what's an acceptable indoor low that won't cause any reduction in productivity? 

When it was 55˚F (13˚C), I put on more warm clothes than I'd usually wear indoors: a tee shirt, sweat shirt, sweat pants, and a light coat. For the most part, I was reasonably comfortable when I was lying in bed under the covers or when I was up and moving: cooking, cleaning, exercising. It was only when I was at my computer typing (and I'm on my computer a lot) when it became uncomfortable, especially when my hands were more than half numb. 

I did the obvious thing and put on more clothes, and in due time I was ready to lower the house's temperature even more. 

The lowest the thermostat would go was 45˚F (7˚C), which I figured was a good low to stop at because I had to ensure that none of the pipes in the house would freeze.  

The first day at 
45˚F (7˚C) was fairly unpleasant. My fingers were frozen and they were moving slower than usual, so much that it was affecting my ability to type. My feet were constantly cold, too. For pretty much twenty-four hours straight, my hands and feet were cold to the touch. 

I decided it was time to go all-in on my winter wear, so I dug through my bags and pulled out and put on two pairs of underwear, a pair of wool socks, and then a set of thermal underwear. 

After that, I put on a pair of sweats, though sometimes I wear a thin pair of pants and a long-sleeve tee beneath my sweats. 

Then I put on my light red coat and then a heavy poofy purple coat. 

Here I am in my house-wear. 

Don't forget your hat!

And your second hat!

Still, when you're living in 45˚F (7˚C) for twenty-four hours a day, for days on end, and you're doing a lot of sitting, the cold will eventually set in, no matter how many articles of clothes you're wearing. 

Again, I was having trouble typing because of my frozen hands (even though the rest of me was comfortable), so I pulled out my -20˚F (-29˚C) rated down sleeping bag, and decided to wear it whenever I was sitting. 

I stuck a thermometer in the sleeping bag and when I pulled it out, it read 85˚F (29˚C). I noticed that neither my feet nor my hands were cold anymore, and I was so warm I had to fling off both of my hats. I've been living like this for over a week, and I've grown comfortable enough with the cold and my adaptations that I don't think I'll feel compelled to put an end to my experiment. 

Picture taken just after I pulled thermometer out of my sleeping bag.
While one person experiencing just ten days of a colder-than-normal house is a pretty small experiment, and one from which I ought not draw strong conclusions, I can't help but believe that, if times got hard, or if a hefty carbon tax was instituted, most Americans (let's not include the old and sick) are more than capable of lowering their thermostat by 20˚F (11˚C) without doing any serious harm to their health and efficiency.

There's no great secret to keeping warm. The more clothes, the better. But I think that there is a subtle art to it. A few things to keep in mind:

1. Our extremities (fingers and toes) get cold not just because of exposure, but because our "core" is stealing that heat (forgive my non-technical terms). The body's number one priority is to keep the core warm, so keep the core extra warm and our extremities will have a better chance of staying warm, too. 

2. There are a lot of factors that contribute to hypothermia, and one of them is food and water consumption. A well-fed and well-hydrated person will fend off the cold much more easily than someone who's not.  

3. As I understand it, we don't get colds because of exposure to cold weather. We get colds because the cold weakens our immune system, making us more susceptible to succumbing to viruses spread by human contact. Luckily my hermit lifestyle severely limits my exposure to unpleasant illnesses. 

While I'm at it, here's a quick tour of my new home:


Living room, which I don't keep heated. Notice walls are carpeted, and there's a couch hanging from the ceiling.

Carpeted doors and walls.

The man who built this house was a senior league racquetball superstar.


Kitchen. There are three thermostats in the house. One that covers the kitchen, which is set at the minimal temp of 50. The living room thermostat is turned off and therefore unheated. My room and bathroom is set for 45. 

Kitchen booth. View of corn field, harvested a few weeks back. 
My room. 

Yellow Pad story board for my book.

Boning up on travel literature and all things Great Plains. 

I live next to a corn field, a soybean field, and a cattle feedlot. 

Here we are herding them from the field to the lot a couple of weeks back. 

Pool in backyard.

My backyard, a harvested soybean field.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Recommendation: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein

Climate change fascinates me like nothing else. It is the defining story of the 21st Century. Glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, the earth is warming, people are scared to death. It’s become a war of sorts — one in which conservatives are pitted against liberals; industry against the environment; science against ideology. With the fate of the world and civilization at stake, it’s the 21st Century’s most important story, even if half the world doesn’t care to listen. 

The book I’ve been working on — Trespassing across America — is in many ways an environmental book, so I try to get my hands on all things climate change. I’m most interested in figuring out how we got here from a cultural evolution perspective (i.e., Christianity, neoliberal capitalism) and how we might get out—in other words, can we somehow — politically, technologically, economically, and philosophically — get out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Klein’s This Changes Everything is excellent. While most of us already know that our consumptive and wasteful economic system — capitalism — is to blame for our countless environmental problems and is at the bottom of our unsustainable plundering of natural resources, Klein’s book is an eloquent, forceful, no-pulled-punches reminder:

Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
The book is best at explaining the fundamental causes behind our climate change crisis. If there’s anything to criticize — and I’m nitpicking — it’s that she takes on too much, filling us in on the rather massive international environmental movement, including everything from divestment, to indigenous rights, to the Keystone XL. This scope and attention to detail may have the effect of pulling the spotlight off her most revolutionary (capitalism vs. climate change) insights.

For someone new to the subject of the modern-day environmental movement, This Changes Everything is a superb summary of pretty much everything going on. For those of us who casually follow the environmental movement, like myself, the book at times can come across as a bit ponderous.

Despite acknowledging the many forces working against the environmental movement (increased worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the waning of media coverage, and widespread climate change denial), Klein is unapologetically optimistic, citing the massive international movement that has for years been challenging our prevailing economic system and energy policies. Klein sees, or wants to believe, that progress is happening.

Indeed, we are seeing progress. Since when do we oppose pipelines because what goes through them affects our climate? Since when do 35,000 people march for the climate in Washington D.C.? Since when is practically the whole world at least aware of the concept of climate change? You couldn't say these things in the 1990s. These are developments of the 2010s.

But are they enough? Based on the results of the 2014 elections, we can say, with certainty, “No, definitely not.”

Republican Mitch McConnell, a climate denier, is now the Senate Majority Leader. Republican Jim Inhofe, the country's most loopy tin-foil-hatted climate denier, now holds the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Incoming Republican Senator Joni Ernst says, “Yes, we do see climates change, but I have not seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made." (Watch the Bill Maher video below in which he brilliantly illustrates what's happened in Congress.)

Despite the hopeful tone, reading This Changes Everything in the wake of the 2014 elections only left me with a feeling of exasperation. The world is coming to an end, and we're putting the party most responsible back into office?! What the hell...

It's one of those times you can't help but wonder, "So in what direction are we heading: backward or forward?"


Klein on how capitalism and a healthy planet cannot coexist: 

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

“And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market… Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulations and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis… As Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, puts it, climate science is for many conservatives ‘an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over Nature.’”

On climate change denial: 

“Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes the tight correlation between ‘worldview’ and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us — regardless of political leanings — filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred vision of the good society.’ If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain immediately gets to work producing intellectual antibodies designed to repel the unwelcome invasion. As Kahan explained in Nature, ‘People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.’ In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’”

“One of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false… McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: ‘Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

On how we’re moving backwards:

“Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest.”

“The years leading up to the gathering had seen a precipitous collapse of media coverage of climate change, despite a rise in extreme weather: in 2007, the three major U.S. networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—ran 147 stories on climate change; in 2011 the networks ran just fourteen stories on the subject.”

“A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number was down to 44 percent—well under half the population.”