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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.

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