“I find your lifestyle very compelling, but I could never live without air-conditioning.”
This is probably the statement I have heard the most over the last ten years from people who cannot believe that we are able to live, and thrive, without most of the modern conveniences that 1st world humans take for granted. I want to answer, “That’s not true. If you are even moderately healthy and live anywhere in a temperate zone where humans have lived for millennia, you’d do just fine,” but the truth is I cannot say that. The mind is a very, very powerful thing, and the crippling effects of dependency on the mind are difficult to understand or quantify. I wrote about this phenomena extensively in my non-fiction book Surviving Off Off-Grid, and I’m basically piecing this article together and adapting it mostly from bits of comments on the topic of air-conditioning and cooling taken from throughout that book.
A Gift in the Desert
In the summer of 1192, in the stifling desert heat of Palestine, Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was at his headquarters as head of the Crusading armies in Jaffa. While he had won many victories, now he had a sense of foreboding. He saw no way to take Jerusalem from the Muslims. The task was just too daunting, and the Lionheart was, above all, a realist. He was in the midst of negotiations with the Saracen (Muslim) King Saladin over just who would rule in the Holy Land. Circumstances had conspired to bring him to the negotiation table. And things were not well with him. He, the mighty crusader, lay sick in his bed in the sweltering heat, worried about the war, worried about his health, and worried about the evil machinations of his brother John who was, even at that moment, conniving to place himself on the throne as the King of England. Richard needed to return to Europe to defend his title and his claims there but he did not know if his health would hold out; the infernal desert heat might just kill him first. Just as he pondered these things, and as the sweat continuously rolled off of his body in streams, emissaries from Saladin arrived. The messengers carried gifts and the concerns and best wishes of the Saracen King – his enemy. Saladin had heard reports of Richard’s poor health, and he had sent pears, peaches… and ice, to sooth and comfort the invading King.
Ice! These desert barbarians had ice?
I think there were two messages sent by Saladin that day. The first was that he was a chivalrous King, and that he respected and honored his enemy. History has recorded it that way. The second, more subtle message was that (and we should take note) an industrious people – a people who can have iced drinks and keep their cool in the desert without power or machines, hundreds of miles from any mountains (the nearest source of ice), are not a people who will be easily defeated or enslaved.
If I had to pick just two statements that I hear the most often when people are telling me why they cannot or will not even consider going off-grid, it would be these:
1. I don’t think I could live without air-conditioning.
2. I don’t think I could live without ice.
It is absolutely certain that people can, and have, lived without air-conditioning and ice, even in the hottest climates in the world, for thousands of years. Most of those billions of people did so having never once heard of air-conditioning… or even ice. It is not the lack of air-conditioning or ice that could be the downfall of many people in this modern consumer society (if those mainstays of “civilization” are lost by some technological apocalypse), it is the unhealthy dependence on those things, and the utter ignorance of how to live without them, or to provide for them in alternate ways.
One of the first things you need to know is that sometimes we are ignorant of historical realities because of things we cannot see. The facts on the ground have changed. For example, the way we build today makes it almost impossible for people to live comfortably without air-conditioning. Why? Because we build structures based on the expectation that brute force cooling and heating will be used to make the structures liveable. Which is an admission that without technology, these structures are functionally unliveable.
Electricity as Enlightenment, and Artificial Enviroments as Savior
A long time ago, as I began to study these things, I was shocked by many of the things that I learned. But, I guess had I been paying attention, I should have been asking questions of my teachers back when I was in school. Like, for example, why do you see so many pictures of southern gentleman and southern ladies dressed up in heavy clothes and coats, even in the summer? Isn’t it unmanageably blazing hot in the South in the summer? Without air-conditioning and electricity, wouldn’t they all be wearing shorts and t-shirts, standing under some magnolia tree in flip-flops in the shade, cursing the day they were born? Is it possible that those southern plantation houses were actually designed to remain cool in the hot summer?
And it wasn’t just rich people who stayed cool. Even regular folks and the poor built their structures to help themselves provide some comfort from the extreme elements. Ever hear of a “shotgun house”? That was a design that allowed more buildings to be put on less land, but the long, thin structures were constructed to maximize the cooling and air-flow. Have you ever seen Boo Radley’s house in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. With its high ceilings and tall windows? Or how Atticus Finch’s house was set up to take advantage of breezes with a big porch for the cool evenings?
And how did those Europeans have so many fine soirees, balls and dances after dark? Is it possible that people who never knew anything about electricity found brilliant ways to live good and comfortable lives without it? We’ve been taught that people were just sitting around, poor and miserable sweating in the dark for thousands of years until some precious industrial savior like Thomas Edison came along and flipped on the switch and invented comfort. I found out in my studies that nothing could be farther from the truth.
Do this… I promise you will not be disappointed, and you will learn more than you can imagine. Go get some historical novels: Get Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina (plenty of high living, parties, soirees, balls, dancing, etc.); get Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or Magic Mountain; get Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, or Torrents of Spring; read Thomas Hardy, Dostoyevsky, or even Mark Twain. Read Jane Austen. Or, better yet, just go read Gone With The Wind. Just pick an era and read novels written during that era. That’s what I do – and when you read the books, think about how those people lived and how they did things. Ask yourselves, were these people ignorant cavemen suffering in climates that made them miserable all the time?
I learned that structures in the Old South were built with natural cooling in mind. If you look at pictures or watch any of the old movies you’ll notice that most of the larger houses had a similar building design. The bottom floor had very high ceilings, and usually there were at least one or two underground root cellars or basements built beneath the first floor. The high ceilings allowed the heat to rise and high windows that went nearly to the ceiling would allow this heat to pass out instead of “stacking” into the room. The bottom floors generally included a very open floor plan, with lots of windows that reached to the ceiling and very thick walls. This kept the bottom floor much cooler than the outside air. The second floor of these houses generally started more than 12 feet up in the air. According to my research, there is almost always a minimum wind speed of 5 to 7 miles per hour at 12 feet above ground level even on a “still” day, meaning that there was a near constant breeze for the second floor. All of the bedrooms were placed upstairs for this reason, and there were large balconies with French doors and large windows that would allow for this constant breeze to pass through. During particularly stifling heat spells Southern folk would sleep out on the balcony so that they could catch the breeze. Or they could always take a cot into the basement. As a bonus, the high second story was also usually above the “bug line”, so most flying bugs (like mosquitoes) wouldn’t find their way up there.
Building for Cool
The truth is, the world was a different place, and people lived and loved and danced and worked in it without any concept of electrical powered brute-force air-conditioning. The fact is that air-conditioning is nice, that’s why it was so easy to sell to the world. And once people had it, they didn’t need to build houses with thick, solid walls, high windows, large attics, and big porches that brought in the cool air. They didn’t have to design the inside so the breezes would blow through the house. They didn’t need large basements or parts of the house that were partially underground. With brute force cooling, houses and businesses were built cheaper and with other issues in mind, like the maximization of interior space. People who owned older buildings boarded up (or bricked up) the windows to keep the air-conditing in. Walls were thinner, windows were decorative and didn’t reach near the ceiling. Air-flow was not considered. New thinking took over for the old, and now we judge our ancestors with bad information because we don’t know any better.
Whenever the new thinking, however weak and anemic, becomes the common thinking, the mind becomes quick to lock out the old thinking as “impossible” or “not practical or desirable.” I am old enough to remember when air-conditioning was considered an option – either in the house or in the car. Most houses did not have air-conditioning and it was absolutely not considered “standard” to have air-conditioning in the car. Today, air-conditioning is not even considered an option for most people (especially in Texas). The new thinking has prevailed, and thousands of years of experience have been thrown into the dustbin. As I said, the single comment I receive the most by people who first come upon my philosophy is this one: “I don’t think I can live without air-conditioning. I just wouldn’t make it,” which is to say, “I’m more unviable and weaker than 99.9% of the billions of souls who lived on this planet before modern air-conditioning was invented!”
I’m not saying people should get rid of their air-conditioning. That’s a personal choice. I’m saying that if you think you cannot survive without it… then you probably won’t, because it is almost certain that one day… maybe soon… the power will go out. It is a maxim that mental strength is required to survive hardship.
Ways to Keep Cool
The first lesson is to STAY HYDRATED. That’s always a good start. You will always be cooler when your body’s cooling system is functioning. Most people are dehydrated most of the time. Stay fully hydrated and you will feel cooler. It’s just a fact.
As you’ve learned from the history portion of this article, staying cool and somewhat comfortable in the old days had more to do with intelligence, common sense, and building design than it did using brute force and money with electricity and machines. Modern air-conditioning is a “brute force” form of solving a problem. It is saying, “I don’t want to think about nature, geography, and how things work in the real world. I just want to be cool… RIGHT NOW!” So the brute force of energy, money, and machines are brought to bear to temporarily cool what naturally ought to be a hot space in the summer. Yet in nature there are naturally cool spaces and naturally warm spaces. There are areas that receive more wind and cooler breezes, and there are areas that are naturally stagnant and sometimes oppressive. Animals have learned how to seek out shade and naturally cooler areas, in order to stay more comfortable.
On our land here in Central Texas there are different areas with sometimes radically different atmospheres. Where I built my office is just naturally anywhere from 5 to 15 degrees cooler throughout most of the summer, and it receives an almost constant breeze because of the way air moves in the area. My walls are about 12 inches thick, and I built it with numerous windows in my work space so I can adjust the environment by opening and closing windows. As I type this, it is about 90 degrees farenheit, and the “feels like” temperature (adding in the humidity) is about 95 degrees outside. Later this afternoon, the temperature will hit the mid to high 90’s and the “feels like” will be over 100. So what do I do? I keep working most of the time. I have my windows open and I feel the breeze almost constantly. When it just gets really hot, I stop working for a bit and take a walk or sit in the shade with the family and talk. Sometimes we’ll devise other ways to get cool. Fun ways!
Back in the day, before we had our water infrastruture set up, it really could be miserable in the heat (my office wasn’t built yet… neither was our current cottage.) We’d jump in the creek if there was water in it, or drive to a nearby creek that was deep enough that we could submerge ourselves.
Now, we have water features on the land that help us. We’ve built a cistern that goes down almost twelve feet into the ground. The water down there is about 50 to 55 degrees year around. Yesterday, we filled a cattle trough with this cool water and we climbed in! The water was sooooo cold, it chilled me for hours after that. We thought people would find it weird or funny that we were “multi-tasking,” so we made a short comedy video showing us pumping water into the trough, and then from the trough down to the garden for watering.
That water was cold, believe me! But that isn’t the only way to cool off or stay cool. When you live a life completely off the grid, you learn to stay cool in the summer as second nature.
Dress for the Heat
One of the most obvious mental disconnects, where facts should be evident to most people (but aren’t,) is the lack of realization that people who live in very hot climates with no air-conditioning wear more clothes than people who don’t. The first thing westerners do when it gets hot is to expose all their skin. They don’t realize that this actually makes you feel hotter. It seems counter-intuitive, but it is true. I realize that most westerners live in a perpetual 72 degree womb of brute-force artificial temperature, only venturing outside for the walk to the car or to go from building to building so this may be hard to understand, but covering your skin when it is hot — encouraging sweat — not only keeps you cooler but it keeps you healthier as well. There could be a whole book written on the subject of artificial temperatures and health, but that’ll have to be for another time. Sweating is good for you, and it is how your body naturally regulates your internal temperature. People who wear next to nothing outside when it is very hot are way more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion and other dangerous conditions. You’ll never find anyone who lives in the Sahara Desert wearing shorts and muscle shirt outside. That’s because they aren’t ready to die yet.
Also wear a hat. Cover your head. Take it off if you need to when you are in the shade, but don’t expose your head to the sun and the direct heat. It’s kind of dumb and it makes you feel ten times hotter.
For us, staying cool is just something that occurs to us naturally… from experience.
At night, when we were still without most of our current infrastructure and buildings, the summers could be brutal. Too many bugs to sleep out of doors, but so hot in our little tents or our cabin that we were sweltering and miserable. So we learned some new ways to stay cool.
When we finished our root cellar, we would use it as a place of respite from the heat. In one particularly hot summer… 2006… so hot and dry that our cattle tanks and surface water all dried up and disappeared… we would wake up at 4 a.m. to do all of our chores. By 11 a.m., when the 105-107 degree temperatures were getting started, we’d go down and “siesta” in the root cellar for most of the day. We would surface again before dark to do our evening chores. A small battery powered fan in the root cellar to move the air would actually give us chills. But we didn’t need the fan at all!
We would wet our clothes before we’d go to bed, and try to arrange our sleeping so that we could catch any breeze that might come through a window. My wife and daughters still take a “bucket shower” right before bed so that their body temp is cooled before trying to sleep. Wetting a t-shirt to wear to bed (or even your sheets) can produce evaporative cooling and really cool you down. On days when we happened to buy ice, I’d take a few cold beers or sodas and use the cans to cool me before sleep. If you put something icy cold on your biggest arterial contact points (where the biggest arteries are closest to the skin) you can cool your blood rapidly. Putting a cold can or bottle on your carotid arteries (on your neck as the blood heads up to your brain,) in your armpits, where your arteries run up at the bend of your arm, on your wrists, behind your knees, and where you arteries are near the surface at your groin, this can produce rapid cooling to the body. It works great… IF you happen to have an icy cold beverage!
During the days we learned to take it easy during the hottest part of the day. Finding the shade and a
breeze and slowing down to talk, communicate, tell stories, etc. made us both cooler and closer as a family. This is the way families used to interact. We find ourselves gathering around our shaded picnic table, or sitting with one another beneath a 300 year old oak tree that is right behind our cabin. Kind of brings some perspective.
We talk about a lot of things, and only rarely do we discuss how hot it is, even if we do note it when a nice cool breeze blows through. We talk about books, politics, philosophy, current events, plans for the farm, projects we are working on. We talk about the animals, new hatchlings, maybe even the pigs getting into the garden. We talk about history too, because ignorance is not free. It costs something.
Now, I know this is not the way many modern families relate. And it is not for me to say that our way is better than other ways. We think it is, but that’s our opinion. This article is just about staying cool. But like I said… ignorance does cost something and maybe sometimes you are paying the costs without knowing it… because that is the way ignorance works. It’s not always a pejorative word. It just means you don’t know something, or you don’t know why something is happening.
The biggest thing to remember in all of this is this… artificial comforts cost something, and it isn’t just money. And there are great benefits to a life lived with simplicity, with care and respect for the environment, close to the land that brings forth its bounty for us. We don’t expect most other people to “get it” or even to agree with us. We’re just happy to be here and to share our lives with friends.