The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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To Answer Your Question

Over the summer, at an author talk in support of my novel, Ecological Memory, somebody asked me how and why the post-fossil-fuel world I call for will be worth the inevitable hassle involved–certain things becoming more difficult an expensive.

The question becomes even more urgent when applied to my book specifically, in which the end of fossil fuel use is precipitated by disaster. I do not advocate disaster, but it seemed a plausible way to write the story.

So what’s good about that story?

Here’s a passage from a work in progress that expresses it well–bear in mind this is fiction, characters looking back on a history that hasn’t happened yet.

Not that the new society was post-apocalyptic in any but a technical sense. There was once again justice and order and mixed drinks served with little paper umbrellas, not that Elzy liked those. There were careers and national elections and stuff posted on the internet that shouldn’t be, and if none of it worked exactly the same way as it had before, that was alright with Elzy, who didn’t remember much from back then anyway.

There were even a few advantages. For example, when the fossil fuel industry collapsed in the economic chaos of the pandemic, switching to local, sustainable energy sources suddenly got a lot easier. Since then, conservation had, for the first time, become more than the art of losing slowly. People grieved their past. They no longer needed to grieve their future.

Ecological Memory, by Caroline Ailanthus

They no longer needed to grieve their future.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

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The Revolution Won’t Be in the Papers, Either

It has come to my attention that on September 17th, members of Extinction Rebellion used street theater, glue, and various non-violent shenanigans to temporarily shut down the New York headquarters of JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, and Bank of America, in protest of the fact that all three are heavily invested in fossil fuels. After police dispersed the demonstrations (a process that took several hours, thanks to the glue and what-not), the demonstrators left and joined a protest march to the UN headquarters, where they staged a mass “die-in.” That is, a large group of people lay down on the ground, pretending to have died, to illustrate the consequences of inaction on climate change. 36 protestors were arrested that day.

I found out about it because I got a peak an an as-yet-unpublished Extinction Rebellion newsletter. The newsletter is free, so you can go read it yourself once it’s published later this week.

I did not hear about it through the mainstream news media, and an online search confirms there were no mainstream American news stories about it–though a major protest in a major city would seem to be news-worthy. I did hear about Nancy Pelosi having a security issue in Milan recently, but the reason she was in Milan was never mentioned. Could the Pre-COP meeting held from September 29th to October 3rd have anything to do with it? But the Pre-COP, held to shape negotiations for the upcoming COP26 (a major international meeting on climate, billed as the “last, best hope to save the world”) hasn’t been in the news, either.

We’ve got to accept that as regards popular demands for climate action, we are under a media black-out.

I will not speculate as to whether the black-out is intentional or whose intention it may be, but the effect is undeniable; we aren’t getting news about climate demonstrations, so we can’t see how many people really care about the issue.

What does make the news? The rally held by Donald Trump in Iowa, where he hinted his intention to run for president again.

Pay attention. Make noise.

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So I’m mildly depressed right now. It will pass. I’ll be OK. But at the moment, I can’t really do much. It’s like having a head-cold, the kind where it’s not like you’re in any real danger, but you can’t really do much but sit on your couch wrapped in a blanket and sniffle for a couple of days.

So, no post this week.

If any of you live near me (and are up-to-date on your COVID vaccine), you might consider coming by with tea and we’ll binge-watch Star Trek: Next Generation and eat soup.


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A Deadly Threat

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. This article is a slightly-reworked version of one I first posted in 2016 and have posted again several times since. I’m posting it now because it says some important things, and because the 23rd was last week–’tis the season. Yes, this does get back around to climate change, I promise.

What I want to talk about is not the 1986 movie but the musical play it was based on. The two share characters, musical numbers, dialogue, that introductory monologue, and the script writer, Howard Ashman, yet they are fundamentally different works. I’ll get into the how and the why of that difference another time, on another blog, but for now let’s just say that the happy ending of the movie changes things.

The important thing is that the off-Broadway musical, but not the movie, works as a uniquely modern morality play, one with truly planetary implications. Was it intended to be such? Probably not–I’ve just watched an interview with Howard Ashman, included as a special feature on the DVD of the movie, and it seems as though he wrote the play simply as entertainment. Yet, as a fiction writer myself I can say that the creative process is largely sub-conscious and can include significance the writer knows nothing about. The allegory I am about to explicate is therefor quite valid because, even if it was not intended, it works.

A Synopsis

First, a summary of the plot so that we all know what we’re talking about.

The action takes place almost entirely inside a florist shop, inexplicably located in a truly terrible neighborhood. Not surprisingly, it’s in the process of going out of business. The staff consists of the owner, Mr. Mushnik; the floral designer, Audrey; and a shop assistant and plant geek, Seymour. The latter two are clearly in love with each other, though Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly. Into this mess of woe comes a strange little plant and, surprisingly, its very presence draws in lots of paying customers. Suddenly, business is booming.

The catch, as Seymour discovers, is that the plant is carnivorous and demands human blood. At first, being small, it does well on a few drops at a time from Seymour’s own fingers. As it grows–and begins to talk and sing–it demands more. At first Seymour refuses to commit murder to feed it, but begins to waver when the plant offers him money, fame, and access to beautiful women. When the plant points out that Audrey’s abusive boyfriend actually deserves to die (and he does, the man is awful), Seymour agrees. The following day, the dentist accidentally over-doses on nitrous oxide and Seymour calmly watches him die and then drags the body home for consumption.

With the dentist dead, Seymour has no trouble becoming Audrey’s new boyfriend. Their relationship is actually quite touching and sweet. But Mr. Mushnik saw Seymour cutting up the dentist’s body, and promises to keep quiet about it only if Seymour runs away and leaves the lucrative plant behind. The plant quietly suggests another alternative, which Seymour accepts, and Mr. Mushnik, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything he said he wanted, but the guilt is eating him. When a businessman suggests taking cuttings from the plant and selling them worldwide, Seymour rebels. But before he can extricate himself from the situation, the plant tricks Audrey into coming within reach and grabs her. Seymour pulls her out of the plant’s mouth, but for some unexplained reason she dies anyway. Her last request is that Seymour feed her body to the plant, because then by taking care of it, he’ll really be taking care of her, too. He complies, but then, in a rage of guilt and shame, grabs a knife and allows the plant to eat him, intending to cut it up from the inside. The plant then spits out the knife.

Shortly thereafter, the business man returns and begins taking cuttings.

While the play is ostensibly a comedy, and generally received as such by audiences, it is one of the most profoundly and disturbingly tragic stories I have ever encountered.

A Morality Play?

When I was a kid, watching both the movie and, later, the play, I always assumed that the plant was simply a carnivore, no more evil than any of the quite real entities that do specialize in eating human blood, such as certain species of mosquito (which, by the way, kill huge numbers of people through disease transmission). As an adult, I’ve started thinking about the story again and I’ve changed my mind.

The plant is just too clearly in control, and too clearly getting a kick out of its power, not to be held responsible for Seymour’s growing depravity. First the man sacrifices himself in a small way, then he kills for love and anger, then he kills for personal gain. Then he feeds the woman he loves to the plant, and then finally kills himself. The plant isn’t really after blood, is it? It’s after Seymour’s soul. And it wins.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings, which are equal to, and tied up in, the very things that make him great. Seymour is very much a hero in this sense, except that he is not strong or noble or talented–it is his very ordinariness that is both his appeal and his downfall.

Who among us would not do as he does, were we in his shoes? Who wouldn’t spare a little blood to save our livelihood? And, having accepted the cognitive dissonance involved in nursing a little blood sucker, killing for love isn’t such a big step. Letting Mr. Mushnik go isn’t too big of a step beyond that. Faced with unbearable loss and guilt, of course he makes a last, desperate attempt to fix his wrongs, and thereby serves the plant’s interest yet again, destroying himself and leaving it free to propagate. To identify with Seymour is to admit that we, too, could be culpable in the end of the world.

Maybe we already are.

Don’t Feed the Plants

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Silly, isn’t it? After all, carnivorous plants aren’t really a threat, are they?

The villain of the play may be fictional, but the human vulnerabilities it preys on are not. The reality is that we humans sweet-talk each other for blood regularly, with consequences just as stark and tragic as in this parable about a plant. It is that vulnerability that is the real subject of the final song’s warning.

But “plant” has a second meaning, as in “factory.” Is it too much of a stretch to interpret the warning quite specifically in terms of corporate industry? Global warming itself was not much on the public radar in 1982, when the play opened (though it was well-known by people who followed such things), but plenty of other environmental and social problems stemming from factories were in full view. Of course, those social and environmental ills are intimately connected to climate change, too–the same “plants” are responsible.

For us, as for Seymour, it has been a question of weighing costs in choices that seem like no choice. Of course he gave the plant his blood–what else was he going to do? His livelihood, and the good will of the only people in the world who even pretended to care about him, depended on it. It’s not like many of us have a real choice about fossil fuel, either. How else are we going to get to work? The availability of that energy has saved countless lives. But the price gets bigger over time.

Are you willing to give up the life of one sadistic dentist? How about the boss you never cared for anyway? Or the health and safety of people you don’t even know–like, for example, the people of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, who have startlingly high rates of cancer because of contamination from nearby tar sands development. Or the people of the Gulf Coast, where the oil industry (and other factors) is gradually destroying the wetlands on which both hurricane safety and the region’s fishing industry depend. Or the people of Oklahoma, who are coping with three hundred times the region’s natural rate of earthquake occurrence, thanks to the underground disposal of waste products from petroleum extraction. Or the half of all North American bird species that could be under threat from climate change by the end of this century. And on and on.

The question is, when do you stop paying the price? And what do you do when the choice you have is no choice, and any rebellion could result in your feeding your beloved into that green maw-and blaming yourself?

Look, it’s a horrible story, and it’s all too true. So, if singing about a carnivorous vegetable helps you keep your spirits up, then go for it. Pick up a light-hearted metaphor and use that for your motivation. Get silly with it. Use comedy and camp and music. Imagine each oligarchic climate denier in the halls of power all green and viney. And don’t go leaping into his jaws with a knife, either (I’ll let you work out that metaphor yourself) because we know that doesn’t work. If we fight it we’ve still got a chance

Come on, look up the music on YouTube or something and sing it with me:

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

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A Word About Freedom

I want to take a minute and talk about freedom.

What is freedom? Is it the wherewithal to do what we want? Is my freedom in opposition to your freedom, given that I might want to do things that prevent you from doing other things—or vice versa? Suppose, for example, that I want to drive north on the left side of a road while you are driving south on the right side of the same road. Must one of us give up our freedom, or must we have a head-on collision in defense of our liberty?

Put it another way; suppose I want the freedom to be healthy while you want the freedom to not wear a mask. We know that masks serve mostly to prevent the wearer from infecting others, so this isn’t as simple as a matter of personal choice. If I want to be protected, you’ve got to mask up. Whose freedom is more important?

I suspect most people reading this blog are in favor of public mask mandates as needed, vaccination mandates as needed, and so forth. For reasons that so far escape me, the matter has become politicized, and while I try to be politically neutral on this blog, the fact of the matter is most people who see masks and vaccinations as a threat to their freedom probably don’t read my stuff.

(If you do, then welcome—please introduce yourself!)

But among those who are pro-mask and pro-vaccine, I hear the discussion still framed in terms of limitations—we should give up some of our individual freedoms in order to take care of other people. Your freedom to extend your fist stops before it meets my nose. That sort of thing. Agreeing with the anti-mask crowd that a mask mandate limits freedom, in other words. And that’s a point I don’t concede.

See, I’ve always been bothered by the pluralization of “freedom,” the habit of using the word to mean the liberty to do what one wants, rather than using it to mean the condition of being free. A person is either free or not free. Freedom cannot be subdivided. And I am free even when I agree to drive only on the right side of the road.

The reason that traffic laws do not impinge on my freedom is that I am a citizen of a democracy. Indirectly, I make the laws. More directly and more precisely, the people who make the laws do so with my permission, and I may revoke my permission at any time. And while it’s true that I may be out-voted by people who like a style of governance I do not like, in theory all of us have the same access to power, the same authority, the same ability and responsibility to participate. In practice, of course, various forms of inequality exist—our democracy is made out of humans, and humans are sometimes corrupt and biased and criminal and so forth. But we have the ability and the responsibility to do something about that, to continually work to make our democracy more real.

To the extent to which I participate in the making of laws, the laws that limit my behavior do not impinge on my freedom. They are my laws.

All societies need a foundation of general agreement in order to function. We need to agree which side of the road to drive on, and what to do if somebody disagrees and drives on the wrong side. Otherwise, there can be no roads. There can be no driving. A free society is not one without limits on behavior—it’s one where the people are involved in deciding what the limitations are.

And yet I routinely hear people complain about “the government” as if it were somebody else. I routinely hear people talk about just laws and unjust laws as though who made the laws is not important. I routinely hear people talk about government misconduct as though the problem were the misconduct and not the fact that large areas of the government apparatus have somehow gotten away from us.

It’s as though many Americans believe themselves to be living under an autocracy and simply want the autocrats to behave better. In general, those on the political Left want the autocrats to be more effective at taking care of the people, while those on the Right want the autocrats to stay out of the people’s business. But we’re not supposed to be an autocracy. Our government is not supposed to be them. It’s supposed to be us.

I am concerned that people who believe themselves to be living under an autocracy will not notice as actual autocrats take over. I am concerned that people who believe government to be them will not use it as a tool to accomplish what we want.

The reason I bring all this up in a blog about climate change is that I believe individual action on climate has failed. We need collective action under government leadership. We need government leadership both to coordinate our actions and to make sure the resulting burdens are fairly born, and we need government leadership to counteract the private individuals of immense power who seek to keep us from doing anything of substance.

And we won’t get that leadership unless we believe government is our tool to use. We won’t get that leadership unless we understand that a law that makes us wear a mask or get a vaccine or give up certain plastic products or not use so much energy is not an example of the curtailment of our power as citizens of a democracy—it is the expression of our power itself.

It is our freedom.

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The Thing About Butter

In the summer (and increasingly in parts of the spring and fall) it is often too hot to cook anything indoors. That’s fine. There are plenty of things to eat that don’t require cooking (cantaloupe soup, for example: see my recipe at the bottom), plus we can use the grill, or we can carry the toaster oven outside and plug it in out there (a bit of a pain, but occasionally worth it). And the microwave doesn’t cause much waste heat at all. But breakfast toast gets to be a problem. It does not merit carrying the toaster oven outside, and in fact I eat too much bread anyway, but I like my breakfast toast on occasion, and in the summer I sometimes miss it.

So why not just have bread and butter?

Simple; the butter is too hard. I need the bread to be hot in order to melt the butter, otherwise it won’t spread.

So, basically, I need one energy-hungry machine (the toaster oven) to undo the effects of another energy-hungry machine (the fridge). If the butter were kept at room temperature, it would spread nicely on bread in the summer, just like all the bread and butter eaten in all the children’s books I was raised on, where everybody is always eating bread and butter (or bread and jam) and there aren’t any refrigerators because it is the 1800s and refrigerators haven’t been invented yet.

And in fact, keeping butter at room temperature is perfectly safe. My mother says so, and since I realize you might not accept my mother’s authority in the matter, I have just looked it up. Several reliable-looking websites agree, but this one explains it best. The short version is that butter doesn’t have enough protein to feed bacteria well, and salted butter is actually mildly antibacterial–you can’t disinfect your hands with the stuff, but bacteria put in salted butter on purpose (scientists are odd folk) gradually die off. Left out long enough (weeks or months), butter will go rancid, but the main problem with rancid butter is it tastes icky. The official recommendation is to not leave butter out for more than a few days in hot weather, just in case–especially if it’s unsalted or whipped–and to keep it in a covered dish to minimize contact with light and air so as to delay rancidity, but yeah, butter does not need to be refrigerated. So you don’t need to toast bread just to spread butter on it.

I’m not saying that room-temperature butter is more “eco-friendly” in any categorical way. In some circumstances it might be, but categorical, simplistic rules for “green” living tend not to work well. I’m saying that sometimes, if you find yourself trying to solve a problem caused by one energy-hungry machine with a second energy-hungry machine, dropping the first machine might be the better solution.

Apply that lesson anywhere you want, folks.




(As promised, here is the recipe)

Cantaloupe Soup


1 ripe cantaloupe (or other, similar melon, such as honeydew or crenshaw)

Almond milk or similar


Balsamic vinegar (ideally lemon-flavored)

Powdered ginger

Powdered fennel seed

Powdered cardamom


  1. Remove seeds and rind from cantaloupe and puree the fruit
  2. Add all the other ingredients to taste, stirring to make sure everything is mixed in evenly
  3. Chill, if desired (will keep in the fridge for several days)
  4. Serve plain or with some dry granola for added texture. If you want to get fancy, garnish with a fresh fennel sprig.

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You Are Not Being Excluded

There is a meme going around that says something like the following:

If you disagree with a scientist about their conclusions but are not a scientist yourself, you’re not having a difference of opinion, you’re just wrong.

No, I don’t know who said it, there’s no attribution

Predictably, this meme brings out lots of comments to the contrary. The basic counter-argument is that science is a process, not a body of knowledge, that it progresses precisely by being questioned, and that anyone is therefore free to question scientific conclusions.

And that’s true–because anybody is free to become a scientist.

The meme is probably inspired by the situation with COVID-19, where so many people are questioning medical expertise and claiming to know better, but of course the same thing happens with climate change. So it’s worth taking a moment to respond to these responses, seeing as they are so almost right.

On the Nature of Opinion

Everybody has a right to their opinion. True enough. But there are two important caveats to remember. First, and most important, “opinion” doesn’t simply mean “idea.” The word refers specifically to matters that are subject to judgment–judgments of value, judgments of priority, or judgments of likelihood in the absence of verified fact.

In my opinion, New York City is a great place to visit, but only briefly.

You are free to disagree with my opinion. Yours might be that New York is an awful place to visit, or you may hold that visits to New York should ideally be as long as possible. Fine. We disagree. And while it might be fun to try to convince each other (“but there are museums and plays and soft pretzels with mustard!” “Yes, but the whole place is noisy and busy and awful!”), If neither of us wants to budge, there’s really not much to do about it. Neither of us can be proven wrong.

But if you assert that, in your opinion, New York City is south of Maryland, you’re just wrong.

Professional opinions seem to be a special case, in that they involve matters that seem to be factual. For example, a doctor might say “in my opinion, you have COVID-19, not the flu.” But a doctor would only say that if a test were not available, or if a decision needed to be made before test results could be obtained. The doctor is making a judgment call in a situation where too few facts are available for certainty.

And this brings us to the second caveat.

The thing is, if your doctor issues a medical opinion and you, a non-doctor, have a different opinion on the same matter, yes, you have a right to your opinion in the sense that you have a right to think about stuff and you cannot be proven wrong (at least not until the test results come back), but nobody else is obligated to give your opinion any weight.

Not all judgments are equal. If you don’t understand the subject matter, are biased in some way, or simply have poor judgment, your opinion shouldn’t carry much weight, and you would be wise to listen to someone else.

On the Nature of Expertise

But, you may be saying, discussing the definition of the word “opinion” is all very well and good, but isn’t it true that science is advanced by outsiders questioning established “orthodoxy”?

Yes, it is. Under three circumstances.

Non-scientists may catch an area where scientists are factually wrong. In many (not all) areas, noticing a fact requires no special training, and it’s not unusual for people with daily, intimate familiarity with something to know facts about it that scientists don’t–either through honest inadequacy of data, or because the theory says such-and-such can’t be true, so the learned experts ignore evidence to the contrary. Then the kid who doesn’t know the theory shouts out that the emperor has no clothes and–whoops!–she’s right!


A non-scientist may have an idea that turns out to be right more or less by coincidence. That is, somebody has a flash of insight and comes up with a novel explanation for how something works, an explanation that a researcher later checks out and finds to be correct. The correctness may not be coincidental in the full sense, that of randomness–the non-scientist may be familiar with the field in question, and may have a good sense for what is plausible and what isn’t. But if the non-scientist doesn’t know how to collect reasonably complete and unbiased data and doesn’t bother to test the idea empirically, it’s as likely to be wrong as to be right.


The “non-scientist” may actually be a scientist who is simply self-taught. Although getting a formal education in one of the sciences is incredibly useful, it is not, strictly speaking, necessary. A self-taught outsider might indeed have difficulty being taken seriously by the establishment and might, by the same token, discover something that establishment scientists are reluctant to see. But it’s important to recognize that anyone doing science for real, someone who has developed real expertise and a real rigor of method, is a scientist.

This is the thing. It’s not that you need letters after your name or the recognition and approval of a field’s gate-keepers in order to have a valid professional opinion about a scientific matter–it’s that you need to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, then your opinion isn’t worth very much.

It’s like this:

Let’s say that you and I meet an introduce ourselves to each other. I tell you “my name is Caroline Ailanthus,” and you say “no, it isn’t.”

I say “yes, it is,” and you say “well, then, I guess we’ll just have to disagree on that.”


I am the expert on what my name is. I suppose I could be lying, but that’s a whole different topic. I can’t just be wrong about my own name. And even if I could be wrong about it, there is no way you could be more right than I am. If you disagree with me on my name, you are simply wrong.

Similarly, a scientist can be wrong about science, but probably isn’t, and if you are not an expert in the same field, the chance of you being right when the scientist isn’t are so vanishingly small that we don’t need to worry about it much. That’s what expertise means. That’s what being an authority in the field means.

It means they know what they’re talking about.

But you’re not being excluded. If you want to speak authoritatively about climate change or immunology or anything else, simply become an expert yourself. Once you know what you’re talking about, you’ll be free to talk all you like, and you might even be heard.

From, by Randall Monroe

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Car, Car

The title is a reference to a charming Woody Guthrie song that has nothing to do with this post other than that both concern automobiles.

The thing is that last year my husband and I set out to use less gas. To that end, we recorded our monthly usage for the better part of a year to get a baseline, derived an average monthly figure from those records, took ten percent off that, and called it our goal for the next year.

We are not on track to meet it.

That is, we have met or exceeded our goal in some months, but our average monthly figure is now almost certain to be too high. And since we’re keeping records of our driving, we not only can see that we’re not on track, but also we can see something about why. The problem is that we can’t cut our usage simply by cutting back on driving that seems unnecessary to us because we weren’t doing unnecessary driving anyway. To cut back on usage, we’d need to change our definition of “necessary,” a fundamental, rather than a superficial, lifestyle shift.

I put that in the conditional (“we’d” rather than “we’ll”) because it’s far from obvious whether such a shift even makes sense. Let’s look at what we use our vehicles for.

Occasionally (perhaps once a year, on average), we take long trips, such as up to New England and back. We left those out of our goal-setting calculations because they are outliers that would otherwise obscure and distort the patterns of our usage. After that, the bulk of our car usage is trips to visit my family or his, each about two hours away. Before COVID, we sometimes went to Washington, DC for political marches. Someday, we’ll do that again. In the spring, much mileage was also taken up with Chris volunteering at vaccination clinics–local trips, but several a week. We also make one or two local trips per week to go shopping, take the garbage to the dump, take one or the other animal to the vet, or similar things, sometimes with a detour to a trailhead or a restaurant added on to the loop. That’s about it.

Of these, which should we cease doing? Should we stop seeing friends and doing volunteer work in New England? To be clear, between the two of us we gave about 470 hours of our labor to a national park in Maine this year, in addition to enjoying ourselves and the place very much. Should we not? Should Chris stop volunteering locally as an EMT? Should he stop seeing and helping out his parents? Should I stop seeing and helping out my nieces and nephew? Should we not take our dogs to the vet anymore?

Yes, there may be a mile or two we could cut out every week on average, a purchase or a visit or an errand or an adventure curtailed, but why? Would such a small savings be worth our becoming recluses?

It’s not that Chris and I don’t have a carbon footprint worth shrinking, it’s that much of our footprint is likely embodied in things we don’t have direct control over, such as food and clothing that just isn’t made locally and that unavoidably comes in plastic, because everything comes in plastic, now. And so on.

This is the limitation of personal lifestyle change.

There are people who could indeed dramatically reduce their carbon footprints simply by cutting out luxuries and inefficiencies that they won’t even miss. They should do so. Most probably won’t. For the rest of us, lifestyle changes are an exercise in awareness and a practice in dedication and not much more–if they are even possible. The farther down the socioeconomic scale you go, the less power you have to change the circumstances of your life.

If personal lifestyle change were going to save the world, it would have already. It’s been how many years we’ve been doing this?

We need political leadership. We need to come together through the medium of our elected government and make the changes that we can’t make individually. Some of those changes are going to be unpleasant for some people, mostly but not exclusively the very wealthy (who have the resources to adjust and will basically be OK). But if we do not make those changes, and make them now, the result will be unpleasant and worse than unpleasant for a great many people, mostly but not exclusively the poor and the disenfranchised (who lack the resources to adjust and are not going to be OK). To organize collective action on the part of the people is what a democratically-elected government is for.

Get involved in politics and VOTE.

Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

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Breathing Soup

I’m in a melancholy mood tonight, listening to music I’ve known and loved since childhood, which is not always a cheering thing to do, and since I spent most of the day writing about mushrooms for money, I have neither the time nor energy to research and write a long science-explainer piece…..

Which is unfortunate as I have a question I want explained.

See, when I was a kid, summer days were in the 90’s (temperature-wise; time-wise it was the ’80s) and were spent most of those days running around outside. Yes, we complained about the heat. Yes, we sometimes dived into the air-conditioner for relief. Afternoons, I’d jump into the shower in my clothes for a minute just to cool off. An ice cube rubbed over the skin and over the eyes was nice, too. But we played outside. My dad gardened. We were OK.

Now, if a day breaks the 90s, you can’t go outside because it’s like breathing soup. Hot soup. The situation quickly becomes dangerous.

Has the relative humidity gone up? My mother has to run a dehumidifier so the walls don’t mold. She didn’t have to do that when I was little, so that suggests a change of some sort. Is this part of climate change? It would certainly fit, being as it’s another way that the world is more dangerous and less pleasant now….

But how would warming temperatures make the relative humidity go up? The absolute humidity, yes, warmer air holds more water, but since “relative humidity” means the water content of the air relative to what the air can hold, heating up the air should, if anything, make the relative humidity go down–which it definitely does, in some places.

So why am I breathing soup?

I poked around online for a few minutes and found a lot of information that doesn’t quite answer my question, which is actually two-fold–is the relative humidity in the Mid-Atlantic going up, and if it is, how?

Looks like a couple of hours online might find some answers, but it’s already after midnight and I am, as I said, melancholy.

So tonight we’ll rest in the question and not the answer.


Cool Machines

First of all, before we get started with this post—the other day, according to the site stats WordPress gives me, this blog got about six hundred views. Usually, I might get six hundred in a month, a good month, not in a day. As far as I can tell by looking at the figures, all these views came from just a few visitors, mostly from just one or two visitors. It looks like somebody read my entire blog, all the posts, or most of them, anyway.

Photo by David Law on Unsplash

So, I don’t know who you are, but I’m glad you liked my blog. I hope you keep reading it.

Now, on to our regularly-scheduled discussion!

I don’t like air-conditioners. I don’t like being too hot, either, so I occasionally accept air-conditioning without too much complaint, but “occasional” is the important word, here. Where possible, I prefer to adapt, take cold showers, hide in the shade, etc. I hate that weird, droning hum they have, I hate the strange, artificial scent they impart to the air, I hate the fact that they not only contribute to climate change by demanding energy but also by leaking Freon. Much hatred of air-conditioners. Many reasons.

Unfortunately, my husband does not share my antipathy.

“I’m just drying things out,” he says, reaching for the hated on-button. “It’s too sticky.”

Since humans cool our bodies primarily by evaporating sweat, increasing evaporation rates by lowering ambient humidity helps us keep cooler. He’s right about that.

So, since lowering the humidity makes us cooler, I started wondering if we could use a dehumidifier instead of an air-conditioner. It’s true that dehumidifiers run quieter and don’t make that weird air-conditioner scent. So how do the energy use of the two compare? And how does each compare to an electric fan? What are our options in a muggy, Maryland summer?

How Do the Machines Work?

Let’s start by reviewing how air-conditioners and dehumidifiers work. How do they differ? How are they the same?

How fans work is pretty well-known, I’d say, so we’ll skip them.

Turns out, air-conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, and most dehumidifiers work by compressing a refrigerant gas, typically some form of hydrochlorofluorocarbon or HFC for short (older models used one or another chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, mostly under the brand-name Freon. CFCs have been phased out to protect the ozone layer, but HFCs are powerful greenhouse gasses. So are CFCs). They all work on the principle that matter expands (becomes less dense) when it gets warmer and shrink (become more dense) as is cools. The connection between density and temperature works in both directions, so if you compress a gas, you literally squeeze the heat-energy out of it. All these machines cool air by first compressing the refrigerant to cool it, then running the refrigerant through a coil and blowing air over the coil. The heat moves from the air into the refrigerant, heating it up and expanding it. The refrigerant is then pumped back to the compressor to start the cycle all over again.

And since cool air holds less moisture than warm air, when the air cools much of its moisture condenses and drips out into a holding container or an exit pipe.

The big difference is that an air-conditioner has two fans, one to blow air over the cooling coil and into the room, the other to blow air over the compressor and away from the room—remember that the heat that is squeezed out of the refrigerant by the compressor must go somewhere (energy can’t be destroyed, as per the First Law of Thermodynamics). It goes into the surrounding air, which goes outside—that’s why small air-conditioning units are mounted in windows. In contrast, dehumidifiers have only one fan, so the hot and cold air mix back together for little to no net temperature change in the room. If anything, the room gets warmer.

So if a dehumidifier is just an air-conditioner that doesn’t cool the room, why not just have an air-conditioner?

The articles I read don’t explain this point, but I can guess. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air, so by letting the dry air warm back up, dehumidifiers increase the air’s ability to suck up more moisture. It’s like when you squeeze a wet sponge to dry it—to use the sponge again, you have to let it re-expand so it can soak up more water.

But the commonly-used compressor dehumidifiers are not the only option. Some use a chemical desiccant. I’m seeing different statements as to whether they use more or less electricity than a compressor-based model, but in any case they warm the air significantly. Apparently, there are also dehumidifiers that work with an electrically-cooled plate, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about them. They don’t seem to be easily available.

Comparing Energy Use

OK, time for a direct comparison on energy use among three kinds of machine—dehumidifiers, air-conditioners, and fans. Note that it looks really easy to get lost in the weeds here, because there is a lot users can do to increase or decrease the efficiency of whatever they’ve got, plus a lot of variation between models, sizes, and so forth. Let’s avoid the weeds, for now.


OK, this is odd. One source I found claims that dehumidifiers use very little electricity, much less than most other appliances, while another claims that they use a significant amount of electricity, more than many other appliances. And yet, their numbers don’t disagree.

One says the average unit draws between 300W and 700W, depending on size, while the other says the average unit (big ones and small ones combined, apparently), draws 459W.

“W,” in this case, is short for Watts, a Watt being a measure of how quickly the electricity is flowing. An appliance with a low flow-rate could use more electricity than one with a high flow-rate if it’s on longer. And it’s true some people run their dehumidifiers non-stop—but then, refrigerators, which, according to the one source use less energy, are on all the time. So I don’t understand how similar numbers could lead to such different assessments.

Window-Mounted Air-Conditioners

We have a window unit, so that’s what I’m interested in.

How much electricity an air-conditioner unit uses depends on a lot of factors—its size, model, and age, but also how big an area it has to cool (and presumably how much difference there is between the temperature it’s set for and the temperature the room would otherwise be).

But general estimates vary from 500W for the smallest window units to 1440W for the largest ones. Central systems use dramatically more.


There are many different kinds of fans, and the article I’m looking at doesn’t have an option that looks like the one we use the most. Fortunately, all the various options except a “whole-house fan” come in somewhere between 30W and 100W, not really a huge range.

It’s worth noting that those are per-unit figures. If you’ve got a fan running in every room, they could all add up to something more significant.

So, What’s the Cool Choice?

According to the numbers, if you can get by with a fan only, do it.

It looks like a humidifier is a better option than an air-conditioner, too. Dry heat is much better than humid heat, after all, so if it’s 83° F. out with 95% humidity (that’s a heat index of 97°, by the way, which is dangerous), getting to 55°F and 50% humidity with a humidifier sounds like a pretty good deal.

Actually, according to my calculation, dropping the humidity significantly and not dropping (or slightly raising) the temperature with a dehumidifier looks as good or better, in terms of heat index, than dropping the temperature but barely addressing the humidity with an air-conditioner.

So, it looks as though a dehumidifier should be used first, reserving the air-conditioner only for more extreme conditions.

So why isn’t anybody doing that?

The articles I’ve read on dehumidifiers almost exclusively recommend the machines for seriously damp conditions, like basements, not achieving “dry heat” on hot days. I’m at a point in my life where I can admit that if I come up with an idea that nobody else is trying, it’s probably not because I’m brilliant.


Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash