August 8, 2014

Cold Winters, Gas Heaters, and Americans Freezing in the Dark

We're well into August and American kids are about to return to the classroom while it's still 95 degrees outside (that's hot, even for Fahrenheit), while my friends in Johannesburg are breathing a collective sigh of relief because the mercury is finally inching up again. The coldest months of June and July are finally over. Spring is almost in the air in South Africa.

Winters on the Highveld are cold. Not as cold as our Tennessee winters, to be sure. In fact, most people in other parts of the world would kill for a summer that was like a Joburg winter. Cold nights yes, but lovely dry and sunny days, warm but not hot.

The problem, however, are those cold nights. And the fact that no South African house has any central heating. Nor does it have any double-paned windows or other insulation to speak of. There are gaps around your window frames and slits under your doors so wide that a small warthog could squeeze through. From the minute the sun goes down in the late afternoon until about 7:30 in the morning when it has reliably climbed over the horizon again without so much as a cloud in the sky to obscure it, you'll try everything to stay warm. You'll fire up the gas heater and nudge it ever so gently in your direction and away from your spouse, hoping he won't notice that the heat is now going elsewhere. While you're making a mental note that it's high time to order a new gas bottle, unless you've left it until too late and they are sold out everywhere. You'll make yourself the third cup of hot Rooibos tea in an effort to warm up from the inside. You'll busy yourself longer in the kitchen than strictly necessary and perhaps even get out the Christmas cookie recipes, just for an excuse to turn on the oven. But despite of all this you'll be shivering so badly by 8:30 pm that you'll give up and go to bed, where you'll huddle so close to your spouse that you're reminded of the days you were newly-weds. Or perhaps you've invested in an electric blanket and are happy as can be, watching TV shows that ran in the U.S. two seasons ago, except your only problem is that your fingers are freezing while channel flipping with the remote control. Though most likely you won't suffer long because the electricity will go off any minute, due to the strain on the power grid caused by all those electric blankets, and of course Medupi and Kusile (the two new power plants having been under construction for, oh, the last twenty years) still not having come online. All you can do is go to sleep really early, which is just as well because the infamous Hadedas will wake you up with their blood-curdling screech at 4:30, summer and winter alike. By the time the sun finally rises again, you'll be ready to worship it by sacrificing a small goat.

In short, you might very well be freezing in the dark during a typical Johannesburg winter.

The most welcome sight on a freezing Johannesburg winter morning

Which is the fate that apparently awaits us Americans here as well, if you are to believe the gloomy forecasts made by some people who reacted with outrage to President Obama's new emissions reduction goals for the year 2030. Climate change isn't really real, they say, and besides, even if it were, it's not worth doing anything about it if it means we'll be freezing in the dark.

It seems to me, with the United States using 25% of the world's energy (and having only something like 5% of its population) there is a long way to go before we ever freeze in the dark. We use so much energy it's ridiculous. We are energy hogs. That's because our energy, by and large, is very cheap. Yes, cheap. We still fill up our cars for less than half the price the rest of the world pays at the pump. We - and by that I mean mainly my oldest son - take half-hour hot showers because it doesn't cost that much at all. We not only expect access to electricity anywhere we go, we get upset if free Wifi doesn't come right with it, served straight up on a silver platter, password included, thank you very much.

I don't think anyone here is at risk of freezing in the dark anytime soon. You know where you're much more likely to freeze in the U.S.? In a typical shopping mall in the summer, where the air conditioning never fails to be set in arctic regions. 

When I am done with my shopping here in America, I so worship the lovely sunshine afterwards that I could sacrifice an entire bull.