Monday, May 19, 2008

Are We Going Soft?

I got to thinking about this question earlier in the month. On the 1st of the month I was driving my son to school. Out of the blue he said, "Yeah, we get to turn on the air conditioner today!" What made it odd was the fact that it was 4o degrees and snowing, with a coat of ice and slush building up on the windshield and visibility down to a few car-lengths.

My son claimed that (on a very muggy day back in February) I had promised him we could turn on the car AC on May 1st. My vague recollection is that I said June 1st, and only maybe June 1st.

What I know is that we humans love comfort. We seek it everywhere. So much of our materialistic urges seem to be centered around procuring comfort (and security, probably in equal measure--an issue I'll get to another day). Climate-control, the ability to adjust our living environment to a narrow range of comfort, is just one example. We spend now such a large proportion of our days indoors (is it 90%?--I need to check the statistics). We go from our climate-controlled homes, into our climate-controlled cars, then to our climate-controlled workplaces, malls, gyms, churches, etc. So the bulk of our lives are spent in a very comfortable, but narrow temperature range, maybe roughly 68-74 degrees Fahrenheit.

My question is, over the long term, what might this do to the viability of our species? One thing is for certain, over our long history we have shown ourselves to be creatures of extreme adaptability. We can be found on the coldest tundras, in the hottest deserts, in humid rainforests, temperate regions, on mountain heights --pretty much in every climatic zone. There may be no other species on earth as climatically adaptable as us humans.

Now, obviously if we looked at individual cases within our species we wouldn't seem quite as adaptable. You couldn't take someone from the Amazonian rainforest and transplant them onto the Canadian tundra, or vice versa, without causing those individuals significant physical stress. As individuals we are adapted to our local conditions. But even those conditions, minus central heating and air conditioning fluctuate quite widely. Where I live, over the course of the seasons and years and decades, I can experience -20 degree temperatures and 105 degree temperatures. In the tropical rainforests even, between daytime highs and nighttime lows, there can be significant variability, far more than in our climate-controlled world where we might only experience a range of less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

If we continue over many generations to live in air-conditioned comfort, might we eventually begin to lose the higher and lower ranges of our climatic adaptability? And if so, then what happens at the end of the carbon era if we haven't found adequate energy substitutes? Or what happens if war, or an asteroid or any other circumstance destroys our ability to artificially heat and cool our environment? There is no promise that our civilization will always continue in its present form. In fact it's a given that it won't. (For an interesting look at the fleeting nature of societies read Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) So, what might happen to a species adapted only to a very narrow temperature range when it is suddenly forced to face extreme temperatures? I admit I don't know a whole lot about human physiology, but I do know that temperature extremes stress the heart at the very least. And obviously there's heat stroke and hypothermia. What other effects there might be I simply don't know.

I'm just speculating, and I think it's important that we all begin speculating about the ways our lifestyle choices now impact not just the present but the far reaches of the future. It's so easy to grab for comfort without thinking about anything other than our immediate desires, but responsible and mature humans must think through the far-reaching implications of all of our choices. If we choose to remain adaptable (by spending far more of our time outdoors, or by foregoing air-conditioning, or setting the thermostat far lower in the winter) we may sweat and we may shiver, but we may be doing a very great service to humanity in the process.

What are other ways in which humans may be going soft?

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