An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

These days you don’t have to drive too long before you’ll come across a hybrid car. High gasoline prices are finally having an effect. SUVs are out and hybrids, as well as other high mileage vehicles, are suddenly very much in demand. We simply can’t afford the gas.What about homes? Families are beginning to feel the pain of electric bills. Many, particularly lower-income households in colder climes, are quite worried about how they’ll be able to pay the heating bill this winter.

But, from what I’ve observed in the South, folk haven’t yet reached the point of cutting back on their beloved air conditioning. To recommend as much would be tantamount to suggesting that Southerners stop drinking sweet tea.

Let’s face it. Americans, especially Southerners, are absolutely addicted to AC. From the first warm day in April through the last gasp of Indian summer in October, we’re going to have the air on.

During my childhood, 30-40 years ago, in North Carolina’s mountains, hardly anyone had air conditioners. Summers weren’t very long and we could put up with 85-degree summer afternoons as long as nighttime temps dropped below 65.

On the other hand, my bride from sultry Alabama grew up with air. After all, the electricity rates of TVA and other southern utilities have always been cheap. And guess who still has the highest residential energy consumption in the U.S.–Alabama, followed by Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

But by the time we were married, I too had grown to expect air conditioning six months out of the year. After all, it’s vital that we remain ensconced in houses, cars, offices, churches, stores and other air-conditioned life support systems for protection from temperatures of 75 degrees and above.

Then, in 1994, we moved to Thailand.

Except for a marvelous three-month “winter” reprieve during which temps range closely to what we called summer in Western Northern Carolina, it’s either hot and dry or hot and humid.

For most Thais, air conditioned homes are way out of reach. In contrast, every house we’ve rented in Thailand has had AC units.

However, it didn’t take long for us to realize that we couldn’t afford to run the air 24/7. So, we decided to save it at least for sleeping. But several years ago, when energy prices started to climb and the value of the dollar began to drop, our budget would only allow air conditioning during the hottest of hot nights.

Our Thailand threshold is now 88 degrees in the bedroom at bedtime; thankfully, which isn’t that often. But we’re not complaining. Whereas we have at least some access to this luxury, the vast majority in the developing world do not. Still, my hot flash-prone wife is grateful for the occasional relief offered by AC (by the way, she gave me permission to say that).

We’re proof positive that Americans, even Southerners, can adjust to fewer creature comforts. And with open windows (screened of course), we can appreciate the morning song of birds, a pleasant breeze and marvel at the cooling power of strategically placed electric fans.

With regard to energy consumption and our American lifestyle, the day of reckoning is coming for everyone. Rising energy costs are putting upward pressure on electric bills, even in TVA-land. The poor are already feeling it.

And like those who’ve begun to park their SUVs, it may be necessary for many to give up their energy hog McMansions just to afford heating and cooling bills.

Realistically, though, we can begin weaning ourselves off of high residential energy consumption. We can lessen our energy footprints by installing compact fluorescent bulbs, switching off unnecessary lights and by moderating thermostats.

And many of us can start treating our homes a bit like hybrid cars. Whereas a Toyota Prius alternates between gasoline power and self-generated electricity, we might try cutting the AC and opening windows whenever outside temps range between 55 and 75 degrees.

Reducing consumption, whether electricity, gasoline or water, isn’t just financially prudent, it’s a spiritual act. It means denying the flesh after a long binge of seeking extreme comfort and convenience. It means showing solidarity and Christian concern for those with less; those whose consumption footprints are far smaller than ours. And it means honoring both creation and the Creator by using resources wisely.

By the way, scientists are now reporting that Arctic ice is on the verge of an all-time low. If we don’t begin moderating our high-carbon lifestyles soon, we’re likely in store for some very drastic and nasty changes.

Rick Burnette is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionary in Thailand.

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