Not a minute too soon. Our cities are literally melting. New York is a sauna. Here we're advised not to go outside during the hottest part of the day, which is 8am until 8pm. The public-radio newscasters keep referring to the forecast as "dangerously hot." The commissioner of emergency management called it "extremely dangerously hot." The energy company has been phoning me, and texting me, warning me to be judicious about consumption. (It's not just me, they do that with everyone.)
(Not to brag, but the automated voice also told me that I'm one of the lowest energy users on the block (I don't think it says that to everyone?) and that made me wonder if we should all share those numbers and make a "game" of keeping them low. So I looked it up, and this approach to energy conservation has been studied—as has using gamification to put the onus on individuals instead of addressing systemic failures of all sorts—and it might sort of have some effect, maybe.)
An insatiable need for a quantifiable sense of superiority isn't the only reason to conserve energy, though.
It truly is dangerously hot in many places. And when energy grids go down, even more people die from heat-related illness than usual. Heat-related deaths are the kind that tend to go overlooked because the populations most affected are poor and elderly. The numbers are also difficult to quantify, because extreme heat can trigger a heart attack or stroke or kidney failure, and that's what ends up on the death certificate. Rather than "too hot." Suffice to say, extreme heat contributes to far more illness and suffering than it gets credit for.
And right now, the dangers stand to be compounded in places where the pandemic has already stretched healthcare systems thin. So it's truly reassuring to see heat being taken seriously as a public-health issue. (Newscasters used to frame heat waves as sort of fun, like, Get ready to head to the beach! It's gonna be a scorcher! That always sounded to me like announcing, Put on your swim trunks, folks! Gonna be a wet one! while a category III hurricane is making landfall.)
As hot as New York is, things are relatively tepid compared to the heat waves elsewhere. Seattle has apparently had more 100-degree days this year than it did in the entire rest of the century combined. Cities like Portland, which hit 116 degrees in June, are not built for extreme heat, as The New York Times put it. To be fair, neither is New York. Every city has its breaking point; a temperature at which roads and bridges and electrical grids fall apart. (New York, by contrast, is constantly falling apart.)
And these cities could be considered fortunate in that they are not literally on fire, like so much of California and Montana. (Hey, apropos of nothing ... what's a safe place to live? One that won't inevitably flood or burn or desiccate or tear open or be shaken into oblivion? Tell me, if you know. And please don't say Canada. I realize it's Canada.)
Hostile conditions have quickly started to feel normal, like they've just always been this way. Especially since the pandemic destroyed the parts of our brains that sense time. But this week the U.N. climate report reminded us otherwise: Summer didn't always mean fires the size of Houston. Summer didn't always mean unbreathable air and skies darkened by a blaze two thousand miles away.
What's more, this "United Nations" group claims we can still do things. But this is our "final wake-up call." I feel like we've heard that before, and pressed the snooze button a couple billion times. Now, to prevent irreversible destruction, as Jimmy Carter warned in 1977, we truly need "immediate action."
At this point, though, we should be way beyond asking individuals to turn down their thermostats or championing parchment straws or politely suggesting eating more beans or texting people to please pause mining their Bitcoin during a heat emergency. The world needs to overhaul the way energy is produced, and the ways people are moved around, and any meaningful solution depends on dramatic, long-term, collective action.
So, my takeaway was that it won't happen.
I'm only mostly serious. Humans do seem capable of taking action, but often only after the situation is so dire that no other course seems even mildly tenable. There has to be a collective hitting of rock bottom. It doesn't seem like we're there yet.
(Un)fortunately, though, that may be what's happening with vaccination in the U.S. After months of declining demand, on Wednesday we broke 500,000 shots in a single day, for the first time since June. For many people, it seems, it's finally time. A virus that killed millions wasn't, itself, enough of a risk. But a more transmissible variant tipped the scales.
That sounds glib, but it's true in a way that stuck in my head this week. We all have our thresholds for taking action. It may be helpful to remember that big decisions (which many people consider getting vaccinated to be) are rarely the result of any single conversation. More often, we act only as a result of a gradual accretion of factors. It's like how you probably don't often go to see a movie just because you saw one trailer that looked interesting. You go because you saw a trailer, then later you saw a billboard, then your friend raved about the movie, then you found yourself at a movie theater, so you choose that movie. (Remember going to movies?)
For some people, the decision process is similar with regard to vaccination. Say your cousin mentions that he got vaccinated, and suggests that you should, too. You say no. Then a pharmacist offers you a shot while you're picking up a prescription. You decline. Then you see something about how the delta variant is especially dangerous. Then you hear from a friend whose kid got sick. On and on. Eventually, next time you're at the pharmacy, and you get offered a shot, you say yes.
Point being, the cousin (remember the cousin?) probably feels like he failed, because it seemed like you couldn't be reached. And you threw your drink at him, and made fun of his beard.
But actually, that conversation helped. All kinds of tiny efforts to chip away at seemingly intractable problems actually do matter, even when you don't immediately see progress.
Take care, keep going,