Our Grandchildren May Be Chilly

By Russell Kirk

Even on the sheltered southern side of our old house, last night, our outside thermometer’s mercury retreated down into its cup—which means that the temperature was more than 30 degrees below zero. With insulation and natural-gas heat, this didn’t bother us. But not many decades from now, Americans of our clime may be a shivering people once more.

For the present generation continues to consume natural resources at a terrifying rate. Petroleum and natural gas cannot last forever, no matter how many new fields prospectors discover. Coal already has become a relatively costly fuel for domestic heating; in the 19th century, it was dirt cheap. And electrical heating really is the most wasteful form of all, even if temporarily convenient; the problem of providing more electric power already is acute.

People talk of future heating from atomic piles: But that’s not practicable yet on a grand scale, and may never be: for the exhaustion of sources of energy by atomic fission is colossal, and we don’t yet know how to dispose properly of atomic wastes.

We are wasteful with our fuels for heating. Nowadays 75 degrees is a common winter temperature in American houses, though a good many folk like it still hotter. (Did they experience such room temperatures in summer, they’d turn on the air conditioning, if they have such.) Such warmth is quite unnecessary; a temperature of 68 degrees is healthier for nearly everybody. Indeed, we keep most rooms in our house around 62 degrees—and wear clothes.

Keeping warm was a principal problem of man in northern regions from his first appearance until our century. We’ve not really solved that problem—we’ve only indulged ourselves by consuming fuel resources that cannot be replenished. Future generations may denounce our prodigality.

Arnold Toynbee remarks that the advance or retardation of civilized institutions is closely connected with fuel supplies. If a people must spend a great part of their time gathering winter fuel—as they had to depend on brush from the steppes of what now are the plains of Soviet Russia—they have that much less time for other activities. The high degree of creature comforts that modern Americans enjoy must depend, in part, on ready supply of efficient fuel.

So fuel conservation is one of the most important aspects of ecological planning, We need to think about that right now. Most of us could be perfectly healthy without overheated rooms.

Until less than a decade ago, my old house was heated solely by cast-iron stoves; we burned wood, which is plentiful in our parts, and that kept the wood lots in good condition, rather than exhausting them. One piled quilts on the beds at night, and though it was rather like camping out, habit made the chilliness almost painless.

I have lived much in Britain, afflicted in this century by a permanent fuel shortage—only temporarily relieved by electric (and costly) heat in the new houses. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Britain’s climate is mild in comparison with northern America’s, despite latitude.

Still, British winters are wet and raw. But one dresses in tweeds, keeps a peat fire (delightful smelling but low in heat) smoldering on the hearth in the remote Orkneys or Shetlands or Hebrides, and manages well enough. The cities of England cannot be heated by peat, of course, any more than the cities of America could be heated by firewood. But my point is that one doesn’t need a subtropical domestic climate in winter; the human body soon adjusts to what the typical American nowadays would consider extreme discomfort.

I have wintered in Avila, the coldest town in the mountains of Spain, vast snowdrifts shutting in the ancient city-with only charcoal braziers to warm—even the dining room. Though proud of their sobriety, in winter the people of Avila drink remarkable quantities of brandy—and don’t grow tipsy, the alcohol warming the body rather than befuddling the brain. That’s why, incidentally, whisky first was distilled in the highlands and islands of Scotland.

If we don’t reduce our consumption of fuel, we’d best prepare to increase our consumption of strong drink; either that, or build igloos and bundle up Like Eskimos.