Extreme Heat Is Boring

But Can Feeling Trapped Indoors Motivate Us to Climate Action?

This summer’s record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures are inspiring “climate ennui,” writes Zócalo editor-at-large Caroline Tracey. Is there a way to channel our A/C-chilled listlessness for good? Courtesy of Michael Tuszynski/Unsplash.

The first time I met someone from Tucson, Arizona, I asked him a burning—pardon the pun—question. How did people there tolerate the summer heat? I pictured my childhood summers in Denver: hours-long games of “ghost in the graveyard” with my cousins, backyard badminton, and Frisbee at the neighborhood park. None of that would be fun in triple digits. He replied that it was easy: You just stay indoors. “It’s like winter in other places—a season where you can’t do anything,” he said.

In an unexpected twist, I now live in Tucson, which, along with much of the Sunbelt, has seen record-breaking, triple-digit days this summer. The media coverage of this extreme heat has, rightly, focused on those who are most vulnerable to high temperatures’ impacts: unhoused individuals, seniors, those with chronic illnesses, and in under-resourced neighborhoods, and the 20% of Arizonans who work outdoors. In Europe, where the temperatures are unprecedented, new research has raised concerns about how the absence of widespread air conditioning makes Europe unprepared for increasing heat.

But in the Sunbelt, most people have A/C. According to the Energy Information Administration, 94% of Arizona households use air conditioning, along with 95% of Texans and 96% of Floridians. That doesn’t mean that those of us who are healthy, housed, and work indoors are spared any need for heat-related concerns. But it does mean that the recommendation for tolerating the extreme heat is simple: Stay indoors.

The effect of this is that the experience of extreme heat isn’t dominated by danger, stress, or even grief, but something simpler and more surprising: Extreme heat is boring.

Discovering this made me think a little harder about what my Tucsonan acquaintance had said. Arizona summer wasn’t like winter—because winter wasn’t boring. Colorado not only had winters, but had built a massive economy around the season’s sports. Winter was full of activity. My brother and I took a “ski bus” to the mountains six Sundays each year. When local news announced a snow day, we went sledding and built forts. Once, when an unusually thick layer of snow had collected, my P.E. teacher led us into a forgotten basement room that held dozens of pairs of aging cross-country skis and boots, which we fitted to ourselves haphazardly. We spent class gleefully gliding around the school’s soccer field.

In contrast, one July weekend in Tucson, my partner and I collapsed into our couch after breakfast and couldn’t think of anything to do. Habituated to reading in bed in the early mornings, we missed the short, slightly cooler window of time that our neighbors used for walks. We liked to swim, but over the course of May and June, the nearby high-school pool had warmed to a temperature so hot it felt dicey to swim laps there. We considered driving somewhere, but I felt guilty about releasing more fossil fuels into the suffocating atmosphere simply so I could find marginally cooler temperatures. So we sat there, groaning, our sweaty thighs adhering themselves to the cushions.

At the time, I was reporting an article about heat in Tucson’s manufactured homes, many of which were built before federal standards for insulation were enacted. During my workdays, I was knocking on doors at run-down parks, asking people whether their home was too hot. But nearly everyone I spoke to had some form of air conditioning—even if operating it was a financial burden. Some of them mentioned that the biggest problem was blackouts, which affect manufactured homes disproportionately because entire parks are often connected to the electrical grid with a single hookup.

Ennui is famously an affliction of the privileged. But those of us who are privileged enough to suffer from climate ennui—for whom extreme heat is not life-threatening—are numerous. We are a class that could be mobilized, lashing out against our boredom.

But while things were functioning, they, too, were bored. One woman told me that her family of three spent the summer in just one room, because they had only one window unit. Another mother and daughter invited me in for a glass of water. Their home was too temperate for an on-topic interview; they just wanted someone to chat with.

Evenings weren’t much better than weekends. The Tucsonans I had spoken to about the heat upon arriving in the city had assured me that things cooled down at night. In reality, the temperature rarely dropped below 86the temperature at which I kept my own aging air conditioner, heeding the dictum that home units can only reliably cool 20 degrees. That meant running the air conditioner all night, which we hadn’t expected. In other places I had lived, I had always enjoyed opening the windows to let in cool air at night. As we struggled to adjust to sleeping with the stale air and loud intermittent fan, I longed for the crisp summer evenings of my childhood, for sitting outside rubbing my bare arms and thinking I should go put on a sweater.

Later, Arizona Daily Star environment reporter Tony Davis told me that there used to be a more reliable nighttime cool-down in Tucson, but it’s long since been a casualty of the urban heat island effect. Though high daytime temperatures get the most media buzz, it’s warmer nights that are accounting for the greatest warming trends across the Western U.S. Tragically, the loss of cooler nights is also killing saguaros.

I knew that hot nights made me sad. I quickly learned that they were also boring. During weekdays, my computer kept me busy, accompanied by ungodly amounts of flavored seltzer and occasional forays into the infernal backyard, just to feel something. But after work, I got cabin fever—or perhaps it should be more precisely termed “climate ennui.” I was too brain-dead to read. I ran out of shows to watch on Netflix. I scrolled and scrolled until it really felt like my brain was empty. I started going to the grocery store multiple times a week, to have a diversion that wasn’t sedentary.

Hardier desert-dwellers than I will roll their eyes at my lack of stamina and creativity, pointing to the hikes at dawn, the nighttime bike rides, the self-congratulatory pleasures of simply sweating it out. But what we’re living in now is no longer the old desert heat they know and have loved. As each successive heat dome drags on longer than the last, I suspect that even the most committed desert rats will have no choice but to spend more and more time indoors.

Ennui is famously an affliction of the privileged. But those of us who are privileged enough to suffer from climate ennui—for whom extreme heat is not life-threatening—are numerous. We are a class that could be mobilized, lashing out against our boredom. Where anger, grief, and reminders of our “grim reality” have failed to effect widespread climate activism, perhaps pushing back against boredom could do it for us.

In demanding a world where we’re not trapped indoors, twiddling our thumbs in front of vents of cool air, we would also be demanding a world with the housing and health care justice necessary to address the already-present and already-worsening effects of heat. Instead of thinking of our retreat into air-conditioned homes as a means of turning away from the reality of climate change, we should lean into the boredom it creates—in order to reject it.

Caroline Tracey is an editor-at-large at Zócalo Public Square and a writer whose work focuses on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. She holds a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California, Berkeley.
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