Global warming is definitely on my mind. My body, too: Temperatures in New York, the home base for Media magazine, have hovered at or above the 100-degree mark during the week I'm writing this. As a native New Yorker, I know those temperatures are not unusual for summertime in the region. Both my children were born on 100-degree-plus days 14 and 11 years ago, respectively.
Hot, humid weather has always been a part of New York summers. But these aren't your father's dog day afternoons, when people would idle their days sweltering on the stoops outside their apartments or pull a mattress onto the fire escape in an effort to sleep at night. These days, people find refuge indoors, thanks to air conditioning. Except, that is, for whole neighborhoods in Queens, where an overtaxed electrical grid led to an ill-timed blackout. Or in my Connecticut home, where a faulty condenser coil brought my family and me back to the pre-ac days of my youth. Hence the state of mind and body contributing to this month's column.
I'm not saying that the legions of home and office air-conditioning systems that exist today are contributing directly to global warming. I'm not smart enough to know that for sure. But it seems to make sense that they are. On a deeper level, though, they seem to symbolize a certain degree of environmental entitlement that I think we are all going to have to come to grips with someday soon.
At the height of the Northeast heat wave, I ran into an old childhood chum, Tommy Cassidy, who happens to be a heating and cooling contractor. It was Tommy who crystallized this sense of entitlement to me, noting that when he tells customers it may take days or, as in my case, weeks to fix their cooling systems, they are apt to complain, "I can't do that. I'll have to check my family into a hotel until it's fixed."
What, if anything, does this have to do with media? Plenty, according to former Vice President Al Gore. It's the job of media, he says, to tell us the inconvenient truth that the way we live is changing the nature of the environment we live in. This is a problem, he says, because if it changes much more, we may no longer be able to live in it. But try and tell that to Tommy's customers, or to the thousands of heat-stricken residents of Queens, or to my son and daughter.
Even more worrisome, try telling it to the billions of people on this planet who don't yet have air conditioning today, but ultimately may find it as indispensable as Americans do. Cooling is just the tip of the iceberg. The way we consume energy in this country -- to heat, to travel, to work, to eat, and yes, even to entertain ourselves with media -- is simply not sustainable.
Can media really make a difference? Gore thinks so, and is pushing commercial media -- his book and movie, as well as a major public service advertising effort -- to raise awareness, change attitudes, and hopefully alter behavior before it's too late. The irony is that even Gore's media project hurts the environment. The printing of his book uses paper derived from cutting down trees, and ink, printing presses, binding, packing and shipping processes that consume energy and pollute the planet. People traveling to and from theaters playing "An Inconvenient Truth" consume energy along the way. And I have a sneaking suspicion that those theaters are cooled -- frigidly so -- by greenhouse gas-emitting air conditioning systems.Yes, almost everything we do as a species impacts the earth's ecology, usually negatively. And that's a big issue for an industry like advertising, whose primary purpose is to get people to consume things. But if Gore is right, we can consume more smartly. And that may mean media, too. Surely digital media are helping with that. It is far more energy-efficient to distribute content electronically. That's something advertisers are realizing in terms of their own budgets, and that may be something that contributes indirectly to world conservation.