By MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER l New York Times January 25, 2013
In 1999, government workers in Mexico took their last officially sanctioned siesta. Until then, it was normal for clerks and bureaucrats to take two- or three-hour breaks in the middle of the workday. Many of them went home for lunch, took a nap, then returned to their offices, working into the evening to make up for lost time. The siesta used to be commonplace in Spanish-speaking countries, but the tradition was already waning as Latin America’s economies developed throughout the ’80s and ’90s. As companies and governments modernized, they adopted the same schedules as their counterparts in other countries. Mexico failed to properly anticipate the effect this would have on energy consumption.
By shifting work from the sweltering afternoon into cooler evening hours, the siesta provided a kind of de facto air-conditioning, says Elizabeth Shove, a professor of sociology at Lancaster University in England. Getting rid of siestas makes people more dependent, during the hottest part of the day, on energy-intensive forms of cooling. Air-conditioning use in Mexico has skyrocketed since the siesta ban. In 1995, 10 percent of Mexican homes had A.C. By 2011, that figure had grown to 80 percent.
Shove studies the cultural and historical factors underlying sustainable living. Historically, she says, societies developed methods of dealing with their local climates, and those tools and behaviors became ingrained cultural customs. As the world becomes more interconnected, these customs are changing, and so is the definition of something as elemental as comfort.
That’s right: there is no universal definition of comfort, especially as it relates to temperature. Both Shove and Susan Mazur-Stommen, of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, told me two decades’ worth of research data clearly demonstrate that different people experience the same temperature differently. People report being comfortable all over the thermostat, from 43 degrees Fahrenheit all the way up to 86.
“What people count as comfortable is what they get used to,” Shove says, and this becomes obvious when you examine different societies side by side. In 1996, Harold Wilhite, director at the University of Oslo’s Center for Development and Environment, published a paper comparing energy-use cultural norms in Oslo, Norway, and Fukuoka, Japan. The two cities are similar in population size, level of industrial development, spending power and average home size. But southern Japan is warmer than southern Norway, and Japanese culture is very different from Norwegian culture.
Wilhite found that Norwegians placed emphasis on something they call koselighet — which roughly translates as “coziness,” but with certain social connotations. Part of koselighet is making your home a place other people want to visit and spend time in. In Oslo, that means making sure nobody thinks your house is cold. Ever. Half the households Wilhite sampled didn’t turn the thermostat down before bed. Nearly 30 percent kept it turned up even when they weren’t home. In Fukuoka, where winters are comparatively mild, there wasn’t a cultural objection to entering cold rooms. In fact, homes in southern Japan usually didn’t have central heating at all. On chilly nights, families gathered on heated rugs, or around a kotatsu — a table with a built-in heat element.
Koselighet also concerns the quality of light. The Norwegians that Wilhite interviewed told him that ceiling lights felt cold. Not one subject used them in the living room, where instead they had incandescent table and floor lamps to create little golden pools throughout the room. On average, Oslo living rooms had 9.6 light bulbs. Meanwhile, in Fukuoka, the living rooms had an average of only 2.5 light bulbs, mostly more energy-efficient fluorescents fitted into the ceiling. There, people prized visibility, and the color of the fluorescent light had no temperature connotation at all.
But Wilhite also noted that cultural understandings of comfort are changing. Even back in 1996, he reported that people in Fukuoka were buying more space heaters, allowing family members to warm up by their lonesome. And they were buying air-conditioners, something that hadn’t been normal, even in a city with hot summers. Although many of Wilhite’s Japanese subjects believed A.C. units to be unhealthful and unpleasant, they were starting to expect their presence in any prosperous, modern home — a byproduct of globalization, according to Shove and other researchers.
Along with air-conditioning, globalization has also helped popularize something called Ashrae 55: a building code created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, to determine the ideal temperature for large buildings. The standard, which has set thermostats across the globe, is hardly culture-free. It’s based on Fanger’s Comfort Equation, a mathematical model developed in Denmark and the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, which seeks to make a very specific worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.
Consider the impact on office workers in hotter countries, where a thobe or a dashiki might be perfectly acceptable business attire. They might start dressing differently, which makes them less comfortable outside and at home, which in turn makes them more likely to seek out air-conditioning. It also affects women. “In spring, it’s socially expected that women will wear thinner blouses, skirts, open-toed shoes,” Mazur-Stommen says. “But the building temperature is set for men, who are assumed to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes year-round. If everyone just dressed appropriately for the weather, we wouldn’t have to heat or cool the building as much.”
Fortunately, the same forces that drive people to consume more can also goad them toward sustainability. Wesley Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University, San Marcos, has spent the last decade studying why people choose to be more energy-efficient — turning off lights when they aren’t in the room, for instance, or buying Energy Star appliances. Over and over, he has found that the most powerful force for positive change is to tell people how much energy their neighbors are using, and to make sure people know that those neighbors value energy efficiency. People in the United States don’t think this form of peer pressure works, Schultz told me. “But when we actually study them,” he said, “we see they’re wrong.”