Historic heat wave a time to reflect on both nature and our limitations

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, August 1, 2013
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Last Saturday, I went to my in-laws’ in suburban Shanghai, where my 10-year-old son had stayed for nearly a month.

The first thing he said was, “Dad, it was 40.6 degrees yesterday, the hottest in 140 years.”

Rope burn [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

That day was hot indeed, but for most people, like my son, this extreme weather condition was just another record, perceived vaguely from air-conditioned offices, homes, subway trains, buses, or cars.

And those who refused to embrace the modern comforts have to rough it, at their own peril. For instance, it was reported on Monday that a 59-year-old woman in Hangzhou became critically ill after using electric fans rather than air-conditioners at her home in the recent heat spell.

In explaining the incident, the report had clearly identified air-conditioning as a vital necessity, no different from air, food, and water.

Our kids no longer have chance to experience kuxia (bitter summer), which used to be a fairly common condition brought about by heat and marked by lack of appetite, loss of weight, lethargy, and low efficiency. Instead, after weeks of absence, my wife found our son had gained considerable weight.

When human beings are more sensitive to seasonal changes, they seem to know better the bigger context, and their humble place in the universe. They tend to be more grateful, and more empathic.

When it snows in winter, an elderly Chinese still talks of the promise of a bumper harvest. A young man typically complains endlessly about traffic jams.

A hot summer can be unpleasant, but it can also be a sign of a good crop.

As nature was believed to be mysteriously generous to the human beings, unusual weather conditions, such as drought, excessive precipitation, or calamities used to be seen as warnings against certain human behavior. A ruler in the past would issue penitential decrees, offer sacrifices, pledge reform, or eat simpler fare.

Hooked to comforts

But in our enlightened situation, we are all victims of a subtropical high pressure system that is blamed for the prolonged heat spell, and we easily thwart the heavenly trick by turning on the air-conditioners. That makes us more disdainful of the elements.

Last Saturday, following an excruciatingly hot morning, there was a thunderstorm in the afternoon, which resulted in a power outage affecting my in-laws’ neighborhood. They had to live without electricity from the afternoon until the small hours of next morning.

When I was informed of the tragedy the next afternoon, I did not even have the heart to inquire after the extent of the family’s misery during the power outage. Could any urbanite today imagine the dual loss of access to television and air-conditioners?

When we survey everything from the height of science (knowing) and technology (know-how), we become less generous, and more ready to accuse, and blame.

So-called knowledge enables us to be very contemptuous of nearly everything else. We no longer marvel at the development on earth of conditions conducive to the survival of the homo sapiens.

As Chen Rongxia, professor of Philosophy from Shanghai Normal University, commented recently, the unusual weather conditions should have made us more reflective. In a commentary entitled “Summer heat should make us reflective” (July 29, Oriental Morning Post), she observed that in this unusually hot summer, instead of finding signs of human humility, we are hearing more and more of complaints.

Only a few years ago, we still had many non-air-conditioned buses. Today some passengers are complaining that some buses are not air-conditioned while they are waiting for passengers at terminals.

Chen commented that what with the rise of industrialization and modern technology, human beings today act more like a spoiled child, who simply would have his own way, as if the whole universe exists solely for the sake of administering to his comforts.

“Could they enjoy this comfortable but anti-nature lifestyle for nothing?” Chen asked.

She explained that energy consumption is adding to the heat, and turning wooded or farm land into real estate is straining the city’s capacity for self-adjustment. And there are the concrete jungles, high-rises, factories, cars, and so on. She ended her commentary with an appeal: people must reflect on their excesses, and act.

They should act in dead earnest, and stop playacting or flirting with concepts.

True solutions

For instance, Xinhua News Agency reported recently that 1.7 trillion yuan (US$274 billion) worth of investment will be pledged to clean up the water, and air.

That’s an impressive amount within the confines of market credo. But a more relevant figure is the amount of investment that will further compromise our air and water. If we really deem our air and water as top priority, why not stop this pollution in the first place?

Nothing flatters our vanity more than an astronomical amount of money, or a surreal, over-sanitized landscape.

One progressive city has decreed that above a certain temperature it will reduce the use of ornamental lighting that gives the nocturnal city a weird look.

Since these ornaments serve no other purpose than to pollute, why not stop this stupid practice?

But in our heavily materially encumbered life, many people have grave difficulties in relating to the bigger picture, being fatally blinded by their greed, the landmarks, and those lights meant to glorify human greatness.

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