Winter is a cruel master. But as the icy fist of February squeezes us in its frozen and lightless grip, winter also inadvertently gives us the opportunity to think about life in the middle of what seems an endless wasteland of frigid death.
Winter is a bit of a paradox for us as a culture. While the natural world gets by on a kind of resource lockdown—conserving as much energy as possible until spring, when the Earth becomes fit for habitation again—the human world goes straight into resource overdrive. Our consumption of resources is magnified: we eat more food, dress in more clothes, sleep in more blankets. We use more electricity and heat in our homes, more hot water, more gas in our cars.
It’s a concerted cultural effort to be able to work and live in winter like we can throughout the year, and to maintain an identical level of comfort regardless of what the weather is doing outside. Rather than bowing to the cycles of nature, we go to the greatest lengths to try to live like the seasons don’t exist and don’t affect us. Rather than adapt our own patterns of action and behaviour, we change the physical world around us so that we don’t have to change ourselves. The simplest things we do gives us an idea of the extent to which we battle nature (turning up the heat) or even try to reverse it (turning on the lights).
There are plenty of good practical reasons to take stock of how much we use in winter and to try to let our lifestyle choices reflect the season. Thanks to both science and every grown up we knew when we were kids, we realize it’s more environmentally friendly to throw on an extra sweater than to turn the heat up. Eating local foods that can be preserved through the winter, instead of going in for cargo-hold-ripened fruits and vegetables from afar can likewise make a positive impact on the environment. Getting more in tune with the shorter days of the season is even great for the lazy slouch in each of us, fully justifying our desire to sleep more and do less.
But more than that, paying attention to how we cope with winter can make us more aware of our relationships to the physical world and to the human cultures that are built on it. To keep up a general level of comfort in winter is to use more resources—real, material, finite resources that are somehow made invisible, like magic. Heat and hot water seem to just be there, operating seamlessly in the background. Only when they break down do we generally recognize them as “things” that we have.
The ability to use more energy and more “stuff” is a privilege. If we treat our comforts as basic necessities instead of the luxuries they are, then we also ignore the fact that not everybody has them. We don’t bother to question how we got them, what makes us deserve them, why not everybody shares them and what would happen if we refused them. Becoming aware of our own privilege isn’t a fun exercise, mostly because it usually makes us feel guilty about the amount of privilege we have, but it can lead us to an awareness of how we contribute to or contest the values of the cultures we live in. Western capitalist cultures don’t like to shine the spotlight on the inequalities that they create and the habits of consumption that they instil, but that basic awareness is necessary to resisting the importance our societies place on maintaining comforts and privileges, for some, at all costs.
It’s tough to dissent, because even if we oppose them, we can’t resist these values without also still taking the advantages they give us. Could we protest and go without heat and hot water in the middle of January? Probably not meaningfully. Or maybe, but I don’t want to live in that world. If, however, we keep reminding ourselves on a daily basis that the warmth and light we have at this time of year are things that the natural world does without, and that the less fortunate around us get by with much less of, then we might think about how we can work to make the system that gives us our “basics” more sustainable and more equitable.
And frankly, we might as well meditate on things like this. What else are we going to do until spring?
image: Mathias Erhart (Creative Commons BY-SA)