Winter is Coming

Sharon September 11th, 2008

As long as we’re talking about genre fiction (our Dies the Fire discussion managed to get two comments from SM Stirling himself, btw - check it out!), I was recently reminded of my forays, a while back, into George R. Martin’s deep, dark, sprawling, sometimes brilliant and often nihilistic fantasy saga that starts with _A Game of Thrones_. One of the bits that struck me most (and the part that’s even remotely relevant to this post) was that the motto of the Northernmost kingdom is not something heroic, but simply this “Winter is Coming” - the idea is that in a society where winters can last for decades, the people of the north cannot afford ever to lose sight of the fact that winter is approaching.  And I don’t just say that because it was 38 F last night here ;-)

I feel rather that way about my own life. I live, as you all know, in the Northeast United States, and up until the last few decades, it was never possible for anyone to live their lives in my area without a constant, heightened awareness that winter was coming. Until fossil intensive routine road plowing and just in time supermarket delivery, winter required preparation. We seem to be on a rapid transition back to that model, at least in the Northeast, which relies heavily on costly heating oil. It may be that the strengthening dollar, short selling of speculators and other factors may lower the price of heating oil to affordability before winter, it may also be the case that refining capacity problems caused by Hurricane Ike, may offset our recent declines. In either case, the US is plunging into a solid Depression, and the ability of people to pay their heating bill may end up being less about the cost of heating oil per se than their ability to pay any bills at all anymore.

Meanwhile, the level of fear is rising in my region of the country and in other cold places. I’ve had more than one person tell me that they are worried about freezing to death in their homes, and a number of people ask how they will afford food and medication this coming winter, along with heating. Those relying on natural gas and electricity have both seen large jumps in price as well. In Britain, there’s a national call to relieve the crushing poverty of elderly war veterans, who cannot afford adequate food or heat.  South Dakota’s fuel assistance program is already anticipating it will go broke by November helping people get an initial fill up.  In Alabama, one of my readers, Rebecca reports a growing trend towards utility companies reporting homes not in foreclosure as “condemned” - while people are still living in them, so that they can shut people off with impunity.

Meanwhile the Low Income Heating Assistance Program that provides federal aid across the board is likely to struggle to meet growing demand and increased costs.  Most states are seeing an increase of 10-30% in applications for aid already, and in many states, as many as four times as many people qualify for aid as the programs can serve.  Meanwhile more and more lower-middle income families are likely not to qualify for anything, but need it.  An average 20% increase in the cost of heating, plus the fact that as many as one in ten American households is already in debt to a utility company means that the winter is shaping up badly.  And President Bush’s LIHEAP allocation of 2 billion is 22% less than last year’s funding.

And we know this.  New England governors are already declaring states of emergency.  I have heard many reports that wood, pellet and even coal stoves are backordered for months.   Heating is the conversation topic out where I live.  And most people know that they are going to be cold this winter.  Now in some respects, this will probably be good for us and the planet - for solidly middle class people who keep their jobs, turning their heat down from 70 or so would be a huge environmental step.  But for the poor, who already struggle to eat and heat, this will be a disaster.  And my guess is that the climate net will be a loss - as people chose even dirtier methods of keeping warm, cutting down the great Northeastern forest, returning to coal, using older woodstoves because they cannot afford newer ones, shifting to coal-generated electric space heaters to replace natural gas or oil.

Disturbingly, my guess is that this winter will go down in history, not as the one where it got bad, but the last good one.  The US is still able to borrow money, the Depression has not fully hit, and unemployment, while up, is no where near where it is likely to go.  One in ten Americans may be overdue or in foreclosure on their property, but they still have their houses. Heating assistance programs and other subsidies are stretched, but still available.  And in this election year, the pressure to keep the money coming and people warm will be greater.  It is next year I worry about most.  It isn’t just this winter that is coming.

With our fears, comes the rapid shift back towards a life in which winter is *always* coming.  Those who need stoves must think about this long before winter - as must those who want pellets.  If you plan to cut wood, it should ideally be cut during the previous winter to allow a full year of seasoning.  And to pay increasing heating bills will probably require those who can afford it at all to space their bills over the course of the year.  Because rising heating costs will impact our ability to buy food, growing our own and preserving it for the winter becomes one of the necessary hedges against the disaster.  As towns and cities are strapped by lower property taxes due to falling real estate values and higher energy costs, there may be more of us staying home more - when the roads can’t be plowed, when other infrastructure problems arise, when schools can’t be opened or buses run (many school districts are already considering a 4-day school week).  Utility companies are concerned about widespread power outages and people convert suddenly to electric space heating.  That is, winter is about to go back to being cold and dark, a time to stay home, and a time when you have to be prepared for systemic interruptions.

Does this mean, as some have suggested, that those who live in cold climates will migrate en masse down south?  I don’t think so - some will, of course.  But the north has been populated by human beings for a long, long time, and we somehow survived without central hot air heat and being able to go out for beer in a blizzard.  Warmer regions have their own disadvantages in the face of global warming. 

I think we will adapt - and that adaptation will be part of a larger cultural and psychological shift at least partially back to a cyclical worldview, shaped by your climate.  It was not for nothing that New Englanders were known for stoicism, frugality, practicality and hard work - those are virtues that go along with a world in which winter looms large.  It won’t just be the cold climates moving towards a cyclical life - drought in some areas of the west, for example, will shift life there to focusing around the rains.  Those living without electricity in the Southeast will again shape their summer days around quiet times in the hottest part.  We are all bound to live more in our climate than we have been.

The unusually early cold weather here helps make that shift - even those furthest removed from natural cycles moves a little faster when the cool weather hits, when summer’s heat disappears and the mornings are brisk.  It is our bodies and unconscious responding to the cues laid down by millenia of life in northern climates - squirrel time, it tells us.  Once again, Winter is Coming.


56 Responses to “Winter is Coming”

  1. clew says:

    Oh… the “Grow your Own” poster this website uses is in that collection, so, probably not new to Sharon! Sorry if there was a previous link.

  2. AnnMarie says:

    Are there any alternatives to a wood stove for emergency/just in case heating?

    We live in WI, so the threat of cold weather is pretty large. LOL We have gas heat and can afford our payments so aren’t worry on that front. I’m kind of thinking that losing the gas in an emergency situation isn’t quite as big a fear as if we had electric-the power goes out but the heat would still be on, right? So I don’t think it’s something we need ASAP.

    However, I’ve long wished for alternative heat, plus our house is laid out poorly and the furnace doesn’t actually heat it very well (built in 1900 before central furnaces). But a woodstove seems a bit much for emergency situations (in terms of both cost AND amount of room it takes up). But are there alternatives that would be workable for a few week period? Another alternative would be to find a hotel-providing we could travel-but we have dogs and cats and finding something to take us all would be difficult. And for 2 weeks would cost as much as a stove any, thinking of the NorthEast’s problems last year (when travel probably wouldn’t be viable anyway).

    Anyway, are you aware of any cheaper alternatives that would be strictly for shorter term emergency for now?

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