NEW VOICES: the iceman cometh

BookishJenLuc NOTE: I would love to be blogging about zombies or the quantum Hamlet effect or The Time Traveler’s Wife, or any number of cool science-y things, but instead I am STILL writing The Damn Book. Here’s Alex Morgan again, saving the day with yet another nifty guest post.

I was at the Traverse City Film Festival a few weeks ago and saw No Impact Man,
which opens in September. It documents a year in which Colin Beavan and his
wife, who live in a small Manhattan apartment, give up everything they are
doing that might harm the environment. They decide not to buy any new clothes
or household items. They stop getting take-out and restaurant food (including
Starbucks coffee!) and buy food only if it is produced within 250 miles of
their home. They use bicycles for transport and take a train only for a few
trips outside the city, still within the 250 mile limit. As the year
progresses, they give up more and more. For example, they stop using toilet
paper. After about six months they flip the circuit breakers and go without
electricity, meaning candles for lighting and nothing for heat.

The sticking point in their experiment comes after giving up
electricity. They have no working refrigerator. How are they going to cool
food, for example, milk for their young daughter? A ceramic pot-within-a-pot
device that is supposed to use evaporation for cooling doesn’t work in their
apartment. Finally, they end up “cheating” by borrowing ice from a
neighbor’s refrigerator. Their journey of no-impact living is documented
further on Beavan’s website. What interests me is the ice.

I was a kid in the 1950’s, and at that time in Savannah the
iceman would still make regular deliveries to people’s houses. My mother’s
mother – we called her Nanny – had an icebox as well as a refrigerator. Nanny
was born about 1880 and grew up without electricity in a small town in
Tennessee. Her family used kerosene lamps for lighting and iceboxes for food.
When electricity became available, she didn’t trust it and never gave up her
lamps or her icebox. She used both alongside of their electric descendants. The
kerosene lamp on her night stand was never allowed to go out.3313921947_50276bb39d

To my child’s eye, the iceman was a scary giant. He would come to the house with a monster cube of ice on a leather pad on his shoulder. He used a hook to hold the ice in place and then swung it down into the icebox in one practiced sweep. Nanny’s icebox was the smaller variety that came up to my eye level but to an adult’s waist. It was white metal, like the refrigerator, not the wooden kind.

Nanny kept mason jars of water and various other items in the icebox. I remember the butter sitting in a dish on top of the ice itself. The ice melted, but slowly, so that it lasted until the next day. The melt water flowed into a pan that had to be emptied regularly. The
icebox was messy and smelly, but that didn’t bother Nanny. She was used to it.

Where did the ice come from? In the 1950’s, it was made at “the ice company,” situated, I remember, in downtown Savannah near the post office. But where did it come from in 1880? I asked, and the answer surprised me. It came from lakes in New England.

Beginning in the early 1800’s, “ice cultivation” became an economically significant industry in the United States, comparable to agriculture. Lakes in New England, and other parts of the country with hard winters and reasonable access to transportation, were designated for ice making. In the winter, after they were frozen to between one and two feet thick, they were cleared of snow. Then the ice was scraped clean, scored into squares, and sawed out as blocks, which were stored in warehouses. These “ice houses” needed effective insulation – commonly made from sawdust – and a system to drain the water, so that the ice would stay as dry as possible.

Ice farmers favored sawdust for insulation also when shipping their crop. Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans were early ports of call in the ice trade, which eventually included Britain – American ice was considered higher quality than Norway ice – and even India. This cultivation and harvesting of ice diminished as artificial means of production became more efficient, but it lasted well into the Twentieth Century. The principles of ice manufacture had been known before the Nineteenth Century. William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748 demonstrated that the evaporation of liquid ether generated cooling.

The International Exhibition of 1862 in London featured two ice-making machines – one
based on the vaporization of ether, the other on ammonia – which thrilled the crowds in the summer heat. However, the journey from science to engineering to production can take many decades, where efficiency is often the issue after feasibility has been established. It takes energy to run the motor that operates the pump that compresses the refrigerant in a typical ice maker. Efficiency and reliability of refrigeration machinery improved to the point that seventy-five years after the London exhibition, harvesting “natural ice” was no longer economical. But now our society is reconsidering all its energy costs.

The no-impact man had to borrow refrigerator ice from his neighbor. But within 250 miles of Manhattan there are lakes that freeze in the winter, so the old technology of ice cultivation, harvesting, and transport could be resurrected to get no-impact ice. That is, most of the cost would be in labor and transportation, the same as for small-scale food farming. Such cultivated ice would be “more expensive” than machine-made ice, but perhaps only if the cost doesn’t include global warming and other ecological disasters looming for our children and grandchildren.

My grandmother had no problem making do with
less impact. Colin Beavan and his family were willing to be inconvenienced and
to pay more for their food. Ice farming is perfectly feasible, perfectly
aligned with the spirit of no-impact.

8 thoughts on “NEW VOICES: the iceman cometh”

  1. I like the idea, but wouldnt the harvesting, production and transportation of sawdust or other insulating material, as well as trasportation and infrastructure costs of distributing all that ice cost far more than the small amount of electricity my freezer uses?

  2. In the 1800’s, sawdust was a “free” byproduct of the lumber industry, which had been merely disposing of it. Perhaps it’s still available on that basis. Perhaps some other insulator is. The spirit of “no impact” is to reduce transportation (and I suppose infrastructure) costs by obtaining food (and ice) locally. Thus, Beavan’s 250 mile rule. The spirit of no impact also seems to include a certain amount of decentralization of production of food (and ice), so perhaps the “economies of large-scale production” will give way (if we pursue the experiment to its logical extreme) to an era of small-scale production. Perhaps many small lakes could supply many small ice houses that could sell their product in many small farmer’s markets. If everybody were to “give back” the small amount of electricity their refrigerators and freezers use, perhaps it would make a difference. No question that we’re talking here about “simpler” lives with less conveniences. The issue of being willing to live with less is at the heart of Beavan’s challenge.

  3. I just watched the trailer. It certainly must be more than feasible for people to reduce their consumption of throwaway products, use less electrical power, and so on. But I’m not so sure that giving up the elevator in the building where you live is optimal. Yes, it means that you’ll burn off lots of calories, but if the height you must ascend & descend each day is too great, you’ll just end up needing to replace some of those calories, which means needing more food. How does that compare with the energy cost of lifting your body that same height by an elevator? I don’t think it’s out of the question that an elevator can be made more efficient over its lifetime than its passengers’ legs.

  4. Sawdust is now harvested and used with glues to make particle baord (As in Ikea). Not much in maufacturing is wasted these days and with most manufaturing processes being exported overseas, harvesting sawdust is not a scalable venture in an urban environment.
    Good luck ice farming and buying local produce in South West Texas! No impact is in my opinion a nonsensical goal. Obviously he had running water which is pumped to him after being processed using electricity. He also had sewage service all year long. His wife is right, he is a lunatic fringe wacko!
    I have been to Africa and seen first hand the damage that “natural” living in large scale (i.e. 50,000+ residents)causes the environment. The polution in the air each night from the fire pits alone creates a disgustingly thick brown cloud of smoke that hangs over the villages, and you don’t want to know about the sewage and garbage situations. This is simply not an idea that is scalable to a population of several million in modern “high population density” cities.
    Fight global warming locally, throw a frozen margarita party!

  5. There is one flaw I can see with this, otherwise great idea.
    I happen to live in a town, where during the heyday of ice harvesting, they had a large harvesting facility on the local lake. The railroad line ran right beside the lake at that point, the rails are long gone now.
    But, transport of the ice is not the flaw. At this point, the lake rarely freezes over! When it does, it’s not even thick enough to walk on.
    In addition, it is far from pristine, what with houses along the entire shore line.

  6. What about the effect on the lake and surrounding area? The pollution from the vehicles?
    People point out that electric vehicles still use electricity and teh electricity isn’t free. But large power plants product electricity so much more efficiently and cleanly than a car engine. The pollution from the trucks needs to be considered.

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