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The War Against Air Conditioning

As most of the Eastern United States slides into the second day of a heat wave likely to last most of the week, Salon talks to a writer who thinks we’d all be better off without air conditioners:

In the last half century, air conditioning has joined fireworks, swimming pools and charred hamburgers as a ubiquitous ingredient of an American summer. It’s no exaggeration to say it has changed the way this country functions, shaping everything from where we’re willing to live (Las Vegas, anyone?) to the amount of sex we have (more: It’s never too hot to get it on when the A.C. is blasting). Nine out of 10 new homes in this country are built with central air conditioning, and Americans now use as much electricity to power our A.C. as the entire continent of Africa uses for, well, everything. It has so thoroughly scrambled our way of life that when the National Academy of Engineering chose its 20 greatest engineering accomplishments of the last century, A.C. not only made the list, it clocked in ahead of spacecraft, highways and even the Internet.

But as science writer Stan Cox argues in his new book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer),” the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price. We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often — and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global warming. The invention has also changed American politics: Love it or hate it, refrigerated cooling has been a major boon to the Republican Party. The advent of A.C. helped launch the massive Southern and Western population growth that’s transformed our electoral map in the last half century. Cox navigates all of these scientific and social angles with relative ease, providing a clear explanation of how A.C. made the leap from luxury to necessity in the United States and examining how we can learn to manage the addiction before we refrigerate ourselves into the apocalypse.

Yep, that’s right. Air conditioning has made us fat loners who vote Republican. Or, something like that.

Cox himself seems to have this strangely romantic view of what life was life before climate control became something available to almost every American:

You’re one of the proud few without A.C. Do you find it’s possible to be comfortable in the heat of the summer without it?

Yes, I think so. A couple of weekends ago it was in the high 80s here in Kansas. I was in my living room with the ceiling fan going, and I thought, man, it’s really nice in here, so I went and got a thermometer, and it was 84 in the living room. I had an aunt who was always trying to economize and would keep her windows shut up and her air conditioning on 80 degrees, and that was utterly stifling. You just couldn’t exist in that kind of environment, but if you have no air conditioning and plenty of ventilation and air movement, it’s comfortable. Warmth in and of itself is not bad at all. It can even be quite enjoyable.

Enjoyable ? Tell that to the 700 or-so people who died in the 1995 Chicago heat wave, or the estimated 30,000 Europeans who succumbed to heat-related illnesses during the heat wave that struck the continent in 2003.

While discounting the innumerable benefits that this technology has brought to Americans, Cox goes on to talk about the alleged environmental impacts before circling back to what really seems to be his biggest complaint — if it weren’t for air-conditioning, there wouldn’t be so many of those darn Republicans:

What would the U.S. look like today without air conditioning?

It’s pretty much unanimously believed that if we had not had air conditioning, we could not have had this huge migration of population from the North to the Sun Belt, and we certainly wouldn’t have seen 70 percent of all economic growth happening in the South since 1960. This has had major political implications by shifting electoral votes to predominantly red states in the South and West. In an imaginary world where air conditioning hadn’t been invented, it could easily be the case that many of the big Republican victories in the ’90s and 2000s would not have happened.

As Ed Driscoll notes, this same argument was made by another Salon writer back in 2008:

In his essay “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture,” historian Raymond Arsenault wrote that air conditioning made factory work tolerable in the South, reduced infant mortality, eliminated malaria and allowed developers to build skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Air conditioning industrialized and urbanized Dixie, lifting it out of its post-Civil War funk. No longer a poor, defeated colony, devoted to government aid and hating on Abe Lincoln, the South could fully indulge its conservative leanings.

You can also blame air conditioning for John McCain’s political career. In 1982, Arizona was awarded two extra congressional seats, thanks to the arrival of A/C-blasting snowbirds. McCain bought a house in one of the new districts, and became its first congressman.

Where did those congressional seats come from? Well, my state of Illinois has donated eight. So far. We’ll probably lose one more after the next census. New York has exported 16, Pennsylvania 14.

The irony, of course, is that air-conditioning was invented by Willis Carrier, one of the author’s “hearty northerners,” and that his company was headquartered in one of the snowiest cities in America up until 2003 when it headed South for a warmer climate.

It’s hard to tell if Cox and others like him hate air-conditioning because of it’s impact on the environment, because it caused people to move south, or because it allegedly led to the resurgence of the Republican Party as a Southern-SouthWestern party. Whatever the reason, it hardly qualifies as serious scholarship. If Cox wants to spend the next week without air-conditioning, that’s is choice. I, on the other hand, will be keeping him at a tolerable temperature completely guilt-free.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    It’s a bizarre notion that air conditioning has been anything but a boon to humankind. Sure, it has some negative externalities. What doesn’t? But, as you note, it’s been a life saver.

    And the notion that people in the West and South don’t need air conditioning because it’s comfortable in Kansas without it is mindnumbing in its stupidity. The difference between 90 degree heat with high humidity and 80 degree heat and low humidity is vast.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  2. Forget about Kansas, having spent two weeks during a summer in a dorm room at Dartmouth College back in 1990s I can honestly say that the idea that you don’t need air conditioning “up north” is just plain silly

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. The dude seems to have the same smug air of the fellow who brags about not having a television and how everyone should follow his lead and what a wonderful world that would create.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  4. sam says:

    Somebody needs to tell that dude that it’s not the heat, it’s the fricking, life-draining, soul-dissolving humidity. That’s what the air-conditioner is for — removing that crap. Where I live now, the heat is usually in 90 degree range in the summer time, but the humidity is low. Now that’s livable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    This is how realy incredibly stupid ideas get started. If you want to live without air conditions, go ahead. Thank God these people do not yet have a place in government. Just wait though. If there are people who believe in global warming based upon faulty computer models who is to say we will not soon have folks saying we should live without AC. Kind of reminds me of independence day. When I was a kid, you could get firecracker and all manner of neat fireworks. Parents oversaw the use of same. That didn’t last long as governent decided it was too dangerous. Yet government would later put me in harms way (could have gotten shot to death or blown up). I guess it just depends on government on the activities purpose. A free people should be able to celebrate their independence from government with fireworks if they choose to. The men who decided it was too dangerous were the ones who, when they were children, were responsible for the booms heard on the 4th of July. Government is the enemy of freedom.

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  6. TangoMan says:

    The advent of A.C. helped launch the massive Southern and Western population growth that’s transformed our electoral map in the last half century.

    One of my greatest fears is that I suffer a stroke and end up thinking like this writer.

    I wonder if he thinks that the sunshine in the South and West (apparently excluding California), or the air, of the water, or the vegetation makes “Democrats” from the Northeast into Republicans when then arrive at their Southern or Western destinations? Does he imagine that if these people moved back to the Northeast that they’d all become good Democrats again?

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  7. john personna says:

    I grew up in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley when AC was rare. It does seem like a generation that needs it all the time has gone a bit soft … but then again it was a dry heat. I’m quite sure that if I grew up in the humid South I’d feel differently.

    The worst story I heard was from someone with a house in Las Vegas. Even though she wasn’t there in the summer, she had to run the AC full time … to keep the furniture from being destroyed in the heat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. grampagravy says:

    Finally! I can think about John McCain without wondering what did we do to deserve this. It’s air-conditioning’s fault and I can live with that. I clearly remember the days before AC when the days would hit 115 and the nights might not drop under 100. Okay, John, it was worth it-but Sarah Palin??? Really! Now if we could just explain why we deserve Kyl

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. JKB says:

    Best I can tell the theory is that all them dam* Yankees moved south with air conditioning. Then started voting Republican once they were out from under the ward bosses and their union thugs? ’cause you know Bull Conner and George Wallace were a Democrats.

    Still the country was better off when DC was uninhabitable in the summer forcing Congress out of town. Giving the country a long respite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. It is really simple: if everyone cannot have it then no one can. It is the basis for all progressive activism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. Drew says:

    “The dude seems to have the same smug air of the fellow who brags about not having a television and how everyone should follow his lead and what a wonderful world that would create.”

    Heh. Or “John Personna” with all his talk about cars and bikes’n sech…….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  12. Franklin says:

    The only mildly useful point that I see is the one about sickness. If you can get the same comfort level with open windows and fans, getting some fresh air is a bit healthier than breathing your co-workers’ recycled farts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  13. matt says:

    Dude if it was only 80 degrees here I wouldn’t have an issue with opening the windows and using a few fans but as I type this it’s over 90 here (“feels like 104″) with high humidity. The only time I can open the windows and use fans here is during the winter and late fall early spring. This guy is a complete moron for thinking everyone should go without AC cause it’s nice in Kansas..

    I grew up in the middle east of Illinois where summers would peak past 90 with +80% humidity without AC and I quite frankly am in no hurry to go back to that…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  14. grampagravy says:

    “…the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global warming.”

    Do millions moving south and using AC really create a net increase in energy usage? I kind of doubt it in light of the fact that those millions are no longer burning oil or coal to heat their homes all winter. Nor do we southerners have to warm up the car for twenty minutes in the morning in order to get out of our sun-filled driveways. Besides, we have the Zelsdorks who want to go back to blowing kids’ fingers off and starting fires every 4th of July, and the anti-progressives who see a dignified life and freedom from want for all as some kind of personal threat to contend with–whose got time to join the anti-AC movement?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  15. Irene King says:

    I live in Las Vegas. I scoff at stories about the “record” heat in the eastern states. One hundred degrees in July here is considered a nice day. With that being said, I can’t imagine life without AC in the Southwest. Whether it’s Vegas, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Texas, or any of those areas, life without AC is unthinkable. The geniuses who come up with these ideas that AC is a “boon to Republicans” (and therefore should be eliminated?) should have their collective heads examined. Or live a few days in the desert without AC and then take a second look. Sheesh. What idiocy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  16. B. says:

    I live in DC with no air conditioning in my house. The outside temp hit 102 today, but right now our house is a tolerable 86, with a nice breeze from the ceiling fan.

    I definitely appreciate having AC in my office, and sure, you need AC in apartment buildings and multi-storey houses. Elderly people probably need AC. But, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with questioning the necessity of ubiquitous AC. Frankly, it’s not necessary. We save a lot of money without it, and we are quite comfortable.

    I think it’s interesting to consider how the advent of AC has changed our society – not for better or worse, but just that things are different. For example, the proliferation not just of Southerners, but of multi-storey houses in the South. Before AC most homes in the south were flat ranches.

    Or, consider the fact that the front porch used to be cool hangout space in the evenings – everyone would be sitting outside, chatting with people who walked by, etc. There’s a lost sense of community when everyone is inside all the time watching TV.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  17. john personna says:

    I have no idea what you are talking about, calling me out, Drew.

    I don’t have AC. I don’t think I need it where I live. I guess a few of my neighbors do, but it isn’t real common.

    I just didn’t feel a need to come down on people in other (micro)climates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  18. john personna says:

    Ohhh.

    You think it’s smug to do the right thing. I get it now.

    Never do the right thing folks, you might feel better afterwards.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. sam says:

    @Irene

    “I live in Las Vegas. I scoff at stories about the “record” heat in the eastern states.”

    Honey, you wouldn’t scoff if you were there, believe me. I live in the Southwest, too, and the heat here is nada compared with what I experienced in New England. As has been said, try 100 degrees and 90% humidity then get back to us. In fact, I’d say that heat-wise, y’all a bunch of sissies out here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. tfr says:

    Screw ‘em. Move from Kansas to New England if you think it’s so great without AC. We often get a week of, basically, fog and rain (i.e. 95-100% humidity) and 90-95F temperatures. All you can do without AC is survive to the other side of it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Clint says:

    My life would be a living hell without A/C, and not just because of the climate control, but it really helps for those of us with severe allergies, and esp. those of us with both allergies and contact lenses. Constantly whirling fans at 84 degrees, with windows open, blowing dust and pollen around to make us sneeze and dry out our eyes, is a nightmare. And some places like here in Oklahoma, the temperature and weather is so extreme that a comprehensive climate control is needed all year round. We would find ways to live closer together and not drive as much, but you can take my A/C over my dead body.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  22. Blue Dot Southerner says:

    The idea that the population shift South has made the country more Republican seems incredibly simplistic. The massive population centers that have sprung up in the South since the birth of AC tend to be much more liberal than the rural parts of their states. North Carolina swung for Obama largely because of the votes from the transplant-heavy Research Triangle. The population flow into the South is leading to bigger and bigger blue dots in the red states…

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  23. Anyone who thinks heat and AC are a southern thing doesn’t know jack. Tell that to Chicago or Manhattan in summer. Please.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0