Not Cool

Uncomfortable truths about our addiction to air-conditioning.

As recently as a few decades ago, most Americans considered air-conditioning a luxury. Today we take it for granted, expecting to enjoy a cool, comfortable environment wherever we go. Yet air-conditioning has slowly but surely changed our world in ways that have gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed. It’s not just that it accounts for almost twenty percent of the total electricity consumption by U.S. homes (the same amount of power the 930 million residents of Africa use for all their electricity needs), and thereby contributes to climate change. Air-conditioning may also be making us more sensitive to heat, reinforcing our estrangement from neighbors, and worsening our allergies, asthma, and overall health.

But until environmental writer Stan Cox released “Losing Our Cool” (The New Press) earlier this summer, no scientist had comprehensively examined the role that air-conditioning plays in contemporary life. “Air-conditioning has been an important tool in creating a society shot through with unsustainable trends, [including] settlements of large human populations in fragile environments, an imbalance between indoor and outdoor life, and buildings designed for dependence on high energy input,” writes Cox in the preface, before challenging the reader to reconsider our collective definition of comfort. Of course, calling air-conditioning into question invites strong opinions, which explains why “Losing Our Cool” emerged as one of the hottest books of the summer—and why I asked Cox to answer questions for the following Failure Interview. 

Has our tolerance for heat diminished thanks to air-conditioning?

It’s not just our physical tolerance, but our ability to deal with heat mentally. On the physical side, there’s biological evidence that our bodies tend to acclimatize to high temperatures. Conversely, people who are continuously in an air-conditioned bubble during hot weather tend not to have that acclimatization, so heat puts a bigger stress on the body when they are exposed to it.

Also, there’s a lot of evidence now for the adaptive model of comfort, which says that the range of temperatures you find comfortable isn’t some ten-degree range, but that it moves up and down depending on the temperatures you’ve been exposed to in previous days or weeks.

What are the social implications of our dependence on air-conditioning?

It was noticed as early as the 1980s that people tended not to go outdoors—especially in the early evening hours—as much as they did in the days before air-conditioning. You used to see kids running up and down the block, and adults sitting on the front porch talking to each other and playing ball with their kids. Now neighborhoods are dead zones and the only sound you hear is the humming of air-conditioners and compressors.

<b>What are some of the ills that follow in the wake of air-conditioning?</b>
When it comes to health, air-conditioning has a kind of Jekyll and Hyde quality. We know it can save lives during heat waves and protect our more vulnerable citizens. But air-conditioning has as many negative as positive health effects. Researchers have found that all kinds of molds and bacteria tend to grow in cooling systems—especially in large buildings. People who work in air-conditioned environments tend to go to the doctor and spend more time in the hospital than people who work in non air-conditioned environments.

Are we in a vicious cycle, with air-conditioning contributing to global warming, and hotter temperatures contributing to an increased use of air-conditioning?

That’s one of the central ironies of my book. Air-conditioning and other technologies have brought us to the point where we see this dire threat from climate change, and one of the major technologies we are going to use to deal with it—air-conditioning—is going to contribute to further increases in temperature. Since the mid-1990s we’ve doubled the amount of electricity we use for cooling our homes.

What reaction have you received from readers? I expect you’ve received a certain amount of hate mail.

The worst onslaught of negative responses I received was after a <i>Washington Post</i> piece I wrote in July. I got almost 600 emails, and there was a heartfelt and almost panicky feeling to some of the messages: You’re not going to take this away from me!

Have you inspired people to give up air-conditioning cold turkey?

There have been a few people who have said that and some who have said they were going to use it very sparingly.

Do you envision a day when there will be backlash against air-conditioning?

I envision a day when we are going to face very tight limits on the amount of energy that we can use. And because it is such an energy hog, a lot of people will start eyeing their air-conditioning system.

What a lot of people are worried about is the rapid expansion in the use of air-conditioning in countries that up until now did not use it very much. In India only one to two percent of houses have air-conditioning, but right now forty percent of the electricity consumption in Mumbai is going for air-conditioning. And the country as a whole is expected to have an eleven- or twelve-fold increase in power use for air-conditioning by 2020. 

How much did you use the air-conditioning in your house this summer?

As we do every summer, we ran it for one day, just to make sure it was in good working order. When we do that we try to time it for when it’s really hot and when we want to have people over and don’t want to put them through too much hardship.

Stan Cox's “Losing Our Cool” Web site