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.