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Why People Get Hot Under the Collar About Air Conditioning

In recent years, biologists and comfort researchers have provided ample evidence that we acclimatize, physically and mentally, to the temperatures we experience. That provides some basis for the commonly made observation that on average, our population has become less heat-tolerant in the age of air-conditioning.[1]

This blistering July, I encountered plenty of additional, more vivid evidence that we, as individuals and as a society, are becoming more heat-sensitive. A “Dept. of What If” piece I wrote for the Washington Post—imagining the capital in a future without air-conditioning—had been, I thought, innocent enough. I painted a picture of a city with more vegetation, more mass transportation, more neighborliness, no coats and ties, even a reduction in Congressional mischief-making. But the response was hair-raising: sixty-seven pages of hostile, often flush-faced comments and more than five hundred rage-soaked emails (along with a handful of friendly ones.) [2]

I attribute the overwrought tone in most of the responses to that deep fear of any sort of physical discomfort that has come to permeate our society. We aren’t as tough as we used to be. And we appear to be prepared to obliterate as many coal-bearing mountains, kill as many coal miners, poison as many water tables with gas-mining chemicals, blow as many million barrels of crude oil into ocean waters, fight as many bloody wars, and occupy as many countries as necessary to keep the “comfort”-producing mechanisms in our homes, businesses, and vehicles powered up.  

Comparing the impacts of heat waves in Chicago in the 1930s and 1990s (and finding lower death rates in those earlier, hotter, mostly A.C.-free times), analysts at the Midwestern Climate Center concluded that “many people have . . . forgotten how to ‘live and function’ in high temperatures.” [3] But as we become less resilient, we seem to talk and act even tougher. That tendency grows in part out of the false sense of power that comes with seemingly unlimited access to cheap energy and other resources.

In writing about my book for the Wall Street Journal, Eric Felten quotes Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini on Americans’ love of the refrigerated environment: "In America, air-conditioning is not simply a way of cooling down a room. It is an affirmation of supremacy." Felten speculates, “That notion, I suspect, is at the heart of Mr. Cox’s overheated complaint.” [4]

Well, yes, it lies at least somewhere close to the heart of the matter. Our dependence on inherently fragile technology has somehow morphed into a symbol of strength, something that separates us from people who work hard and enjoy life without air-conditioning in warmer climates around the world. Quite a few readers of my Post piece declared that as their response to my article, they would be turning their thermostats down to 68, or 60, to advertise their status as free citizens who could afford to squander resources. [5] Townhall columnist Rich Tucker, for one, urged his readers, “Tonight, leave the porch light on to show you support traditional American progress. Oh, and feel free to crank the A.C., while you’re still allowed to.” [6]

Amos Johannes Hunt recently compared attitudes such as those expressed by Felten and Tucker to Ayn Rand’s romanticization of cigarette smoking, which she considered “a profound act of human domination over nature.” In his blog Philosophy KTL, Hunt dismissed such posturing, writing that “pressing buttons, flipping switches, and turning dials is not, generally speaking, a free act of self-assertion.” [7]

There’s another specter that’s often raised in response to any suggestion that we dial back the air-conditioning: the specter of “reduced productivity.” Conn Carroll at the Heritage Foundation answers air-conditioning’s critics by claiming that “as with all enviro-leftist schemes, the heavy costs of their low energy utopian dream are being ignored. Slower workdays means less productivity. Shorter hours and closed offices mean lost profits for employers." [8]

Set aside for now the rather high probability that the economy will collapse anyway—no doubt with compressors and fans running flat-out right through the crisis. There is still plenty of evidence that in an economy that’s geared to maximize quality of life, not the profits of its wealthiest strata, deep cuts in working hours can alleviate unemployment and improve the lives of the majority of working people. [9]

And we need not worry that shorter hours and warmer conditions would reduce productivity. Many of the key jobs that create the material foundation of this economy are performed either outdoors or indoors without climate control. Even in office work, research shows that air-conditioning is as likely to drag down productivity as it is to enhance it. [10] Anyway, it’s about time for working people to cash in some of the huge productivity gains they’ve achieved over the past half-century. As output per employee has risen dramatically since the mid-1970s, nonmanagerial wages have stagnated. The total number of working and commuting hours per household per week has pushed upward just to maintain, not increase, family living standards; the benefits have gone to owners and investors.

In cranking out fewer superfluous goods and services, we’ll find that we can produce and purchase everything society actually needs in fewer hours each week, without throwing even more people out of work. Time once spent working or shopping can be freed up for what was once known as “daily life.” And maybe we’ll discover that our real strength isn’t found in the switches we flip.

STAN COX’s book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (And Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) was published in June by The New Press. Write him at t.stan@cox.net.


1. See Chapter 6 of  Losing Our Cool

2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070902341_Comments.html

I hasten to add that almost everywhere else, I have been amazed to see how many people are willing to think seriously about the consequences of living in an air-conditioned bubble, and even consider breaking out of it. But the way in which many commenters and emailers have turned the issue into a Democrat-vs-Republican fight was especially odd. Democrats have not used their dominance in Washington to implement any effective action to curb our energy waste. And no one is going to say anything critical about A.C. in an election year, especially the hottest year ever recorded! Air-conditioning has a degree of bipartisan support matched only by that for, say, the home mortgage deduction, or maybe Mothers’ Day. I haven’t heard a single Democratic politician or liberal pundit come out against air-conditioning. The windows at the headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Audubon Society have remained as tightly sealed all summer as have those at the National Rifle Association. There has been no debate about air-conditioning for more than half a century.

3. S. A. Chagnon, K. E. Kunkel, and B. C. Reinke, “Impacts and Responses to the 1995 Heat Wave: A Call to Action,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 77 (1996),1497–1506.

4. http://online.wsj.com/ Another conservative, Jonah Goldberg, in a recent print issue of National Review, gave my arguments on air-conditioning an eminently fair hearing. I was lucky that, as he acknowledged, he hadn’t actually seen the book. If he does, he probably won’t like it.

5. Many others demanded that I turn off my own air-conditioning (I can’t—I don’t use it). Still others recommended that I be shot (specifying that it be “right in the head” with a .357 magnum) or expressed the hope that I would die of AIDS.

6. http://townhall.com/columnists/RichTucker/

7. http://philosophyktl.blogspot.com/2010/07/

8. http://blog.heritage.org/2010/07/12/the-left-wants-you-to-sweat/

9. See, for example, New Economics Foundation, “21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century,”  http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/21-hours

10. See Chapters 5 and 6 of Losing Our Cool