Air Conditioning: Threat or Menace? An Overheated Argument

It’s summer, dammit, and I’m freezing everywhere I go. And more importantly, our addiction to AC is screwing the environment.

Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography

I keep a cardigan sweater at the office. I bet when you read a sentence like “I keep a cardigan sweater at the office,” you think that the person who wrote that sentence means “so that I have a little something extra handy for those frigid February days.” But I don’t mean that at all. I mean for now. Summer.

Wednesday I was on a train. Two trains, Amtrak up to New York and back. They were so freezing that I was in pain much of the time. Pain. I made regular trips to that space between the cars, which is un-air conditioned, where it was probably around 85 degrees. Eighty-five’s a tad more sultry than I’d prefer, but it’s a fuck of a lot better than 65. What in the world makes Amtrak think people want this? I asked the dude at the Cafe Car, “Uh, isn’t it a little brisk in here?” He noted to me indifferently that there was no thermostat, just an on-off switch. An on-off switch! In 2015!

What is up with this country and air conditioning? Has it gotten worse? I think it’s definitely gotten worse. Of course I’ve gotten older, so I guess it’s partly that. At home I keep it at 78. That’s a totally comfortable temperature. But the rest of the world seems to have gone in the other direction. The office. The trains. The movies (Jesus, the movies—it’s about 62!). Most stores I happen into. It’s become unbearable. I dread the advent of August—not because of the heat and humidity, but because I’m going to spend the month walking in and out of a series of meat lockers.

Did I say “rest of the world” in the paragraph above? I did, but check that. It’s not the rest of the world. It is, of course, only America. Piggy, self-indulgent, sybaritic, fat, know-nothing, consequence-allergic America. We’re the only people on the planet who insist on this foul business, and it stands to reason because these are the kinds of things in which we tend to lead the world these days—how many different ways we can stuff pizza crusts, how much junk we throw out, and how much we can waste on totally unnecessary and indeed quite harmfully excessive air conditioning.

For many, many years now, we have used more air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. Combined. The rest of the world! Have you looked lately? There are some big countries out there. China (1.35 billion), India (1.25 billion), Indonesia (250 million), Russia (145 million). And then add in Europe, Brazil, Argentina, the sweltering nations of Africa and South Asia. More than all of them combined.

Now look: I’m glad I was born in the air-conditioning era. I sometimes marvel at how people got by without it. I can’t imagine how office workers got a lick of work done in the pre-AC swelter, let alone how the electric spark of genius was ever lit. How did Shakespeare create his plays on those boiling, fetid summer days? Or Beethoven his symphonies? Or, if Stratford/London and Bonn/Vienna aren’t sizzling enough for you, Michelangelo his frescoes? Well, the human will is a powerful thing, and good thing for us they did it, and I remain impressed. But I’m glad it wasn’t me.

So in that sense I’m pro-AC. And I don’t say “ban air conditioning!” like some self-righteous European. Most of Europe just doesn’t get that hot. Berlin and Stockholm aren’t Dallas and Miami, latitudinally speaking, and while my views about the American South’s malignant influence on our political culture are widely known, I do stop well short of wanting Southern human beings to die of heat stroke. So we need air conditioning.

But we sure don’t need this much of it. Really—78, 75…they’re fine. Totally fine. And even though I’ve gotten older, I feel sure that it’s gotten worse, and while I obviously can’t prove this, I’d bet you a gallon of freon that it has something to do with class, inequality, and the new Gilded Age in which we’re living, when the comfort of the leisure class has become such a paramount concern of the businesses catering to them and vying for their disposable dollars.

And so public places, at least the kinds of public places frequented by the top 10 percent, have to signal to these leisure classers that their precious comfort is of urgent importance to them, and what better way to signal that than a blast of 66-degree air greeting them as they open the door? For my theory to hold up, it’d have to follow that there’s less, or at least less intense, air conditioning in commercial establishments serving poor areas. And I don’t know this to be the case, but I’d wager that it’s so, because in general poor people use less climate control.

Which brings us to the developing world. As middle classes grow in China, India, and other places where today around 3 or 5 percent of the population has air conditioning, demand for AC is going to grow dramatically. Scientist Stan Cox, who warns of the coming air-conditioning crisis, believes it’s possible that “world consumption for energy for cooling” could explode tenfold by 2050. In China they’re buying at least 50 million air conditioners a year. The potential consequences for the ozone layer and with respect to climate change are obvious. A Dutch expert cited by Cox estimates that refrigerants accumulating in the atmosphere through 2050 will increase human-generated global warming by anywhere from 14 to 27 percent.

Again, I wish a comfortable, air-conditioned life upon all our brothers and sisters from Kinshasa to Kuala Lumpur. We have to hope that someone invents some less harmful way to provide it. In the meantime, we in the United States need to get over this insane idea that a place isn’t fit for human habitation in the summer unless it’s 66 degrees. It’s not comfortable, it’s terrible for the planet; and most of all it’s disgustingly self-indulgent in that special way at which Americans excel, and it makes me wish fervently that Hillary becomes president and forces everybody to put their thermostats at 76.