Monday, July 12, 2010

A World Without Air Conditioning

Stan Cox hates air conditioners. He is the author of several articles and a forthcoming book that try to link air conditioners with environmental deterioration.

Today, the Washington Post published an op-ed in which Cox imagines a world without air conditioning. Cox begins his essay by asserting that air conditioners increase global temperatures, which, perversely, lead to greater demand for air conditioners:
In a country that's among the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emits greenhouse gases, which raises global temperatures, which creates a need for -- you guessed it -- more air-conditioning.
That is pretty tough claim to substantiate, but is not the most difficult assertion that Cox makes. Cox also argues that substantially reducing the use of air conditioning would dramatically alter society. For example, according to Cox, the air conditioner-free workplace would become a site of relaxation and, well, warmth:
In a world without air conditioning, a warmer, more flexible, more relaxed workplace helps make summer a time to slow down again. Three-digit temperatures prompt siestas. Code-orange days mean offices are closed. Shorter summer business hours and month-long closings -- common in pre-air-conditioned America -- return.

Business suits are out, for both sexes. And with the right to open a window, office employees no longer have to carry sweaters or space heaters to work in the summer. After a long absence, ceiling fans, window fans and desk fans (and, for that matter, paperweights) take back the American office.
Cox also believes that an air conditioning-deprived Congress would change for the better:
Best of all, Washington's biggest business -- government -- is transformed. In 1978, 50 years after air conditioning was installed in Congress, New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted that, pre-A.C., Congress was forced to adjourn to avoid Washington's torturous summers, and "the nation enjoyed a respite from the promulgation of more laws, the depredations of lobbyists, the hatching of new schemes for Federal expansion and, of course, the cost of maintaining a government running at full blast."

Post-A.C., Congress again adjourns for the summer, giving "tea partiers" the smaller government they seek. During unseasonably warm spring and fall days, hearings are held under canopies on the Capitol lawn. What better way to foster open government and prompt politicians to focus on climate change?
It is certainly debatable, however, whether doing less would improve Congress. Besides, national lawmakers take a summer hiatus in August - during the hottest part of the DC summer.

Cox also believes that cutting off the air conditioners would lead to greater socializing in cities and even reduce crime and heat-related deaths:
Saying goodbye to A.C. means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors -- particularly in the late afternoon and evening, when temperatures fall more quickly outside than they do inside -- neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing.

Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer. As a result of all this, a strange thing happens: Deaths from heat decline. Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too afraid to venture outside for help and too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another during heat waves, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.
These claims seem far fetched -- and even sound contrary to existing crime statistics that often show a increase during summer months precisely because people spend more time outside of their homes.

Final Take
Conservative bloggers have jumped on Cox's op-ed in order to bash environmental reform movements. I am not a conservative, and I generally support the move to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Cox's op-ed, however, does not make a strong case for reducing the use of air conditioning.

Cox does not substantiate his claims with empirical data, and some of them seem to go against longstanding statistics (e.g., crime increasing when people emerge from winters indoors). Furthermore, it is not at all clear that a more relaxed workplace -- including for members of Congress -- would benefit society.

Furthermore, while Cox attacks air conditioners, many of the same arguments could apply to heating systems, which Cox does not criticize. Finally, Cox's analysis does not seem applicable in parts of the country that experience extreme heat more routinely than northern cities.

Greenhouse gases are a serious problem; so is summer heat. Cox's far-fetched claims do not make a persuasive argument for discarding air conditioners. Perhaps he does a better job in his forthcoming book.

UPDATE: Kathy Kattenburg of The Moderate Voice offers a very sensible critique of Cox's article. See Speaking of Simplistic Solutions to Complex Problems.

Althouse approaches the topic with sarcasm. See If you really believed in global warming, you would turn off your air conditioning.

16 comments:

Mike S. said...

I still remember when pundits predicted this or that technological advance would lead to a shorter working day. Decades later, it still hasn't happened. I can't see how a technological rollback would do so.

Summer business hours would not shorten, they would shift. Offices currently open 9-5 would instead be open, say, 8-11 and 2-7. Or, possibly, 2-8 - since, with the heat slowing people down, it might take more time to get the same amount of work done.

Finally, while heat might drive people into the streets, it's more likely to drive them to lakes and pools (where they can cool off in the water) or to stay in their homes (where they can strip down without worrying about who will see them).

Many, many people try to imagine what the world would be like if we changed this or that thing. Almost none of them do so accurately. Mr. Cox does not appear to be an exception.

FLRN said...

Okay Darren - Personally I think Willis Havilland Carrier should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (posthumously) for his work and invention of air conditioning technology. He should even be canonized as a saint. His work has led to the process of four color printing, revolutionized the manufacturing and technology industry resulted in refrigeration making food supplies sustainable, hospital care tolerable and leading to the creation of life saving medications and healthcare interventions. Thank God for the work of innovators! To forget the good to come from the technology would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater - I don't want to even consider natural childbirth without the promise of un-natural air conditioning.
I challenge Mr. Cox to leave Kansas and write his essays here in Florida, or sweat out a fever in an un- air conditioned hospital. Or perhaps he could run the presses and lay out the type face for his novels under the comfort of ceiling fan in an un-ventilated warehouse in a St. Petersburg firm, or purchase his food, water and medication at a roadside stand in Miami? May be we should consider air and rail travel sans AC? A world without AC - I could only imagine the changes - think of the impact on deodorant sales alone!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN: My initial reaction as a Florida native and a former resident of Dallas was "say what."

Mike S: I do not want to discount the science of prognostication completely. Cox makes too many gigantic leaps.

Aspasia said...

Hell, I'm in Chicago and I'm like, "This dude is TRIPPIN'!" LOL!

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

Native Chicagoan now in Colorado and I wouldn't go sans AC. I laughed through the entire post. Then I read your comments and could barely breathe, I was laughing so hard. Deodorant sales... "say what?"... Hell, I'm in Chicago...

I'm one of those people that likes a temp warmer than most but no way would I voluntarily give up air conditioning above 82 degrees for the specious reasons this guy gave. Ridiculousness!! It's only 74 outside at the moment and I'm thinking about turning on my air just to protest this guy.

Hilariously, your ads now include ones for Sears AC installment and other central cooling systems because of this post.

Plus, I remember summers in Chicago's where record numbers of the elderly died because of heat waves with no AC. Besides this being really funny, it could be a dangerous proposal.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Niki: Hilarious. And I also cracked up when I saw the a/c ads appearing.

Aspasia said...

Niki: I remember that summer vividly! I graduated from eighth grade that year and I also ended up attending a lot of funerals (but not of heat-related fatalities).

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

Ooookaaaayyy... Aspasia, I was either in high school or my first year of college. You have now made me even sadder about the approach of my 32nd birthday in a couple of weeks. :( Now the only upside I have to cling to is that I share it with Obama & Helen Thomas (who, despite her idiotic comments, is a really amazing journalist). Clearly, awesome people are born that day! : D

I count 11 mini air-conditioning ads on this page at the moment. The one for coupons here where I live reminds me of that old Sesame Street song, "One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not the same."

The one good thing about this post is that it has made me reconsider my overuse of heat and AC. It is a bit ridiculous that I carry my reusable bags to the grocery store but pump loads of freon and whatever haters use into the environment. Thanks to you, today I have all of my windows open instead.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

heaters... not haters.

N.B. If it gets above 80, all bets are off and the AC goes back on.

Aspasia said...

Niki: Pfft. I'm only about three years younger than you so maybe I'm thinking of another deadly summer here in Chicago.

FLRN said...

Hippi Chicki Nicki - LOL my windows in my Florida home are firmly closed and I could care less if my AC spewed radon gas - Happy here in Florida...

Come December I will consider prying them open perhaps for the holidays - maybe except then I usually blast it so I can approxiate winter inside and wear a sweater to fake it that it is a White Christmas instead of palm trees and sand. I enjoyed reading your comments - Stay cool.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN and Niki: After exerising outside, my dog and I are enjoying the AC.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

@Aspasia: that's about right. If you were in 8th grade that puts me at junior year in high school. I just looked it up. It was 1995. That means it was between my junior and senior years of high school, so we're talking about the same summer.

I should hope that there was never, ever, ever again a week where 500 - 750 (depending on whose estimate you believe) people died from heat related causes.

@All: Like I said before, this just underscores the problem with his suggestion and the wisdom in FLRN's joking comments. We don't have to be nurses in Florida to see the danger in this. Like Prof. Hutchinson said, places like Florida and Texas and Arizona have the kind of heat we had that summer all of the time.

@Prof: I am glad that you and your dog enjoyed the AC on Saturday. We were moving boxes into storage that day and as my husband was gulping down water like it was going out of style here in CO with our moderate temps, I thought about this and was thankful he was in air conditioned buildings the whole time.

@All: I was talking to my dental hygienist about this earlier today (she's from Florida as well) and one thing struck me while we were discussing it. I remembered being unable to walk after I had a stroke while I lived on the second floor. I realized that the elderly are much less likely to be mobile and may be unable to go outside during extreme heat if there is no air conditioning. That is a big problem for one of his arguments, which was already pretty weak. I really hope that no one takes this silly man's advice to detrimental effect.

Aspasia said...

Niki: Yup, that was the year I graduated from 8th grade. I also vividly remember how many fire hydrants were popped and most neighborhoods had to deal with low water flow. That was also the summer my mom snapped on this dude riding his motorcycle on the sidewalk. She was thereafter known as "That Crazy Bitch Down The Street" and I had no problems walking around the neighborhood after that. lol

Rain said...

Honestly, I was born, live and grew in a place with Air conditioner, I was studying in a school with full of Air Conditioning . That's why I cannot say it now, that I can live without it, but sooner I must start practicing living outside an air conditioned place for me to learn and to live without it.

J Mark said...

Most of us take the ability to warm our homes for granted, but few appreciate the benefits of being able to remove unwanted heat during the summer months.

Heating And Air Conditioning Courses

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