One major under-discussed environmental danger
I worry that this interview with author Stan Cox about his book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) might not get through to people. And the reason is that Cox drifts a little too far into the sanctimonious zone about air conditioning, talking about how he never, ever uses it if he’s in control, and focusing his energies on talking about people who’ve given up on air conditioning, even when they live in super hot climates. And doing that thing people do, where they drift off into refusing to admit there could ever be any value to the thing they’re trying to get people to give up, like how he gets into scientifically iffy territory of suggesting that people would have fewer allergies if they didn’t use A/C and got out more. (I suspect the rise in allergic people compared to the past has more to do with the fact that we can keep them alive now, whereas in the past they would have died from the flu or tuberculosis at a young age.) When it comes to environmentalism, there’s a real danger in taking an absolutist position, which is that people will tune you out completely, since they find that impossible.
Which is too bad, because on the whole, Cox is right. Air conditioning is one of the great environmental disasters of our time. It’s way overused, and to make it worse, it allowed people to build bigger houses and public buildings on the grounds that they could cool them off pretty easily, and it discouraged the use of more energy efficient ways to cool off your home. It’s created cultural acclimation of the sort where people will never accept anything less than air conditioning, even when opening a window would actually be just as good. Believe me, I know. This has been the ongoing war of my adult life. I grew up in the Southwest—interestingly, my family’s migration there has a lot to do with the problem of allergies and the attempts to avoid them rather than die of respiratory illness—and out there, they don’t really use the same kind of air conditioning that you see in many places. (Though that’s changing rapidly—air conditioning is such a status symbol that it’s being installed even where it’s not necessary.) We had evaporation cooling in most homes, which isn’t something that works as well in more humid environments. Subsequently, when I moved to Austin and started to have to live with for-real air conditioning, I hated it. I still hate it. I like cooling off in the A/C, due to being human, and I’ll run it rather than sit around sweating. But I’ve always been one of those people who waits until the last possible minute to flick it on, and then I sigh sadly, because I don’t look forward to having all the natural humidity in the air and my nostrils sucked out. As you can imagine, the vast majority of people I encounter disagree strongly with this strategy. I can have some effect on choosing windows and fans over A/C, but the compromise position always falls short of my “wait until there’s no other possible way to get the temperature below 90” strategy that I employed when I lived alone.
Because of all this, I think that a much better strategy for dramatically reducing A/C use is to avoid the cold turkey arguments, and start talking about how to remake our culture so A/C is a last, not first, ditch effort. From my war on A/C, I’d say that in many places, you could cut it by 70% with a few small adjustments to our cultural expectations of what temperature a room should be, and by getting people to consider taking many steps to cool off before resorting to the A/C, such as wearing fewer clothes at home, opening windows, using fans, building in places where there’s shade, drawing curtains, shutting doors to rooms you’re not using instead of air conditioning the whole house, etc.* Right now, for instance, I’m looking into buying some boxer shorts to wear around the house instead of the pajama pants I usually wear. That will buy me at least an hour or two more a day where I don’t resort to the A/C. I do think there’s value to pointing out the physical discomforts of A/C, but this process is going to take a lot of hand-holding. The belief that every place should have A/C on at full blast has just become so ingrained, as only someone who gets super cold and uncomfortable in full blast A/C (ahem) can really tell you.
Absolutists have a role. They can show us that other ways are possible, and we can then meet them half way. But sometimes they take it too far, like vegans who refuse to eat honey, even though the reduction in honey consumption actually means fewer, not more bees and gets us deeper into the bee shortage crisis. But going completely without A/C probably isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m thinking an approach a little more like this one, modeled by Graham Hill on the topic of vegetarianism, is a good one.
Basically, he’s saying that it would work just as well to get 100 people to cut their meat consumption by 50% as to have 50 people go full vegetarian. And let’s face it; it’s probably easier to get 100 people to reduce by 50% than to get 50 people to give up meat entirely.
A/C can work the same way. Eliminating isn’t going to happen, but it’s easy enough, in my experience, to convince people to delay turning it on and to set it at a much higher temperature than we’re used to. And for this, I want to offer a summertime challenge. I challenge everyone out there in blog reading land to come up with a bunch of different ways they can cool off without turning the A/C temperature down to 68, 70, or 72. I’m starting by switching from pajama bottoms to boxer shorts and a tank top, and only wearing for-real clothes when I’m leaving the house. I’m also turning off the lights in the house during the day, which adds heat to the house, and only running A/C in rooms being used. Suggestions on how to keep cool without just blasting the air are welcome!
*I will say this is one more reason NYC is a place after my own heart. Unlike in most other places I’ve been, New Yorkers make it a point of cultural pride to put off running the A/C as long as humanly possible, and are big fans of the open window. I’ve definitely known some homes where a window hasn’t been opened in years, even though they may have six months of perfect weather. This isn’t true in New York. They will do anything to avoid turning on the air. I love it.