“The deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995,” Cox says, “caused a higher death rate than either of two even more intense heat waves in the 1930s, before people had air-conditioning there. In the 1930s, people were able to sleep on roofs or sleeping porches, and neighbors looked after one another more.” In 2003, some 70,000 people died during a heat wave in Europe. The August timing, when many European government officials are on holiday, and the lack of air-conditioning units in many residential buildings from Paris to Moscow exacerbated the disaster.
Journalists were some of the first to sound the bell for us to take a look at how air conditioning had affected our culture and society, wrote Raymond Arsenault, a professor of southern history at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Fla., in The Journal of Southern History in 1983. In a 1970 editorial for The New York Times, Arsenault writes, "Because the air conditioner, the airplane and television have smoothed out harsh differences in climate, nearly abolished distance and homogenized popular taste […] Americans are becoming much less regionally diverse. . . . The census sketches a nation that has become one people with much the same problems and expectations everywhere. The regions fade. The urbanized nation strides on."
And Arsenault reminds us that in 1979, a TIME magazine columnist name Frank Trippett wrote that scholars had studied the effect of the car and TV on American society, but "for some reason they have not gotten around ‘to charting and diagnosing all the changes brought about by air conditioning.’”
The architectural and engineering solution had become a ubiquitous amenity, changing the way that we build buildings today. “In 1951 the inexpensive, efficient window unit finally hit the market, and sales skyrocketed, especially in the South,” Arsenault writes. “Within a year the Carrier Corporation had set up model tract houses in Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia in an effort to convince consumers that the air conditioner had made porches, basements, attics, and movable windows obsolete.” Arsenault notes that by 1955, one out of every 22 U.S. homes had A/C, but in the South, that figure was more like one in 10. The 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey showed that 87 percent of U.S. households now have air conditioning.
I am also a journalist, and choose to spend my hot, muggy Washington, D.C., summers without air conditioning—to save money and to feel connected to the outdoors. Friends, of course, think I’m crazy. And I do admit to going to watch a movie in a theater and bringing a sweatshirt during the summer. My kind of voluntary Ludditism is one thing, but Cox proposes a system for government regulation of air-conditioning reduction.
“We need firm society-wide limits on resource consumption and ecological impact,” he says. “We will then have to ask how much of each practice or technology we can support and still stay within those boundaries. That will require trade-offs,” he concedes. “We can't give up cooking our food or heating in winter, and we will always need to expend resources in manufacturing of essential goods (and preserving rare documents!).”
But Cox argues that the pain felt in reducing air-conditioning use will be outweighed by the benefits, including reducing our dependence on energy and saving money. “We can gain far more by reducing its [air conditioning] use than by improving its efficiency,” he says. “From 1993 to 2005, efficiency of residential AC equipment improved 28 percent, but consumption of electricity for AC, per air-conditioned household, increased 37 percent (and total consumption doubled).”
We’ve created our monster, and it certainly does have its benefits—all of our collective rare books might live in a cool climate or underground otherwise—but controlling it is another thing entirely. In any case, Cox’s prescription is unlikely to be carried out. In the run-up to this summer’s heat waves, stores sold air-conditioning units faster than they could restock them. One Target owner sold out of a shipment of 400 units in May; a shipment that was supposed to last well through the dog-days of summer.