13th 2010
The Case Against A/C?

Posted under: American history, local news, technoskepticism

Stan Cox makes a provocative argument against air conditioning in Washington, D.C.  (He’s plugging a new book on the topic.)  Now this might be a bad time to consider ditching the old A/C, especially for you easterners who “enjoy” suffocating humidity all summer long and have recently suffered through a spate of 100-degree-plus days.  But I think it’s something we should talk about.  I can say with smug (if slightly sweaty) satisfaction that this is what summer at El Rancho Historiann looks like:

Families unplug as many heat-generating appliances as possible. Forget clothes dryers –post-A.C. neighborhoods are crisscrossed with clotheslines. The hot stove is abandoned for the grill, and dinner is eaten on the porch.

Line drying in such a dry climate makes my clean towels look and feel like something a dog chewed up and spit back out–but I’ll make the sacrifice!  Because my house is literally a one-story ranch house with large overhanging eaves, the inside of the house stays at least 20 degrees cooler than the outside.  A strategic use of shades on the South- and West-facing windows helps a lot, too.  We have a bedroom in the basement, in which we could sleep in an emergency since it’s always cool.  But, that hasn’t happened in 8-1/2 summers, so far.  Plus, it’s only really hot one month of the year out here–in July.

At the very least, I think Cox asks a good question:  why shouldn’t we consider shutting down a city in an extreme heat wave, just as we do when snow and ice storms make travel impossible?  We’d at least avoid having to air condition most workplaces and homes, and the absence of commuting would also save fossil fuels.  We westerners should really take the lead on taking out the air conditioning, since aridity is on our side.  Plus, those of us at altitude benefit from 30- to 40-degree swings in temperature from daytime highs to nighttime lows, so opening up the house after 7 p.m. to let in the cool night air makes a big difference.

Even as I sit here smugly with my dog-chewed towels, I look back on a not-so-distant past in which I had a much smaller carbon footprint, mostly due to personal poverty.  Back in graduate school/medical school days, I took trains instead of planes for intercity travel, and I didn’t have my own washer/dryer or dishwasher.  I also didn’t own a car for most of that period–I hoofed it for everything.  When I moved in with Fratguy, we had an apartment in Baltimore–Baltimore!!!–without A/C!  I will confess that that summer, when the temperature in our apartment was 81 degrees at 7 a.m. one day in early July, I bought a window unit so that we could have a cool bedroom.  (As I recall, we used to eat dinner and even entertain in that bedroom, simply because it was our only refuge.)  When we moved to Boston the following summer, we took an apartment that didn’t have a refrigerator, so we stacked two tiny dorm fridges on top of one another and made do.  (We had a screened-in porch that year that doubled as a gigantic extra refrigerator after mid-November.)

Cox makes another point about the benefits of ditching A/C–maybe people would go outside and connect again with each other.  If you and a number of your neighbors skip the A/C, think of other benefits for your town:  movie theaters would be thrilled to have your business during hot days and evenings, and think of the spike in popularity the public libraries and swimming pools might enjoy!  To what extent is air conditioning responsible for the decline in civic spirit and civility in the past forty years?  Maybe people would be more willing to pay taxes to support their local parks, pools, and recreation centers if they were more popular.


90 Responses to “The Case Against A/C?”

  1. Dame Eleanor Hull on 13 Jul 2010 at 6:42 am #

    As you note, there’s a huge difference between west & east (& midwest) here. I see no need for A/C in large parts of the west, especially if buildings are built properly. However, I lived close to Chicago in 1995, the summer that people were dying in a heatwave. My apartment was third floor, under the roof, no A/C. I attempted to sleep by soaking pj’s in cool water, then turning a fan on myself. It was still too hot. I joined the poor people dozing in the public library during the day. When local stores got new window A/C units in (they sold out very fast in the first wave of heat), I bought one, because I could, because I clearly could not survive otherwise. When it doesn’t cool down at night, you’re in trouble.

    I’ve lived in DC in summer, too. Couldn’t walk two blocks at 8:00 a.m. without being drenched in sweat. I thought the idea in putting the capital there was that politicians were supposed to go home in summer—which doesn’t help anybody who’s there for other reasons.

  2. Paul on 13 Jul 2010 at 7:48 am #

    What Dame Eleanor Hull said. I don’t see most people in the eastern part of the country ever abandoning AC, especially in the southeast. The consequences would range from simple discomfort to more serious problems (i.e., total exhaustion from inability to get much sleep in addition to the heat) to premature death for a small but significant number of elderly people and people with other medical problems.

    Ventilation, wide open windows, lots of time on shaded porches, swimming pools – all of these things help, but I think that for some purposes they still can’t come close to the benefits of AC. And I’m talking about my experiences in Massachusetts, which has short, mild summers compared to much of the eastern USA. I’m a little biased, though, since I sweat more easily than most people.

    Having said that, I’ll agree that AC is probably overused and is a massive electricity user. It seems to me that there is a tendency to turn AC temperatures lower and lower the warmer it gets outside, though this might just be my imagination.

    Having separate units for different rooms probably uses somewhat less power than central AC, at least, since you can turn it on only in the rooms that you are using. Another compromise that’s possible in the northeast is only using AC during the hottest, most humid times, where even night air is warm and muggy. During warm but less oppressive spells in summer, I switch to open windows and fans, especially at night. One problem with this is the tendency to keep windows relatively small on the majority of houses here, which helps in winter but makes it more difficult to ventilate a house in summer.

    Re: drying clothes outside, sometimes it’s so humid in the summer here that the clothes will probably take a long time to dry, no matter how warm it is. Obviously it can be done, though, since that used to be the only way to dry clothes in any part of the country.

  3. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 7:53 am #

    I used to line dry clothes in Massachusetts! It happened pretty speedily, too.

    Paul makes a good point about window units for a few key rooms versus whole-house air conditioning. What I’ve noticed is that when people install the central air, they close the windows and never open them again. So, the A/C becomes the first and only way to cool the house, even when it’s not that hot or when a storm blows through with some cooler air. (And it’s one of the main reasons why I don’t want it.)

  4. New Kid on the Hallway on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:04 am #

    The hot stove is abandoned for the grill, and dinner is eaten on the porch.

    Which is all very well, unless, like many of us, you don’t have anywhere to put a grill and you don’t have a porch. (Also means nowhere to put a clothesline.)

    Though I agree with many of the other points, especially about the West v. East. We do use A/C (sort of – it’s a radiator that runs cold water through it, fan blows cool air into the room; it never gets COLD the way that the south does A/C, but it keeps things tolerable), but probably could get by without it if we weren’t on the 10th floor facing due west with no cross-ventilation at all (mornings are fine, by the end of the day the apt. gets hot and stays hot). But if my mom didn’t have A/C in Florida, I think she’d run into mold problems!

    I’m not sure I buy the community connection idea, though. Public libraries and swimming pools are already popular, especially in hot weather (see recent article about the heat wave in the NYT – there was a photo of people waiting in a tremendous crowd to get in to a public pool). There are still plenty of people without A/C who don’t have any choice but to use such services (I didn’t get the impression Colorado Springs stopped paying because the services were unpopular, but because they’re rabid about taxes.) Besides, there are whole communities (Vegas comes to mind) that wouldn’t even exist without A/C.

  5. John S. on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:06 am #

    I am writing this from a coffee shop, before heading in to the archives. I’d have written from the apartment I am subletting–except that I have learned that living out west has made me completely incapable of enduring heat and humidity. I really like the woman who sublet the apartment to me, though her assurance that the two window units can keep the entire place warm was offset by her later admission that “I’ve never actually spent July in Virginia.”

    But it is amazing how acclimated (pun intended) one can get to A/C, esp. doing what I do. First: I think my computer would crap out if it lived in non-A/C land forever. The modern electronics I use really like climate-control, especially since I use laptops exclusively; they overheat faster. Second: I can actually function ok in the heat, but find writing especially tough. I mean, I *always* find it tough–but humidity saps my mind. How did southern writers do it?

  6. Perpetua on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Not to sound tougher-than-thou (or perhaps sweatier-than-thou?), but I lived for eight years in Sweaty Mid-Atlantic City without A/C (though one of those years I did have a window unit for a bedroom). It was okay. But I agree with previous posters that there are serious health concerns with abandoning A/C in the East, especially now that we’ve moved into the era of The Pollution is So Bad That On Some Days The Air Can Kill You, Especially if You Are Elderly or Have Asthma. (Anybody who lives in the DC area can testify that the weather people on the news now tell you about air quality during the summer, and there are many days when they say – For the love of God don’t leave your house or you might die!!) There are lots of things that people in the east can do without ditching A/C altogether, though – like turn your freaking thermostat up and not leave it at 65 or 68 or whatever. Almost every business in the mid-Atlantic and SE is so air conditioned to death you need a sweater in the summer. This is ridiculous. We have our A/C set at 77 which is quite comfy. Another thing people can do (especially folks living in the suburbs) is *open your windows, people!*. I should start a facebook group called “Open your windows, people!” I currently live in a small town and you would be amazed how few people ever open their windows on cool evenings/ nights/ mornings. (Probably because as Historiann mentions, they all have central air, and never opened their windows again, and when their houses smell stale they buy Febreeze and spray chemical scents around to mask the stale air – all instead of opening the windows.) Not only is fresh air kind of nice, the cooler you get your house, the longer it takes to heat up! Also, roof gardens/ green roofs and TREES. Our house is the envy of the street because we have these two huge trees in the front yard that keep the entire yard and the front of the house shaded – perfect during the summer, and when you want more sun in the winter – viola! the leaves had fallen off and there’s more sun. Spray parks are also replacing swimming pools in many areas – I think these are great, because they are cheaper than pools to maintain, so that they are free to the public (so anyone can use them, regardless of income) and they are less wasteful of water. They are also really fun.

    While I applaud the fact that many folks in the PNW don’t have A/C (who needs it, right?), I have to say I got trapped in that heat wave in Vancouver last summer – it was in the 90s and not only did nobody have A/C (even the A/C at the aquarium broke down under the strain), the windows don’t even open all the way, so there were no breezes. Yikes that sucked. And yet we all survived.

  7. New Kid on the Hallway on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:12 am #

    I think the central air state of mind isn’t inevitable. Where I lived in the south, and looked into buying a house, quite a few had basically non-functioning windows (usually painted shut, but on at least one occasion, nailed shut). This was partly because the mentality was to run the A/C all the time – but doing so was also a fairly rational response to the weather. It was usually either hot enough to have to have the A/C on, or not hot enough to have the windows open – little in between (although especially in the minds of the locals, who had different ideas about cold than I did!).

    Plus, if it is stinking hot all day AND night (as opposed to out here where it cools down at night), it’s actually more efficient to have the central air cycling to keep the house at a constant temperature, than to use window units (which generally don’t have a thermostat – they’re either on or off).

    The other thing is that there was an awful lot of one-story architecture there, and a fairly high level of crime. If I’d lived in one of the one-story bungalows typical of the place, I’d have shut/locked the windows and turned on the A/C at night, too.

    But having central air doesn’t have to mean that you never use the windows again. It’s just a question of where you are and what weather you’re dealing with. Even out here, I’d honestly never buy a house without central air, but I would only use it when fresh air doesn’t cut it – I prefer fresh air if I can get it.

    (This and my previous comment are all to say that I am a HUGE FAN of A/C, overall.)

  8. thefrogprincess on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:44 am #

    Yeah, this is an area I refuse to compromise on. I’ve lived on the east coast my entire life, mainly in the South but now not, and I think AC is a vital need, and frankly central AC is the only acceptable form. I’ve had versions of this conversation with people: “it’s not that bad, we just slept without any sheets and tossed and turned all night and woke up drenched.” Yeah, whatever. I need no reason to take pride in one’s ability to “sleep” in 90 degree heat and humidity (and by that, I mean the temperature inside your home, not the temperature outside, which could be several degrees cooler). And as for the community effects, I was on neighborhood swim teams during the summer, I went to camp, I played outside, air conditioning doesn’t get in the way of that. It just makes sure you aren’t wet and drenched (and that you have dry towels and the like) for three or four months.

    And, although people have mentioned it, I’ll say it again. The heat kills people, every year.

  9. squadratomagico on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:45 am #

    I hate AC — hate-hate-hate it! I understand the necessity to have it in some situations — Dame Eleanor’s third-floor walkup in Chicago being a case in point. But it’s so terribly abused — I particularly detest the model of central air that cools an entire McMansion when only one rom is occupied; that’s never turned off (even when the residents leave the house for 12 hours!); that set the air temperature lower than a normal, early spring day; and that mitigates against any fresh air ever coming in to the home. Central air is an inherently wasteful kind of system.

    My home is an older craftsman that was designed to self-cool, much like Historiann’s ranch. It has lots of windows that permit cross-currents of air, broad eaves, and is sited in such a way as to mitigate the effects of the strongest heat of the day. Architecture and conscious urban planning can help so much with cooling, but many of these traditional, cooling tricks have been forgotten since the advent of central a/c.

    People did live without it once, you know, not that long ago. Indeed, most people in the world still do…. In India, in hot season, everyone sleeps on the roofs, under soaked towels if necessary (though they dry out fast!)

  10. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:55 am #

    The points here seem to revolve around the ways in which the built environment either requires or compensates for A/C. The rise of skyscrapers without windows that open, not to mention even residential lo-rises in warm cities, wouldn’t have happened without air conditioning as an available technology. The reason that the lack of A/C can be so deadly for people is that we’ve built buildings that require it.

    Squadrato is right–the built environment is key, and there are design features that make going without A/C feasible (if more comfortable in some places than in others). But given that we’ve created a built environment predicated on the availability of full-blast A/C (not to mention colonized entire regions like Arizona and Texas on the basis thereof), it seems unlikely that we can all just turn off the A/C. It’s like our reliance on the internal combustion engine. We can’t ditch the cars unless or until we completely redesign the majority of American cities and suburbs.

  11. life_of_a_fool on 13 Jul 2010 at 9:04 am #

    I also HATE air conditioning. I live in one of those places that had a 100 degree heat wave last week. That was bad. And, I did make one attempt to find a window unit (100 degree days not being the best time to find them in stock, I failed). But, the number of days that I wish I had it are pretty small (if I did, I would get a window unit for my home office and use it rarely), and the number of days that I enjoy open windows are much greater. I hate hate hate being trapped in highly air conditioned environments, and I am seriously unhappy when the power goes out on hot days because of too much a/c use.

    I don’t think we could ever get away from a/c — and *some* people (the elderly, sick, asthmatics) probably do need it. But the conditions that kill people are rarely from weather alone; it is hot weather complicated by isolation, high crime (i.e., afraid to open windows), and other social factors. Many of us don’t need it and most of us overuse it. I’m definitely on board for minimizing it’s use.

  12. Susan on 13 Jul 2010 at 9:42 am #

    As everyone talks about how necessary AC is in the south, they ignore the fact that people only started moving there in numbers when AC came in: before that, Washington DC was a hardship post in the British foreign service.

    Until two years ago, I lived in the Northeast, and only ever had a window unit — usually in an office. In our bedroom, we got crossbreezes, and we had fans, so as long as the temperature got below 85 at night, we were OK. But I never saw the point of AC for the three nights a year we needed it. Now I have AC, and in a climate where we do have temperatures over 100, I’m glad I do. But in early morning I open up all the windows and cool the house down (it doesn’t really cool down here until about the time I go to bed, so not so much in the evening). Once the outdoor temperature exceeds the indoor, I close windows. If it doesn’t go above the low 90s, I don’t need to turn on AC, but over that it becomes uncomfortable. My thermostat is set at 80…

  13. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 9:45 am #

    “Minimizing its use” is a reasonable goal. Perpetua makes good points about opening windows and trees. Trees make a huge difference! For those of us out here in the high plains desert, trees are scarce if they’re not cultivated. This presents another environmental dilemma, given the cost of watering and pampering trees here where they’re not native outside of stream beds. But, on the whole, I think they’re more than worth it, given the shade and shelter they offer, not to mention the oxygen they give off.

    I’m fortunate to have large trees blocking much of the sun from my house. (This is not so great for solar panels–we’ve looked into installing photovoltaic panels on the roof, but in order to get the tax credit or rebate from the power company, we’d need to make sure that something like 80% of our roof got full sun. I’m not sure it’s worth it, if we’d have to install A/C.)

    Susan’s point about Washington D.C. before A/C is all of a piece here with what we’re all saying about the interplay between human populations, technology, and the built environment. I love the American Southwest–but do we all need to live there? To what extent has A/C enabled the depopulation and deindustrialization of the Rust Belt: Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit . . .

  14. Sweet Sue on 13 Jul 2010 at 9:58 am #

    I thank God for air conditioning.
    AC and anti-biotics are equally responsible for the higher life expectancy we enjoy, today, imo.

  15. Julie on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:00 am #

    I take Cox’s points, and as a long-time hater of A/C, I’m basically on his side.

    However, I was a little put off by a basic flaw in the argument — office building windows DON’T OPEN. Sure, I’d love to have natural air a lot of the time (and I do at home when it’s not 95 plus miserable humidity), but exactly how are we to do that at work?

    It’s a great case study of the ways technology gets built into things such that it becomes almost invisible, and I’m all for questioning that. But damn, my office is bad enough on Monday mornings when they’ve had the air off all weekend long. I don’t want to think about what it would be like if my whole company were hanging out here at the same time.

    I would also suggest that expectations for work, for rest, and for accomplishing other things were somewhat different before A/C helped us pretend the year didn’t change, just like electric lights do. That’s the piece that always fascinates me — the ways technology comes to obscure very real changes in our environment and creates conflicts between our bodily experience and our expectations.

  16. Feminist Avatar on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:01 am #

    I am just reading this and feeling smug about living in a country where we don’t even have A/C in cars! The highest ever recorded temperature here is 89 degrees; a typical heatwave wouldn’t go much above 78, and the average temp in the hottest month is in the 60s.

  17. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:04 am #

    Well — most of the world line dries clothes, although this doesn’t work as well in rain/humidity as elsewhere. Therefore Brazilian apartments often have laundry rooms (large wash tub, rub board, and drying space, and yes, this is current and modern) that are very well ventilated, so you can line dry with protection from rain. Elsewhere there are drying yards in patios and on roofs of buildings and they have rain protection, too.

    I’m from coastal California so I grew up without a clothes dryer, or heat, or air conditioning, none of this was really needed.

    The question of having it never cool down at night is really important, and so is the point about a/c in your big house while community spaces are de-funded.

    Architecture also matters a lot. New Orleans is much cooler than more newly built parts of Louisiana because it has high ceilings, transom windows, ventilation, and a lot of shade. If you build little box houses on concrete boulevards next to concrete shopping malls, you really create a lot of extra heat and those little box houses really need a/c if people are to survive them.

    Having spent a lot of time in really hot places I’ve decided the best combination is: (a) correct architecture, trees, public spaces with a/c, etc. plus (b) these tiny a/c units you can get to put in bedrooms at night.

    Here in Louisiana a window unit is this huge noisy thing that takes up your whole window, but in Nicaragua and Brazil I’ve seen these slim units that you put above the window, not in it. They don’t make so much noise, and they do cool but do not refrigerate, and you can turn them off and open the window.

  18. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:11 am #

    “…don’t even have A/C in cars”

    Am I old, or did I grow up poor and not realize it? I remember seeing my first air conditioned cars in Los Angeles in the 80s, and they were considered a luxury item.

    When we began to have reason to drive inland, towards San Bernardino and Riverside, during the day I remember having a whole discussion about it — how did people manage the heat, and so on. We discerned at that point that air conditioned cars might be somewhat excessive but could be construed as near necessities since it was important not to get heat exhaustion.

    I feel old, suddenly!

  19. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:18 am #

    P.S. And I also hate a/c, even though I’m glad I have it, and that point about how DC was a hardship post back in the day, and how the South was less populated before a/c, is key.

    My building at work doesn’t have windows that open, and they only turn on the a/c when students are supposed to be in the building. This is bad for computers and book collections, due to the mold. It’s really hard to work with zero ventilation; if we could open the windows and put fans in them, it would be OK.

  20. Western Dave on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:19 am #

    An unintended consequence of ditching a/c would be a strong uptick in urban riots. Almost all the riots started during heat waves in part b/c people were a) more irritable and b)out at night trying to cool off. It’s no accident that a couple of quiet little programs that provided a/c units to public housing / poor neighborhoods did more to end the patterns of riots in the sixties (and earlier) than addressing structural causes did. Sigh. People were still stuck in poverty, but at least they stopped rioting b/c they were inside.

    We have an old house (a twin) in Philly. We don’t use the third story yet and we have an exhaust fan up there. Three window units with thermostat controls in the bedrooms and one downstairs. These all have temperature controls and cycle over to fan mode when the outside air is cooler. If I’m home, I spend a fair amount of time during the day opening and closing windows and shifting fans/ac units to intake/exhaust.

  21. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:23 am #

    P.P.S. “…a country where we don’t even have A/C in cars!”

    That would also be most of Latin America, where it’s hot. Cars with a/c *are* luxury items … even now …

  22. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:26 am #

    “It’s no accident that a couple of quiet little programs that provided a/c units to public housing / poor neighborhoods did more to end the patterns of riots in the sixties (and earlier) than addressing structural causes did.”

    That’s fascinating. I’ve also heard TVs were given away in India as a plan to reduce the birth rate, and that it worked.

  23. FrauTech on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:29 am #

    This is one of those posts where everyone can get together and talk about how we’ve all suffered. It gets pretty hot here in the southwest, inland-quasi-desert, but at least it’s a dry heat. There’s usually a few months a year where the heat barely breaks over night and it’s terrible. The A/C in my car lasted only a few years and it was my first car with A/C so I’m definitely familiar with that being a “luxury.” Haven’t ever lived in a house with a/c either, just a complicated game of windows closed/open in the evenings and well placed fans. However, I am going to NEED a/c in my workplace, that is where I’d draw the line.

    “Maybe people would be more willing to pay taxes…” hahaha, good one…

  24. squadratomagico on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:37 am #

    I grew up in the Northeast without any a/c. A few nights per year were a little uncomfortable, but so what? If a/c is necessary to preserve life — and I take the point that in some places it is — then fine, but I don’t really understand the mindset that tries to avoid all discomfort at all times. We live in bodies, and occasional discomfort is part of life. I kind of value that experience of discomfort, actually, above the dull artificiality of constant climate control.
    I never even encountered central air in a private home until I was in college: none of my childhood friends had it. My boyfriend’s (now husband’s) family home was the first private home I ever entered with central a/c. They lived a few towns over from my family, so it was the exact same climate as my childhood. The main difference was that they were rich, whereas my family and friends were solidly middle-class: they had very different expectations about what constituted a “necessity.” Their home was a totally sealed environment, year round. In the winter, the heat was on; then there was about a week when no systems were in use, but all windows were kept closed; and then it was central a/c, night and day, for the 3-4 months. I was astonished, and needed to have the whole idea of central a/c explained to me. I immediately found, and still find, the whole idea of never having to experience temperature changes in one’s own home, to be creepy.

  25. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:41 am #

    “I would also suggest that expectations for work, for rest, and for accomplishing other things were somewhat different before A/C helped us pretend the year didn’t change, just like electric lights do.”

    This is also important and I’ve found that even with a/c, it’s important to organize the day as people did in my area before it existed, i.e. get up very early, get a lot done before noon, lie very low in the afternoons, etc.

    Also, in a lot of buildings central a/c *is* the best way to go (frogprincess is right on this) and it’s also true that it’s awful trying to get through sleeping in 90-100 degree nights. One might say heroically, one survived it during some heat wave, but if you have this as standard weather 5 months a year, it’s a different matter.

    Opening windows and so on: I ought to do this more. There are problems: (a) insects; (b) rain; (c) intruders.
    I’ve forgotten to close my window and had the police show up at 2 AM: neighbors or passers-by have called to say I’m inviting thieves and could have been killed already, and also feel I’m inviting thieves to the neighborhood generally.

  26. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:48 am #

    Julie wrote, “I would also suggest that expectations for work, for rest, and for accomplishing other things were somewhat different before A/C helped us pretend the year didn’t change, just like electric lights do. That’s the piece that always fascinates me — the ways technology comes to obscure very real changes in our environment and creates conflicts between our bodily experience and our expectations.”

    Yes, exactly. Squadrato, I think central A/C was rare in New England before the 1980s or early 1990s. Now, I think it’s the rare new home that isn’t built with it. Z’s point about older homes (because they were built before AC) being better adapted to the local climate is a good one. There’s a connection here between climate and regional American architecture that the A/C era has obscured.

  27. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:54 am #

    On Z’s point about safety: this is important. I think it’s especially an issue for people who live alone, for older people, and for women in general. (When I moved out here, there was a rapist on the loose who was sneaking into women’s apartments by screen doors and windows. So, it is an important issue to consider.)

    When I lived in Washington, D.C. for a year, I noticed that most everyone had iron grilles installed over their windows, so you could take the air without risking home invasion. (Cox notes this in his article.) But, perhaps other parts of the country haven’t adopted this design.

  28. thefrogprincess on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:55 am #

    Feminist Avatar, if I’m recalling where you live correctly, I’ve spent a fair amount of time there and I’d agree, AC isn’t required but when it’s hot, it’s more miserable than almost any place in the US. Especially when public transit doesn’t make the adjustment and is actively pumping heat onto buses when it’s 80 degrees outside.

    But maybe you can answer this question for me: much of this conversation has centered around opening windows and I’m assuming the prevailing assumption here is that these windows have screens. Except that they don’t have screens where Feminist Avatar lives, or at least I’ve never ever seen screens. Are we supposed to be fine with wasps, bees and birds flying in as well as the hot air??

  29. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:57 am #

    Final, final comment (you can tell I’m obsessed with this, I’ve been having a very hard time with the heat the last three weeks, and I am very aware of the oil spill, and I really want to figure out what to do) –

    I used to think you should turn off a/c but it is absolute *hell* to cool a building once it has heated up, and I haven’t found this really changes total energy usage. You can turn it way down, and if you’ve got architecture and a situation that allows for real ventilation you can turn it off, only cool certain rooms, etc.

    But all in all, this whole issue of the heat is hard to ignore, and I can see why people try to manage it with just plain refrigeration: it’s the simplest, and doesn’t require further thought, planning, adjustment, etc. Naturally cooled buildings were built in centuries past but they took a lot of thought, the way the eco-houses do now, and people still developed customs and schedules that fit the heat.

    One of the hardest things for me living where I do is having to work on a schedule that would make more sense in Scandinavia. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling downright ashamed about not being able to function well that way; now I’m working on getting together a more 19th century type schedule, work during the cool hours; I’ll be able to implement it except on teaching days or when meetings conflict with it; even on those days I’ll be aware of it and stop feeling like a piker just because the heat is getting me down.

  30. Paul on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:02 am #

    It also varies a lot by person – some people react much more negatively to heat than others, and the mirror image tends to apply to cold. My guess is that people who dislike A/C or who look down on those of us who are happy to have it even in the northeast don’t feel as much discomfort from heat as those of us who really want AC at times. For me, not having AC when it’s in the upper 80s or higher means pretty much constantly being covered in a sheen of sweat, and having sweat constantly trickling into my eyes. Is AC a necessity for me or most people – no, obviously not, people have lived in very hot climates for as long as there have been people. Does it increase the quality of life significantly for lots of people, including me? Yes, I think it does. Obviously quality of life has to be balanced against other things, which is why I advocate only using A/C when no other cooling method is effective.

  31. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:06 am #

    Well, I’m sort of sure the safety fears of my neighbors are exaggerated, here in Maringouin. The things is that we have Black people in Maringouin, and they walk and ride bicycles, and this is what my neighbors do not like. The insect/rain issues are worse and what I’d like would be screens that you could remove in non insect seasons, and shutters or broader eaves/better gutters so I could have windows open in the rain. That is actually a benefit of those very broad Southern porches.

    In N.O. there are iron grilles over the windows. I wanted them installed when I was living in eastern LA county, where there were lots of breakins, and the cost is very, very high. The cost of the screens, shutters, gutters, and eaves I want is also high, but not as high as the cost of the iron grilles — especially if you want ones of a quality that won’t decrease the value of your property!

  32. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:08 am #

    “The insect/rain issues are worse and…”

    meaning: the insect/rain issues are much more real than the alleged safety issues, at least here.

  33. Feminist Avatar on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:10 am #

    I live in Scotland, which as a good nationalist I do count as a separate country, so we rarely get uncomfortably hot- but I agree, head to London and you don’t want to be getting public transport during the summer.

    You’re right that screens are very unusual here; perhaps we just don’t have enough insects. I had a bird in my house a couple of weeks ago, but it didn’t stay long so it wasn’t a huge disaster (and most people’s bird stories involve them flying down chimneys- sometimes to a crispy conclusion- rather than open doors or windows). You will get a few flies, but most people cope with a fly-strip or two- and I don’t even have that as it isn’t enough of a problem and I like to have open windows and doors. I should also add however that we don’t always open doors or windows because our houses are often cooler than outside anyway. Our houses are usually designed to keep in warmth, rather than the opposite, but perhaps the insulation keeps in the cold as well…

  34. squadratomagico on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:12 am #

    We should adopt the Mediterranean custom of the siesta during the hottest part of the day!

  35. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:18 am #

    “I immediately found, and still find, the whole idea of never having to experience temperature changes in one’s own home, to be creepy.”

    I do agree. This was from Squadromagico who is from the NE. I know it gets hot there, too, I’ve spent time there in the summer; but seriously, it doesn’t stay as hot for as long, honest. I’ve just found, after much experimentation, that the best thing to do in my super scorched land *is* to maintain a constant temperature in the house as much as possible. As high as you can stand in summer, and as low in winter, but still constant. Otherwise you just increase stress on your systems, your building materials, and you, since it’s either so hot and wet and muddy, or so cold and wet and muddy, outside. You have a lot of discomfort to go through already, from outdoors, to frozen public buildings, to cars, etc. Trying to fiddle with the house, i.e. live with discomfort (too cold/too hot) there, too, just isn’t practical if you have any work to do.

    Finally — public spaces — I don’t just mean public swimming pools. When I lived where there were nice libraries and things like that, and they were open a lot, having air conditioning at home mattered a lot less.

  36. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:24 am #

    Squadro: that Mediterranean system really solves a lot, although it’s hard to do as an individual (i.e. if it’s not the business schedule) … I really wish it WERE the business schedule. I could go on and on about how much more efficient it is, how much more you get out of the day, and so on, but I’ve gone on enough.

    I really have been having a hard time here with the heat since getting back from Mexico (much of which is much cooler than Louisiana). Thanks for letting me use this space to think about how to survive.

  37. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:35 am #


    “For me, not having AC when it’s in the upper 80s or higher means pretty much constantly being covered in a sheen of sweat, and having sweat constantly trickling into my eyes.”

    Me, too, but it’s also a question of how much ventilation there is while that happens, what the view and smells are like, how many insects are also biting you, and whether you remember to breathe.

    So many factors to manage. People used to complain that there was “no weather” in the town where I grew up; I liked it since there was nothing to manage, no heating / cooling systems to build and repair, etc. I suppose one is always most used to where one is from.

  38. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:44 am #

    OK I will shut up, I promise — you can tell I’ve been having a mega-crisis about the heat.

    I’ve now read the actual WP article, and I love it. However, Dame Eleanor makes a very important point: just because politicians would clear out of Washington in summer, doesn’t mean others could.

    Ergo, as has been said: architecture, trees, planning, some a/c, etc.

  39. Katrina on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:51 am #

    I have spent time in Singapore and Malaysia without air-con, and it is brutal. When I moved there for an extended period, it was my main requirement! I also lived in Australia without it, and survived, although there were times I wished I had it. Right now, I am melting in the heat in Germany, but those cheap window units that are easy to pick up in the US just don’t exist here, so getting air con would be prohibitively pricey.

    (I also live in the attic apartment of a walk-up, so that doesn’t help).

  40. mandor on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:57 am #

    The thing I have always wondered is what would happen to the outdoor temperature if a large chunk of an urban population shut off its a/c? How much does it raise the temp outside relative to cooling inside? I do wish we’d treat heat waves as the danger they are, though. One of my favorite journal article titles is from the classic paper “Heat Island=Death Island?”.

    I grew up without a/c and in general am not a fan of it. My last apartment was on the first floor and backed into the side of a hill such that a/c wasn’t needed, even during some painfully hot Santa Anas.

  41. Joe on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    These comments are just TOO FUNNY! Do any of you A/C haters own any books? How do you think books and manuscripts are protected, in libraries or in archives? A/C eliminates mold, and therefore also helps control disease. I was born in the deep South and I’ve lived in Florida for 20 years. We set our A/C on 80-82 in the summer and we are quite comfortable. It’s real easy to “hate” on it especially when we are all sitting here on the Internet, which sucks as much or more electricity than air conditioning … spend a summer with me and see how much you “hate” it! Cheers.

  42. truffula on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    Squadrato: I don’t really understand the mindset that tries to avoid all discomfort at all times.

    Neither do I. I’m pretty sure most of the people in the world live without central air and have done so for most of human history. Surely there are some lessons out there to be learned, as Squadrato suggests with the afternoon siesta.

    I detest hot weather. Anything above 65 F is too much for me, yet I endure it without AC (and force my family to do the same!) because I detest the first-world mentality about extreme comforts even more. Unsurprisingly, we also keep the thermostat low during winter.

    I grew up in a hot place, went to graduate school school and post-doc’d in the upper midwest and mid-Atlantic, and suffered sans AC through the Chicago summer of 1995 (I did have an office to which I could retreat). One of the problems reported during the summer of 1995 was that many folks were loathe to go to cooling centers for fear of crime. I don’t know if that was either a well founded or real fear but it certainly was cited a lot in the news. There were also stories of Aldermen (and women) going door-to-door in their wards, checking on elder constituents. Now that’s government in action.

  43. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Joe–no one here is talking about doing away with all AC in all environments. Since many of us are historians and researchers (not to mention librarians and archivists), we appreciate the need for air conditioned libraries and archives (and enjoy it while we’re working there). Although the Cox article I linked to urged a more wholesale rejection of A/C, we’re focusing here on our domestic environments.

    And if you read my post carefully, you’ll remember that I wrote this: “If you and a number of your neighbors skip the A/C, think of other benefits for your town: movie theaters would be thrilled to have your business during hot days and evenings, and think of the spike in popularity the public libraries and swimming pools might enjoy!

  44. Joe on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    You simply cannot live in the deep south without it. Electric devices do not function in hot domestic environments! Neither do teachers and scholars (I am both) — it’s hot down here! Y’all come!

  45. Katrina on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I try to be environmental, but didn’t Lee Kwan Yew credit the financial success of Singapore to the introduction of air conditioning, allowing people to work in the heat?
    It’s one thing to do without if you live somewhere that you only really NEED it for 4-6 weeks of the year, it’s quite another if you’re looking at 100º days year-round.

  46. squadratomagico on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    Joe, what did people do in the south before the introduction of central air conditioning? Is it that no one lived in the south then? Or just that no one taught or learned?

  47. Joe on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    Squadra — the population of the South was much smaller before AC. Florida for example was the smallest state in the deep south throughout the 1800s (smallest in the Confederacy) and into the 1900s, until its explosive growth after WW2. Which was aided in part by the widespread use of AC. Now it’s the #3 state in terms of population. “Cracker” houses opened up to allow breezes and all that, but it could not attract much outside growth until the control and regulation of the environment. People taught and learned before AC, and they still teach and learn down here, we’re not all dumb hicks. We just like our AC and understand that it is a necessary evil. I don’t apologize for mine at all.

  48. Janice on 13 Jul 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    I’m living in my first residence with A/C since leaving the states in the eighties. We run it only a few days of the year when the humidity stays over 85% and the temperatures run wild. Fortunately, in the near north, that doesn’t happen that often!

    On the flip side, though, when I go back south, I see so many homes that are not just poorly designed in terms of airflow, but have little insulation. That affects you in both temperature extremes. If you can’t keep the cool in during the worst of the day (with overhangs to block the sun and high R-values) you’re certainly not managing to conserve energy during the winter. Retrofitting a house, like we did with our last one, with lot of insulation (better R-values) and new windows (both insulating and circulating functions!) saved us thousands in energy costs.

    My building at the U doesn’t have A/C. Nor does it have good air circulation (teeny tiny window opening about 10″x10″ at the bottom of a floor-ceiling window in the corner). But the thick walls mean we’re somewhat insulated, summer and winter. As long as we don’t turn on the overhead lights, we can manage on the hottest days. But there are a few space-heaters kicking around in my colleagues office for those -30 winter days when nothing seems to keep their offices warm. (I’ve added an extra insulating layer of books on the outside wall of my office. Bwaha haaa!)

  49. Knitting Clio on 13 Jul 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Even Cox acknowledges the public health benefits of using A/C during extreme heat and humidity — and I’m very grateful for my central A/C when the temperature is very high. However, I agree with Cox’s criticism using the AC all the time even when the temperatures are not that extreme. Many of my neighbors have no screens in their windows, so they either are running the AC or the heat.

    I also don’t see any sense in keeping the AC thermostat below 70 degrees — in fact, mine is at 78 at I’m very comfortable.

  50. E on 13 Jul 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    I think the changing architecture in the South has played a big role in the necessity of a/c. As others have said here, the wonderful deep porches, the shade of trees, the position of the house, and the high ceilings were all important features in cooling down a house without a/c. It certainly helped my grandparent’s farmhouse, which never had a/c, and we weren’t too uncomfortable visiting there in the summer.

    So many neighborhoods now, in all parts of the country, I think, are built on clear-cut property – there are no shade trees, no varieties of trees, just identical, spindly little afterthoughts stuck in the stripped soil. And around here most of them are the horrific Bradford pear trees that stink to high heaven when they bloom (and trigger my asthma) and split left and right during our Southern thunderstorms. I hate them! Ahem. Back to the issue. We chose a neighborhood with mature trees – a rare one that had not been clear cut – and in the summer nearly our entire roof is shaded. (Although we do have to deal with billions of acorns every year.) And there are two small rooms in the house in which we keep the vents closed so they won’t turn into iceboxes.

  51. Tree of Knowledge on 13 Jul 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Someone might have mentioned this already–I didn’t read all of the comments–but it’s very easy to live without air conditioning in the SE. Be poor. Or even just lower middle class. I lived in Knoxville, TN and Richmond, VA–both very hot and humid places with summer temps topping 100 for weeks at a time–without AC because we couldn’t afford apartments with AC. When it got too hot we went to the free museums, the library, $1 movies, grocery stores–whatever. We also lived in old buildings that were designed to allow breezes. But this issue has a major class/wealth component to it.

    And wasn’t the pre-AC solution to summer heat in the South to work in the morning and late afternoon/evening and not work at the hottest part of the day? Isn’t this part of where the lazy Southerner stereotype comes from (sitting on the porch drinkin’ lemonade instead of doing work)?

  52. jlt on 13 Jul 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    The article is thought provoking and this discussion provides lots of good thoughts about and using air conditioning in such a way that minimizes its impact on the environment, body, and lifestyle. However, the repeated argument (by some) that air conditioning is just another first world attempt to regulate/tame one’s environment to maximize personal comfort or productivity at any cost seems to me a rather narrow view. Not to mention the notion that AC is of course not necessary just because all the poor people on the planet live without it, and because people in this country lived without it not that long ago… so can the same be said of antibiotics and seat-belts and countless other inventions.

    I grew up poor, in a large family, in small houses with no AC. Summertime without AC in many places doesn’t put you in touch with your body, or your community. It just sucks. It makes you irritable (and, yes, more prone to losing your temper or becoming violent), it makes you feel sick, and it makes it darn difficult for you to concentrate on higher order things given the amount of effort and mind-space you must dedicate to the physical state of your body. Windows are great, but my non-AC owning friend was raped and murdered after leaving a window open at night during a heat wave (and much as I hate to make decisions based on anecdotal evidence, I will never sleep with an open window again).

    Maybe it’s because I’m now bourgy, but I absolutely consider the AC units in my house in DC a nonluxury. And I feel no need to define luxury against the poorest of the poor in the developing world, either– it is endlessly relative. I’m not going to reconsider the value of my access to electricity, the Internet, hot water, clean water, medicine, birth control, breast pumps and/formula, and, yes, AC, among many, many other things (all of which have associated gains and losses, and all of which can be said to serve to ‘remove’ us from the natural experience of our bodies and environments) because these things serve my ability to keep rising up the hierarchy of needs. But I would like to think that I am thoughtful about the my use patterns and their consequences.

    Do giant centrally cooled McMansions suck? Do office windows that don’t open and summertime cubicle temps that require a sweater suck? Does never opening the windows in your house suck? Does not thinking at all about how you are controlling your residential climate suck? I say yes. But there are a lot of responses to this post that are so ridic that I just have to chime in and throw a side eye their way.

  53. Vance Maverick on 13 Jul 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Are there architectural/planning approaches to hot climates that don’t cost a lot in terms of energy or personal financial resources? Tree of Knowledge says we’ve already got them, but I’m a bit skeptical (do those cool public places literally have room for everybody in the lower half of the income distribution?); jlt’s comment is more in line with my sense that the poor just suffer more. But it’s a matter of some urgency to work toward a way of living that works for everybody without massive resource consumption….

  54. wini on 13 Jul 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    Where I live it was over 100 degrees for 60 days straight last summer. I don’t really care if this area of the country was uninhabitable until the advent of AC, because I have a tenure track appointment at this university. I’m expected to produce during the summer, and that means when I’m at home the AC is set to 80 degrees, rain or shine.

    That said, I never had central air until I moved here. It is certainly possible to do without it in most of the places I’ve lived in US, above and below the mason dixon line, east and west of the Mississippi.

    One small comment though: central air is massively more efficient than a window unit. It is also easier to control the temperature effectively with central air, no hot/cold cycles. Window units are SO MUCH less energy efficient than central air.

  55. JackDanielsBlack on 13 Jul 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    I grew up in a small town in Mississippi without air conditioning. Here are some things that help:

    1)high ceilings
    3)screened porches

    Aiming a fan at yourself at night also keeps away the mosquitoes.

    You also appreciate the cooler days when they inevitably come much more without air conditioning.

  56. thefrogprincess on 13 Jul 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    On this class point that jlt and Tree of Knowledge raise, I’ve blogged about it over at my place b/c I do think there is an incredible amount of privilege abounding in a conversation about whether people should take on more suffering than necessary.

    Also, jlt, you hit the nail on the head with this: Summertime without AC in many places doesn’t put you in touch with your body, or your community. It just sucks. It makes you irritable (and, yes, more prone to losing your temper or becoming violent), it makes you feel sick, and it makes it darn difficult for you to concentrate on higher order things given the amount of effort and mind-space you must dedicate to the physical state of your body.

  57. Vance Maverick on 13 Jul 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    JackDanielsBlack’s prescriptions sound right, but I would note (as several others have done) that 1) and 3) cost space, i.e., real money.

  58. Sisyphus on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Oh hell no. I’m about to move somewhere and I have been watching the weather reports for my new place, and you can pry my AC from my cold, dead hands.

    I don’t have air conditioning or even fans here in CA, and I grew up in the southwest with a “swamp cooler” in Ariz and a window unit in NM, but those are just such qualitatively different environments. If it’s still going to be over 80 and 100% humidity outside at midnight, I’m not going to get any sleep!

    And if we get rid of —- or even cut back on — AC you are all going to have to give up the internet. Do you know how hot a room full of servers gets, even a small one? And how much energy you have to spend cooling all those servers? Not the big ones at Cox or Google, either — you pretty much need central air if your small business has a server and three or four computers. Now I think office spaces and stores could cut back a whole lot on air conditioning and design their spaces a lot better, but that’s different

    (My pet peeve is how all the stores around here have their air blasting and the glass doors to the street wide open. Rrrr! We should redesign all the big box stores and shops to have a double entrance like I saw all over Chicago, so you can let one set of doors close before the other opens and all the cold air doesn’t get sucked right out.)

  59. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    Good discussion. Yes, all solutions to the problem of heat and humidity cost something–they all cost money, and/or short- or long-term damage to the environment. And all of our solutions to taming our individual environments cost us money–whether we choose to go with central A/C, or with high ceilings, fans/swamp coolers, and/or porches and lemonade. As New Kid (and others) upthread have suggested, turning off the A/C isn’t as easy for people who don’t have cool porches and safe neighborhoods.

    Joe’s comments about the South are interesting, and give further proof of how dramatically our built environments and our work expectations have altered in response to the introduction of A/C.

  60. Tree of Knowledge on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    I think the argument about AC being a necessity or a luxury misses the point. I would argue that it’s neither. Not having AC sucks, but it’s not a necessity. We are all capable of adjusting our lives to live without AC if we didn’t have it (which was what I was trying to say before–to use AC or not isn’t a choice for a lot of people). It’s also not a luxury, and I’m grateful for the public places I can go that have AC (and if they didn’t exist, I’d spend more time in parks with trees). AC makes life easier, more comfortable, and more tolerable. But it is a modern convenience that many people take for granted (I imagine most people think about cost, but a lot of energy and natural resources–coal and nuclear–go into cooling homes too). While Cox’s article does romanticize a bit, he does seem to be making the point that it is possible to live without AC provided we change our lifestyle to accommodate the heat. Someone already made the point of moderate use–use it when you need it and not when you don’t. But we seem to have very different ideas of when that would be.

  61. the15th on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Whenever there’s a discussion about a purportedly unnecessary modern convenience that deprives us of the simplicity of an earlier time and robs us of our connection with the natural environment, I’m always interested in who benefits most from the innovation. And sure enough: women are more susceptible (even controlled for age) to heat-related death than men, and are also possibly less tolerant of heat in general.

  62. Tree of Knowledge on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    To concede a point, Sisyphus is spot on about servers and such. AC is necessary for climate controlled technology. But plenty of businesses overuse the AC. I don’t think people and businesses should get rid of AC. I just think it should be used responsibly and that a lot of us–myself included when I had AC–rationalize unnecessary use.

  63. undine on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    Yes to all the suggestions about hanging clothes out (if you have clotheslines), keeping the AC at an energy-saving temperature, turning it off when it’s not necessary, etc. Open the windows most of the time, including at night, and use fans–check. Dog-chewed (or emery-board-like) towels? Check.

    But what is all this magic Disney talk that Cox gives us about movies, public libraries, sitting out to see the neighbors, and eating ice cream? Don’t we work in the summer? If we did what people accuse academics of doing–taking a 3-month vacation and lying on the hammock the whole time–then I’m with you on the no AC, but above a certain indoor temperature my brain just quits.

  64. the15th on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    I will also admit to a little eye-roll when I find out that these men adopting various deprivations and writing books about it are married. I mean, I’m sure some of their wives are really excited about giving up air conditioning and, in the case of No Impact Man, tampons, but they don’t even get a book deal out of it.

  65. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    I didn’t read Cox’s comments (though romantic) as Disneyfied. He’s talking about leisure time, which would not increase substantially (but perhaps modestly) if hot places changed their expectations for work in the summer. (Others have suggested siestas, etc.)

    I think there’s an argument to be made that central A/C in a lot of places fosters isolation.

    As for the dog chewed/emery board towels: think of all of the effortless exfoliation! Our skin will be glowing, and not just because we’re sweatier!

  66. Dickens Reader on 13 Jul 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    Wow, this topic has created some heat.

    Perhaps when people don’t sweat they don’t do much but leisure like things. This past month I was in a very humid and hot place and I only wanted to work outside, mow grass, trim the sidewalks etc. I felt better physically than I have in a long time. Of course I had to drink a lot of good ol’ fashion southern iced tea but, we must endure. I also found myself wanting to talk to the neighbors about their fences, trees, lawn, and cats and dogs. When I am home, where we don’t have AC because we do not need it, I never want to go outside. I just want to read books, drink warm tea and surf the web, sometimes to the detriment of my physical activity.

  67. Notorious Ph.D. on 13 Jul 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Good time for this post, as the unusually cool weather in Grit City finally broke today, and we had our first “hot” day. Stupidly, I picked 4 p.m. as my ride-to-work time.

    I went to grad school in a place where summers were hot and humid, and I can tell you that one of the disadvantages to profligate use of AC is the dreaded summer cold, which seems to correlate with constant shifts from 100 and humid outdoors to icy-cold indoors.

    (Of course, I might not have survived my attic studio without it — you can only do so much with a washcloth and a bowl of ice water.)

  68. squadratomagico on 13 Jul 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    I’m pretty fascinated by this discussion and the different passions it has elicited. It speaks to so many different issues…

    I’m interested in the question of luxury versus necessity here, and how one becomes the other… I’m not opposed to a/c in all circumstances: it’s not like I don’t appreciate an a/c restaurant or other public place once in a while. But the unthinking reliance upon centrally air-conditioned homes for months at a time, regardless of whether it’s 100 degrees out or 80, strikes me as an irresponsible use.

    I’m interested in the issue of privilege, and how it seems to be working in two directions in this discussion. Some here have characterized my position as a privileged or elitist one, whereas I regard insistence on central a/c as an assertion of privilege. That’s kinda fascinating, when you think about it.

    Left out of the discussion has been the fact that the US has 4% of the world’s population and uses 25% of its energy. And no, it’s not just very poor countries that live without a/c: most of Europe does, including the southern climes. Having spent a lot of time in India, I can honestly say that there should be more a/c there in certain times and places (even I got uncomfortable during the hot season, when it was 114 degrees for two weeks straight; though I don’t particularly mind low 100s).

    Finally, I’m also intrigued by the question of what kinds of activities are made possible thru a/c. I see a lot of people defending a/c in the interests of greater productivity and ability to work. I found myself compelled, by contrast, by Cox’s notion of slowing down in summer. While that ethos is unlikely ever to take hold in the US, I find it far more appealing than justifying a/c for greater work productivity. But maybe I’m just a bit of a slacker: publishing the most possible has never been my goal.

  69. thefrogprincess on 13 Jul 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Where privilege comes in, as I see it, is when the conversation veers away from practical questions (is it hot enough for long enough to require AC? will people die without it? is it safe for people to be spending time outside in their neighborhood or to have windows on the first floor open? can I afford it? what is the environmental cost?) to moral ones in which suffering is put on a higher plane. It’s really fantasy to think that sweating away profusely for three months out of the year makes one a better person more connected to their body and to the community and it’s a conversation nobody else is having except people who have the financial means to do either. (And let’s not forget that the movie theater is expensive these days.)

    I too have spent some time in a tropical country, where incidentally air conditioning is rare outside certain government buildings but isn’t utterly unusual, and nobody there waxes eloquent about their connection to the community. It’s a fact of life: it’s hot and they do their best, frequently by having a slower pace of life and by having homes that are more conducive to keeping air flowing. But that’s it. No moral arguments are made. (And we’re also being naive if we think the US is going to back away from its work obsession just because it’s hot.)

    If individuals don’t have air conditioning, fine. If they don’t want air conditioning, fine. If they can’t afford it, fine. But the privilege is in turning one’s dislike of something into a point of moral superiority, especially in a situation where the point of superiority is being able to handle more suffering than another and then leads to encouraging others to heap more suffering on themselves.

  70. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 6:41 pm #

    Wow, people sure did talk.

    I’ve had a new realization: you have to have your whole region working on the same system. Part of the reason I use a/c at home – and I have central air on low, May 1-October 1, 24/7, this is the most efficient way of doing it I’ve discovered, after much experimentation – is that they have it everywhere else, and I’ve found I have to have some consistency or I get kind of incoherent.

    On the other hand, I wrote my dissertation in a tropical country, no a/c anywhere except in the one international phoning station I knew of and in the Goethe Institute. I’d go to that Goethe Institute on days when I was really tired or something, and wanted a cool break, but otherwise one practiced the old fashioned things – fans, open windows, shaded porches, water from the refrigerator, and so on.

    It was so hot there that hot water heaters didn’t exist most places: water would heat up in the pipes, and people with pipes on the outsides of their buildings would complain about not being able to get their showers cold enough! I learned not to tense up just because I was sweaty, or in other words, to take that as the default condition and not to think I should be dry. That way, I could think perfectly clearly and write.

    But I think this was only possible because all buildings were that way, it was that way to sit in class, to ride on the bus, etc., so you didn’t have to keep shifting climates (and layers of clothing) as you do where I am now.

  71. Emma on 13 Jul 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    Courts/law offices in the South used to close for the month of August b/c it was too hot to hold Court. That would be so great.

  72. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    @frogprincess, I agree about the privilege thing but the question is: there’s that gusher in the Gulf, in addition to global warming, and it’s pretty obvious we have to cut down on electricity and transportation. So the question of how much one can cut voluntarily, or what the workarounds would be, is partly a practical one, at least as I experience it.

    I have a related topic, of course: incandescent light bulbs and good lighting generally. We must go to low wattage, and to those flourescent eco-bulbs, and I have done so partly, but this is hard for me. It’s also hard to remember to keep all appliances unplugged. I favor doing these things not so as to suffer more, which I really don’t want to do, but because we really, really need to cut down. Lots of countries have and are.

  73. Historiann on 13 Jul 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    “Where privilege comes in, as I see it, is when the conversation veers away from practical questions (is it hot enough for long enough to require AC? will people die without it? is it safe for people to be spending time outside in their neighborhood or to have windows on the first floor open? can I afford it? what is the environmental cost?) to moral ones in which suffering is put on a higher plane. It’s really fantasy to think that sweating away profusely for three months out of the year makes one a better person more connected to their body and to the community and it’s a conversation nobody else is having except people who have the financial means to do either.

    Clearly, no one in this thread is pro-suffering! Who said that suffering made hir a more moral or superior person? I didn’t see that in the comments here, and I don’t think it’s in Cox’s article or my post. (Did you think my jokes about being sweaty or using rough towels indicate that I think I’m *suffering*? If so, humor fail.)

    I thought that Cox made an interesting argument that urges us to reflect on how a technology has changed our built environment, our work lives, and our relationship with our neighborhoods & communities. That’s a good question for a history blog, and that’s what I wanted to talk about.

  74. Z on 13 Jul 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    “While that ethos [slowing down] is unlikely ever to take hold in the US, I find it far more appealing than justifying a/c for greater work productivity.”

    Yes, me too, but the thing is that if you’re an academic in a hot place then you have to keep pace with the rest of the country and possibly world.

  75. Western Dave on 13 Jul 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    You know, I forgot that we got the window unit for downstairs after we got broken into through an open (but screened) window. The thief stuck his fingers through the screen to undue the latches and lift the screen and then the window…. while we were home. My daughter is still freaked by it years later.

    Actually, right now my dishwasher is out and I’m finding that we generate an awful lot of dishes as a family of 5, even eating on paper plates at some meals to cut down on our dish load. I’m cashing in my “I didn’t have a car for 6 years karma for these two weeks of dishwasherlessness.

  76. Paul S. on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:25 pm #

    I think one of the points about privilege is that a lot of poorer people don’t lack air condition because they realize that it’s some kind of selfish bourgeois affectation – they lack it because it’s not available to them. I strongly suspect that a large percentage of people both in the USA and other countries who lack air conditioning would jump at the opportunity to have it if they could afford it or if it was more widely available.

  77. Maggie on 13 Jul 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    I’m with those who say that you can pry my a/c from my cold dead hands. When it’s 100 degrees and up, I feel sick, I can’t think, and I certainly can’t wear clothes (which precludes going outside, where it is, in any case, just as hot as inside, but more filled with biting, stinging insects). Whoever said a fan will keep mosquitoes off has never lived in a mosquito-infested area.

    I would move somewhere else, but I have a T-T job here, so you can eff right off if you think I can write during the summer with only fans and icewater. Plus, all that architecture stuff? High ceilings? That SUCKS in the winter. In the winter you want low ceilings. There’s no good architecture for a place with 4 seasons.

  78. Geoff on 13 Jul 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    Geez, late to the discussion. As a career HVAC guy, and veteran of Austin, Texas – whose heat indexes compete with the worst of the country save New Orleans – I have to agree with the “haters.”

    People did all of the things we do today before a/c, and they made accomodations for the ambient conditions.

    By the numbers, roughly: buildings consume 50% of America’s energy. 50% of the building energy, or 25% of all American energy consumption, is HVAC. I don’t know what proportion of that is A/C, but I’m going to guess 2/3rds or more. On the heatig side, while thermal energy is generated from the fuel at the point of consumption with efficiencies around 80%, the coal used to generate a/c has to be mined, transported, converted to electricity, transported again, then converted to thermal energy by your a/c. So, of the available energy in the lump of coal, how much actually made it into cooling your house? MAYBE TWENTY PERCENT based on my amateur knowledge of these conversions. The other eighty percent was absorbed by all the other processes. The carbon footprint of each btu of a/c is likely several times larger than the btu of heat from your furnace.

    Architectural adjustments for warm climates – here’re examples. I lived near a pre-a/c apartment house in Austin. It was designed with windows which nearly from floor to ceiling – and opened all the way. Open up a few of those and you’ve got good ventilation. Every room had windows and exterior exposure, and ceiling fans.

    Another example: whole house fans. These fans mounted usually in an interior hallway and pull a large quantity of air in through open windows and push it our through attic vents. Here in Colorado, we use ours to cool down the house at night, which we then button up during the day. In Mississippi and Louisiana, however they had a different function: they provided continuous air movement through a house during warm weather.

    Another example: sleeping porches. In the first half of the century it was common to design a house with a large screened in porch in warm climates. You can still spot these if you know what you’re looking for – today many have been walled or windowed-in.

    Another example: evaporative cooling. Still quite popular in the interior west. Depending on ambient conditions, temperature drops of 30 degrees can be achieved, and provide a constant flow of fresh air to the strucutre. Unfortunately the evaporative process is only effective on drier air, but nevertheless could be used today in many situations where a/c is installed.

  79. truffula on 13 Jul 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    There is nothing noble about suffering for lack of modern conveniences but neither is there anything noble about saying “I’ve got mine” and turning away as the effluent of those conveniences pours daily into the global atmosphere. We treat the atmosphere just as we do the ocean, as a vast sewer, just far enough removed from daily observation to cause us any worry at all.

    I work in a subject area where the consequences of global warming are never far from view. “Frst world” lifestyles have global consequences and to leave that reality unexamined seems both arrogant and short sighted to me. We may be unwilling to make the changes required to go without (or with more wisely used) AC or any other fossil-carbon fueled convenience but then we better start figuring out how we are going to pay for Africans to adjust to their warmer, drier future and for the people of Bangladesh to move out of the way of the sea.

  80. wini on 14 Jul 2010 at 6:58 am #

    I was grumpy and hot when I wrote my post above yesterday. Ironically it was because I’m on a research trip to NYC, where I actually feel grosser than I ever do in my hot Southern City. I think the Cox article is really good, and we practice almost all of his suggestions in my house. (We line dried for years but haven’t got around to sinking the concrete for the pole at this place.)

    Where I live, poor people stay poor in part because they don’t have access to things like AC. In a world where we have to work 12 months a year at full tilt, not having AC in this climate makes it much more difficult to thrive. In addition, it makes your house/apartment much more likely to get mold, which can cause serious medical problems.

    This is why my city makes it almost free for home owners and landlords to retrofit older homes with central air. It cuts way down on electricity consumption, and makes everything more livable. Unfortunately, it is a lot of paperwork and requires web access–there are at least 2 nonprofits in the city that help people get central air in low income areas.

    One of the biggest advantages of central air is the fact it makes opening windows much, much easier. If your cool air isn’t blocking up your windows, you can open them wide on the days when it only hits 85.

  81. Historiann on 14 Jul 2010 at 7:23 am #

    Wini–that’s a good point about window units vs. central air. But, in my city where evening temps are down in the 50s and 60s on summer nights, we still hear the central air units humming away in most neighborhoods. . .

    Thanks, Geoff, for your expert tech perspective. (One corrective: I don’t see myself or anyone else here as a “hater” of the A/C. Speaking for myself, it’s mostly inertia and cheapskatery, plus the fact that we’re OK without it.)

    Truffula (and others on this thread) gets us back to something that Z said above that I think we should think about, and that was part of my original motivation for this post in the first place: “I agree about the privilege thing but the question is: there’s that gusher in the Gulf, in addition to global warming, and it’s pretty obvious we have to cut down on electricity and transportation. So the question of how much one can cut voluntarily, or what the workarounds would be, is partly a practical one, at least as I experience it.

    As many have suggested, it’s a privilege to decide how one is going to make oneself comfortable in the heat, and many people here and around the world don’t have that privilege.

  82. wini on 14 Jul 2010 at 7:29 am #

    @Historiann When we lived in LA, we used our (window) AC about 10 times a summer. Almost everyone else in our complex used them from May-September. In LA! Where it gets to 60 most nights! All apartments had ceiling fans, and did I mention it was in LA?

    I like the idea of the aural ecology “telling on” our neighbors.

  83. takingitoutside on 14 Jul 2010 at 9:17 am #

    I’m late to the discussion, but I’m really irritated with the A/C in my office, so I’m going to write anyway. Feel free to ignore :)

    I am consistently freezing in offices in the summer (generally in the Washington, DC area). Everywhere I’ve worked so far has been business casual for almost everyone, but the temperature is often set as though everyone is in pantsuits with jackets on. I have to keep a jacket at work, because it’s too hot by far to wear or even carry one to the Metro. I have had to leave stores in the summer because it was too cold to browse, and I almost always take a sweatshirt to the movies. I realize that I get bold more easily than others, but not that much more!

    I’m pro-A/C, but I wish we could all agree to turn it down a bit. At least something in the mid- or high-seventies, instead of the sixties? That would be major savings in terms of the environment and energy expenditures, and I know from all the complaining I hear that I would not be the only one to appreciate it.

  84. The Rebel Lettriste on 14 Jul 2010 at 9:19 am #

    So I’m late to the discussion, but holy hell.

    I live in Houston. Which is LESS TEMPERATE than Mumbai, people. Everything has A/C; it’s a city ordinance that all apartments have to have it.

    This is not as silly as it seems, though. After Hurricane Ike, I didn’t have electricity for 12 days. Given that my windows were painted shut (for why would anyone ever want to open them if the a/c is there?) it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta in my apartment. Try “working” when it’s 100 degrees with almost 100 percent humidity. Try “sleeping.” Couldn’t leave the door open because the horrifying swarm of mosquitoes would then attack.

    The built environment obviously matters, as my apt. wasn’t really designed for anything other than a/c. Then again, MOST structures in Houston are not designed for anything other than a/c.

    I have run the a/c as late as Thanksgiving and as early as Easter. Winter in Houston is lovely. The rest of the year it’s quite literally an inferno. And don’t get me started on the fire ants, the massive cockroaches, the termites, the mold, the packs of wild dogs, the systemic flooding, the constant threat of hurricanes, the rats, the fleas that never die …

  85. sp on 14 Jul 2010 at 9:31 am #

    Carbon footprints has to do with efficiency of the housing, too. Single family dwellings in a suburb (where the porches, BBQ’s, and clothes lines are) are not that efficient compared to, say, apartment blocks in dense urban area where stores are within walking/bus distance. Let them have their AC, I say.

  86. Z on 14 Jul 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    HVAC guy, thank you! Building codes must change now!

    I am running a/c as we speak and also dying of heat, I am near Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the heat is bad like in Houston, so I do understand every single pro a/c feeling.

    But: consider the so-called French Quarter in N.O., those buildings with thick exterior walls, shade on all sides, and interior patios with fountains in them.

    Consider similar architecture in southern Spain (upon which it was modeled).

    Or in Florence, which is very hot and humid, walk into one of those Renaissance era churches, they’re cool.

    I’m not saying that all this stuff makes one *as* comfortable as a/c can, but with fans and also with work scheduled for the coolest and shadiest hours, it can make a huge difference and massively reduce carbon imprint.

    That last is super important, people. Even if you believe global warming is not caused by us, you have to realize we have to do something about energy consumption.

    What do you think we should do, if our plan is to continue and/or increase current consumption levels while the BRIC countries (that’s a lot of land area and population, you know) do the same?

    Personally, I am starting to think we should go nuclear, now that the oil situation is as it is. I never thought I would say that, partly because I thought when I was younger that we would have gone to solar and wind by now (and created bike paths, ecovillages, bullet trains, all of that).

    Since we have not and since the general plan seems to be to increase consumption (or at least, on average, maintain current level, in the US), what would y’all like to do?

  87. Western Dave on 14 Jul 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    sp raises a really important point. Building for not using a/c means less density compared to NYC. In a perfect world it would be an a/c vs. automobile trade off. But of course, it’s not. Those Cali folks living spread out and using a/c all the time? Blech.

  88. Indyanna on 15 Jul 2010 at 3:29 am #

    Wow, has there ever been an 87-comment thread here!? How hot IS it back there? Last night we went to a Quatorze Juillet fireworks display on a windswept French beach and I was the only person there not dressed in 3 layers, as they waited for it to approach midnight to get dark enough, and for the rival town across the water to finish its measly display, before they shot off the works. Then home to sleep under blankets. Philly has been miserable the last few weeks, but I only use a fan, not the noisy, smelly, and weak thru-wall air condidioners;

  89. Z on 15 Jul 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    South Louisiana today had a heat index of 110, although the thermometer I actually saw read 98 in the shade (heat index adds in humidity factors).

  90. Perpetua on 16 Jul 2010 at 7:23 am #

    The case *for* A/C, at least in moderate doses:


    While I’m an “anti-A/C” person (or perhaps, a “pro jacking up the thermostat” person?), air quality in the world and rising rates of life-threatening asthma truly differentiate our era from a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago. Of course pollution caused by things like A/C are largely responsible for the air quality/ asthma problems, so it’s a bit of a endless loop of bad news.

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