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.