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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Save the planet: Get a fan Add to ...

In Toronto, it's hot enough to boil your socks off. In New York, you could fry an egg without a pan. As millions of us swelter, only one thing keeps us sane: air conditioning. Even my husband, who thinks it's for wimps, has succumbed.

But now, it turns out that air conditioning is evil. It is destroying our neighbourhoods and our health, to say nothing of the planet. So says Stan Cox, the author of a new book called Losing Our Cool. He points out that, as a major contributor to global warming, air conditioning begets more air conditioning, a vicious spiral that will lead us to our doom. "Something has to be done," he warns.

Air conditioning is a large moral challenge for the eco-conscious. North Americans use as much energy to power our air conditioning as all of Africa uses for everything. But who's about to give it up? We'd rather make ourselves feel good by walking to Whole Foods (which is air-conditioned, of course) to fill up our reusable cloth bags with wholesome food that is deliciously crisp and fresh, thanks to refrigeration.

Air conditioning wasn't invented to make people feel more comfortable. It was invented to solve a manufacturing problem in a printing plant, where heat and humidity changes caused the paper to swell or shrink. As a result, the coloured inks were printed slightly out of register. The solution - a system to control the heat and humidity - was devised in 1902 by a 25-year-old engineer named Willis Carrier.

His invention soon reshaped manufacturing, then society. It led to ultra-sophisticated systems of temperature, humidity and filtration controls that are essential to making everything from medicine to computer chips. Without air conditioning, there would be no glass skyscrapers. Florida would still be swampland, and much of the U.S. South would remain virtually uninhabitable. Air conditioning enabled a vast transfer of people, wealth and power from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. By the 1980s, it had come to be regarded as a necessity by almost everyone.

But along with the car, air conditioning is now being cited as one of the worst things that's ever happened to civilization. It has been blamed for the decline of the union movement, the election of George Bush, obesity, the decline of graceful southern architecture, and for the general disappearance of a warmer, more connected way of life, when neighbours used to fan themselves on their front porches instead of huddling in their lonely, frozen rec rooms.

Would life without air conditioning make us better people? Mr. Cox thinks so. "Living in a less refrigerated country will mean actually living where we're located, not in a sterile, standardized environment," he argues. "We can help one another get through heat waves rather than flee into cold isolation. With less climate control and more contact with the real ecosphere, we and our children might feel healthier, physically and mentally."

Or maybe not. I detect a distressing smugness among people who brag they can get along just fine with iced tea and a ceiling fan. Anti-air-conditionists tend to combine an air of superior virtue with a deep nostalgia for the good old days. "There was a whole hot-weather strategy of social solutions that air conditioning displaced," said Gail Cooper, the author of Air-Conditioning America. "We used to get out of the hot house into the garden. We would sit in the shade and be lazy instead of productive."

Of course, if you lived in a steaming New York tenement, heat waves weren't quite so charming. You were lucky to grab some sleep on the roof before your 12-hour shift at the sweatshop the next day. I suspect that most of the human race would give a lot for the climate control we enjoy (if you doubt it, just visit Baghdad in the summer). As for neighbourly connection, I'll see you in the air-conditioned bar, for a frosty glass of beer.

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