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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The air conditioning quandary Add to ...

Nobody had air conditioning when I was a kid, except for rich people. During summer heat waves, we would pull the curtains shut and lie around in puddles of sweat watching Superman. To cool off, we ran through the lawn sprinkler. The only real relief came at the Saturday afternoon movies. The theatre felt like the inside of a refrigerator. It was great.

But today, air conditioning is not regarded as a sign of progress. It is a sign of weakness. For many people, it poses a moral dilemma that’s right up there with eating meat or driving an SUV. Air conditioning makes global warming worse, which leads to more air conditioning, and so on. It weakens the bonds of community, strains the grid, contributes to our nature deficit and makes us soft. Righteous people say they can live without it, and you should too.

“We survived very well without air conditioning for about 10,000 years,” says Stan Cox, who wrote a book called Losing Our Cool. He claims air conditioning is a luxury the planet can’t afford. He lives in Kansas, where summer temperatures climb into the 40s, and says he never turns it on. He is nostalgic for the good old days, when people sat around on the front porch fanning themselves and being neighbourly.

Personally, I don’t miss the good old days. People used to get along without central heating too, but I’m not sure it improved their character. Like many former luxuries, air conditioning is increasingly regarded as a necessity of life – and for good reason. Without air conditioning, there would be no microprocessors, no chips and no computers. It vastly improves productivity. It has turned Florida, Georgia and Texas into major population centres. It improves school attendance and boosts grades, and it takes the “sweat” out of sweatshops. The summer heat is now regarded as so debilitating that cities like Toronto declare heat alerts and open “cooling centres” whenever temperatures creep above 30. In Texas, where four prison inmates died last summer from heat-related causes, lawsuits are arguing that air conditioning is a human right.

People in India and China certainly think so. As the world gets richer, global demand for cool air is exploding. Air conditioners are the next appliance people buy once they have refrigerators, washing machines and TVs. In the sweltering mega-city of Mumbai, The New York Times reports, air conditioners have become essential dowry items for the middle class.

“We can’t very well lecture the rest of the world if we are the chief violators,” says Mr. Cox, who thinks we should all slow down in the summer, take long naps and stop buying stuff. But he’s missing the good news. Air conditioning is getting more efficient all the time. Some systems can even run on solar panels. And total household energy use is actually shrinking in the United States. Even though we live in much bigger houses with much more electronic stuff, the average home now uses less energy than it did in 1980. Efficiency gains are one reason. The other reason is the massive population shift to the south. Houses in the Sunbelt use far less energy than houses in the frozen North. So if you really want to save the planet, move to Dallas.

I haven’t mentioned the other benefit of air conditioning, which is that it could save your marriage. My husband adores hot and muggy weather, but it makes me super-cranky. Without air conditioning, we would have split up long ago. He claims it gives him the sniffles, but I tell him that’s a small price to pay for marital harmony. Every so often, he says he wants to turn it off. I tell him that as soon as Al Gore turns it off, then we will too.

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