In Defense of Air Conditioning


Last summer on a family trip we visited a South Dakota tourist attraction called “1880 Town,” a collection of buildings rescued from dying prairie towns. It was miserably hot – soupy as Washington DC, too – and the weather put a stifling hand on the entire village. In the town’s little bank the metal bars of the teller’s cage almost took off skin when you touched it. Imagine living then with the prevailing dress-codes – 47 layers of wool – and imagine sitting in one of the houses rocking a baby carriage back and forth, praying for October. People shot each other just because the bullets made a nice breeze.

We sighed with joy when we entered the air-conditioned gift shop, but that’s because we’re bad people who don’t care about the planet. Air-conditioning? Bad? Of course: If it’s something you regard as a boon of modern life, a miracle that sets us apart from the toiling ancients who trudged through the slough of human history, it’s something that some pecksniffing scold wants us to rethink and reject. Yes: air conditioning is now on the list of things for which our hearts must hang like a pound of coal, heavy with castigating despond. From Salon:

. . . as science writer Stan Cox argues in his new book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer),” the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price.

In the most general, abstract, and subjective sense, of course. To sum it up: AC makes us stay inside and get fat. It contributes to global warming. It makes people move to the South and this breeds Republicans. (Really. One could make the same argument about heat: it lets people move to colder climes, where they concentrate into megalopolises and vote Democratic, but it’s unlikely you will find a conservative making the point.)

The author does not have air conditioning, preferring to have fans, or perhaps a servant moving the air around with a giant array of ostrich feathers. (Thus does banning AC increase employment! It practically killed the man-powered air-circulation industry dead overnight.) He would like the government to make everyone else live like he does, of course:

Besides people changing their individual habits, do you feel like the government needs to intervene in the way we use air conditioning?

“I think that we need to be changing a lot of the features of our society that have helped make us dependent on air conditioning in the first place. In the end, someone will have to put some very hard limits on energy consumption and emissions overall.”

Someone! Interesting choice of words. They’re always looking for a man on a horse. Or a Prius.

The beauty of arguing with people like this: chances are the past is a chamber of horrors for them for other reasons. If they argue against AC, then surely they believe the pre-AC world had superior virtues – people ate less (because they were too exhausted to bring a fork to mouth) and didn’t move to the South to fall under the sway of the Gingrich Ray, and used less resources. But those were racist times. Sexist times. Are you saying you’d rather we went back to unairconditioned segregated lunch counters where women could only be waitresses, never managers, and magazines tittered about Liberace’s private life? Are you? It’s a ridiculous argument, of course, but if you made it with a straight face and the proper amount of Concern in your voice, he’d feel compelled to give you a thoughtful answer.

Can’t resist this:

I have a theory that if we could require Congress to meet two days per week during the summer session out under a canopy on the Capitol lawn, that they might want to deal with ecological reality a little more straightforwardly than when they are sitting in the air-conditioned rooms inside.

It’s hot in DC partly because of air conditioning, you see. Congress would surely do something about global warming then. (Before jetting off to a climate summit in Dubai, that is.) I actually think it would be a good idea as well: the potential for Congress quitting business after two days is delightful to consider.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    I grew up in central FL. No AC. Oh, we had it, just didn’t use it. But I wonder, Mr. Lileks, if it’s not the Utopian past these weirdos are longing for, but a dystopian future (a la Mad Max)?

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  2. Profile Photo Member

    Wonderful post!

    >> I actually think it would be a good idea as well: the potential for Congress quitting business after two days is delightful to consider.<<

    It works in Texas. Well, the legislature meets for four months every other year. But same concept.

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  3. Profile Photo Inactive

    Maybe the buggy whip business isn’t dead after all….

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  4. Profile Photo Contributor

    Yet another reason, James, to give thanks for air conditioning: As the late (and great) political scientist Nelson Polsby used to note, air conditioning made possible the political rise of the South and Southwest, enabling the regions to attract migrants from the rest of the country, gaining seats in the House of Representatives. And on what states do we know pin our hopes for the redemption of America this coming November? Why, of course! On the South and Southwest!

    Willis Haviland Carrier may have thought he was only out to make a buck. Now we know better. He was saving western civilization.

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  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    Caroline: It’s not just for cool air…imagine the mold, mildew, and mustiness without the dehumidification that comes with AC. Ruined clothing, ruined leather shoes, rotting books and furniture….

    My son and his wife just moved out of their apartment in WV. They spent the last few months trying to save money by using little or no AC. We just spent the last three days using copious amounts of water and electricity to wash every moldy, mildewy piece of clothing they owned and added a great deal to the landfill by throwing away all the pillows, paper products, and leather goods we were unable to save! So which is the “green” alternative? AC or no AC?

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  6. Profile Photo Inactive

    And who has time to read Ricochet when you are doing all that work?

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  7. Profile Photo Member

    Global warming!? What difference does it make when we have AIR CONDITIONING!

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  8. Profile Photo Member

    Having air conditioning makes me feel like a useless, domesticated squish… but that doesn’t mean I’m going to turn it off! I grew up in a 100-year-old house in the Midwest without air conditioning, and spent many a night in the summer wondering if it was possible to sweat to death, and whether such a thing could happen while one slept.

    Now that I have my own place with sweet, conditioned air (which I keep at 77 during the day and 75 overnight), I visit home less during the summer – which ultimately works out well for my parents!

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  9. Profile Photo Member

    There is a busybody gene in the human DNA activated in young adulthood by listening to theory in the academy about what we should do about (insert grievance here). In most people that gene is turned off by sudden exposure to reality. The others go into liberal politics or the oddly-named mainstream media.

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  10. Profile Photo Contributor

    I too grew up without AC, Jason – finally got a window unit when I was in high school, and it was freon-delight from then on. But I do like heat; I don’t mind warm summers, and love every hot night sitting outside with a frosty, refreshing (hic) beverage. Something to dream about in the winter.

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  11. Profile Photo Inactive

    I can’t imagine living in the South without AC. When we moved to Atlanta, my parents bought our first house with central air. My parents were frugal with the AC. I remember lying on the living room floor in the middle of the summer waiting for it to get hot enough for my mother (she has ice in her veins) to call my father to get the OK to turn on the air. And if you think my mother is the type to defer to my father, I can promise you that’s the only thing I can ever remember her deferring to him. Strange. (They run their air all summer now.)

    It’s not just for cool air…imagine the mold, mildew, and mustiness without the dehumidification that comes with AC. Ruined clothing, ruined leather shoes, rotting books and furniture…..There would be a lot of people either dead or sickly without AC. Think old people, France, in the summer.

    Yes, it’s just another ploy to turn us into a socialist Eurotrash.

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  12. Profile Photo Inactive

    Yeah. . .hate those enviro-scolds. . .let freedom ring. . .annoy all the right people. . .and yet, we must ask ourselves the big question: would Evelyn Waugh have AC in his home if he were alive today?

    I. Think. Not!

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  13. Profile Photo Member

    I’m wondering how Mr. Cox has the gall to use or promoteuse of electric fans?

    But those of us who live in Minnesota are very careful not to complain about heat. I’ve actually run my car A/C for about 15 minutes all summer. I’m trying to figure out how to store up the warmth for redeployment in January.

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  14. Profile Photo Inactive

    Again, why do these people care what I do? If you don’t want air conditioning, don’t use it. Leave me alone!

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  15. Profile Photo Member

    In the late 80s, poor residents of Mobile would often congregate in the malls because they lacked air conditioning at home. AC brings people together. Kumbaya.

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  16. Profile Photo Inactive

    [James, I did not know we were allowed to use our DMV photos here. What fun!]

    As they say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” I’ve moved from the east coast, to Tokyo, to California. Thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I pine for the east, but cannot be pried from this dry state (so far), regardless the profligate, leftist, crooked governance. Yeah, the A/C comes on a few summer days and I’m glad it’s there, but a trip back east in July brings out the real climatic snob in me– the intolerance of one now spoiled to the core. Shameful, but true. Just stepping off the airplane flips an inner switch in me that demands A/C like an addict needs his fix.

    Was it you, James, who’s response to GW & Al Gore was a willingness to leave your Hummer idling in the driveway? (How I laughed!) THAT’S how I feel when such foolishness conspires to deny me my A/C!

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  17. Profile Photo Member

    Grew up in the 70s with a window unit in our 30s brick home. 100+ degree days in Sacramento were often soothed with the evening delta breeze. My dad, a Marine Corps combat vet, spent his entire life working outdoors. He was a proponent of A/C. The “cool spot” in our home was his Lazy Boy, & the couch next to it. It became a daily battle among my 6 siblings as to who would win the coveted “spot”. Room-long leaps to acquire the spot led me to believe that man could fly.

    Our 1st home in Sacramento had a window mounted Swamp Cooler. Ahh, the humidity (Central Valley Heat in Sacramento is a very Dry Heat).

    Our current home runs a heat pump for our central air. Blessed be it’s name.

    I spend a good deal of time in server rooms equiped with dedicated A/C. For that blessing I light a candle.

    Experience leads me to but 1 conclusion: Air Conditioning is the most American thing in the world. If the rest of the world feels the compulsion to smite our Air Conditioned Bounty, I offer 1 truism from the world of sport: SCOREBOARD!

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