Illustration by Ash Ramirez, Humboldt State University of an air conditioning unit
Air conditioning used to be a luxury, but now it's a necessity. (Illustration by Ash Ramirez, Humboldt State University)

How We’ve Been Conditioned Into Air Conditioning

From saving money to saving the planet, there are lots of good reasons to get rid of air conditioners. Here’s why Americans never will.

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Illustration by Ash Ramirez, Humboldt State University of an air conditioning unit

From saving money to saving the planet, there are lots of good reasons to get rid of air conditioners. Here’s why Americans never will.

July is going to look a lot different this year for many Americans. Many July Fourth celebrations were either cancelled or downsized. Lots of us are still working from home and for the most part, people in public spaces must wear masks. However, there are some things that even a pandemic can’t change about July. While nothing else is the same, this month will still be the hottest of the year. If any of the 90% of American households who have home air conditioning have been holding out thus far, July is when they are finally going to surrender and switch on their air conditioners.

Home air conditioning has become a staple of the modern American lifestyle. Though there are compelling arguments against using it, most of us couldn’t imagine going without cooling in some form or another. These arguments encourage us to stop using our air conditioners, and they cite practical reasons why using air conditioning is costly. But these logical appeals only make sense to us when we are at our well-cooled and rational best. Arguments tend to be a lot less persuasive to us when we’re sweaty, frustrated and trying to get work done in the heat of July.

Even though the arguments against air conditioners have their merits, are they simply coming too late? Now that we’re accustomed to the protection of our summer chaperones, can we ever feel safe on our own again?

Why not use an air conditioner?

Keeping our indoor environment cool has major costs for our outdoor environment. Air conditioners in general use hydrofluorocarbons, which are greenhouse gases much more potent than carbon dioxide. Our frosty saviors devour lots of energy, accounting for 6% of the energy use in the United States every year.

By now we know that using tons of energy is bad for the environment because it releases an excess of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; so we understand the need to conserve in any way we can. Since air conditioners knock back more than their fair share of our energy, getting rid of them would probably be one of the most efficient ways we could conserve.

The energy demands of our insatiable summer companions put pressure on our wallets as well as on our environment. As the temperature inside drops, our electricity bills skyrocket. For many, air conditioners are just one more expensive mouth to feed. Getting rid of them would liberate budgets tremendously.

Is it even possible to live without air conditioning?

Theoretically, saving the environment and saving money by abolishing air conditioning are lovely ideas. But such lofty goals can never be realized if we need our air conditioners. If it’s physically impossible for our human bodies to brave the heat alone, for example, then we are going to have to find some other way to save our environment and our cash.

So do we need air conditioning to survive? The short answer to the question is no. Many other regions don’t even come close to the number of household air conditioners in the United States. Fewer than 5% of European households and only 8% of households in other, even hotter regions like Latin America, Africa and the Middle East have air conditioning. We haven’t heard any stories about the populations of these regions melting on a large scale, so unless there’s a massive cover-up taking place here, it’s safe to conclude that these regions don’t need air conditioners.

Don’t we at least need air conditioning to be comfortable?

Well actually, our bodies are pretty good at acclimatizing to warmer temperatures. In an air conditioned world though, we rarely give them that chance.

When we defer our discomfort by blasting the air conditioner the moment our foreheads feel a bit damp, we are handicapping our bodies’ ability to abolish this discomfort by themselves. In fact, a 1997 study found that people living in buildings without air conditioners preferred wider temperature ranges than people living in buildings artificially cooled to a constant temperature. When our bodies aren’t exposed to artificially cooled conditions, they can become comfortable in more temperature conditions than we give them credit for.

Is a cultural change asking too much?

For millennia, nobody knew what an air conditioner even was, and yet many still argue that we need it. Even after air conditioners had been introduced to the world, very few people had them in their homes. For a while, air conditioners were so expensive that they could only be found in movie theaters. During these times, the activities of daily life didn’t just cease every summer as people entered a groggy, heat-induced hibernation.

Rather, individuals employed creative strategies to keep cool and go on with their lives. They built their houses differently, with thicker walls and more natural ventilation. They spent much more time outside, sometimes even sleeping on porches at night. They took naps during the hottest parts of the day, rather than working through the heat in an artificially cooled workplace.

Clearly, a lot has changed in American culture since people began to rely on air conditioning. The pervasiveness of this culture in the U.S. creates the strongest argument against abolishing air conditioning. Even in the unlikely scenario that we decide to scale back on refrigerating our homes, we will still be living in a culture that has been structured around air conditioning. In other words, the decision to end air conditioning at home can’t happen unless several other societal decisions happen at the same time.

In the U.S., our standard workday is structured such that we work from the morning until the early evening, right through the hottest hours of the day. Shorts and short sleeves do not figure into standard workplace attire. Our buildings are not designed with natural cooling in mind. Especially today, work often requires a Wi-Fi connection, meaning we can’t spend too much time outside.

If Americans, in a move that would already be entirely out of character, were to commit to compromising their immediate comfort and foregoing air conditioners, they would also have to commit to restructuring the entire workday and school day, changing workplace attire, tearing down and rebuilding structures and implementing massive cultural shifts that will not come easily or quickly.

History tells us that culture can change, and it can change drastically. However, only very rarely is colossal cultural change catalyzed by conscious choice on a massive scale. More often than not, necessity and a whole lot of time drive this type of change. The collective action dilemma is a persistent and inevitable obstacle in the path of any movement toward conscious cultural change.

It certainly is possible for large numbers of people to choose to change their lives, but the motivation to do so must be strong and the relative cost must be low. The costs of thermal comfort and massive societal shifts are not small. I have a hard time believing that Americans would unite to get rid of air conditioning and restructure their entire way of life. Even if there are several arguments against air conditioning, it will be difficult to motivate Americans to change how they cool. Especially if those Americans happen to be surly and sweaty and it’s the middle of July.

 

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