Waking Up from the Air-Conditioned Dream

As this torrid summer wears on, electric utilities in all regions of the country are struggling to satisfy record demand. The bulk of that extra power is going to run air-conditioning systems, feeding an already hearty appetite. Energy use for air-conditioning America's homes and vehicles has doubled just in the past 15 years.

Since writing a book about our love affair with summertime cold, I have learned that to suggest that we start reducing our dependence on air-conditioning is to invite dire forecasts of malaise, poor health, social turmoil, and economic collapse. But that need not be the case. And besides, hazards like those have become a bit too familiar already, even with compressors and fans running full blast.

Air-conditioning's proven benefits as a public-health measure during severe heat waves do not justify its lavish use throughout everyday life, for months at a stretch. Similarly, a heavily armored Humvee is a good vehicle to have if you're driving into a combat zone, but it's not the best choice for everyday transportation.

Several lines of research indicate that reducing our dependence on chilled air could improve our quality of life. Human-physiology studies show that air-conditioning undermines our natural adaptation to heat and disrupts endocrine systems as well. Researchers in the United States, Brazil, and Europe have found that people employed in air-conditioned workplaces have poorer health and visit doctors and hospitals more frequently than do those who work without air-conditioning.

Medical experts have speculated that air-conditioning may even contribute to rising obesity rates. There are at least three mechanisms: the human body burns calories more slowly when it doesn't have to work to shed heat; we eat more when we're in a cool environment; and people, especially children, are less physically active indoors than out.

Taking refuge in the cool indoors for much of the summer may affect the mind as well as the body. For children, spontaneous outdoor activity has been shown to relieve stress, spur creativity, and expand friendship networks. Lack of contact with the outdoors, in contrast, has been associated with behavioral problems. Air-conditioning has also helped pave the way for the widespread elimination of outdoor school recess, despite research showing that recess improves attentiveness and behavior in the classroom.

Moreover, by chilling the indoor environment today, we are heating the outdoors of tomorrow. Cooling of U.S. homes, businesses, and public buildings consumes as much electricity as is used for all purposes by the sixty nations of Africa-home to almost one billion people. That massive energy demand is overwhelming efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. Take the electricity output from all of America's geothermal, biomass, solar, and wind sources, multiply it by five, and it would still not be sufficient even to air-conditioning America's buildings, let alone serve other uses.

Residential air-conditioning units in service in 2005 were an impressive 28 percent more energy-efficient on average than they were in 1993. But as we took advantage of that cheaper comfort, the number of kilowatt-hours of electricity used for cooling the average air-conditioned U.S. household actually increased by 37 percent. Federal standards have since tightened, requiring that new equipment be another 30 percent more efficient. Should we expect energy consumption to take another leap as a result?

Thorstein Veblen once noted that in a capitalist economy, invention is the mother of necessity. Air-conditioning illustrates his quip nicely, but it's time to relegate it once again to the status of luxury. And if, as many analysts are telling us, we have to slash our nonrenewable energy consumption deeply, then no luxury, including air-conditioning, should be exempt. (That includes a lot; I know that in our own non-air-conditioned household in Kansas, there are plenty of other things we need to cut.)

By reducing our dependence on air-conditioning, we can not only save energy but also become more resilient human beings. And we'll need that resilience. The coming decades will test our ability to adapt and create, and we can't leave it to technology to bail us out this time.

Stan Cox is author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, published this summer by The New Press.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.