Four years ago, Stan Cox published a couple of essays online about the environmental and social consequences of America’s dependence on air conditioning. He wanted to convince readers to turn off the A/C — or at least use it more judiciously.
“A friend of mine read one of those articles and said, ‘That’s all fine, you’re right about all that, but why don’t you go after some problem where people really are going to be willing to change? You’re not going to convince anybody to change their ways with regard to air conditioning,’” Cox recalled recently over the phone from Salina, Kan., where he is a senior research scientist at the Land Institute, a firm that researches agricultural issues. “I sort of accepted that as a challenge.”
The result is Cox’s new book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).” A plant breeder and a former federal Agriculture Department staffer, he uses the book to advance an idea that’s deceptively simple yet politically freighted: “rethinking the whole idea of air conditioning could improve all of our lives.”
In the process, Cox, 54, throws a lot of frightening numbers at the reader. Air conditioning, he writes, generates more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. This is the same amount of CO2 that would be “produced if every household in the country bought an additional vehicle and drove it an average 7,000 miles a year.”
At a time when observers of all political stripes fear a coming energy crisis, Cox writes, air conditioning accounts for about one-fifth of the country’s power costs, “the highest percentage in our history.”
Noting the degree to which the population has boomed in the American Southwest and Southeast — migrations quickened by air conditioning — he warns that such growth can’t go on forever.
Arizona, for example, relies heavily on the Colorado River, but by the middle of this century, Cox writes, the state’s “demand for water from the already badly-stressed Colorado will exceed what the river can provide by as much as 90 percent.”
Cox also points to studies that reinforce what anecdotal evidence has long suggested: We spend more time indoors than perhaps ever before. This, he argues, can be tied to our nation’s obesity problem and other health concerns.
“There are good indications that children’s development and their tendency toward attention deficit disorders — and perhaps a reduction in creativity — may be related to a lack of time spent in the unstructured outdoors,” Cox said. “Thirty percent of schools, at last count, had eliminated outdoor recess, which at this time of year they probably would not have done if they didn’t have air conditioning.”
Cox realizes that his ideas will anger some, but he’s not out to scold.
“I wanted to make sure that this book is not one long sermon about personal lifestyles, or to claim that air conditioning is somehow immoral,” he said. “We all use high-impact technologies in different proportions. Air conditioning isn’t unique in that respect.”
Of course, when it comes to other high impact technologies — the automobile, aircraft, television, computers — we talk about their effect on society. Meanwhile, air conditioning keeps humming away in the background. It’s like the water not being a big issue to fish because it’s what they live in.
“Virtually every American,” Cox said, “needs to cut back if we’re going to make it.”
Those who have written extensively about air conditioning — a small number of scientists, historians and engineering experts — agree with many of Cox’s conclusions.
“Air conditioning displaced a culture of social solutions to hot weather,” said Gail Cooper, author of “Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900 to 1960" and a professor at Lehigh University. “We used to get out of the hot house into the garden. We would sit in the shade and be lazy instead of productive. We would drink ice-cold drinks to cool our bodies instead of cooling our houses. We would wear light-colored — and very little — clothing to cool down. There was a whole hot weather strategy of social solutions that air conditioning displaced.”
Cox offers a host of prescriptive measures for cutting A/C use. He envisions “cool parks” where neighbors might share shade and communal air conditioning units. He suggests a tier system of energy pricing as an incentive for homeowners to turn down the air conditioning.
Apartment buildings and houses, he says, could be outfitted with “green roofs” (light colored roofs, or roofs with vegetation) that would help keep them cooler. There’s even a very complex, and expensive, method of turning solar heat into cool air — “a true jujitsu move,” as Cox writes.
Or we could just learn to sweat it out. “Living in a less refrigerated country will mean actually living where we’re located, not in a sterile, standardized environment,” he writes. "… 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.”
Fifty years ago, about one of every eight American homes was air-conditioned, Cox writes, a figure that had risen to 82% by 2005. Air conditioning has come to feel like something close to a basic American right — and Cox knows he’s not going to convince everyone. “I’ve thought that people might adopt the old gun lobby slogan: You can have my air conditioner when you pry it from my cold dead hands,” he said.
A former air conditioning devotee as a youth in Georgia — “I thought it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever felt” — Cox says he’s learned to embrace the natural climate’s changing moods.
He moved to Kansas 10 years ago, and although he settled on a house equipped with central air conditioning — temperatures in the 100s are not uncommon — the unit doesn’t get a lot of use.
“We turn it on for one day a year,” he said. “Just to make sure that it’s still working.”