Today's post is very much sparked by a recent MaddowBlog entry, which paraphrased a Salon article titled, "Losing Our Cool": The high price of staying cool. Salon spoke to Stan Cox, the author of the new book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer). It discusses the impacts of air conditioning on American population shifts, since the 1960s. The interview and book also (more than) allude to political implications for mass movement to the South and West, and how it corresponds to Republican constituency.
As should be typified by greeneyedcity, I prefer to assess the impacts of air conditioning--and, by association, overall quest for comfort--on our natural and social environments. Nature has incurred our wrath mostly in the last century or so. We consume and waste more as a nation than any country on earth. The international response among developing countries has been less than favorable. At international summits, lesser developed countries are reluctant to adopt carbon standards unless nations like the United States follow them too. The big boys seem to want to play by their own rules, reaping the benefits of industrialization and consumerism long after their peak.
In the United States, we continue to consume about as much as we always have, relative to the number of cars on the road and number of miles to our jobs and supermarkets. Subsidization allows for lower quality, lower-priced products and services. Despite environmental disasters, we continue to drive down the street for milk. When we idle our automobiles, we leave our air conditioners running full blast. Despite the mindful construction of hundred-year-old buildings, we scramble for window units, when the temperature reaches eighty degrees. In other cases, central cooling systems are always running during hot days, because newer buildings do not have passive systems for temperature regulation. In fact, most of them rely on electric-dependent systems. Meanwhile, as Cox's book states, our A/C consumption causes climate change, and we respond by using it more as the temperatures rise.
What about the social side of air conditioning? As funny as that sounds, the quest for comfort confines us to our own spaces, which have become more personalized than ever. When air conditioning first appeared in performance and movie theaters, they were the places to seek refuge from the heat. But they were also places for people to meet, share leisure, and patronize local businesses. Theaters were centers of attraction when business centers turned dark, but they were certainly destinations during the day. What are our Twenty-first Century attraction centers? Nearly every private residence or multi-unit building has air conditioning (or the option to have it). Urban dwellers have less incentive to leave their homes to find both cool air and leisure.
Cox mentions how we keep our car windows closed and our A/C cranked, so that we keep automobile emissions out. But the number of road miles and hours of mobile A/C usage consumes gasoline fuel more rapidly than simple fan usage or rolling the windows down. (Keeping the windows down, however, leads to lower fuel efficiency after exceeding about 50 mph.) Either at home or on the road, we demand comfort from air conditioning, thereby contributing to climate change.
Like many contemporary revolutions or uprisings, since the late 1960s, the pushes to cut carbon emissions, protect forests, or regulate post-consumer waste are relatively segmented and unorganized. What impact does one person, not running their air conditioning, have on the environment. Not very much. Indubitably, air conditioning is also competitive edge. Businesses even think of cutting their cooling would suffer financially. Cox pointed out studying showing lower tolerance to hotter temperatures, when people experience long-term exposure to climate-controlled environments.
Are policy, tax, or credit mechanisms the only remedy for the cyclical environmental detriment we create, as we artificially cool our singular spaces? Should residential owners be given less freedom to cool their spaces, while given more incentive for business owners (and municipal entities, of course) to cool their interiors? Could it, in turn, stimulate consumer spending? I am not necessarily arguing that breaking the A/C cycle requires a solution oriented toward economic development. However, short of socialism and strict (and responsible) government regulation of consumption, I do not see an end in sight.
One of the most responsive business moves, with regards to climate change, was Britain's new Prime Minister capping the expansion of the tiny London Heathrow Airport. However, when city-regions are the largest culprits of greenhouse gases and energy consumption, adequate power is not in the hands of municipal governments but with state government, rural, and suburban constituencies. Until we restructure the hierarchical power structure in the United States, are we left with economic development measures to meet our future carbon goals. Or we left relegated to the seriously silent revolutions among individuals, who are left feeling like isolate extremists in a sea of apathetic consumers?
(See a related treehugger post titled, The Deluded World of Air Conditioning Revisited.)