The big chill: how air conditioning changed the world

It gave us higher obesity rates, better sex, and George W. Bush

Stephanie Rausser / Getty Images

Some of the most significant events in recent decades—the election of George W. Bush as president, for example, or the assassination of JFK—would never have happened had it not been for one, seemingly innocuous invention: air conditioning. Without it, says Stan Cox, author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), “History would have been different.”

Losing Our Cool is the kind of book we’ve seen a lot of lately—like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, or Sugar: A Bittersweet History—that ascribes momentous consequences to otherwise mundane things. In the case of air conditioning, it’s true: this invention has changed how people live, determined the population patterns of entire continents, and affected everything from when we have babies to why we feel so tired in the morning. It’s gone from being a salvation, literally sparing lives, to a possible health risk to an environmental demon because it could alter the planet’s climate.

Cox reveals that just about every modern trend—including obesity and suburbanization—can be explained, at least in part, by air conditioners. It’s also a source of tension, sometimes perversely so: people often complain about feeling too cold inside.

That we dare grumble shows how unselfconscious we’ve become about air conditioning consumption. In Dubai, the world’s first air-conditioned beach has been proposed, which would feature coolant pipes beneath the sand and giant blowers to simulate ocean breezes. Closer to home, we boast air-conditioned golf carts and even storage facilities. We sermonize about the importance of turning off the tap while brushing our teeth, and not letting the car idle too long, but to suggest cutting down on air conditioning is akin to taking away heat in the winter or water in the desert. “Society as a whole,” Cox told Maclean’s, “is addicted to it.”

No one more so than North Americans. The amount of energy consumed by running residential air conditioners in Canada almost tripled between 1990 and 2007—52 per cent of Canadians have central air conditioning, and that figure rises to 80 per cent in Ontario, according to Natural Resources Canada. In the U.S., residential energy consumption for air conditioners nearly doubled between 1993 and 2005. In fact, Americans use as much electricity for air conditioning as all of Africa uses for everything.

The effects of this are far-reaching. In sweltering Sun Belt states such as Arizona, Nevada and Texas, it’s no overstatement to say air conditioners made life possible. “It’s inconceivable that there would be a Florida of 18.5 million people today without air conditioning,” says historian Gary Mormino in Losing Our Cool. After the Second World War, droves of Americans moved from chilly northern states. This demographic shift exactly mirrored the proliferation of air conditioners across the country. “Air conditioning was essential to the development of the Sun Belt,” says Mormino. “It was unquestionably the most significant factor.”

That population boom gave southern states considerably more influence in the electoral college, the body of voters who hold the key to the White House. “In 2000 or 2004,” Cox told Maclean’s, “if we had had the population distribution of the 1950s, George W. Bush would not have won.” If in 1960 there had been as many people living in the Sun Belt as there are now, he continues, “then Kennedy would not have won. Richard Nixon would have been president.” And JFK, at least in theory, would never have been the target of a deranged shooter.

Unlike politics, air conditioning has a place in the bedrooms of the nation. Temperature has long been the dominant influence on birth patterns; the hotter it gets, the less interested people are in sex. Demographic studies in the States have shown that for every 10 degrees the average monthly temperature rises, conception rates decline by up to 10 per cent. But since the rampant use of air conditioning, this trend has been flattened, which Cox believes demonstrates “the power that a human invention like air conditioning has to mould the biological patterns of life.” What’s more, he explains, cool temperatures enhance the viability of sperm, further enabling fertility. As one advertisement in India quipped, air conditioners are great for “improved performance in the bedroom.”

Air conditioning even explains morning sluggishness. A 2006 Japanese study showed long-term exposure can delay our daily dose of invigorating hormones until 10 a.m. or later. That’s because air conditioners are one of the best sleep aids. So much so that they may disrupt cortical rhythms, which awaken and energize us. Air conditioning also contributes to weight gain because, as a Danish study found, individuals eat more in cool environments. Plus, with air conditioners, our bodies convert more energy from food into fat because we don’t need to use it to chill off.

If predictions about climate change are correct, air conditioning could become even more crucial. Forty years from now, researchers predict the earth will experience 17 to 23 per cent more hot weather annually—and taking population growth into account, demand for cooling systems will rise by 65 to 72 per cent. As the climate warms, Cox points to research suggesting that malaria-carrying mosquitoes will expand their geographic range from tropical areas to the north. Already, the Asian tiger mosquito, which can spread dengue fever, has arrived in the southeastern States. Soon, we’ll need air-conditioned places just to escape diseased pests.

It’s a dizzying cycle. “As it gets hotter,” Cox explains, “we’ll become more dependent on air conditioning, which will feed the heating of the planet, and create even more demand for air conditioning. Where is it going to stop?” According to the “adaptive model of comfort,” our bodies are good at getting used to cool, dry temperatures, and within days, warmth becomes insufferable. That’s why Cox, 54, hasn’t used an air conditioner at home in decades, even though he owns one. Cox relates to a woman he once heard describe it this way: “We don’t use the air conditioner because it makes it too hot outside.”

As our heat tolerance declines, “nature deficit disorder” sets in. Air conditioners have all but displaced the need for shady trees to cool us down. Whereas homes used to feature big awnings and porches, and many windows for cross-drafts, now they’re built around air conditioners—and windows are sealed shut. Inadequate ventilation is linked to asthma and allergies. The suspected culprits, writes Cox, include “volatile organic compounds, moulds, and allergens in floor dust,” and bacteria, which air conditioners harness inside their coils and drip pans, and disperse.

Of course, air conditioners have also saved untold lives during heat waves, emphasizes Cox, who is also a senior scientist at the Land Institute, an agricultural research centre in Salina, Kan., and have enabled the very existence of hospitals and production of drugs. In this way, air conditioning is the ultimate paradox. It cools us, but makes our planet hotter. It encourages us to have sex, but makes us slow and heavier. It keeps us breathing when it’s suffocatingly hot, but invites deadly species to attack us.

The irony isn’t lost on Cox, who acknowledges there’s no going back. While writing Losing Our Cool, it got to the point where he was reluctant to tell people about the book. “I’d either get a blank stare like, ‘Why would you write about that?’ or a wide-eyed fear like, ‘No, you’re not going to take that away from me, are you?’ ” recalls Cox. It reminded him of an old gun-lobby slogan. “You can have my air conditioner,” muses Cox, “when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”




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The big chill: how air conditioning changed the world

  1. And queue the climate change skeptics!

  2. It isn't hard to keep your house cool. Have a roof that overhangs your windows, and keep your curtains shut during the day. At night you open the windows and open your curtains. The cool night air rushes in the lower story windows, and pushes the warm air out the upper story windows just like a chimney.

    Now, on nights when it remains above 20 degrees after nightfall it may be more difficult to cool your house, but that doesn't happen that often in Canada If you can't bear it for a few days until it cools down again, that would be the appropriate time for the air conditioner. The rest of the time though, you shouldn't need it..

    • The strategy of blinds-drawn during the day, windows open at night, works well in the spring and fall. Not in the summertime. I'm one of those people who can't sleep if the room isn't cool. A/C isn't a choice for me. And no, it isn't something I can just get used to. Even as a kid, I had many sleepless nights because my room was too warm. I didn't get to choose my environment back then. I do now. And my environment is air-conditioned.

    • Ted…. Have you ever been to Texas? It can be over 90 degrees at midnight and later for over a month! People DIE here without air conditioning.

  3. “Society as a whole,” Cox told Maclean's, “is addicted to it.”

    If I could get rid of one over-used phrase from journalism, it would be "addicted to it". Preferring to stay comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable environment is not an addition, and the writer instantly loses credibility by using it.

    As for the rest, well, it has long struck me as architecturally dumb that we now seem to build without regard to the local climate, be it cold or hot.

    • When energy isn't so cheap, that will change.

      • Possibly, but even where energy is relatively expensive, they seem to build the same concrete monoliths that seem designed to make a hot day hotter and a cold day colder. In addition to its ugliness, so much modern building just seems impractical to me. Paul Wells recently highlighted some proposals for a new publics building in Quebec. They all looked completely international and made no concession to the local climate or geography.

        • Well, the bureaucracy can be counted upon to be impractical in their planning. I'm sure they are more concerned with appearing sophisticated and progressive rather than being energy efficient.

          Kind of like how people with open concept houses with huge windows demonize the SUV driver for using too much energy.

          • That's what happens when you're superficial followers rather than leaders.

      • It seems like you wish energy to be more expensive.

        • I do hate consumption in general. If things are too cheap, they generally get consumed wastefully. As a conservative, I abhor waste.

          However, I'm not wishing anything. It is just inevitable that energy will become more expensive in the future.

  4. I have never lived in a building with air conditioning, and I can only think of one place I lived where I ever found that uncomfortable (a very poorly-designed south-facing Ottawa apartment that I understand has since been knocked down entirely). For all but the worst buildings, fans suffice to keep cool and air conditioners just make it too cold: hence, my need to fish out a sweater in the middle of the summer if I'm going to see a movie, just to make sure I don't freeze in the theatre.

    The political relationship is interesting, but I think it could be stated differently. I know Republicans from the northern states and they are a world apart from the folksy populism of George Bush – they are right wing in a blue blood, old money way without the populism or social extremism we see amongst the teabaggers of today. It wasn't only Kennedy that lost out to this demographic shift, but also the country club set.

  5. "“In 2000 or 2004,” Cox told Maclean's, “if we had had the population distribution of the 1950s, George W. Bush would not have won.”

    He's assuming that the states would have split the same way in the election. If some of the Sun-belt voters who went Republican would have done the same in their original northern states then the argument collapses.

  6. Without air conditioning, Obama's father might have stayed in Kenya rather than move to Hawaii, and there would be no Obama.

  7. There is nothing wrong with air conditioning , There are people who hate and resist every new advancement that makes life better. Let there be plenty of power and let there be a lot of air conditioning , no one has to feel guilty about abundance and good life, good life and environmental degradation must not be synonymous . Abundance , good life and better environment must go together. It is possible , nothing is impossible, we must learn to be optimistic.

  8. We sermonize about the importance of turning off the tap while brushing our teeth, and not letting the car idle too long, but to suggest cutting down on air conditioning is akin to taking away heat in the winter or water in the desert.

    ***

    This is completely untrue. The energy and CFC use of airconditioning have always been topics of discussion par or greater than the other things you mention. (apparently newer models of air conditioner almost eliminate CFCs, however).

    I just open a window and turn on a fan when it gets super hot.

  9. Nothing that a maple tree on the south side of the house counldn't fix. If people used common sense they could often get away without an air conditioner, shut off the lights(the create a lot of heat) close the curtains through the day, dry your clothes on the line, (dryers heat up the house),use the summer fan to circulate cool basement air, eat cold meals and use the BBQ instead of the stove or oven, and most amazing, spend the evening outside, enjoying your neighbours, until your house cools down.

    • I'm all in favour of more trees, more shade, more ceiling fans, better insulation, better windows and smart theromstats. But I see those measures as ways to make A/C more efficient and less energy intensive, not as outright replacements for A/C. The environmental movement will be in a better position once they realize that asking people to make choices that make their own environment less comfortable is a losing strategy.

  10. When faced with a dilemma one should look outside the box. To air condition or not? To fission or not? To have more than two children or not? All these dilemma 's point to needing a bigger view of all issues, interconnected as they are, and tied to an ethic that can sort the good from the bad, and the efficiently safe from the extravagantly consuming. I personally refuse to live without cross ventilation. Nor live near a nuclear power plant or miltary facility, on top of an incinerator, chemical or pharmaceutical plant. or on the lower floors of a heavily trafficed street. At least not for long. I would rather be homeless and travel upwind than have to always be a downwinder. But our individual and governmental choics have not had the big picture, and now we are faced with insolvable dilemmas. And we all have become downwindeers.We are all downwinders, many of us in toxic boxes, that turn into ovens when its warm outside

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