Here’s Moral Justification for Using Air Conditioning

The state of the universe.
Aug. 1 2012 3:44 AM

Don't Sweat It

The case against the case against air conditioning.

(Continued from Page 1)

"All right," says our member of brrr-geoisie as he sips his icy lemonade. "Heating may contribute as much or more to climate change than cooling, but that's because heating is more important. When it's hot, you just open your window, turn on a fan, or take off your clothes. When it's cold, what can you do?" If you take it as a given that it's fine and dandy to sweat out a summer day in your underwear but absurd to huddle up at home in a fur-lined parka, then you've already decided the question. But what if the reverse were true? Our capacity to endure the heat has an upper limit, and one that isn't very high. Even in a northern city like New York or Chicago (where 739 people died in a weeklong heat wave in 1995), the summer weather can be so extreme that an electric fan loses its benefit. (At some point, it's just blowing hot air around.) After you've stripped naked and dipped your feet in ice water, there aren't many other options. Winter chill, on the other hand, leaves more room for maneuvering: If it's too cold, you can always don another sweater, drape another blanket, or huddle with a friend.

If the primacy of heating isn't a matter of importance, perhaps it's one of comfort. Could it be that feeling cold just hurts a little more than feeling hot? McGill University pain researcher Jeff Mogil points to the finding that warm temperatures applied to the skin go from being merely unpleasant to causing outright pain in a span of just 2.5 degrees. For cool temperatures, the transition happens over 10 degrees. That might seem to suggest that heat is worse, since it turns from discomfort to pain more quickly, but Mogil sees it the other way around. Cold produces a greater range of unpleasant temperatures, he says. It starts to bug you sooner. A study of rats confirms that notion. The animals were trained to lick a pair of heating elements that could be made either hot (118 degrees Fahrenheit) or cold (25 degrees), temperatures that had been shown to cause them the same degree of discomfort when presented individually. When the rats were given a choice between the two, they went for the hot thermode four times as often.

But even if coldness were more unpleasant than heat on a per-degree basis, that doesn't make it any more reasonable to fire up your furnace and spare your air conditioner. In many parts of the country, both weather extremes routinely push over the threshold for discomfort and bodily harm. Cold snaps and heat waves are often deadly, and while the question of which type of weather takes more lives remains unanswered, it does seem that summer deaths tend to be ignored.

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In any case, there's a certain pride in taking the heat, a thermal machismo that doesn't apply as often when the mercury plunges. Anti-A/C crusaders invoke the sultry afternoons of yore, when ladies fanned themselves on the front porch and gentlemen rolled up their shirtsleeves and mopped their brows. Because air conditioning is a more recent invention than fire and furnaces, it seems less connected to who we are and who we've been.

But that's the place to leave off Part 1, because the other arguments against air conditioning—that it harms our bodies and our souls—date to an earlier era. Almost 60 years ago, the expatriate Henry Miller derided his home country as "an air-conditioned nightmare," but the politics of thermal comfort extends back even further, to the 19th-century intellectuals who scowled at America's tendency to overheat its homes. For many decades, the stigma of the thermostat has reflected a deeper division in America, between the country's red-hot Southern states and its cold, blue Northern ones. Tomorrow I'll look more closely at this history, and explain how we got to thinking that A/C kills us with stale air.