Did I mention that it's hot? If anyone on the East Coast has forgotten that for a moment in the past week, then the one single thing I can tell you about that person is that he or she has air conditioning. I don't, and thoughts of how to stay cool-or at least cooler-have governed my every waking moment for days. Against that background (and in the cool of the night hours, when being near my laptop becomes almost bearable) I'm contemplating Salon 's interview with science writer Stan Cox , author o f Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) .
When it comes to air conditioning, Cox is against it: Cooling the inside of our environments, he says, makes the outside warmer both by pushing the warm air out and by burning the fuel necessary to keep the air conditioning running. It makes us fatter, because we eat less when we're hot. And it makes us need more air conditioning, because the more time we spend in climate-controlled environments, the less tolerant we are of the heat. Air conditioning is a vicious cycle, and our dependance on it is clearly getting stronger: In 2006, William Saletan wrote that Americans used more energy for air conditioning than the entire country of India; now Cox says we "use as much electricity to power our A.C. as the entire continent of Africa uses for, well, everything."
You may argue that you need your A/C because of allergies, asthma, or elderly relatives; Cox would counter that you might not be allergic or asthmatic in the absence of air conditioning, and that our elderly would benefit more from other social services that made them less vulnerable to the heat. Cox has little sympathy for his baleful fellow countrymen living in hotter climates, where what we Northeasterners call a heat wave is simply referred to as "June." In essence, if you can't stand the heat, you don't belong in that particular kitchen.
I may not have air conditioning, but I still suspect Cox's message is going to fall on (climate-controlled) deaf ears. Cox made me feel good about my week seeking shade and swimming pools, but there's really no moral superiority in my sweaty position. I don't have air conditioning because we rarely need it: We built a snowman on our lawn at the end of April this year. Cox's arguments, though (at least as funneled through the Salon lens) have a strong odor of sanctimony. He does little more than alienate his target audience by being negative about the Sun Belt migration made possible by A/C, or by attributing to that migration the Republican victories of the past two decades. Asthmatics and those with allergies seem unlikely to be persuaded into further discomfort by the claim that the source of their cool may also be one of the causes of their difficulties. Cox has science on his side when it comes to the reasons we need to reduce our national dependance on cooling systems. But if he really wants to promote change, he's going to have to do more than preach to the (lightly dressed, ice-water drinking) choir.
Photograph of air conditioning units by Tim Boyle/Getty Images News.