A summer without AC? It’s possible

Marketplace Staff Jul 12, 2010

A summer without AC? It’s possible

Marketplace Staff Jul 12, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Last week’s crazy triple-digit East Coast heatwave is just a memory now. New York is a relatively sane 92 degrees today. Of course, that still has air conditioners pegged at maximum cool, and it’s the same in other parts of the country, too. It doesn’t have to be a 100 degrees for us to hit the AC to be comfortable. Not all that long ago we all survived just fine without conditioning the air.

In his new book, “Losing Our Cool” author Stan Cox says air conditioning’s actually made us worse off. Stan, welcome to the program.

Stan Cox: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: Do I have it right that you survived Kansas summers with no air conditioning in your house?

Cox: That’s right. Our house does have central air conditioning system. We turn it on for one day a year to make sure it’s still in good working order.

Ryssdal: Is that a day of celebration and happiness in your house or do you do it reluctantly?

Cox: We usually time it for when people are coming over to dinner or we have out of town visitors.

Ryssdal: This book you have written is very much a proposal that we should just figure out a way to do without it. Or certainly do less of it.

Cox: I knew that if I wrote a book calling for the prohibition of air conditioning I wouldn’t get very far with most people. So what I’ve tried to do instead is paint a picture of what life might be like if we start reducing our dependence on it.

Ryssdal: Give me some sense of the raw number. How much energy do we use to keep ourselves cool and comfortable?

Cox: Well, the number is approaching a half trillion kilowatt hours per year, which doesn’t mean a lot unless you think of it as the entire electricity consumption of all 60 nations of the continent of Africa — almost a billion people per year for everything. We could also compare it to renewable energy — solar, wind, biomass, geothermal. Those sources could increase five fold and still would not cover our demand for air conditioning in this country.

Ryssdal: Are we doing air conditioning any smarter than we did in the past? I mean, have we taken advantage of technology to at least use less energy per degree of cooling or however it’s measured?

Cox: Well, that in fact has been improved significantly compared with the mid-90s. The efficiency of residential air conditioners that are in use has increased 28 percent. But at the same time, the average air conditioned home is using 37 percent more electricity for cooling — which seems like a paradox, until you think about the fact that houses have gotten much bigger and that a lot of people have switched from say, room air conditioning to central air and are probably keeping their houses cooler.

Ryssdal: You know, if you walk down the street in the summer time in most of Los Angeles, certainly New York City and I’d bet there in Salinas, Kan. where you are and everybody’s got their air conditioning on. There are no people out there, right? There’s nobody with windows open sitting on the porch anymore. You lose a certain social aspect of this, because of AC, don’t you?

Cox: That was one of the chief reasons I wrote the book was the ill ease I felt in going through neighborhoods that I knew had once been very lively places in the summer and then turned into dead zones. You would not see any human life out there, and the only sound would be the compressors and fans on the air conditioners. And I really do believe that what has been called by one author “nature deficit disorder” is a problem that has been facilitated by air conditioning. You can make a dark home entertainment center with cool, still, dry air a lot more appealing than a meadow, say, in summer.

Ryssdal: Stan Cox. His most recent book is called, “Losing Our Cool.” Stan, thanks a lot.

Cox: Thank you, Kai.

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