Tolkien called an eleventy-first birthday, "a rather curious number and a very respectable age for a hobbit". Willis Carrier, the inventor of practical air conditioning, is eleventy-one today. The air conditioning industry's press release can't help but celebrate the day with a press release:
In timing that couldn’t have been more fortuitous if it had been planned, the nation – and indeed the world – today joined in celebrating the 111th anniversary of Willis Carrier’s invention of modern air conditioning. As people all across America, during this nationwide heat wave, move from air conditioned homes to air conditioned cars to air conditioned work spaces and back again, it is good to pause and be thankful for air conditioning.
Yes, air conditioning is a wonderful thing, and a lot of people like my elderly mom might not be able to get through the day without it. The trade association notes:
A 2012 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that there were 80 percent fewer heat-related deaths in the United States between 1960 and 2004 than there were between 1900 and 1959 – a drop they directly attributed to the rise in the use of air conditioning. Air conditioning saves lives.
On the other hand....
There is a real price to be paid for the privilege of being able to "move from air conditioned homes to air conditioned cars to air conditioned work spaces and back again." A price paid in energy, water and culture. We have turned air conditioning from a luxury to a necessity by forgetting how to exist without it. I wrote last year:
The problem is not the air conditioning itself, which everyone acknowledges is a lifesaver, and for many, a necessity. The problem is that we have forgotten how people designed before it, where the architecture of houses and buildings was adapted to climate. Now we just throw electricity at it. A house in a Florida or Phoenix suburb looks pretty much like a house in New England; office buildings and factories are indistinguishable. We made what was once a luxury into a necessity. That is great for the development industry and a whole lot of hack architects and engineers, but not much else.
Here are some of our past looks at the problems (and virtues) of air conditioning:
This thoughtful and controversial post by Brian Merchant was originally titled Air Conditioning is for Entitled Assholes but got toned down. He wrote:
People who've grown up with air conditioning (that's almost anyone reading this post) have actually forged a pretty serious bond with the unit, or at least with the way of life it enables. It doesn't seem like a luxury because it's so supremely ubiquitous, even though that's what it is. The notion that we 'need' air conditioning is a powerful social construct, pure and simple. To criticize air conditioning usage is to criticize the way we've assumed we're supposed to be living our lives. And so people get pissed off when it's suggested that A/C might be a bad idea.
Clearly, parallels abound with plenty of other pillars of modern consumer society—we feel equally as entitled to giant cars, big houses, water-soaked lawns, trough-like toilets, etc, etc. And ultimately, therein lies our problem: everybody knows how the entitled feel about giving up their stuff.
More :Air Conditioning is a Symptom of Our Massive Entitlement Complex
I tried to calm the waters after Brian's post with a plea for moderation. No luck there.
In the end, it is all about moderation; about designing our homes better so they don't need as much air conditioning, if any. It's about reinforcing the cultural aspects of where we live instead of hiding inside. It's about having a discussion, not a culture war.
More: Air Conditioning Is Like Driving; It Is Convenient And Our Society Is Built Around It.
In a word, no. But comfort is a right, and you don't need AC to be comfortable.
There are things that are basic human rights, and air is one of them. But people shouldn't have to pay to get it pumped through a machine because their home was so badly designed that they have no choice.
There is the old joke in Houston about how you define a pedestrian: A person looking for their car. People don't do a lot of walking in the heat; perhaps that's why McAllen-Edinburg-Mission in Texas is the most obese region in America and Boulder, Colo. is the least.
But there may be a more important reason than the driving; it may be biological.