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Posted by on Jul 12, 2010 in Economy, Health, Places, Politics, Science & Technology, Society | 0 comments

Speaking of Simplistic Solutions to Complex Problems

Stan Cox argues in the Washington Post today that cutting down on the use of air conditioning is a solution to global warming, and the stress of contemporary life in general:

Washington didn’t grind to a sweaty halt last week under triple-digit temperatures. People didn’t even slow down. Instead, the three-day, 100-plus-degree, record-shattering heat wave prompted Washingtonians to crank up their favorite humidity-reducing, electricity-bill-busting, fluorocarbon-filled appliance: the air conditioner.

This isn’t smart. In a country that’s among the world’s highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emits greenhouse gases, which raises global temperatures, which creates a need for — you guessed it — more air-conditioning.

A.C.’s obvious public-health benefits during severe heat waves do not justify its lavish use in everyday life for months on end. Less than half a century ago, America thrived with only the spottiest use of air conditioning. It could again. While central air will always be needed in facilities such as hospitals, archives and cooling centers for those who are vulnerable to heat, what would an otherwise A.C.-free Washington look like?

Pretty darn good, in Cox’s view. More siestas, work closures for triple-digit days, and in general a more laid-back lifestyle for Americans.

Full disclosure: I worship air conditioning. Although I didn’t grow up with it, it would be very difficult for me to live without it now. And that is one part (among many others) of why Cox’s argument, in my view, is so foolish.

First, let me be clear about what I am NOT saying, or suggesting. I am not saying, or suggesting, that global warming is not a problem. It’s a problem. In fact, it’s an existential problem — more so even than global terrorism, because worldwide climate change contributes to conditions that exacerbate terrorism. By contrast, terrorism does not contribute to conditions that exacerbate global warming.

I am also not saying, or suggesting, that Cox is wrong to indict air conditioning’s electricity-hogging, fluorocarbon-producing nature as a prime contributor to global warming. Anything that uses massive amounts of electricity and/or puts more carbon into the atmosphere has to be taken seriously as one ingredient in global climate change. However, that does not mean that the industrialized world can simply give up air conditioning, or cut back on its use to the extent that would be needed to make a significant difference.

Reality sometimes does bite, and the reality is that even though most people over the age of 50 did not grow up with air conditioning, and yet somehow survived despite that; and even though before the use of air conditioning became widespread and common in everyday life, people found ways to stay cool (or cooler) that actually and demonstrably were effective, over the past 40 years, at least, Americans have gotten used to NOT having to suffer in the heat, and you can’t just wish that away. Also, and perhaps even more pointed as a counterargument, air conditioning has fueled (literally, I suppose) an entire way of life, in every possible sense — economically and socially and in many other ways. The widespread use of air conditioning, and the growing affordability of residential air conditioning and its use in offices and other workplaces, made possible such socioeconomic phenomena as “the Sunbelt” — a term that connotes a vast region of the United States that attracts jobs, industry, tourism, and retirees. I don’t have confirming statistics at my fingertips, but I’m nevertheless reasonably confident, that air conditioning has saved lives and helped to increase longevity in general. The U.S. economy as it exists today would not be possible without air conditioning.

Now, when I say this, I do NOT intend to imply that changes in the way the U.S. economy operates are not needed — I mean, God and TMV’s readers know that! I am not saying it might not be a good idea to reduce our dependence on air conditioning, or that Cox’s substantive arguments do not have merit.

The salient, central point, for me, is that it’s simply not realistic to expect that the kind of massive shifts in demographics, in lifestyles, in economic patterns, that have occurred as the result in large part of air conditioning could just be reversed, because Stan Cox says that we’ve gotten too used to air conditioning. It took half a human lifetime for these shifts to develop — they did not do so overnight. If we as a people want to change that, it cannot be done by fiat, and it certainly cannot be done by exhortatory op-ed pieces.

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