Commentary by Cindy Ross
The other day I saw a sign advertising a church picnic—INDOORS—and I thought, how do you play volleyball, grill hamburgers? Air conditioning would insure that nobody sweated during the picnic, however.
A friend told me her office is so cold, that not only must she wear a sweater all day, but she keeps a ceramic heater cranked up to warm her cold feet. Hotel windows are sealed closed and down comforters are necessities, even in August. These are absurd yet commonplace occurrences.
I knew our society was becoming addicted to air conditioning, but it wasnt until Stan Cox came out with his recent book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, did I realize the extent to which it has escalated and what we are losing as a result.
As kids growing up, we coped with heat differently and we were never locked indoors. We had water balloon and squirt gun fights, raced down the slip and slide, ran through the sprinkler, and ate a lot of Popsicles and watermelon. We drank icy cold drinks, laid in front of fans, slept outdoors, rocked and swang on the glider, sat under the willow tree on lawn chairs, fanned ourselves, and socialized with our neighbors on hot summer evenings.
But air conditioning has changed the way this country functions. Nine out of ten homes are built with central air, as well as nearly all automobiles. Eighty-five per cent of all homes have it. Americans use more electricity to power our A.C. than the entire continent of Africa uses for everything.
We rate air-conditioning with such importance, that when the National Academy of Engineering chose the twenty greatest engineering accomplishments in the last century, air conditioning came in higher than highways, spacecraft, and even the Internet.
But air conditioning is terrible for the planet. Greenhouse emissions increased and ozone depletion skyrocketed once air conditioners became commonplace. Air conditioned buildings and cars in the U.S. have the climate impact of half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.
With record breaking heat, we become more dependent on air conditioning and create more heat and global warming by using it. Its a viscous cycle.
Air conditioning makes us able to work harder and longer hours, but then our tolerance for heat decreases. Traversing the blacktop from our air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned store makes us miserable.
Air conditioning is not necessarily good for our health. Scientific studies show that our biological tolerance for heat diminishes if we spend most of our time in air-conditioned bubbles. We actually feel sicker because our body must deal with such extreme temperature changes. Our air-conditioned lifestyle contributes to our countrys obesity epidemic
we eat more when we are cool. And keeping children indoors because of allergies or asthma can actually contribute to their taxed immune system, for they are rarely exposed to soil and friendly organisms.
What can we personally do to break our addiction and make a difference? Plant more trees around our homes. Plants provide natural protection from infrared radiation. In the summer, the leaves of deciduous trees can cool a building up to 20 degrees, especially when planted on the south and west sides. Annually, this can save between $100-250 in energy costs. Keep the house closed up during the hot part of the day (when occupants are often away at work anyway) and open it in the evenings. Install shades and awnings. Use screens, window fans and an attic fan to pull in cool air and cross ventilate. Reduce indoor heat by turning off unnecessary appliances and computers that generate heat. In the office, petition for turning down the air conditioner. Making some lifestyle changes, even little ones will help the planet and surprisingly, increase your quality of life.
I read about a woman who decided to glass in her patio, commenting that she still wants to look at nature; she just doesnt want to feel it.
Weve lost something by locking ourselves in and the world out. My home is in the woods and much cooler than most, so we are able to sleep with our bedroom door open, listen to the crickets and to the frogs croaking in our little pond. During the day, we hear the birds sing and we notice when the wind picks up and a thunderstorm rolls in. These simple things are joys to me and they dont cost anything, plus Im not paying money to cool my homes interior.
This lifestyle is not for everyone. There are folks who live in cities, are elderly, sick, or disabled who could not get by without air conditioning. But those of us who have become concerned with remaining constantly comfortable, if not downright unnaturally cold, in the summertime may have lost something with all this "progress." Rethinking the whole idea of air conditioning could improve our lives.
If we cant turn off the air conditioner, as least we can learn to use it more judiciously.
Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and has written 6 books about the outdoors. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.