Let’s begin with a question. What is the most pervasive and least-recognized addiction in America?
Here are some hints: It is not gasoline, sexting, meth or Red Bull. Neither is it Facebook, high-fructose corn syrup, shopping or Internet porn.
Give up? The answer is air conditioning. We are all cold-air junkies. You and I crave “coolth.” So says British academic Gwyn Prins. Don’t be too quick to pooh-pooh Prins’ assertion that America is addicted to coolth—or to overlook your own subliminal dependence on air conditioning. If you are like most, you live in an air-conditioned (AC) house, drive an AC car, work in an AC space, exercise in an AC gym and shop in an AC grocery store. Richard Nixon took it a step further. On summer weekends at Camp David, the late president revved up the air conditioner until it was cold enough to build a fire in the fireplace.
A recent book, Losing Our Cool by Stan Cox, examines the ubiquitous technology that runs unnoticed in the background of our lives like programming code on a computer. Air conditioning is such a necessity that it dictates architectural design—witness the sealed buildings in which we spend our days breathing processed air. When was the last time you opened a window to cool off? Adjusting thermostats instead of opening windows is a fairly recent development, however. It has occurred since Utah Democrat Frank Moss was first elected to the Senate in the late 1950s. In those days, nobody I knew in my Sugar House neighborhood had an air conditioner. It was such a luxury that only 12 percent of houses in the United States had air conditioning in 1960, Cox says, and most of them used window units. Classrooms at Highland High School relied on opened windows for coolth. If you were uncomfortably warm in a car, you rolled down the windows. Sweating in bed? You slept in the basement. Hot in church? Suffering was good for the soul. After the Cottonwood Mall was built in 1962, you could take refuge from 100-degree heat in the mall’s cool interior.
Cox calls the enclosed shopping mall “the cathedral of air-conditioned culture”—its atrium, galleries and food court heated, cooled and ventilated by unseen mechanical systems. Obsolescence claimed the Cottonwood Mall in 2008. It was razed to make way for a “retail lifestyle center” which looks to be much like The Gateway and City Creek developments. Gateway refers to itself importantly as an “open-air contemporary destination” (not an anachronistic mall). I suppose its roofless configuration is meant to evoke the pre-mall age when downtown stores and restaurants bustled with customers. Gateway may resemble Main Street, but I bet all of its interior space is refrigerated.
Frank Moss was in his third term when Orrin Hatch began to criticize him. He’s been in Washington too long, Hatch said. He’s out of touch with Utah voters. As Hatch railed, those selfsame Utah voters were busily retrofitting their houses with evaporative coolers. The rooftop machines were so popular in the 1970s that Terry Jackson, an air-conditioning contractor with 40 years’ experience, estimated 85 percent of Salt Lake City’s houses had one installed. Nowadays, judging from the number of coolers shrouded in weathered canvas, central air conditioning is now homeowners’ preferred option for coolth. But Jackson says the venerable swamp cooler remains popular. It is 30 percent cheaper to install, and it delivers “nice, humid air.”
Not so nice are the ramifications of central air conditioning. (In 2005, 82 percent of houses in the United States had air-conditioning, mostly from central systems.) Cox’s book is subtitled “Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-conditioned World.” The cost of coolth is one he cites. Nearly 20 percent of all energy consumed in the United States is for air
conditioning, he says. Of the gasoline burned in autos each year, 5.5 percent—7 billion gallons—is attributable to the air conditioner.
Cox believes air conditioning is a factor in the obesity epidemic among American children. One in every six kids is overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They don’t climb trees, ride bikes or play over-the-line in the street. They want coolth, not warmth. They loll indoors like Lotus-eaters, absorbed by Facebook. By the time they reach 17, one in three is so flabby and weak, they can’t qualify to join the Army.
In the U.S. military, people are literally dying for air conditioning. Because summer temperatures reach 120 degrees in Iraq and Afghanistan, AC tents and armored vehicles are commonplace. Thousands of convoys are required to truck diesel to base camps, where 85 percent of the fuel is used to power air-conditioning units. The convoys are frequently attacked. On average, there is one casualty for every 24 convoys.
Hatch, who has exceeded Moss’s tenure in Washington by 16 years, is a proponent of a strong national defense. “Nothing makes me prouder than the brave men and women who serve,” he says. I trust some of his 23 grandchildren have made the aging senator proud as soldiers. Hatch advocates a “find more, use less” energy policy. I trust he would share my discomfiture in reading Cox’s report that Americans use “as much electricity for air conditioning now as is consumed for all purposes by all 930 million residents of the continent of Africa.” I trust he would agree that without energy independence, the national defense is not what it should be, regardless of the bloated $550 billion Pentagon budget he reflexively endorses.
Cox has written a cautionary book. One of his conclusions is the need to focus on cooling people instead of buildings. Changing our unsustainable energy paradigm requires bold, selfless leaders. After decades spent in Washington, Hatch has lost his cool. Someone needs to open a window.