AC: Not All It’s Cranked Up to Be

Growing up in the Deep South meant dealing with the heat in summer (well actually, from March through October in Alabama.) When we moved north to Virginia in 1974, I thought surely we had left 90-90 temp-humidities behind. But it’s feeling a lot like ‘bama in the Commonwealth this summer, and this has led me to consider that, once upon a time, Southern Americans employed evasive measures against the heat, and coped admirably with less grumbling and in greater relative comfort than today–even in the years before conditioned air.

Back then, southern folk drank iced tea (pronounced as a single word, “ahstee”) often holding the sweaty drink to our jugulars or temples to cool our brains. We sat on the ubiquitous screened front porches along elm-shaded streets to enjoy the relative coolness of an evening. The motion of the glider, porch swing or rocking chair often created the only stir in the thick, watermelon-and-zoyzia grass-scented air. As a floor-dwelling toddler, I remember a single oscillating fan, black, with whirling metal blades barely shielded by a sparse grillwork, it animal-like and perpetual looking right-left-right motion a source of amazement and one of my first memories.

The vents in the dashboards of our cars worked only when the car was moving and those little side windows  deflected tepid air onto our moist skin. Once, taking personal thermoregulation into our own hands on a vacation to Florida from Birmingham, we stopped at the Ice House in Woodlawn for a twenty-pound block of ice. It melted for hours right under the vent, cooling us as it puddled into a galvanized tub at my mother’s feet on the passenger side.

We had a roaring fan in the ceiling that, when you turned it on, sucked doors closed and lifted my hair and the shirt on my back gently towards the attic. My brother and I delighted in waatching balloons bump along the hardwood floors into the hallway and rise suddenly to be sucked tight against the louvers. We slept April til October with the cool night air filling the house the next morning, when the oscillator came on duty to blow the coolness around during breakfast.

We were far more thermally resilient in hot weather in those benighted days before humankind’s technological mastery collapsed our thermal tolerance to a mere few degrees hovering around the “ideal” 72 on which we now insist, 24/7.

Stan Cox, Senior Scientist with the Land Institute in Kansas, in his June 2010 book entitled Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-conditioned World, offers a host of facts to support the notion that we should rely less on the AC in coming decades. He tells the reader some surprising ways indoor climate control has changed American culture, politics, and even frequency of sex, and suggests that we can adopt more adaptive, less consumptive ways of beating the heat.

In a half century, our relationship to AC has come to resemble the dependencies of an addiction. Cox doesn’t argue that it’s immoral to be comfortable, but our shrinking comfort zone does have costs we should consider.

Today, 92% of new American homes are air-conditioned, and most of the electricity to produce our cool air comes at the expense of Appalachian mountaintop coal, hence the paradox: greater indoor climate control contributes to an outdoor climate out of control. Many of our politicians have the distorted notion that turning up the air-conditioning is the answer to global warming.

Our thermal tolerance has shrunk and adult and child alike have flocked to the Great Indoors, and our health is suffering. Kids are little exposed to friendly soil bacteria and nematodes that apparently “train” the immune system, and “nature deficit disorder” afflicts our denatured, thermally-sheltered young people. Even the obesity epidemic is compounded by our sedentary encampment inside in our Goldilocks, “just right” thermal bubbles.

Living in a less refrigerated society in coming decades may be both desirable and necessary, but for now, air conditioning is the water we swim in. It’s all around us, and we rarely think about it. Maybe we should and I think I will–from the front porch swing, with a folded newspaper fan and a big sweaty glass of ahstee.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I used to visit my mother in South Carolina where she retired in the 1980’s. I could never understand how hot and humid it could be until I experienced the oppressive heat and humidity in that, otherwise, beautiful state.

    If you are from the north, it seems as if southerners do everything slowly, but after trying do even the most mundane things in that kind of heat and humidity I completely understood.

    Nice read, by the way, I loved the image of the ice block in the tub while driving on the road.

  2. Fred — What a great post. Perhaps I think it is great as it vindicates my opposition to the use of household AC. I surly will look for the book, LOSING OUR COOL, should be a great summer read for me as I sit in the sweltering heat of my (by choice) non-AC home. I must admit that I have almost cried “uncle” and given in to AC as this sweltering heat continues on and on during this summer. . But I keep reminding myself that it is nature’s way and first and foremost — I am saving some tiny natural spot from coal removal destruction. I don’t mean to sound better than thou, if that is what you want to call it. I just wish more people were able to shut down their AC and become acclimated to the temps so we can save of bit of Mother Earth. Perhaps folks can begin the journey back to non-AC by reading LOSING OUR COOL. — barbara

  3. Nice post, Fred!

    I am further north in Ontario, Canada, but this summer has been unusually humid. It is a bit warmer than normal, too, but the high humidity has been pretty constant whereas it normally comes and goes.

    Whenever I feel like complaining about it, I remind myself of what it must have been like to go through summers like this not only in worse places like the southern US but also in places with no reprieve whatsoever — I work in an office with AC and summer is only here for 2-3 months of the year, so what is there to complain about?

    I did turn the AC on once this year for a few days but I’ve decided to leave it off. I don’t like the bunker mentality it encourages. Far better to appreciate the seasons for what they’re worth, open the windows, and adapt. Cooler weather will be here soon enough.

    It does make me wonder, though, how many truly oppressive climates have been inhabited or become popular only because AC is available — I mean, how many people would live in those places if AC was not an option, compared with the numbers that do live there now. I guess that is discussed in the book you mentioned. Sounds interesting!

  4. As a mountain-top forest dweller in southern PA, I must confess that I have been tempted, even sorely tempted, to get an air conditioner this summer. So far I haven’t caved in. But I can report that I work with people who spend their lives in climate-controlled conditions, and these people Freak Out when the office temperature reaches 80 degrees. Likely because of my non-air-conditioned life, I didn’t even notice. As far as I was concerned the office was fine. What was apparent to me then is that these folks have a very narrow comfort zone when it comes to temperature. I found that kind of scary.

  5. From an air conditioned bubble in SE Texas I can only agree that we have lost our senses. But, I must make the comment, that the temperatures of today are a far sight tougher to handle than the days when we toughed it out down here pre-AC. And for me that is only a span of about 10 or 12 years ago.

    I too remember the roaring fan in the hall ceiling. I grew up with one and put one into the very first home my wife and I bought. The one difference between the fan of my childhood and the one I installed as an adult was the addition of a variable speed control. We would turn the speed down in the morning and let the fan keep the attic temperature down all day before speeding it up again with the cool of the evening.

    My favorite memory of childhood was sleeping on the upper bunk with the upper sash lowered and the outside air being sucked through a tented sheet tacked to the window frame…By morning I would be buried under a quilt, the same quilt I used in the winter. To this day I cannot sleep without a fan blowing on me…

  6. It scares me that this notion is starting to gain ground in the U.S.

    I am an air conditioning addict. I amy be willing to drive a smaller car – gas/electric hybrid….plant some trees…drink water from the tap…and overall love these mountains…

    but have NO doubt…if this nation and its laws start to mess with my A/C…I will picket in Washington and break said laws. I DO NOT want to live like my grandparents, and frankly, the sacrafices I make on a daily basis to work, pay taxes, and keep up with the enviromental movement allow me to say with no cent of regret: I WILL ALWAYS SLEEP WITH MY THERMOSTAT ON 66 DEGREES AT NIGHT….be that at the cost of a mountain, the air, or any other earthly resource. I’ll turn off the A/C when I die.

  7. Perhaps folks can begin the journey back to non-AC….

    Tried that last week…nope…failed…A/C for life!

  8. As the author of Losing Our Cool has said, there are some who feel the same way about their AC as they do about their guns: they’ll give them up when somebody pries them from their cold dead fingers.

    At a certain point of demand vs capacity, we’ll do without when the grid stops yielding comfort on command. Air-conditioning or Internet? Time may come, we’ll have to chose.

    And while its easy to say mountains be damned, there is only so much “commons” that can be commodified and part of the waste stream before we all share in the collective and irreparable damage to the base of our ecological services. We have many tough decisions ahead, and the AC issue makes a good study along those lines.

  9. Fred, for what it’s worth, it’s just one more thing I don’t understand. I lived in Florida for 4 years, but I was raised on the Long Island of NY.

    It gets hot and humid in many places in summertime. I’m old enough to be that curmudgeon wondering how we survived without bicycle helmets and no safety seals. We also didn’t have AC, at home, at school, or at work. I don’t remember the trauma or even hearing anyone complain. Yup, it’s hot and humid, find some shade and a breeze.

    I still don’t have AC, by choice, I do have a child sucking whole house fan but haven’t felt a need to use it this year or last, in spite of 90 plus temperatures. Folks used to have mountain retreats because the heat of the day is followed by cool of the night. Works for me.

    Common sense, logic and a social conscience are becoming more rare. Developing deserts for snowbirds trading heating costs for AC costs is one factor, so it must be something else.

    I forgot where I was going with this but I prefer seasons to tropics. If I’m too cold in Winter I can always add a layer. I know that when it’s too hot and I’m naked it’s a problem. That’s rare unless you refuse to acclimate. then it’s a habit or a state of mind.

    We will be dragged further downward by those that refuse to change before there is no choice.

    Happy Monday.

  10. Fred — I feel so lucky that we live in a dry heat. We’ve lived in our house for 11 years now and have turned the AC on three times, and two of those were to test it. (Last week it got over 100° three times and over 98° every day, but again, we’re lucky, because it cools down at night. The thermoregulation involves opening all the windows at night and closing them and shuttering in the morning. This mostly works.)

    I don’t like to point fingers but I agree it’s gotten out of control. Great post.

  11. Another great essay for the radio and/or the newspaper!! The summertime theme will be irresistable. Your recollections were delightful. I, too, had an attic fan in my childhood home in Knoxville, TN. Mom put only a fitted sheet on my bed in the summer, and I would lie there uncovered, with my head at the foot, so I could feel the tiny breeze the fan brought through the window. Your fan sounds far stronger than the attic exhaust fan we had. Did my Mom know that she could do better? Enjoy your ahstee!

  12. Fred, I agree with you. Sad thing is, I have become so use to AC, at home and work. I could go with less, but family, and having to work indoors, means I have to deal with AC. I grew up without AC, in our home and our car. Now during the hot summer, I often wonder how we did it. I really think AC makes us think it is hotter outdoors than we can stand. We do have to make sure our pets have shade, and fresh cool water. Tsuga agrees, I am sure. 🙂

    Tell Ann I said Hello!!


  13. AC is just one acquired entitlement and perceived necessity we (our children, rather) will have to let go of with such a death grip. Best start now cultivating different preferences in our children, different expectations and norms than what we’ve come to expect. It’s easier to start from childhood with what we would consider privations than to snatch them from grownup voters and consumers. But tipping points don’t care about our comfort if we’ve not bothered to anticipate them.

  14. I went to London in early 2005 and was struck by the sight of a man walking in 40 degree weather wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I often wondered, while reading about the Celts, how they managed to exist with little or no clothing – I read that they fought battles naked. When it is hot, we sweat to cool off. Is it uncomfortable? Probably, but ceding to artificial climate control has its price, as you point out. A cold shower before going to bed on a hot night works wonders – I discovered that after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when I had no electricity for 6 weeks. I, too, have a whole house fan and no AC – one contractor I hired for a job told me that I was a “tough, old fart.” I love the sound of a summer rainstorm late at night, with the water coursing off the roof and pouring onto the ground. I’d miss that with AC, now, wouldn’t I? I agree, Fred – it is a good idea to start adapting now. But it won’t happen until the electric grid goes dead. Then, as in after Andrew, people will have to adapt.