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30.6.06

Good And Bad Arguments About AC

There's a pair of articles on air conditioning by Stan Cox that ought to be good but end up suffering from an attempt to push them into a partisan frame.

The questionability of the article starts with its focus on AC. Now, there's nothing wrong with writing about AC -- but it's telling that Cox defensively dismisses the idea of making any of the same claims about heating:

The average household in the southeastern United States consumes almost twice as much electricity as the average household in New England, but air-conditioning doesn't account for that entire disparity. Southerners use a lot more power for all appliances, whatever the season. Of course, northern households consume more fossil fuel for heat, but in the dead of winter, heating cannot be dispensed with.


Heating is thus a necessity, where AC is a mere luxury. Never mind that heat arguably causes the same number of deaths as cold. Sure, you need some heating system to survive in the north, but you don't need a modern central heating system cranked up to 80 degrees. Since Cox allows low-tech solutions to the heat (like sitting out on the porch and going swimming), we have to allow low-tech solutions to the cold, like the fireplaces that suited the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims just fine. And if Cox's message to southerners is "don't move to Texas if you can't stand the heat without AC," he could as easily say "don't move to Vermont if a fireplace doesn't cut it for you."

The real reason for the focus on AC perhaps becomes clear in the subhead to the second installment: "Air-conditioning ... just might have given us President George W. Bush." AC is especially bad because it's a Republican climate control technology. But Cox doesn't even stand behind his claim about the AC-GOP link, repeatedly claiming that AC (by making the South hospitable to a larger population) is responsible for the rise of the Republicans, then backing off and disclaiming that thesis*.

The articles also make a strange detour into a sort of technological determinist Marxism. Essentially, Cox argues that the development of air conditioning was a prerequisite for rampant capitalism. Without air conditioning, we'd all take siestas or go down to the free neighborhood swimmin' hole -- but with air conditioning, we're able to spend all summer shopping and seeing movies and other things that involve engaging in consumption. I find this hard to believe. Capitalists are a creative bunch, so I have no doubt that, if AC technology had not come about, they would have found other ways to keep us spending our cash all summer -- privatizing the swimmin' hole, for example. (And in any event, the same argument could be made about heating -- good heating systems allow us to continue our fast-paced consumerist lifestyle in the dead of a New England winter, instead of holing up by the fireside telling stories and eating salted beef like the Vikings.)

A good article about AC, or about climate control in general, would look more like the just first half of Cox's first article. The key points are that AC uses a lot of energy (as well as having other environmentally negative effects), and that it's over-used -- there are alternative, more environment-friendly, ways to keep cool, and when you do use AC, it should be to bring the temperature down just into the tolerable range, not to make your building chilly.

*I'm a bit skeptical of how much geographical population shifts can explain changes in the parties' fortunes. But to the extent that it is a factor, the explanation has to include the fact of our winner-take-all system (which is amplified in the Presidential context by the Electoral College). A bunch of liberal snowbirds heading to Arizona will boost AZ's population, and hence the number of seats/votes it gets. But so long as there aren't enough immigrants to make conservatives a minority, all of that extra clout will still go to conservative representatives.

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