Some of the most signiﬁcant events in recent decades—the election of George W. Bush as president, for example, or the assassination of JFK—would never have happened had it not been for one, seemingly innocuous invention: air conditioning. Without it, says Stan Cox, author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), “History would have been different.”
Losing Our Cool is the kind of book we’ve seen a lot of lately—like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, or Sugar: A Bittersweet History—that ascribes momentous consequences to otherwise mundane things. In the case of air conditioning, it’s true: this invention has changed how people live, determined the population patterns of entire continents, and affected everything from when we have babies to why we feel so tired in the morning. It’s gone from being a salvation, literally sparing lives, to a possible health risk to an environmental demon because it could alter the planet’s climate.
Cox reveals that just about every modern trend—including obesity and suburbanization—can be explained, at least in part, by air conditioners. It’s also a source of tension, sometimes perversely so: people often complain about feeling too cold inside.
That we dare grumble shows how unselfconscious we’ve become about air conditioning consumption. In Dubai, the world’s first air-conditioned beach has been proposed, which would feature coolant pipes beneath the sand and giant blowers to simulate ocean breezes. Closer to home, we boast air-conditioned golf carts and even storage facilities. We sermonize about the importance of turning off the tap while brushing our teeth, and not letting the car idle too long, but to suggest cutting down on air conditioning is akin to taking away heat in the winter or water in the desert. “Society as a whole,” Cox told Maclean’s, “is addicted to it.”
No one more so than North Americans. The amount of energy consumed by running residential air conditioners in Canada almost tripled between 1990 and 2007—52 per cent of Canadians have central air conditioning, and that figure rises to 80 per cent in Ontario, according to Natural Resources Canada. In the U.S., residential energy consumption for air conditioners nearly doubled between 1993 and 2005. In fact, Americans use as much electricity for air conditioning as all of Africa uses for everything.
The effects of this are far-reaching. In sweltering Sun Belt states such as Arizona, Nevada and Texas, it’s no overstatement to say air conditioners made life possible. “It’s inconceivable that there would be a Florida of 18.5 million people today without air conditioning,” says historian Gary Mormino in Losing Our Cool. After the Second World War, droves of Americans moved from chilly northern states. This demographic shift exactly mirrored the proliferation of air conditioners across the country. “Air conditioning was essential to the development of the Sun Belt,” says Mormino. “It was unquestionably the most signiﬁcant factor.”
That population boom gave southern states considerably more inﬂuence in the electoral college, the body of voters who hold the key to the White House. “In 2000 or 2004,” Cox told Maclean’s, “if we had had the population distribution of the 1950s, George W. Bush would not have won.” If in 1960 there had been as many people living in the Sun Belt as there are now, he continues, “then Kennedy would not have won. Richard Nixon would have been president.” And JFK, at least in theory, would never have been the target of a deranged shooter.
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