Mentioning you voluntarily live without air-conditioning is like turning off the music at a party. It isn’t something you share with people having a good time. They feel like they’ll have to start calling your house to see if you’re all right. For Americans, it threatens the sacred cultural boundaries of personal privacy and comfort as few other things do, especially in the baking swath of the Midwest. Among environmentalists, it provokes talk of hair shirts and self-flagellation. “That’s not the impression we want to leave with people,” they say. Hopefully, it’s not the impression I’ll leave with you. Even during summers like this where air from a just-opened pretzel bag can feel refreshing, living without A/C does have some compelling benefits. Six or seven years ago, I found a pond in the basement under the ductwork, a death knell for the A/C. I decided not to replace it.
I grew up in a house where A/C was seldom used. If my sisters and I were hot, my mother pointed to the 12-foot horse-tank swimming pool in the backyard and the basement, exactly the cool cave I sit writing this in my own house. She regaled me with tales of a sleeping porch where she and her mother and sister would retreat on the hottest of nights in Kansas City of the 1940s. They read the weather like sailors. Like other mammals in the summer, un-air-conditioned humans stay quiet and low. They do their thinking in dim rooms. They complete active tasks in the early morning.
“What did people do during the day, though?” I asked her during a teenage battle over whether or not to turn on the A/C. “Not as much,” she said. I remember judging her for that. How unproductive everyone must have been. (A recent Cornell study revealed that cool air doesn’t make people more productive. Air temperature close to that of the body actually increases productivity.) But I also remember the week after. In response to my whining, she finally turned it on. I read until my eyes bled, afraid to go outside and bereft of friends who would go outside with me. We had all grown too cool to be hot. I wound up lying on my bed listening to the unit turn on and off. I remember feeling unmoored, on board a space ship that had had no word from earth. And I wanted to get off. Gone were bruises and mosquito welts but gone also were the breeze on my cheek, the smell of warmed trees, the lullaby of katydids, cicadas and frogs, the arrival of outflow from storms that raised gooseflesh and reminded me that heat doesn’t last forever.
Living without A/C isn’t for everyone, says the Kansas Land Institute’s Stan Cox, author of the new book “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).” But given all we know about the increasing burden power plan emissions put on the planet, it’s a lifestyle more Americans could adopt. “We [Americans] use as much air-conditioning now as is currently consumed for all purposes by all 930 million residents of the content of Africa,” Cox says. As much as we hate to hear it, humans are a tropical species. Though we may want it, we don’t need air-conditioning.
In addition to ones I’ve already mentioned, here are a few of Cox’s suggestions for easing our addiction to A/C and its impact on our wallets:
• Think window units instead of central air. Cool people, not buildings.
• Use fans. An indoor breeze can significantly cool the body.
• Bump up the thermostat and dress appropriately. For example, rethink the Western suit/tie in summer.
• Plant or leave trees on east and west side of houses. Install south window awnings.