Scene 1: I spend most of the year freezing. I’m usually the first person to complain about air conditioning running too cold. I can hardly function in an office that’s cooled to 60 F, as our university consistently does to the Women’s and Gender Studies offices. I don’t think well when I’m cold, and (rather inconveniently), thinking is in my job description. We’ve taken to running space heaters when it gets really bad, since the university seems incapable of fixing its HVAC system.
At the same time, the university regularly sends out emails exhorting us to save energy.
Scene 2: The university also has trouble keeping its AC system working, period. Way back in April, we had our first heat wave, which provoked one of my students to complain to the school newspaper:
I began my day in Porter Hall at 9 a.m., measuring a comfortable 72 degrees. I had class from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Clippinger measuring 83 degrees, and immediately following a different room in Clip from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. measuring 85 degrees. Thinking that the worst of my overly warm classes were over and that the last would surely be comfortable, I entered Bentley and climbed to the second floor to find a room that was 98 degrees.
As our professor teased that class would end if she passed out, and I watched the sweat of my neighbor form a puddle on our desk, I found that what little focus I had for history was quickly diminishing in the unbearable heat. I began to wonder instead how, even in light of necessary budget cuts, Ohio University could think that students could actively learn in such an uncomfortable environment. Having soaked through my shirt I found myself racing outside to “cool down” in the 80 degree weather outside after class (well cool down in the sense that at least there was moving air).
Yep, I was that professor in the 98-degree room. And no, I didn’t pass out, but my students weren’t the only ones who struggled to stay focused.
Scene 3: The temperature in Berlin is 99F, as I write this. No one has AC in their homes. Not even all movie theaters have it. Lots of people don’t even own fans, and in fact, many Germans believe that any moving air constitutes a draft. When the city gets this hot, the apartment houses stay cool for a day or two, but then the cement and stone start to heat up, and they retain the heat instead. We’ve been opening windows whenever it’s cooler outside, closing them when it’s not, pulling drapes, and running fans. It’s not enough to live with any comfort. Last night the low was in the upper ’70s. Tonight we’ll be sleeping in a sauna. Or not sleeping, more likely.
All of which made me keenly interested in Salon’s interview with Stan Cox, who urges us to radically shut off our AC. (Amanda Marcotte has some very reasonable commentary on it at Pandagon.) I agree that we overdo it like crazy – do restaurants really need to be cooled to 65 or below? – but he underestimates the health impact where there’s no AC in a heat wave:
But I think we need to look at it is as a fail-safe mechanism and recognize that a lot of the health problems that we need A.C. to solve, it may have contributed to in the first place. We need to look at the conditions under which people die in heat waves, the harsh life conditions that they’re enduring more generally. That’s the real root of the problem.
No. It’s not just a matter of harsh life conditions, though poverty, old age, and isolation are huge risk factors for dying in a heat wave. There’s no mystery to it. But if there’s nowhere cool to escape, people will die. In Europe’s 2006 heat wave, at least 20 died in Germany and at least 40 in France, even though both are wealthy countries with excellent social welfare safety nets. These are preventable deaths.
Basically, our systems are poorly designed, with too much cooling delivered to lots of places, and none to others. My university offers some prime examples of this. Here’s another. My sister- and brother-in-law traveled from Frankfurt to Berlin on Friday in a train where the AC failed. The windows are hermetically sealed because it’s a high-speed train whose name, ironically, is abbreviated “ICE.” Yesterday, three similar trains had to be evacuated after their AC failed. (Sorry, the linked article is in German.) It seems the system is not designed to function in high temperatures! On one of the ICE trains, 27 teenagers on a school trip collapsed from the heat, and some required IV infusions right on the platform once they were evacuated. The desperate mother of a young boy tried to break a window with an emergency hammer. Temperatures topped 120 F.
So yes, by all means, let’s talk about AC. But I agree with Amanda that urging people to go cold turkey – as Cox does – vastly oversimplifies the matter. Complex societies cannot simply ditch AC, unless we abandon any notion of productivity and give up travel by mass conveyance. (I’ve recently been on an airplane and a city bus whose temperatures rivaled those of the ICE trains.) In other words, late capitalism depends on AC, and unless you think we can topple capitalism, we’re not likely to abolish AC. Nor should we, because it really does save people’s lives in a heat wave. But we can and should discuss where it’s used profligately and stupidly. We should think about where we really need it, and where it’s optional. We can adopt other strategies, like using a whole-house fan at night, running ceiling fans, or (in dry climates) installing a swamp cooler. We can drop dress codes that require pants and ties in July. Why not wear shorts to the office?
Oh, and when it’s really hot, we might be wise not to cuddle up to our laptops. I’m off to grab a cold drink and a good old-fashioned, paper-based book.