Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)

By Stan Cox

New Press, 2010

272 pages, $24.95 (Hardcover)

Available on Amazon here and Google books here

Reviewed by Lucia Green-Weiskel

It’s not an obvious choice to read a book about air conditioning. Yet, without getting much attention, climate control is central to our life. Air conditioning influences economic development, community building, medicine, art, culture and even foreign policy. It has allowed people to populate—in increasingly greater numbers—the traditionally uninhabitable parts of the earth’s surface. And some say it will likewise allow us to live in a future where climate change has made even the habitable parts of Planet Earth unlivable.

Everyone is familiar with the climate controlled life. The experience of feeling the hot furnace air of the outdoors hit you in the face when you step out of a store in July. Or the feeling of typing with cold knuckles in a well air conditioned office when it is 98 degrees and muggy outside. What about the opposite experience? I recall tossing and turning all night during an air-conditioning-less summer in Hong Kong. Or the experience of sitting in traffic – windows down and no AC— sun beating down on the car roof as its inhabitants find their legs sticking to the seats. These images are likely familiar to most, but rarely do we take the time to think about the ways that air conditioning has changed our lives and shaped our culture.

As Losing Our Cool explores, air conditioning plays a key role in many of the trends that are central to the American way of life: From McMansions and the increasing size of the average home, ubiquitous central air, sprawling suburbs to a growing commuter culture and mega-malls (and an 87,000 square foot indoor, air-conditioned flea market in Florida). From the emergence of the year-round business dress code to southern migrations (both for people and industry) and even to wars in tropical countries. The thread linking these together is our ability to control indoor climates and the creeping progression of air conditioning from a luxury to a necessity. Indeed the American Way of Life – the DNA-level instinct of each American to build his or her own mini-palace over one’s life time leading to a perennial expansion – to put in the new pool, build the new deck or den or finally buy that second home – is all held ransom to the technology of air conditioning.

But these trends gave birth to other phenomena more worrisome. For example, the “heat island” effect – a condition when urban areas are hotter than surrounding rural areas causing more people to buy air conditioners. This leads to the “heat canyon” effect – when the hot air exhaust from the AC units get trapped in the heat-absorbing concrete of the narrow alley ways and streets of cities causing the already hotter area to become even more hot. Thus, AC is like an addiction – the more we use it, the more we need it.

Heavy reliance on air conditioning causes water shortages and electricity spikes. Most urban brownouts or blackouts happen during the month of August when AC units are operating at full blast. In an effort to use climate controlling technology more efficiently, home owners install extra insulation around doors and windows. While this saves energy, it also stops the natural circulation of fresh air through the building leading to toxic build ups of radon, carbon monoxide, mold and bacteria. Dangerous off-gassing from new shower curtains (have you ever smelled one right out of the packaging?) or household cleaning products like Windex that are demonstrably dangerous for human health, get trapped indoors without windows or cracks through which to escape.

But the focus of Cox’s book is just as much on the social and cultural effects than on health. Controlled climates have resulted in a decline in outdoor activity and community events both spontaneous and planned. Cox points out that home air conditioning reduces the chances that people will end up in a place where they are likely to encounter a neighbor or a stranger, thus eliminating many of the interactions that facilitate the development of community. Sterile, ghost like suburbs are annexing more and more wild land throughout the south. These are housing complexes that are full of people but devoid of community.

Air conditioning has allowed whole cities in the south to exist where otherwise they may have just been a small town. A growing number of children are raised in southern cities where it is too hot to play outdoors during the summer months. Instead they adapt to indoor activities — video games and TV. As a result, childhood and adult obesity are on the rise as people stay indoors huddled in front of their air conditioners while temperatures spike outside.

AC has even changed our foreign policy. It would have been much more difficult to persuade thousands of US soldiers to spend summer months in places like Iraq and Afghanistan – where temps soar to over 110 degrees—if they were not also promised an oasis of AC. Instead of the old fashioned open-air jeep, today’s soldiers drive through Iraqi towns in air conditioned Humvees with windows rolled up and tinted. Without being able to see each other’s faces, it is much harder for the soldiers to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

But Cox is not just a cultural Luddite finding new ways to problematize progress. The book cannot be summarized as a one-sided diatribe against the evils of air conditioning. Similar to other books like those that look at industrial history through the evolution of cement or public health through the history of sewers, Losing Our Cool has a genuine aim to teach us more about ourselves – our society and our culture – and is not just an angry rant designed to make the climatically comfortable feel guilty.

Cox writes with an ethos that to live well is best. The most succinct quote of the book – and the author’s proclaimed personal view – comes on page 109. To the question of whether to use AC, one anonymous apartment resident replied: “We don’t use the air conditioner because it makes it too hot outside.” Cox has a bias but he is not necessarily a poster child of moral rectitude: “Please don’t misread me,” he writes. “I am not an ascetic, a Stoic, a Luddite, a miser, an ‘econag’, or a person of unmeltable moral fiber. I’ve lived this way [without AC] because I prefer it.”

And indeed, we see in the book that climate control is responsible for many of the improvements in our lifestyles: the declines in diseases and infant mortality, the improvement of micro surgery and the production of certain drugs. Indeed, climate control has made much of the economic productivity in places like Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta possible. “I wrote this book to reopen the debate over whether our indoor environments should be refrigerated,” the author claims in the book’s preface.

Regarding our energy consumption habits, air conditioning is a new angle on an old story: Americans consume more than our proportionate share of energy and it’s unsustainable. But what about developing countries—many of them with tropical climates? A clear flaw of the book is that it is US-centric. If the trends are unsustainable in our American society of over-consumption and extremes, what are the implications of the spread of AC in the developing world? We know that it is there and not here where population growth is exploding and a massive new middle class is emerging. Yet, although one chapter on India attempts to poke at this, we can only wonder what will happen when affluence and its associated demands spread in the rest of the developing world.

Cox does not solve this conundrum but he does articulate the problem well and then proceeds to drop it and all its heft into the reader’s lap. The final chapter offers some solutions for home owners and policy makers—both technology and non-technology-based, which provide some tangible suggestions about where we go from here (and how to find new ways to get through the summer, as the subtitle suggests).

The book succeeds at being informative but not intimidating, urgent without being alarmist, righteous but not obnoxious. We learn not only of the larger trends that illustrate how climate control has changed the arc of our existence but also arms us with possible solutions and new ways of thinking about an old problem. Losing Our Cool is a nerdy beach read, packed with facts, observations and quotes ready to be taken from the page to your next cocktail party. Cox is thorough and persistent. He does his homework so you don’t have to do yours.