For 33 years, I never heard a peep against air conditioning. It’s always been a fact of life, worthy of discussion only when it’s absent.
As for my own relationship with AC, I guess I’d say “it’s complicated.” I have similar feelings toward air conditioning as I have toward smartphones. Obviously I understand the allure, and I use other people’s plenty often, but I don’t have it and I’m not going to get it. In my house, that is. (If a compressor didn’t cost $750, I would get my car’s AC fixed. That’s one environmentally expensive luxury I would splurge on. Since it crapped out, though, I’ve found workarounds, like trying to depart on long trips at night, and giving toddler Kai a sippy cup filled with ice water to slurp and cuddle up with. Inevitably, though, you will get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in an airless pit like the Holland Tunnel at 3 p.m. on a July scorcher when you’re pregnant. And that’s why you have sweat glands.)
I know people think twice about “going up there to roast,” as one family member put it, rehashing the thought process involved in deciding whether to come over to see Kai. I’d like people to feel comfortable at our place, but I will never feel at ease with the modern gadgetry that coddles us so, its cost concealed under a cloak of slick convenience and ease.
My dad and uncle now have Nest thermostats, which allow you to control your home’s temperature remotely, using your phone. We haul logs in the winter and keep the doors and windows open in the summer. The smart thermostat is an ingenious invention, and it has the potential to save energy, but the shiny orb does hammer home that we live in different worlds. Mine is the one for me, but it can feel sparsely populated, not to mention sweaty.
Still, air conditioning came up in conversation approximately never — until I got around to reading the Pope’s encyclical.
Pope Francis is my man; he has been since I heard on the radio that in his village in Buenos Aires, back when he was plain old Jorge Bergoglio, he used to collect the rubber bands in which his daily newspaper came bound, and return them at month’s end to the kiosk. Notwithstanding my Jewishness and our lack of any common anything, I feel like we occupy the same world. His encyclical (written, by the way, to every human being on earth, so feel free to Google it) is full of very big ideas but also quite specific ones, about immigration, the media, the global one percent, unplugging, and air conditioning.
“People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning,” wrote Francis. “An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive.”
I sat up when I read that. Presumably, Pope Francis — who at 78 is no spring chicken — isn’t cranking the AC either, then, and the Vatican gets just as hot as it does here, according to weather.com. Pope Francis would feel just fine in the hammock on our front porch, and if he didn’t, we could all go stick our feet in Kai’s baby pool on the deck and watch the chickens bathe in the dust — their version of AC. And then we’d all take a siesta.
Imagining life without AC, I had a memory of a trip to Maceio, a beach town in Brazil. In the early afternoon, hoping to score my go-to snack of a coconut with a straw in it, I peeped into a food stand. My first thought was that the family that ran it had been gunned down: a very old lady, I recall particularly, in her long colorful skirt, with handkerchief around her head, was splayed alongside various progeny, out cold. They had fallen where they stood on the tile floor, no pillows, no hands behind heads, nothing. In a couple hours they would rise and keep doing business. This was how people in the air-conditionless world dealt with being hot.
Within the week I stumbled across a yet another criticism of air conditioning. The piece in Mother Earth magazine was by a guy named Stan Cox, a researcher at The Land Institute in Kansas (this place, too, I’ve been hearing about all of a sudden).
“Fifty years ago, about nine of 10 U.S. residents spent summertime in homes without air conditioning,” Cox wrote. “Our society has come to regard refrigerant-based air conditioning as an in-dispensable technology, and has forgotten about plenty of other cheaper, simpler ways to beat the heat.”
Turning off our energy-hog air conditioners in this country would, he wrote, equate to shutting down 140 coal-fired power plants. But we all know that’s not happening. Here’s one that might get you thinking, though: if you spend a lot of time in AC, your body adjusts to lower temperatures, and you suffer more in the heat. Let yourself get hot, though, and your internal thermometer will adjust. Voilà, you’ll feel more comfortable when it’s hot as hell.
Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite now living on a farm upstate and writing about the rural life.