The Nature of College by James Farrell


Air Conditioning

Intro: During this hot summer season, Americans are looking for ways to keep cool.  Today, on the 110th anniversary of air conditioning, Dr. America, who is nothing but cool, cranks up the heat on air conditioning.

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We live on the only planet in the solar system with an atmosphere that supports life.  The air we breathe is a beautifully conditioned combination of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases.  But it isn’t conditioned enough for most Americans, who like to put on airs that have been treated some more.  As the old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, air condition the kitchen.”

Invented by Willis Carrier in 1902, the air conditioner is essentially a refrigerator for human beings.  Like a refrigerator, it takes heat and humidity from the conditioned air, and deposits them elsewhere.  Air conditioning conditions the air, but it also conditions cultural expectations.  It reveals our preference for the great indoors, and our predilection for what we proudly call “climate control.”  It suggests that, unlike other animals, Americans expect the environment to adapt to them instead of adapting to the environment.

Such comfort does not come cheaply.  In Minnesota, it costs roughly 25 cents a day to run a fan, $2.50 to run a room air conditioner, and $6.00 for central air conditioning.

Air conditioning is a simple technology that replaces the complex cultural conditioning that taught primitive people–like our parents and grandparents–how to deal with heat.  Before air conditioning, people generally did not build cities in deserts.  In past times, in temperate climates, they planted trees or shrubs to shade their homes.  They used awnings to shield windows on the east and west side of buildings.  And, instead of cooling all of the spaces of the building, they used fans to cool the particular spaces that they occupied.  When indoor spaces became too hot, they sat on porches where the evening breeze brought some relief.  For work, they designed buildings with windows that opened.  In some cultures less obsessed with work, a siesta also served to keep people from the busy-ness of business during the hottest hours of the day.  Sometimes, too, people were simply uncomfortable.

Sixty percent of American homes–and 75 percent of new homes–are equipped with air conditioners, which annually consume the electrical equivalent of seven large coal power plants.  Fifteen percent of American electrical output goes to space cooling; on a hot day, a third of Northeastern energy consumption and half in the South Central States goes into air conditioning.  The fuel we burn to cool our homes and offices releases a hundred million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Since 1958, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by eleven percent.  This means that air conditioning the indoors comes as the cost of the global warming of the outdoors.

Every time Dr. America and his fellow Americans use energy extracted from the combustion of coal or oil or wood, we flip the global thermostat to “warmer.”  Indeed, the whole industrial era has been an experiment in air conditioning.  The widespread use of fossil fuels pours greenhouse gases into the air, where they trap infrared heat energy attempting to escape into space.  Air conditioning, therefore, is only the chilly tip of the iceberg that may be melting as a result of Americans’ attempts to condition the climate.

Generally, Americans stay cool in the face of this warming by airing their brains, removing the facts that cause them discomfort.  Conditioning the air, they have also conditioned themselves to consider their comfort a constant in a natural cycle of the seasons.

“On the air” from the American Studies Museum, this is Dr. America, keeping cool.