Like fireworks and barbeques, it has become a ritual of summer for modern lefties to issue hot takes against cool air. So, last week’s Washington Post article by Karen Heller arguing against air conditioning comes as no great surprise, just another broadside from progressives against their greatest enemy: human comfort. For millions of Americans, air conditioning has made life better and longer. None of that matters, though, in the calculus of environmental virtue-signaling.
Summers are hot in most of America. Whether you believe in anthropogenic global warming or not, there’s no denying there are some summer days where the weather is unpleasantly balmy. This has always been true, but as with many of the things that make life unpleasant, modern people have used technology to alleviate the problem. We can’t make it 70 degrees outside in the noonday sun of August, but we can keep our bedrooms from feeling like saunas at night. That is progress, and something to be celebrated.
Even Heller tacitly admits this. The essay is entitled “I don’t need air conditioning, and neither do you,” but in the third sentence, she hedges: “My family lives without air conditioning, except for one antique, semi-comatose window unit that ‘cools’ the bedroom to approximately the same temperature as Dallas at dusk” (emphasis added). That’s like saying “I gave up drinking, except for a couple beers a night that don’t even taste very good.” Getting a good night’s sleep is important to your health, as that same newspaper frequently reports, and as anyone who has spent a sleepless night in a hot bedroom will tell you, evenings are when we need air conditioning the most.
Turning Off the Air Isn’t Practical
Air conditioning has allowed large swaths of the United States to be more densely settled than would otherwise be possible. Elderly people can move to Florida to escape the Northern winters, but only because air conditioning helps them tolerate the Southern summers. Millions have added years to their lives in this way and enjoyed a happy retirement, but to progressives, this counts for little against the increase in electricity use and carbon emissions.
Artificially cooled interiors have become so prevalent that modern homes are designed with it in mind. Heller’s piece gives that away, too, when she notes that her Philadelphia house was built in the 1920s. Houses then were constructed to maximize summertime airflow. A house built in Phoenix in 2004 was not. Asking the owner of a modern house to eschew air conditioning is just not practical. (It’s also a bit of an exaggeration. I grew up in an un-airconditioned Philadelphia house built in 1960. It was stiflingly hot in the summer, airflow or no airflow.)
Heller also interviews a man who does his best to obstruct the flow of cool air at his workplace. Anyone who has worked in a large office building has taken part in this conflict, between the people who are perfectly comfortable in the air conditioning in long sleeves and pants and those who are dressed appropriately for the season but shiver beneath shawls and sweaters in the artificially cooled office. It’s a problem, if a minor one.
But the alternative is not perfect, either. Have you ever opened a window on the twenty-fifth floor of an office building? It’s windy up there! You can do it, if you work in a building that is old enough to have windows that open, but you will first need to procure some paperweights.
Many of the arguments against air conditioning that Heller and the people she interviews offer are just aesthetic opinions. “Air conditioners are ugly.” “I don’t like the hermetic feel of central air.” “I hate sleeping with the noise.”
They venture into the pseudo-scientific, as well. “I don’t feel like it’s very healthy to sleep with it on.” “Being in air conditioning most of the time in the summer reduces your tolerance for heat.” These are all reasons for these people to turn off their air conditioning, but they are not good reasons for me to turn off mine.
No Choices For You
That gets to the heart of many progressive arguments: because they have a preference for something, they want to make it mandatory for the rest of us. Heller thinks she doesn’t need air conditioning, at least not in the daytime. She enjoys doing without, and she has every right to do so. It’s a free country! Her choice need not affect my choice or yours. But “to each his own” is not a phrase that carries much weight in the progressive movement. If they think something is good, they insist that you think it is good, too.
The people Heller interviews also appeal to nostalgia, which has strangely become common in modern progressive arguments. The increase in air conditioning, they argue, keeps people inside, separated from the community activities in which they once joyfully participated. “For many of us,” she writes, “darting through sprinklers and hoses was a staple of summer evenings. There was this imperative to go to movie theaters or public fountains and pools, to be with other people and share in the physical toll of the season.”
Lots of people remember their childhood fondly, but that should not be the basis of public policy. Eighty-year-old retirees living in Florida and Arizona all grew up without air conditioning. They also grew up without vaccinations and television. Lots of things were harder in those days. People found a way to get through it, even to enjoy it. But ask those octogenarians today if they would give it air conditioning now in order to “share in the physical toll of the season,” and you’ll likely get laughed right out of the Florida room.
“Nostalgic progressivism” sounds like an oxymoron, but the once-forward-looking Left now increasingly seeks a return to an idealized past. Like all nostalgists, they pick and choose which elements of the past they would return to. “Let’s ditch the air conditioning, but keep the not-dying-of heat-stroke.” “Let’s have more community activities, but without the churches and fraternal organizations that organized the community.” “Let’s eschew conventional morality, but keep intact happy families.”
Progressives succeeded in tearing down the old order of American society with their heedless dash toward imagined futuristic advances. Now they (and we) are living with the consequences of that, and feeling something lacking. So the “party of science” now inveighs against the scientific advancements that have made the modern world vastly superior to the old one, at least where health and comfort are concerned.
By exchanging human progress for environmental virtue, the progressive movement has turned its back on the optimistic futurism that once embraced technological changes like air conditioning. With regressive environmentalism as their rallying cry, the Left now shows off its virtue by eschewing those things, like central air, that make life better for humanity. Certainly, it is their right to do so, and we should all let them sweat in peace. But they won’t take away my air conditioner until they pry it from my cool, dry hands.