The Menace of Air Conditioning

America is suffering from a heat wave this summer. No wonder.

Americans are completely addicted to air conditioning. According to a 2010 piece in the Washington Post, the energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the 1990s. Stan Cox, the author of “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World” and “Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer” is offering interesting views on why this trend is harmful.

In much of the United States, air conditioning is one of the greatest power hogs. It needs so much electricity that every time there is a heat wave, utility companies and the power grid do not even manage to keep up with the demand. Power shutdowns, service reductions or full outages are frequent and make the situation even worse. Because in many buildings, it is not even possible to open the windows.

Utility companies are now asking (or forcing) Americans to “conserve power”. This reminds me of Third World countries. (In Pakistan, they even have a term for it: “Load shedding”. They do this at scheduled intervals — and I suspect, more frequently in the poor areas where only “unimportant” people live).

The greatest problem with air conditioning is that is has enabled poor planning, wasteful policies, speculation with otherwise worthless land and dreadful architecture. Many areas in the American Southwest (such as Las Vegas or the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles) would never have grown to their unsustainable size, had it not been for air conditioning. Insult to injury: the power consumption of these places is subsidized by utility rate payers who live in more temperate areas.

The continuing idiocy in urban planning is hard to fathom. Knowing what this has led to — why are still allowing developers to erect massive housing projects in areas way too hot and too dry for human comfort? And why do we continue to allow gigantic hotels, retail- and office projects without opening windows, balconies, patios and natural air circulation?

Yet at the same time, we are good at window dressing. We are forbidding incandescent light bulbs, which consume only a tiny fraction of residential power. And when consumers save energy, some developer builds another air conditioned outlet malls in the desert. Or adds another megahotel in Las Vegas.

As long as this is rampant, power conservation by consumers makes little sense.

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Journalist and media professional currently based in Los Angeles, California. Focusing on science and technology.