It's July. Chill.
Every summer it’s the same old song. Those of us who love air conditioning have to defend ourselves from those snooty few who regard being comfortable in the summer as outrageously decadent. Oddly enough, keeping warm in winter doesn’t bother them a bit.
Last week, The New York Times published a piece headlined “Do Americans Need Air Conditioning?” This writer managed to drag sexism into the argument against indoor cooling, saying that office building thermostats are set by men, for men.
So what? If men must wear suits and long pants, they should be comfortable. If women in summer dresses don’t like it, they should throw on a sweater.
Look, I survived one stifling Tidewater summer without air conditioning. It was gothic, let me tell you.
I spent a lot of time on the beach during July and August of 1985. Over the roar of the surf I could hear Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” blaring from boomboxes, vying with Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love.”
The soundtrack to my summer, however, was “The Heat is On” by Glenn Frey.
The heat really was on, although after reviewing historical temperature charts it seems there was nothing remarkable about 1985. It was an ordinary southeastern Virginia summer with temperatures in the high-80s and low-90s.
Humidity was Honduran, of course.
It felt especially awful because it was my first full summer in Virginia Beach. I’d moved here after a three-year stint in Ireland, where summertime temps seemed stuck in the 50s and 60s. And where people wilted if the mercury climbed to 75.
I hadn’t worn shorts, gone swimming or eaten watermelon in almost four years.
Not only was I unaccustomed to southeastern Virginia’s unrelenting heat, but I was living in a cramped garage apartment at the Oceanfront, a few doors from the beach.
Second floor. Low ceilings. Miniscule windows.
No air conditioning.
My landlord insisted the ancient electrical system couldn’t handle the load.
As the summer baked on, I bought fan after fan until they covered every surface in my apartment, making it impossible to read a newspaper and putting my cat’s tail in perpetual peril.
The next June, I defiantly bought a small AC unit and installed it in a rear window where no one could see it. If the wiring burst into flames, I planned to jump out one of the other tiny windows and enjoy the breeze on the way down.
I was reminded of my summer of sweat three years ago when I stumbled across a smug Washington Post piece headlined, “I Don’t Need Air Conditioning, and Neither Do You.”
It was my first encounter with the morally superior scolds who seem to believe that those of us living in sizzling climates should suffer for our decisions. It was penned by Karen Heller, a Philadelphia writer who admitted she was “humble-bragging” about her un-air-conditioned lifestyle.
Curiously, Heller neglected to mention that at least four people in her city died from heat-related causes that summer.
People who did, in fact, need air conditioning. Desperately.
The self-congratulatory writer seemed to think that her coolant-free style is great for the environment, while arguing that air conditioning has “made Americans greedy and silly.”
That’s nonsense, by the way.
It was just another salvo in what Slate magazine columnist Daniel Engber has dubbed “The war on air conditioning.”
It’s being waged by northeastern hysterics armed with nothing but pseudoscience and prejudice. Engber points out that heating homes wastes far more energy.
“According to the most recent stats available from the federal government (which cover 2010) the average American household puts 40.4 million BTUs into home heating and just 9.3 million BTUs into home cooling,” Engber wrote. “... This explains why the long-term shift in population from our coldest, Northern states into the hot and humid South has in sum reduced the amount of fossil fuel we burn to keep our houses at a comfortable temperature.”
“Simply put: It’s more efficient to air condition homes in Florida than it is to warm the ones in Minnesota.”
In other words, Southern living is good for the environment.
Engber also questions those who put a moral value on the thermostat that doesn’t correspond to common sense. Heating, good; cooling, bad – that’s their moral calculus.
“Why discriminate among degrees?”
If you visit my house in summer, bundle up. I like to keep the thermostat at 69. One degree higher than I keep the heat in winter.
But instead of coming to my climate-controlled home, I’d like to invite all of these anti-air conditioning advocates to spend a summer – one that’s at least as hot as this one has been – in an airless, second-floor Virginia Beach apartment.
I don’t know how long they’d last. But I do know what song they’d be singing.