Thursday, August 09, 2012

From Air-Conditioning Abstainer to Addict in One Summer

Until we moved to New York, I'd never lived anywhere with air conditioning. Somehow I made it 38 years without having something that the vast majority of Americans can't live without.

A Midtown apartment building pockmarked with A/C units.

When I was a kid in Massachusetts, it was still fairly rare to have A/C in your home. We moved to California when I was 12, and I never needed it in Santa Cruz, San Francisco or Berkeley. (I definitely could have used A/C during my four years at Haverford, but they didn't allow it in the dorms.)

Living in the Bay Area, I would flaunt our eco credentials, noting that we used much less heating and cooling than the rest of the nation.

Well, those bragging rights are out the window. We have air conditioning in our apartment and I use it. A lot. Adjusting from chilly San Francisco summers to New York humidity is hard enough without a reprieve when I get home.

But even here in sweltering New York, A/C has its foes, as Daniel Engber discussed in a recent Slate piece:
A certain class of Americans — let's call them the brrr-geoisie — has come to see the air conditioner as a stand-in for everything that's wrong with the country and the world. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, cafés now throw open their windows in the dead of summer. They won't succumb to a culture of gas-guzzling SUVs and soda-swilling layabouts! They'll give us a place to endure the heat, to suffer the heat, to pretend to enjoy the heat, all while we sit in sweaty judgment of our neighbors. I'm working in one of these fresh-air establishments right now, my neck damp, and I'm trying to imagine the alternate universe where this place would apply the same logic in January, and shut down its furnace so we all could work as God intended. But for the brrr-geoisie, the two extremes of temperature reside in different moral categories. If one end of the thermostat corresponds to a basic human need — for warmth on a winter night — the other reveals a shameful self-indulgence. Heat is good, cool is evil. What's behind this double standard? Why can't we learn to stop worrying and love the air conditioner?
People just need to chill, Engber says. Americans moving into sunbelt cities have produced a net decline in energy use, he notes, because they're using less heat — even as they crank up the air conditioner. So what's the big deal?

Of course, coastal California gives you the best of both worlds, with little need for heat or A/C. In fact, the West Coast has been particularly cool this summer, even as the rest of the nation heats up.

Maybe the brrr-geoisie in Brooklyn should just move to the Sunset?