Science & Tech

Thank the Lord for Air-Conditioning

(galinast/Getty Images)
Ignore the scolds. A/C doesn’t make people ‘weak,’ it saves lives.

Both Canada and the United States are suffering through a heat wave. Thus far, the BBC reports, more than 65 people have died in British Columbia, while, in the United States, there have been “at least a dozen deaths in Washington and Oregon.” The technical causes of these deaths are multifarious, and yet one variable stands out: A disproportionate number of the deceased did not have access to air-conditioning.

It is fashionable around this time of year for click-hungry outlets to run pieces condemning A/C. Sometimes, the argument is that air-conditioning is unnecessary. Sometimes, the argument is that air-conditioning is making us weak. Occasionally, the argument is that air-conditioning is sexist. Always, the arguments are silly. Far from being a problem, air-conditioning is a top-five-of-all-time invention. Even better: It saves lives.

I spent the summer of 2003 in France, during an unusually bad heat wave that, per the French National Institute of Health, killed at least 14,000 people. It was unbearable. Not only did the house I was staying in lack air-conditioning of any type, it also lacked anything that one might use to mitigate the heat. There were no air blowers, there were no rotating fans, and, as I discovered each night, there was not even a gentle breeze floating in through the open windows. For a while that summer, my days followed a predictable pattern. I woke up. I read about a whole load of deaths in the newspaper. I scoured every supermarket and electrical-goods store within 50 miles in search of a portable fan. I gave up.

I was 18 years old at the time, so I was fine, if uncomfortable. But the elderly and the infirm? They were not fine. Not at all. A few Augusts ago, I was visiting an elderly friend in Phoenix, Ariz., when her air-conditioning system suddenly stopped working. To my surprise, this development was treated by my friend, her neighbors, and the local repair guy as a serious emergency that needed solving immediately. Within a few hours, her unit was fixed. In France, back in 2003, most people did not have systems to fix. That summer, one peer-reviewed study estimates, more than 70,000 Europeans lost their lives.

In 2012, Hamilton Nolan wrote an anti-air-conditioning piece at Gawker in which he submitted that, “before air conditioning, the only people who lived in Florida were hearty types who could ‘take the heat.’” Which is true. Just as it as true that, before the Polio vaccine, the only people who survived into adulthood were hearty types who could “take the virus.” What modern invention, I wonder, could we not say this about? It applies to penicillin. It applies to defibrillators. It applies to clean water, too. Come to think of it, it also applies to heating, and yet for some reason, I never read people lamenting that cheap natural gas allows runty types to sit in their 18th-floor Boston apartments working from home in their pajamas, when once, New England winters would have been reserved to real men wearing bearskins and smearing themselves in goose fat.

Air-conditioning, Nolan continued, “also creates a weak populace.” Insofar as air-conditioning prevents weaker people within the population from dying, this, too, is true. But again: At what point did conveniences that help frailer people become a bad thing? Nobody writes articles decrying power steering because it helps the physically feeble drive cars. Nobody posts hot takes nailing elevators for aiding the disabled in their quest to get upstairs. Why air-conditioning? I understand that many of the broader anti-A/C screeds are predicated on a profound fear of climate change, but then, so are most of the arguments against automobiles, and yet I never seem to see journalists complaining that the invention of the Model T was a regrettable boon to the delicate. We hear a great deal at the moment about how this or that problem disproportionately affects minorities and the disadvantaged. It’s unusual, though, to see such claims cast as positive.

Reading through the various critiques, one detects a generalized Luddism. Writing in the Guardian in 2019, Franklin Schneider proposed that “air conditioning isn’t the solution — it’s the problem.” Specifically, Schneider submitted that “the perception of thermal discomfort is correlated with GDP” — by which he meant that “only rich people whine about the heat, crank the a/c, and then go on Twitter to brag about how they’re not setting foot outside.” This, arguably, is true; as early as 1959, 86 percent of Americans were telling Gallup that they wanted an air-conditioned home. But it is also wholly irrelevant. For a start, it is to be expected that the people who have become accustomed to air-conditioning will be the ones who complain about its absence, given that those who are not used to air-conditioning cannot miss it. More important, though: Schneider is thinking backwards. It’s not that rich people demand inventions such as air-conditioning. It’s that inventions such as air-conditioning produce more rich people. Or, put another way: Nations that have high GDP tend in part to have high GDP because developments such as air-conditioning have allowed them to fill their precarious regions with economic activity. America’s three most populous states — California, Texas, and Florida — are all air-conditioning-heavy states. Presumably, that matters.

During the 1911 New York heat wave, baked city-dwellers did everything they could to cool down. They slept outside — on their apartment’s fire stairs or in Central Park. They soaked their clothes in water. They even licked large blocks of ice that, despite being covered in flies, the saliva of hundreds of random children, and whatever had come off the back of the horse that dragged it there, were deemed preferable to the alternative. This summer, with them in mind, let’s resolve to hear no more of this silliness, and instead to recite an ancient prayer each and every time we get up from the couch to set the thermostat to a livable 70 degrees: Thank you.


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