When the history of North America's urban growth, rural sprawl and loss of open space is written, there may well be an entire chapter devoted to the influence of air conditioning. One could argue that during the years since WWII no modern invention or engineering marvel - not interstate highways, neither fiber optic cable nor ride-on mowers - had such an accelerating influence on the expansion of our urban centers and the development of previously undesirable residential property in the nation's hot and humid regions.
Yes, an expanding middle class and the globalization of our economy were contributing factors. But who in their right mind would choose to retire to Florida or Arizona without air conditioning? Who would work in a 60 story office building with only window awnings and ceiling fans to keep the summer swelter at bay? There are historic, climactic reasons why the French take the entire month of August off and head for the Med, and why summer communities for Bostonians and Manhattanites sprang up in the Catskills, White Mountains and the Litchfield Hills in the latter 1800s once the railways made these reasonably accessible to urban populations.
Thanks to air conditioning, our cities are habitable, our industries more efficient, and our most developing and most populous states are in the no longer sleepy south and desert Southwest. According to a September 2006 essay by James Fergusson in Prospect Magazine, America devotes about a 1/3 of its electricity consumption to air conditioning - 8% of global production.
We have Willis Haviland Carrier to thank for all this. Newton was beaned by an apple, but Carrier got the inspiration for his "Apparatus for Treating Air" while waiting for a train on a foggy night. Working out the relationship between temperature, humidity and dew point, in 1902 he developed the first commercial air conditioner to create a stable environment for the printing plant where he was a $10/week employee.
The industrial and commercial applications of this invention, and those advances that followed in refrigeration and cooling, were sweeping in scale and scope. The skyscrapers of American cities that soared above the steeple tops in the first decades of the 20th century would have been uninhabitable without air conditioning and accelerated the growth of urban cores and the depopulation of many rural areas. Home air conditioning was available to average Americans after WWII and made all the difference in the growth of suburbia and the development of the Southeast, Gulf Coast, the Sunbelt and California. Without air conditioning, the US House of Representatives would be heavily Democratic because the majority of the US population would still be in the more temperate "Blue States." Think about it.
At the close of the century, there was a remarkable exhibition in Washington DC called Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America that compellingly demonstrated how it opened the South for development but killed the front porch:
"Domestic air conditioning meant that traditional architectural features--wide eaves, deep porches, thick walls, high ceilings, attics, and cross ventilation--were no longer needed to promote natural cooling. Also irrelevant was siting or landscaping a house that maximized summer shade and breezes, since mechanical equipment was able to maintain perfect indoor conditions independent of design.
Builders found they could pay for the costs of central cooling systems by deleting elements made unnecessary by the new technology. As air conditioning replaced traditional features, the design of the modern house became fully integrated with--and dependent on--air conditioning. It allowed postwar architects and builders to achieve a new "ranch house" aesthetic of glass picture windows, sliding doors, and rectangular forms. "
The most important exterior space in our homes became the backyard, not the front porch. Neighbors put up fences, and stayed inside glued to the tube on sultry nights instead of visiting on the porch swing.
So here we have a society transforming invention, lauded as one of the Top 10 Greatest Achievements of the 20th Century, and we can't wean ourselves from its comforts to save our lives. Or our atmosphere, for that matter, which receives terrific damage from pollutants when refrigerants are released. We have more habitat destruction in the biologically rich southeastern United States than ever would have happened otherwise -and far more economic there activity as well. We have larger cities, greater movement of perishable foodstuffs as well as greater food preservation and therefore greater food security.
But here's the rub. Americans consume 25% of the world's energy resources and devote a large percentage of our electrical consumption to air conditioning. We have 5% of the global population. China is fast overtaking us as the world's greatest consumer and has close to 5 times our numbers. India is not far behind. And as Fergusson's essay records, all these consumers are no different from us in their desire for comfort and convenience. It's just that a fully ramped up Chinese and Indian economy will demand far more in resource consumption to meet these comforts than we and our 300,000,000 ever will.
"'The best attribute of air-conditioning is its addiction,' Salil Kapoor, the head of marketing in India for the South Korean company LG Electronics, the world's largest manufacturer of air-conditioners, once told Reuters. 'It's a romance.'"
Star-crossed, like Romeo and Juliet.