America's Air-Conditioned Nightmare

Editor's Note: This is Part II of a two-part series on how air-conditioning has changed American society. Read Part I here.

In 1950, the string of nine coastal Sun Belt states from Virginia to Texas, plus New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, had a combined population of 33 million, less than half the total population of the 14 New England and Rust Belt states that stretch from Maine to Minnesota. By 2002, the population of the 12 Sun Belt states had doubled and then grown by a third more, to 88 million -- almost as many people as then lived in those 14 northern states.

For many migrants, mild southern winters have always been the big attraction. But the price to be paid in summer discomfort is high. The "thermometer" below ranks the major cities across the two regions according to their average summer high temperatures. All of the hotter cities are in the Sun Belt, and all of those but Phoenix and Las Vegas can be oppressively humid in summer as well. All of the hotter cities gained population during the Age of Air-conditioning, while all of the cooler cities but New York lost. Percentage population gains are shown in green, losses in red:


Sunbelt stroke

Seats in the House of Representatives and electoral votes in presidential elections are re-allocated after each decade's census according to the relative populations of the states. In 1950, the 14 New England and Rust Belt states were apportioned 197 members in the House of Representatives, while the 13 Sun Belt states had only 96. Fifty years later, the northern states' membership had dwindled to 147, and that of the southern group had swelled to 132.

That net gain of 86 House seats by the Sun Belt over the more liberal group of northern states has had profound consequences. Of those northern states' current 175 seats in Congress (including both the House and Senate), 83 belong to Republicans, 90 to Democrats, and 2 to independents who vote mostly with the Democrats. The 13 Sun Belt states are represented by 106 Republicans and only 50 Democrats.

The effect of southbound migration on presidential politics has been even more dramatic. Each state gets as many votes in the Electoral College as it has votes in Congress. In 2004, the New England/Rust Belt states went 144-31 for Kerry (or 164-11 if you're not willing to concede Ohio's 20 votes to Bush), while the Sun Belt states went 156-0 for Bush.

Soon after the 2004 election, Hofstra University professor James Wiley wrote an op-ed titled "Blame air-conditioning for Kerry loss."

The headline overstates the case, and in the article itself, Wiley recognized that A/C was one of several factors behind the rise of the South. The economy of the Sun Belt boomed partly because that's where the government spent much of its military and aerospace budgets. The Solid South switched its allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican party not because Republicans promoted the air-conditioned lifestyle but because they appealed to race, sex, religion, and class prejudice, with an unhealthy dose of jingoism thrown in. That strategy has proven effective in the North as well as the South.

Still, the growth trajectory of the South and Southwest has closely paralleled that of the air-conditioning industry. Only a few thousand American homes had the technology in the late 1940s; 6.5 million had it by 1960; today, it's nearly universal in warm regions.

Shifting political ground

The economies of states in the humid Southeast and hot Southwest have grown twice as fast as those in the New England/Middle Atlantic/Great Lakes region in the Age of Air-conditioning, and that has shifted the political ground as well. There's no way the South could have become an economic powerhouse with high-rise cities and sprawling suburbs had there not been air-conditioning.

Visualize the CNN anchors coming on the air in Atlanta with flushed, sweat-streaked faces. Or Houston oil tycoons conferring with lawyers under whizzing ceiling fans, their documents held down by paperweights. The massive Sun Belt-bound exodus of jobs and the people to fill them probably would not have happened had we remained "Hot America."

The clout that came with that southward shift has two politically notorious centers of gravity: Texas (which has almost tripled in population since 1950) and Florida (which has grown to six times its 1950 population). But it has been felt everywhere. As Augustus B. Cochran III, professor at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, put it in his 2001 book "Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie," the South has become more "Northernized" economically and culturally, while the North, and the nation as a whole, have become "Southernized" politically.

That has paved the way, Cochran writes, "for Southern politicians to assume national leadership roles and for traditionally Southern concerns and patterns increasingly to dominate American politics. The Southern metamorphosis is most striking, but it is the triumph of 'southernized' politics at the national level that bodes most significant for the future of democracy in America."

By now, you're thinking, What about sunny California? At the dawn of the Age of Air-conditioning, it was a distant second to New York in population, but it's now far and away the most populous state. It's so solidly Democratic that presidential candidates hardly bother to cast their shadows on its warm soil. Within the state, however, political and climatic differences mirror those of the nation. Currently, Democrats occupy 14 of the 18 House seats apportioned to northern California's Congressional districts, while only 19 of southern California's 35 districts are represented by Democrats. Kerry walloped Bush 63 percent to 37 percent in northern counties, but squeaked by with 51 percent in the south.

Of course, the importance of air-conditioning in California is not strictly a north-south matter; the farther you go inland from the coast, especially in low elevations and down south, the hotter it tends to get. Sure enough, the state's 2004 electoral college map shows mostly blue Kerry counties on the coast and red Bush counties inland.

Rise of the fríoconservatives

From the beginning, the mass movement to the Sun Belt was led by retirees in search of naturally warm winters and, for those who stayed year-round, artificially cool summers. Many registered to vote in their winter homes, and senior citizens are generally more conservative than average. In 2004, Bush won by his largest margin among voters over 60. Transplanted seniors have helped turn red states redder and blue states bluer, possibly with little overall effect on the national balance of power.

But people of all ages have been part of the southward migration, and it's been going on since the '50s. So a large proportion of Sun Belt voters in 2004 had spent most or all of their lives there and can be viewed not as immigrants but as products of the region's conservative culture (or in the Age of Air-conditioning, should we call it frioconservative culture?) Had they come of age instead in Milwaukee or Boston, no one knows how they would have voted.

As we have learned to our sorrow in recent years, individual states or regions can have wildly disproportionate clout in a country with a closely divided electorate and an 18th-century Electoral College system. In his "blame air-conditioning" op-ed, James Wiley calculated that if the relative populations of states (and therefore their Electoral College votes) had remained as they were in 1960, the actual state-by-state voting percentages would have sent Al Gore to the White House in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004.

Operating temperature

No experiment can be conducted to prove whether air-conditioning has tipped control of Congress or the White House to the Republican Party. But the nation's political predicament is wider and deeper than can be measured at the polls. As the Age of Air-conditioning has waxed, America's social and political climate has deteriorated -- among Democrats, Republicans and independents, from north to south -- and that deterioration can't be completely separated from the climate-control technology that grew along with it.

Imagine a country where economic life, by necessity, slows during the summer. Where potential customers stay home or go swimming on a hot afternoon, so salespeople are sent home early. Where factories simply shut down the line for a couple of weeks. That was this country before air-conditioning, but in 2006, it sounds like a distant, exotic land. In today's rapid-growth, high-consumption "service economy," workers and consumers, like computers and ovens, are components, each of which is maintained at an appropriate operating temperature.

Air-conditioners are not inherently right-wing devices. You'll hear them whirring all over Washington, D.C., this time of year, outside offices occupied by Republicans, Democrats and political groups across the spectrum, from the NRA to NOW and beyond. Only a tiny number of politicians, and no leading member of either major party, would dare put ecological limits ahead of short-term economics. Who's going to suggest that summer be a time to back off and simply not make, sell and buy so much stuff? None will dare say that a million and a half people have no business living and working in a place like Phoenix or that Miami has grown beyond supportable limits. And the ecological damage done by that refusal to slow the wheels of commerce is irreversible (see See Part I).

If it means keeping control of Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil and gas, the White House and most members of Congress have no problem calling for sacrifices: the prospect of a trillion dollars out of taxpayers' pockets, the blood of many thousands, the devastation of whole nations. But don't expect political leaders to ask that Americans save energy by sweating a bit more.

They certainly aren't asking themselves for any sacrifices. As Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated combat veteran and harsh critic of the Iraq war, recently said of Karl Rove, "He's sitting in his air-conditioned office on his big, fat backside saying, 'Stay the course.' That's not a plan."

The political system is wilting partly because its roots have become shallow. People are becoming less and less inclined to gather spontaneously in noncommercial places, and air-conditioning reinforces that social chill. A shady suburban street on a pleasant 85-degree summer evening can be as free of human life as it might be during a Christmas Eve ice storm. Keeping people indoors and comfortable reinforces a tight focus on the individual or nuclear family rather than a larger community, and that is part of what's crippling grassroots political action.

Air-conditioning helps numb us to the prospect of ecological breakdown on a planetary scale as well. It's more tempting to think of global warming as a problem that only people in sweltering Bangladesh will have to deal with when we view their flood-prone plight from a seat in a cool living room or movie theater.

Handing ammunition to the energy hawks

Lack of toughness in dealing with summer heat and personal discomfort will make any efforts to kick the carbon habit seem just as feeble. Clinging to air-conditioning as a necessity is the best way to prove anti-ecological conservatives right when they dismiss renewable energy as inadequate. Better insulation and 'green' energy can never be enough to satisfy the nation's summer demand for A/C. Just to air-condition buildings -- and do nothing else -- would require eight times as much electricity from renewable energy as is currently produced.

In a paper published in the journal Science in 2002, a team of 18 leading energy researchers predicted what would be required to supply the world's expected energy needs in the year 2050 without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Finding, in the words of a press release announcing the article, that "no existing alternative energy source, nor combination of sources, currently exists that could adequately replace the energy produced by fossil fuels," they struggled to identify as-yet-undeveloped technologies that could supply the planet's needs, assuming per-capita consumption remains similar to today's.

Few of the strategies they considered -- including outlandish ones like a set of 660 photovoltaic solar arrays, each the size of Manhattan Island, placed in outer space -- appear likely to become reality. And, warned the authors, "the disparity between what is needed and what can be done without great compromise may become more acute as the global economy grows." The only effective approach will be to slash current energy consumption, especially where it is most wasteful.

Along with keeping cars parked, we could start by throwing open a few windows. The United States devotes 18 percent of its electricity consumption just to air-condition buildings. That's more than four times as much electricity per capita as India uses per capita for all purposes combined.

Producing that power for climate control in our interior spaces is playing a big role in distorting the planet's climate. To achieve the deep reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions that's going to be necessary, while insisting that we remain an air-conditioned nation, would take us into the realm of science fiction -- or maybe into a nuclear power-plant construction boom.

The nuclear option

Lacking political will to urge restraint or sacrifice, a growing number of lawmakers in both parties are considering the nuclear option. Conventional thinking seems to be leading mainstream environmentalists in the same direction. The venerable organization Environmental Defense is taking tentative first steps down that grim cul-de-sac. Here is its president Fred Krupp, speaking to NPR a year ago: "I think we have to have an open mind and certainly ask the serious tough questions about nuclear power that, um, need to be asked. And we should not just throw it off the table from the get-go."

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has taken a similar position: that if fuel and wastes can be dealt with safely, "NRDC would not seek to exclude nuclear generation from competing on a level playing field with other reduced-carbon energy sources."

Luxuries like comfort air-conditioning are affordable only in a make-believe world with unlimited fossil fuel reserves and a method for pumping carbon dioxide into outer space (or unlimited tolerance for nuclear disaster and storage for radioactive wastes). In a greenhouse future, we will need every kilowatt we can squeeze out of wind machines, solar arrays, and biomass just to fulfill essential needs. None will be left over for cooling down the Astrodome.

If it now seems absurd to suggest that Americans give up air-conditioning, it's because we've become too used to living in the land of plenty. In her history "Air Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960," Gail Cooper tells how the U.S. government's War Production Board in May 1942 banned the manufacture or installation of air-conditioning systems "solely for personal comfort." Plans were even drawn up to remove the few existing comfort air-conditioning systems from commercial and government building for use in military production facilities.

The end of World War II and the economic boom of the 1950s brought a reversal of attitude that is still with us today. Cooper quotes one industry executive of the time who announced, "The problem has been one of selling the public on the idea that air-conditioning is no longer a luxury." But, says Cooper, that idea didn't require much selling: "Architects, builders and bankers accepted air-conditioning first, and consumers were faced with a fait accompli that they had merely to ratify."

If air-conditioning could be banned by the United States in wartime and then be declared a necessity in a time of abundance, we need not regard it as inevitable today. In an era when air-conditioning systems are proliferating, heating up the planet and chilling the social and political climate, their most important feature has become the "off" switch.
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