I hate air conditioning.
It's environmentally destructive, consuming huge amounts of energy and heating the atmosphere. And it doesn't actually deliver on the comfort it promises; instead, it makes us shiver in our offices on sizzling summer days. Meanwhile, the polar ice caps continue to melt.
But I'm a liberal Democrat. And on AC, like everything else, Americans are polar-ized.
In a 2013 study, two UCLA researchers found that households headed by Republicans consumed 6.6 percent more energy in the summertime than Democrats did. That's mainly because Republicans keep their houses cooler than Democrats, even when they live in the same climates.
So although Republicans tend to cluster in the South, where temperatures are hotter, that's not the only reason they use more air conditioning. They're also less likely to believe in human-made climate change, which Democrats often cite as a reason for restricting AC.
Whatever your political party, though, I doubt you like putting on a sweater to go to work when it's burning hot outside. It's not just wasteful; it's miserable. And women get more chilled than men do. Women have lower metabolisms, on the average, and they also vary their attire with the seasons more than men do. It's a lot easier to tolerate an icy office when you're in a tie and jacket than if you're in a skirt or dress.
Nobody foresaw those concerns in 1925, when New York's Rivoli Theater became the first movie house to be "COOLED BY REFRIGERATION," as a banner outside proclaimed. Other theaters quickly followed suit, installing expensive AC units and decorating their marquees with icicles, penguins, and, yes, polar bears.
Seven years later, in 1932, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society moved into a lavish new building at 12th and Market Streets. It featured Cartier clocks on each floor and a 27-foot-high neon "PSFS" sign at the top, still a fixture of the city skyline (even though the building has since become a hotel). The sign hid cooling towers, which provided the most luxurious perk of all: air conditioning.
The building mounted a thermometer in its display window, so prospective tenants would know the temperature inside. The Inquirer published weekly advertisements inviting visitors to gather inside PSFS "sample floor" at the hottest hour of the day. "When you arrive, wander around, handkerchief in hand," the ad instructed. "Notice that you do not use it to mop your brow . . . Then celebrate, in your own way, the modern office building."
But with every step into the future, Americans also bemoaned the loss of the past.
Critics said that AC would substitute dirty, stale air for the clean and "natural" kind. And they worried that air conditioning would make Americans "soft," burying our rugged frontier individualism in a bland haze of consumerism and conformity.
When sociologist William H. Whyte surveyed Philadelphians in 1954, he found that middle-class row houses were more likely than wealthier homes to have air conditioning. Living cheek-to-jowl, people imitated each other. "It is the group that determines when a luxury becomes a necessity," Whyte concluded.
Two decades later, Philadelphia would become the site of our greatest AC-related tragedy. In the summer of 1976, 34 members of the American Legion died from a pneumonia caused by bacteria that was breeding in the air conditioning system of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.
When buildings around the country tested their AC units, roughly half harbored the same bacteria.
That didn't slow the zeal for air conditioning in the United States, which consumes more energy for residential AC than all other countries combined. But that's about to change, too. The number of air conditioners in the world is expected to rise from 1.6 billion units today to 5.6 billion by mid-century, with most of the growth in Asia and Africa.
That's a good thing, especially for the poor and the aged. In the United States, home air-conditioning has cut the number of premature deaths on hot days by 75 percent since 1960. Even if you despise AC, like I do, you shouldn't deny its benefits to people who are less fortunate.
But we should also increase efficiency standards on our units, which consume 25 percent more energy than European and Japanese air conditioners do. And, most of all, we should turn down the AC even if we don't turn it off.
We can be comfortable, without being wasteful. And we can cool everyone, if we keep cool about it.