It’s been a hot, muggy day. The air outside feels roughly like having one’s head wrapped in a warm and wet towel — only not as pleasant. But here I am, sitting at my desk, feeling nice and comfortable, because of that beautiful invention known as air conditioning.
Oh, it can be abused. I dislike over-chilled offices as much as the next woman (the temperature is set for men in suits: is this the last vestige of the patriarchy?) There are environmental questions, of course, and the existence of AC may be one reason kids spend less than 40 minutes a week in their backyards. But as I ponder the great inventions of human history — the wheel, antibiotics — I’d put AC right up there. Humankind has long been able to light fires and put on an extra blanket. AC is a more recent perk, and yet it’s already enabled all kinds of things:
- Any semblance of summer productivity. When you’re uncomfortably hot, you’re thinking about your corporal body. Air conditioning lets you ignore your body and think.
- The livability of the American south. Sure, Alabama’s factory boom probably has a lot to do with being a right-to-work state. But people wouldn’t build factories there if they couldn’t maintain a reasonable temperature.
- The ability to sleep in hot weather. The trailer I spent Saturday night in had air conditioning, but it was a window unit that basically only covered the living room. I slept in the bedroom, and kept drifting in and out of dreams, tossing and turning in the uncomfortable sweatiness of it all.
- Malls. If stores were boiling hot, no one would go to them. Who knows how much of our economy is due to the existence of AC?
We often take AC for granted. Sometimes we even disparage it as artificial on breezy days. But for the 4 million plus households that lost power after the June 29 derecho, and then suffered through 100 degree heat, it was a very serious matter. Like our health, we tend not to think about the AC until it’s taken away. All it takes is sticking your head outside on a day like today, though, to be grateful to be living in a country with a mostly functioning electric grid at this point in history.
Photo courtesy flickr user ToddMorris. Better in the central (not window) version.