America’s consumption of air conditioning is at an all-time high, leading some energy experts to cast doubt on the prudence of using A/C all the time — as well as the reasons why Americans can’t get enough of it.
The New York Times reports that energy experts are wrestling over the issue, with many claiming that the most challenging problem isn’t technical but cultural.
“Being able to make people feel cold in the summer is a sign of power and prestige,” said Richard de Dear, director of the Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory at University of Sydney, Australia. He claims the problem of over-reliance on A/C is just as prominent in Australia as it is in the United States — about 87% of American households have air conditioning — and that it’s even worse in the Middle East and Asia.
One reason why A/C is so prevalent is that it’s common practice for tenants of commercial real estate to demand “chilling capacities” in their lease agreements to bolster their prestige for their customers. In the retail world, for example, high-end stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue are generally kept cooler than stores such as Target, Walmart, and Old Navy (although, sufficient to say, they’re all kept noticeably chilled).
Another reason for the massive intake of A/C in the developed world is that many businesses believe the misconception that workers are more productive in cooler temperatures. Research indicates the opposite. A recent study has shown that workers tend to be less productive, and make more mistakes, when the indoor air temperature is 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to 74 to 76 degrees. Other studies have shown that in general, colder temperatures can make people feel “untrusting, uncommunicative and unfriendly.”
Nisha Charkoudian, a physiologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts, says that subconsciously, people relate coldness with vulnerability, stress, and discomfort.
“It’s left over from a time when it was dangerous to have that kind of change in temperature,” Charkoudian said.