Well, it's shaping up to be a long, hot summer here in Germany, so I did what any self-respecting American would do: I bought an air-conditioner. And no, I'm not sheepishly admitting this, I am proudly acknowledging it! I haven't really needed an air-conditioner during the past several summers; really hot days were the exception to the rule. But long stretches of really hot days are most unpleasant here in Germany, for one simple reason: Germany is a woefully under-air-conditioned country. Just yesterday, dozens of schoolchildren had to be rushed to the hospital (g) after one of the the (notoriously underpowered) air-conditioning units in one of Germany's (otherwise-stellar) ICE trains crapped out, sending temperatures inside the sealed tubes to a hellish 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
I'll get to the reasons for Germany's reluctance to embrace climate control in a minute. First, let's acknowledge air conditioning for what it is: one of the greatest technological achievements of the twentieth century, as acknowledged by the National Academy of Engineering. Let's look at the benefits air-conditioning brings. First, as the graph above shows you (from this study (pdf)), your productivity and accuracy at intellectual tasks decreases once the temperature exceeds about 27 degrees. Thus, air-conditioning is a huge benefit for every single field of human endeavor, from banking to art restoration to musicology.
Widespread air-conditioning also has positive knock-on effects. In his classic article The End of the Long, Hot Summer, historian Raymond Arsenault documents how air-conditioning led to a vast improvement in living standards in the American South:
Climate control has not only brought new factories and businesses to the region. It has also brought improved working conditions, greater efficiency, and increased productivity. As numerous controlled studies have demonstrated, an air-conditioned workplace invariably means higher productivity and greater job satisfaction.
One of air conditioning's most telling effects has been its positive influence on southern economic growth. This economic growth has led in turn to a rising standard of living for many southern families. Real wages have increased substantially during the postwar era, and per capita income in the South has risen from 52 percent of the national average in 1930 to almost 90 percent today. Although this increased income has been unevenly distributed across the region -- Texas, Florida, and Virginia registered the biggest gains -- few areas have been left unaffected. Maldistribution of wealth remains a serious regional problem, but the proportion of southerners living in Tobacco Road-style poverty has declined significantly in recent decades. Thus, in an indirect way, air conditioning has helped to ameliorate one of the post-Civil War South's most distressing characteristics. The social and cultural implications of the decline in southern poverty are immense, because, as C. Vann Woodward noted in 1958, "Generations of scarcity and want constitute one of the distinctive historical experiences of the Southern people . . . . "
Further, air-conditioning has had positive health effects. Mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever and malaria became much easier to control once people had an comfortable alternative to open windows. Air-conditioning also improved health outcomes in hospitals:
In addition to making millions of hospital patients more comfortable, air conditioning has reduced fetal and infant mortality, prolonged the lives of thousands of patients suffering from heart disease and respiratory disorders, increased the reliability and sophistication of micro-surgery, facilitated the institutionalization of public health, and aided the production of modern drugs such as penicillin.
Look at the chart above: would you rather have a surgeon operating on your spine at 23 degrees Celsius or 33? Today, thanks to ingenious engineers, patients have this choice.
Now when I make these seemingly uncontroversial points, many Germans immediately bristle. For some reason, the very idea of air-conditioning often has a negative emotional valence for them. There's a vague sort of politically correct eco-Luddism that tells Germans air-conditioning is Suspect, and possibly downright Wrong. When I ask for specific arguments, they're often a bit hard-pressed to come up with any, probably because they've never met an apostle of air-conditioning before. Here are some of the anti-A/C arguments I've elicited, and my responses:
- We don't need it, because our country doesn't get really hot. Oh yes it does. Not for months at a time, thank God, but there are routinely 40-50 days per year in Germany which are not just warm, but uncomfortably hot.
- We don't need it, because our buildings have thick walls. That's fine for people who actually live in such buildings, but most people don't. Especially few are the people who work in buildings with thick walls. And once you get above the 2nd or 3rd floor of any modern building on a hot day, you will feel the need for air-conditioning.
- It's expensive and wasteful. That's by far the best counter-argument. Air-conditioning uses plenty of energy. Yet nobody is suggesting running the air-conditioner every time the temperature gets above 26 degrees. Whenever there's a breeze, my apartment is quite comfortable up to 27 degrees or so, and I will have no need for an air-conditioner. But on those occasional days where the mercury rises much higher, why not have the option? Merely having air-conditioning available doesn't mean you must overuse it, as so many people in India or the American South do. In any event, air conditioners don't use fossil fuels. Like electric cars, they're run by power from the electrical grid. The cleaner and greener that power gets, the less environmental damage air-conditioning will do.
- We've lived without it for the last 50/500/5,000 years, ergo we can live without it for the next 50/500/5,000 years. No, it's not a joke -- you will hear this argument from many a German.In fact, it epitomizes the German's attitude toward many aspects of social life. Of course, it pretty much refutes itself: after all, Germans lived without dental care, anesthetics, and football for millennia, yet today...you get the idea.
- Cold/circulating air is unhealthy. This hoary old wives' tale, it seems, will never die. Illnesses are caused by viruses and bacteria, not by cold air. The modern era's most severe pandemic spread most quickly during the summer. And don't forget that modern air-conditioning systems have filters, which means that air coming from a properly-maintained air conditioner is actually cleaner than it would otherwise be.
- Sweating is healthy. Being able to sweat is obviously healthy, but sweating is neither healthy nor unhealthy. It's the body's reaction to temperatures outside its comfort zone. Like shivering. Perhaps I'm just an oddball, but I find life most comfortable when I'm neither sweating nor shivering. And thanks to modern technology, that can be arranged!
- Air conditioning will interrupt Europe's natural life patterns, such as taking holidays in August. First of all, there's plenty not to like about these 'natural' patterns, such as mass deaths of abandoned seniors, gigantic traffic jams, and cram-packed beaches and airliners. Yet if you really fancy joining the lowing herds for the mandatory August trip, nothing's stopping you. Unless you spring for a really fancy unit, your air-conditioner will not emit secret mind-control rays forcing you to vegetate in front of it all summer long. You can just switch it off and hop in the bus!
- Air conditioning will turn is into overweight, car-dependent loners with no connection to nature, like Americans in the South. This is something to worry about. For all the benefits air-conditioning has conferred on the American South, there are huge drawbacks in the areas of community life, urban planning, energy use, and the like. Yet there are two counter-arguments. First, it's hard to trace all of these unpleasant aspects of life in the South only to air-conditioning. Television, poor urban design, and certain aspects of Southern culture also probably played a role. Second, it's important to realize that in most areas of the South, the outside is like a horrifyingly intense, humid sauna from April to October, and it doesn't cool down at night. The reason air-conditioning has changed the face of the south is that, earlier, the South's unique climate helped determined its culture and history. Once air-conditioning became possible in the south, it became mandatory. There are very few places in Europe that have a climate as oppressively hot, windless, and humid as the American South. Thus, the widespread introduction of air-conditioning is unlikely to have a massive cultural impact.
- Everyone in China and India will want air-conditioning, and that will mean a massive ecological crisis. This train has left the station: everyone in India and China already wants air-conditioning, just as they want cheap cars. Anyone who's visited India can testify that air-conditioners are one of the most powerful status symbols of striving middle-class families. Nothing like being able to get together at the end of a hot, frustrating day at the office and enjoy some cool air. I'm not denying that this is an environmental problem -- it most certainly is. But here's the interesting news: if you fail to buy an air-conditioner in Germany, not a single Indian will notice or care! They don't want air-conditioning because they've seen it on TV, or experienced it on a trip to Berlin (where it's depressingly rare anyway). They want it because, quite understandably, they hate sweating all the time. The increasing affluence of the Chinese and Indian middle classes will pose significant environmental problems, but declining to cool down with A/C for a couple of weeks per year in Germany will not help solve them.