Washington didn't grind to a sweaty halt under its recent triple-digit temperatures. People didn't even slow down. Instead, the three-day, 100-plus-degree, record-shattering heat wave prompted Washingtonians to crank up their favorite humidity-reducing, electricity-bill-busting, fluorocarbon-filled appliance: the air conditioner.
This isn't smart. In a country that's among the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases, which raise global temperatures, which creates a need for — you guessed it — more air-conditioning.
A.C.'s obvious public-health benefits during severe heat waves do not justify its lavish use in everyday life for months on end. Less than half a century ago, America thrived with only the spottiest use of air conditioning. It could again. While central air will always be needed in facilities such as hospitals, archives and cooling centers for those who are vulnerable to heat, what would an otherwise A.C.-free Washington look like?
At work: In a world without air conditioning, a warmer, more flexible, more relaxed workplace helps make summer a time to slow down again. Three-digit temperatures prompt siestas. Code-orange days mean offices are closed. Shorter summer business hours and monthlong closings — common in pre-air-conditioned America — return.
Business suits are out. Office employees no longer have to carry sweaters or space heaters to work in the summer. After a long absence, ceiling fans, window fans and desk fans (and, for that matter, paperweights) take back the American office.
Best of all, Washington's biggest business — government — is transformed. In 1978, 50 years after air conditioning was installed in Congress, New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted that, pre-A.C., Congress was forced to adjourn to avoid Washington's torturous summers, and "the nation enjoyed a respite from the promulgation of more laws, the depredations of lobbyists, the hatching of new schemes for Federal expansion and, of course, the cost of maintaining a government running at full blast."
Post-A.C., Congress again adjourns for the summer, giving "tea partiers" the smaller government they seek. During unseasonably warm spring and fall days, hearings are held under canopies on the Capitol lawn. What better way to foster open government and prompt politicians to focus on climate change?
At home: Homeowners pry open windows painted shut decades ago. In the air-conditioned age, fear of crime was often cited by people reluctant to open their homes to night breezes. In Washington, as in most of the world's warm cities, window grilles (not "bars," please) are now standard.
In renovation and new construction alike, high ceilings, better cross-ventilation, whole-house fans, screened porches, basements and white "cool roofs" to reflect solar rays become de rigueur. Home utility bills plummet. Families unplug as many heat-generating appliances as possible. Forget clothes dryers — post-A.C. neighborhoods are crisscrossed with clotheslines. The hot stove is abandoned for the grill, and dinner is eaten on the porch.
Around town: Saying goodbye to A.C. means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors — particularly in the late afternoon and evening — neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing. Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer. Deaths from heat decline: Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too afraid to venture outside and too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.
Cox is the author of "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World."
© 2010 Washington Post