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Man's Call To America: Turn Off That Air Conditioner

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Man's Call To America: Turn Off That Air Conditioner

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Man's Call To America: Turn Off That Air Conditioner

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DAVID GREENE, host: Today is officially the last day of summer, and for many of us it's been a sizzler. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows it's the second hottest summer ever recorded in the U.S. The rising heat sent demand for electricity to record levels, burning up a lot of fossil fuels at generating plants. But one man says it doesn't have to be that way. Kansas Public Radio's Bryan Thompson paid a visit to the guy who wrote the book on how to live without air conditioning.

BRYAN THOMPSON: With his wire-rimmed glasses, neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and casual dress, Stan Cox doesn't stand out in a crowd. But with his book arguing that our climate-controlled lifestyle in modern America is unsustainable, Cox has drawn quite a bit of attention. He lives in a modest, 2-story house in an older neighborhood in Salina, Kansas. Built in the 1930s, the house has a screened-in porch, and lots of open windows.

STAN COX: It does have central air, and we run it one day each summer to make sure that it's still working OK. And so far, for ten years now, it works fine on that day.

THOMPSON: Cox says the lack of air conditioning hasn't kept friends away, but it does prompt some good-natured ribbing.

COX: When it gets really hot, you know, they kind of wink and say: Well, how are you holding up? Or people will try to catch you. You've turned it on now, haven't you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: Not so far.

THOMPSON: Stan Cox met his wife, Pritti, while working in India several years ago. She says even now, few homes in India have air conditioning and almost none have central air.

PRITTI COX: So like, for instance, my sister's family in Mumbai, they have one unit in the bedroom and one unit in the kitchen, dining, and living room area, but it's never the case that they would, you know, close the windows and leave it on all day, no.

THOMPSON: Living in hot and humid India led Cox to question whether Americans really need to keep their indoor environment at a constant temperature year-round.

COX: The hotter the summers get, the more we run air conditioning. The more we do that, the greater the load of emissions added to all the other emissions we're putting in the atmosphere, and the higher the chance that we'll have even hotter summers in the future. That's what's being predicted.

THOMPSON: In his book, "Losing Our Cool," Stan Cox argues that Americans rely too much on air conditioning. He's not against having air conditioning available during heat emergencies. But Cox says comfort research proves that most people can acclimate to warmer temperatures.

COX: Office workers who have an air-conditioned workplace will have a certain temperature range they're comfortable in that may reach up to 78 Fahrenheit. Whereas those who work in a non-air-conditioned workplace, in this study, they were happy up to 89 degrees.

THOMPSON: That's if they had plenty of air movement. Cox says fans are a must, and shade makes a big difference.

David Orr, who teaches environmental studies at Oberlin College, agrees that cutting back on air conditioning isn't all that hard to do.

DAVID ORR: I don't think anyone would ask, at this point, to go cold turkey on air conditioning. But what is reasonable is to use it only sparingly, or as necessary. When you use it, buy the most efficient equipment you can possibly buy.

THOMPSON: Both Orr and Cox say buildings should be designed for passive cooling, so that air conditioning isn't a must. That's the way people in many parts of the world have been coping with heat for thousands of years.

For NPR News, I'm Bryan Thompson in Salina, Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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