I blame air conditioning.
When considering the technological innovations that have significantly impacted on our national and our personal way of life we usually mention the telephone, radio, TV and the internet or perhaps the automobile and the airplane. But in many essential ways air conditioning transformed the nation in profound ways facilitating dramatic demographic shifts, contributing to widespread environmental damage and fostering fundamental social and political changes.
How did air conditioning affect these changes? It was air conditioning that made much of the southern United States truly habitable for the first time. From the oppressive heat and humidity of the southeast along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast to the burning deserts of the Southwest air conditioning made work and daily living not just tolerable but increasingly desirable.
From the 1920's and into the 1970's African Americans fled North in large numbers to escape Jim Crow oppression and the lack of educational and job opportunities. This was the famous Great Migration where an estimated 6 million people left the South. Less attention has been paid to migration of even larger numbers of mostly whites to the South that has occurred more recently. Prior to the availability of air conditioning the population of Florida was less than one million (1920). By 1950 it had barely exceeded 2.5 million but by 1990 it was 13 million. Today it is 21 million. Such growth would have been impossible without air conditioning. Arizona and Texas experienced similar explosive growth. Despite oil money it is unlikely that hot, humid Huston would be on the verge of becoming the nation's third largest city without ubiquitous "refrigerated air".
Retirees and others went south for the milder winter weather but air conditioning also allowed businesses to operate in the South spurring job growth in banking, auto production and many other Industries. This version of white flight made the South richer and whiter. This and the Civil Rights Movement drove a complete political realignment. Richard Nixon's southern strategy, continued by Reagan, converted the south from solidly Democratic in the New Deal era to solidly Republican for the last 50 years. The large growth in population fueled rising political power since the south experienced a commensurate increase in Congressional representation. The effective use of this political power at the state and national level coupled with gerrymandering and voter suppression has created a political landscape that is disproportionately dominated by white conservatives.
This was perhaps the largest and most rapid demographic and political change in US history. The explosive population growth in places like Texas, Arizona and Southern California also fueled immigration. Labor especially, cheap labor, was needed in the fields to feed the growing population and to build houses, care for yards and kids and numerous other jobs.
Air conditionings impact was not limited to the South. It was air conditioning along with the elevator that made possible glass and steel skyscrapers with windows that never open and high-rise apartments and condos where people live in comfort regardless of the weather and the surroundings.
And the environmental devastation? Most directly air conditioning requires a lot of power which translates to burning fossil fuels, diverting rivers, building dams and power plants to generate electricity. In addition, all that cooling generates a lot of heat. Stand outside in the exhaust of a window air conditioner and feel the heat. Multiply that times all the air conditioners large and small and you can understand how they contribute to the warming micro-climates in cities. Secondarily, all those people need places to live and work and shop so, for example, Florida is mostly bulldozed and paved. Water is diverted from the Everglades and cars and roads sprawl. In the West water drives everything. Rivers are bottled up and water piped to homes, businesses and the mega-industrial farms. The landscape is fundamentally altered and the climate changed. Aquifers are pumped dry, rivers are merely irrigation ditches and drought and wildfires spread uncontrollably.
All this is a self reinforcing cycle. The continuing population growth in the warmer parts of the country results in more building, more businesses, more transportation - cars, trucks, trains and planes - more air conditioning and more heat which in turns needs more air conditioning, more power, more everything. And as the climate warms more of the country needs air conditioning. Today nearly 90 per cent of US households rely on air conditioning.
Most of the country has experienced a long hot summer. Our air conditioners have been working overtime to make it all tolerable and at the same time adding to the heat. The cure is also the disease.
One Small Voice
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