Peter Pringle: Help us all, we're 'coolth' addicts

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The Independent Online
THE heat wave passed temporarily over the weekend and I turned off the air conditioner for the first time in three weeks. It was like docking after a long sea voyage, like the first step on terra firma. No more constant whirring, no more being confined in a cabin too close to the engine room. I opened the window to let in some fresh air. What a luxury.

Since June, I had been trapped in this tiny bubble of coolness in the midst of a mass of searing heat, intensified and retained during the night by the miles of Tarmacadum and the towering piles of concrete that surround my home on the island of Manhattan.

My exultation lasted but a few hours. By midday, I could feel the heat returning. My body was uncomfortable and I was beginning to sweat. I knew I was going to surrender. I flicked the switch and the air conditioner clicked and hissed as though reproaching me for ever thinking I could live without it. I can't. I'm a Condi.

Along with millions of other Americans, I have been culturally identified by no less an authority than a Cambridge don, anthropologist, historian and global security expert, Dr Gwyn Prins, who has conferred the name 'Condi' on all those millions of victims of the most pervasive epidemic in America: addiction to air conditioning. My addiction is to 'coolth', as opposed to warmth. My environment is cold in the summer and hot in the winter (from central heating). For others it is the reverse.

Because of air conditioning, I, like others in America so blessed, feel quite able to spring out of bed in the middle of a heat wave and meet a businessman for breakfast, never miss a work beat during the luncheon hour, shun the coolness of trees or the shaded part of the street in mid-afternoon, come home at the end of the day and, instead of collapsing on the bed to allow my body time to recover, I am off again, carousing, entertaining and being entertained until late. All of this activity is courtesy of air conditioning. If I had to contend with the seasonal heat without air conditioning I could not cope, clearly. Who have I become?

To find the answer I turned, naturally, to the authoritative journal on such matters, Energy and Buildings, a serious-minded publication written by and subscribed to by learned professors. In this journal, Dr Prins, who was once in Africa studying how Africans cope with living in constant heat without air conditioning (the answer is fine, thank you, they adjust their physiological speed accordingly, do not have working breakfasts, but do have long lunches), discusses 'Condis' and 'coolth'.

The rubric for life in an American summer, he finds not in the US Constitution, but in the wording of the 'Comfort Zone', drafted by a group of less well-known, but still important framers, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. Erring on the side of expense and coldness, the Society decreed a 'comfort standard' of 55-74 degrees Fahrenheit at 20- 60 per cent humidity, 23-25 degrees Centigrade. Within this zone, people are said to experience, '. . . that state of mind

which expresses comfort with the thermal environment . . . a subjective sensation of being neither slightly warm nor slightly cool'.

Condis are, by definition, cold and dry. They abhor the heat and humidity, and do not smell because they do not sweat. From this can be deduced a cultural trait about Americans, no less significant than the piled-high platters of fast food that show an American desire to eclipse the shadows of Depression-era deprivation.

'Neutralisation of one's own smell is an animal response to the desire for camouflage,' observes Dr Prins. It also creates great opportunities for the makers of deodorants, and artificial scent is a way to heighten indentity. Can cold/ dry/ civilised/ scented people have sex? asked Dr Prins. Condis may simply need to have their sexual fulfilment from cool, dry, artificially scented and physically disassociated sources.

This sensationless, thermal Nirvana, Dr Prins observes, does not come cheaply; air conditioning can cost up to four times as much as heating per degree.

Thus, Condis are voracious consumers of the Earth's resources and their - our - activities ought to be curbed. This is the simple point Dr Prins set out to make.

His amusing essay was greeted with outrage by American professors who thought he was being glib, condescending; a Luddite who was brutishly uncaring about Americans' summer discomfort. He was accused of 'regressing to ethnocentric models of cultural comparisons'. What would a person who lives the 'leisured life of a scholar in that ivoriest of all ivory towers' know about continental summer heat? asked one professor. Another simply wrote: 'It's OK to want to be cool'.

On the phone from Cambridge, Dr Prins assured me his purpose was only to open a debate about energy alternatives. Condis have found it hard to make more than marginal improvements in their energy consumption; the US burns twice as much energy as Europe and air conditioning is the fastest- growing sector of energy use. Like many serious-minded observers of America, Dr Prins believes that American culture, more than any other on the planet, is capable of technological innovation.

Windpower in California, for example, is now producing enough electricity to run Washington DC. The trick, for Americans, is to recognise air conditioning addiction as a problem, and to make Condis see the error of their ways. I feel guilty about my addiction to coolth, but when the tar is bubbling on the road outside and I am melting at my desk inside, the Condi in me emerges like a wild beast and, along with millions of others in America, I hit the button for relief.