On Civil Unrest and Air Conditioning

April 11, 2001
The News’ “75 Years of Cooling” issue, slated for April 30, will be a wonderful celebration of science, technology, and labor. It has already prompted reflections on how a/c interacts with larger events in society.

The 1960s, for example, witnessed tremendous growth in all air conditioning markets and maturation of the technology. It was also a decade of tremendous social change. How did these factors interact?

In the 60s people got hooked on the idea of having central a/c systems in their homes and automobiles. Housewives praised it, builders in the South started offering it, and builders in the North soon did, too. Moreover, illness and death resulting from excess heat exposure were officially acknowledged by civilian doctors across the nation.

However, a/c soon became a new line of demarcation between the “haves” and “have-nots” in U.S. society. A more visible factor determining where a person could live and what job s/he could hold was the color of their skin. That way of thinking was being questioned more and more frequently, sometimes with violent results.

Long, Hot Summer

Then the summer of 1967 rolled in, and the differences between white suburbia and the increasingly black inner cities were exacerbated by oppressive heat and humidity, and whether or not people could afford air conditioning.

In July, the heat made the other injustices unbearable. Pockets of rioting erupted in Detroit and Newark, NJ, following the pattern of the Watts riots in California earlier in the decade.

We won’t go too deeply into 60s history, but we need to remember our history in order not to repeat it. Some things have changed, but there are too many similarities for complacency.

Air conditioning is an acknowledged necessity in extreme heat — a medical necessity for some. And while a/c has become affordable to more people, energy costs could determine whether or not people use it. Essentially, people who have to choose between paying a higher utility bill and buying food or medicine will not have air conditioning.

We are still a society of haves and have-nots, and the have-nots chiefly live in urban areas. The racial makeup of our cities has changed some, but not as much as civil rights leaders would have hoped. And now our changing economy will probably mean there are more have-nots than we have seen recently.

A Heart, A Brain, The Nerve

Steps need to be taken to protect the disadvantaged from another long, hot summer. Indeed, some utilities have been proactively setting up payment programs and lower rate structures for people who meet the criteria. But is this enough? Blackouts and brownouts may make these programs moot.

We suggest that local governments and utilities unite to establish more cooling oases operating on independent generators, and more programs to shuttle people to those cool spots. Community leaders can use programs in Chicago and elsewhere as a pattern.

To help prevent blackouts, our industry’s engineers need to keep working on those higher-efficiency system designs that have doubtless already been started, no matter what happens on Capitol Hill. There is an economic incentive; rising energy costs will make those higher-efficiency systems more attractive to consumers.

We know that our industry’s contractors have big hearts when it comes to helping those less fortunate than themselves. Just do a little bit more and promote high-efficiency systems and other efficiency-enhancing services, such as fixing leaky ductwork.

In addition to helping the sick and elderly, who are usually pretty quiet, our industry can play a much larger role in preventing the upheaval that occurs when the have-nots get fed up. It would be naïve to assume that violence cannot result in this day and age. History does repeat itself, from Versailles to Detroit to Your Hometown. Checket-Hanks is service/maintenance and troubleshooting editor. She can be reached at 313-368-5856; 313-368-5857 (fax); and checket-hanksb@bnp.com (e-mail).

Publication date: 04/16/2001

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