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December 17, 2014

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Nevada shaped by fans of air conditioning

As air conditioning expanded into Southern Nevada, the population went up and — ironically — so did the temperatures

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Andrew DeGraff / Special to the Sun

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They blasted dynamite holes in the ground to plant trees. The desert was too hard for shovels, but they needed the shade. This was Las Vegas before air conditioning. The trees were an early thermal coercion now quaint and crazy as the rest: People once hung wet sheets in their doorways to cool the air inside, families slept on porches, children chased the ice truck — the novelty of it, frozen water delivered! — grabbing dropped splinters off the hard dirt, stuffing them in their mouths.

None of it really worked. From roughly 3 in the afternoon until sundown, one early Vegas resident told historians, “We just suffered.”

Las Vegas today exists in large part because of air conditioning, which has enabled us to bend the desert to our demands. Our population has doubled almost every decade since 1930, when climate control first came to Clark County. Today, most of Nevada’s population, and almost all of its economy, is crunched into the hottest corner of our huge state — so to say that air conditioning is the backbone of our existence is as groundbreaking as the news that you find 115 degrees slightly uncomfortable.

What’s less obvious, however, is just how deeply air conditioning has shaped who we are, and what we may become. Climate control, some suggest, has altered much more than the temperature inside: Air conditioning has altered our social lives, our environment, our psyches, our architecture, development and physical health. These changes came as quickly as air conditioning spread and surround us now in much the same way — ubiquitously, so pervasive that we almost don’t recognize the changes, or see where things are headed.

Some of you, no doubt, love the heat. You stroll from your car to the grocery store in the middle of July. You do yard work midday, you grill on the patio, you tend to your tans. You scoff at the rest of us — moles, scurrying inside for the summer, where our temperature problems will only worsen.

Heat tolerance goes both ways. With exposure, the body becomes better at managing high temperatures. In a matter of days, sweat glands start working faster and harder, the body better regulates its core temperature, and we can spend longer times outdoors. This might explain how some Las Vegas residents work outside year-round without dropping like flies.

At the same time, people insulated from heat are less able to tolerate rising temperatures — an anti-acclimatization. And once they head inside, the comfort of air conditioning changes the body further.

Maintaining an average temperature of 98.6 degrees takes imperceptible energy, just like breathing, or keeping your heart beating. When it’s too cold, we shiver. When it’s too warm, we sweat. When it’s air-conditioned and comfortable, however, we do neither.

Thanks to climate control, most of us spend the majority of our time in what’s known as the “thermoneutral zone,” where our bodies don’t have to work to maintain temperature. This, scientists have suggested, may play a role in growing obesity rates — it’s not just the obvious fact that we spend more time indoors and less time moving around outside. It’s the idea that once inside, our bodies aren’t expending as much energy on a cellular level — the air conditioning is altering our physiology. And we’re eating more — studies show that people consume less when it’s hot, and more when they’re comfortable.

Of course, too hot is deadly. Heat kills more people in the U.S. than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined, according to the National Weather Service, which tallied six heat-related deaths in Clark County last year, and 19 in 2008. This is why, every summer, multiple “cooling stations” are opened throughout the valley to serve as air-conditioning hubs for the homeless.

These seasonal meat lockers speak to the madness of vast desert growth, and the cyclic relationship between climate control and development in hostile terrain. Air conditioning creates its own demand. The cooler we want it inside, the hotter it gets outside — not just because air conditioners must offload heat to function, but because the energy to power them creates loads of carbon dioxide — an amount equivalent to every household in the country purchasing a new car and driving it 7,000 miles annually, according to Stan Cox, whose book on air conditioning, “Losing Our Cool,” came out this year.

It’s a direct correlation — the more air conditioning we have, the more we need. But the feedback loop is actually much larger. Once air conditioning came to Las Vegas, the city was able to explode: Roads were paved, casinos went up, houses snaked into suburban sprawl, cars clogged the road. But the materials that make a metropolis also retain its heat, so cities can become warmer than surrounding rural areas by several degrees. This is known as the urban heat-island effect. The uptick in temperature is then bolstered by heat from electricity use, which brings us back around to air conditioners. Nationally, Cox writes, air conditioning accounts for almost 20 percent of energy consumption. Americans, he notes, use as much energy on air conditioning as Africa’s 930 million residents use to live.

Las Vegas has undeniably gotten warmer as it’s developed. Since 1940, our average temperature has risen by half a degree or more almost every decade. By 1960, when only 2 percent of national housing stock had central air conditioning, almost 25 percent of Las Vegas residents had it, according to Gail Cooper, author of “Air-Conditioning America.” To offset the cost of installing central air, when the technology was still somewhat novel, developers used cheaper construction materials that insulated less, and eliminated architectural details that would naturally make houses cooler: wide eaves, shaded porches, attic fans and floor plans that allowed for cross ventilation and central courtyards. To get air conditioning quickly and cheaply, Las Vegas traded architecture for EZ-cool boxes with roofs; homes that could swell to any size, face any direction, spread to any corner of the valley, all with the power of air conditioning. These homes, Cox writes, fundamentally defined how we view air conditioning — as a “space cooler” rather than a “people cooler,” altering our lives as a result.

Consider, for example, the potential effect of air conditioning on presidential politics. From 1960 to 2000, people migrating out of the cold East caused the Sun Belt states to gain 86 seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. During this warm weather migration, the South grew increasingly conservative — a pairing of circumstances Cox suggests could have tipped the 2000 and 2004 elections toward the GOP.

“If we could travel back to 2000 and have each state vote red or blue just as it did that year but with the relative populations and electoral votes distributed among states as they had been in the 1950s (before the big southward migration), Democrat Al Gore would defeat Republican George W. Bush by 18 electoral votes instead of losing by three.”

For some, the summer is ideally just a series of hot bursts; the seconds it takes to pump gas, check the mail, take out the trash. With air conditioning, the desert disappears — it becomes a sequence of box stores, windowless casinos. In his book on Las Vegas, “Zeropolis,” French philosopher Bruce Bégout described our chilled indoor lives, rather dramatically, as “cryogenized while still alive, like babies in a cellophane bubble trying their utmost to renew lost contact with reality.”

But who said we don’t adore our cold little bubble? In fact, we want more climate-controlled space to hide in when houses and offices don’t appeal. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our shopping malls. In just eight years, from 1995 to 2003, indoor footage occupied by malls increased 46 percent, Cox notes, while energy used to cool those retail spaces swelled 77 percent. And the more expensive the merchandise, it appears, the cooler the store — a correlation The New York Times reported in 2005, after surveying a number of retailers and finding, for example, that the thermostat at Bergdorf Goodman was set at 68.3 degrees, while Old Navy was set at 80.3. Coldness equated with status.

And heat equated with poverty. Many of the people killed by heat stress in Nevada were discovered in trailers or houses, and likely couldn’t afford to have the air conditioner running. When heat waves hit cities, it’s often the elderly, impoverished and isolated who die, and not only because climate control is expensive, but because they’re scared to open their windows and let in a breeze, or nobody knows they’re in danger.

When extreme heat becomes fatal, Brooklyn College professor Christian Warren told Cox: “What about isolation, economic stress, crime and paranoia about crime? You can easily imagine a couple staying shut away in their air-conditioned apartment during a hot spell, uninterested in checking on their elderly next-door neighbor, who could be dying of heat stroke.”

Only, being shut in an air-conditioned home has its own ramifications. Neighborhoods become ghost towns. Children, Warren says, learn about nature on television, in abstract, and become “detached and fatalistic.” People retreating inward, Cox writes, are living in the “modern equivalent of prehistoric ancestors’ caves.”

And outside, in cities where air conditioning has made rapid growth possible, everything begins to look the same. This uniformity is not just from neighborhood to neighborhood — it’s from state to state. In his 1984 essay on the effect of air conditioning in the South, Raymond Arsenault describes a kind of urban development that will sound familiar to anybody who lives in Las Vegas, Phoenix, the Sun Belt: “Thanks in part to air conditioning,” Arsenault wrote, the South “has been overwhelmed by an almost endless string of look-alike chain stores, tract houses, glassed-in high rises, and, perhaps most important, enclosed shopping malls.”

These standardized cities are monuments to our modern placelessness. As we move indoors, as we live increasingly online, as the actual climate plays less and less a role in our comfort, Las Vegas vanishes. Planting trees with dynamite? Sleeping on the porch? The past becomes increasingly unrecognizable and unimaginable. Air-conditioned, we could be anywhere.

A version of this story appears in this week’s Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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