Losing Our Cool
Stan Cox
The New Press, 2010
Review by Garrison Benson

In his data-packed book Losing Our Cool, Stan Cox exposes the far-reaching impact of a ubiquitous but often ignored technology: air conditioning.

Cox focuses primarily on air conditioning in the United States (especially the South) but also spends one chapter describing its role in India, where heat is punishing, electricity is limited, and many families cannot afford even a window unit. (If they can afford one, they crowd around it like a campfire.) He covers not just domestic use of climate control, but also industrial, office, and commercial use (explaining how, for instance, offices typically keep their thermostats low, due to the widespread belief that workers are more productive just below the temperature “comfort zone”).

Losing Our Cool delves especially deep into the environmental impact of A/C—not only its obvious effects on greenhouse gas emissions and climate, but also its effects on population migrations, city planning, construction techniques, and beyond.

Occasionally, Cox seems to swerve off the topic of air conditioning for pages at a time, but eventually comes back and makes clear in the process that air conditioning is not a self-contained issue. It is deeply intertwined with many other societal ills, such as automobile dependence, sick building syndrome (frequently caused by poor air quality in an individual’s home or workplace), and urban sprawl (especially in arid climates).

Throughout Losing Our Cool, Cox never stoops to a finger-wagging, “Shame on you” treatment of A/C users. He is careful to acknowledge where the technology is essential (hospitals, data centers, some factories) or at least understandable (in urban heat islands or during the dog days of summer). As such, the book is as accessible to the merely curious as to those already passionate about carbon emissions and related issues.

Unfortunately, though, nearly the only tool Cox uses to make his point is mountains of facts and statistics. The book is chock-full of numbers, charts, and study-findings. Many are fascinating—for example, did you know restaurants keep their thermostats turned low so people will order more? But in the end, it’s too much: Cox’s meandering and information-dense style fails to inspire. It leaves the reader thoroughly convinced that air conditioning is harmful, but lacks the heart and gusto to make him/her want to do anything about it.

That said, for the patient reader, Losing Our Cool will offer much of interest, and if nothing else, a jumping-off point for further thought on the oft-forgotten issue of air conditioning.

© Garrison Benson, 2010