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As Kansans bake, one man poses unusual idea

In the days before air conditioning, people survived. They dampened washcloths and placed them around necks; sprinkled bedsheets; opened windows and sat on front porches and talked with next-door neighbors into the night about how hot it is.

In recent weeks, as cattle are dying in the feedlots and Wichitans are sweating through the fifth hottest summer on record, Salina resident Stan Cox has been advocating life without air conditioning.

In his latest book, "Losing our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)," he questions whether people have lost their survival instinct.

He contends that — as a society — we've become wusses.

This summer he has been interviewed by 71 radio, print and TV journalists, featured on National Public Radio and in the Washington Post.

His book's reception has been controversial.

He's received death threats and has been called an idiot — and worse — particularly when he has spoken on some radio talk shows.

"When I wrote the piece for the Washington Post I got blasted with 67 pages of comments and 500 e-mails — all quite hostile," he said.

Air conditioning has changed the American way of life, he says, and not necessarily for the better.

"After air conditioning, generally neighborhoods weren't as friendly or shady as they had been," Cox said. "People weren't as able to or had forgotten how to live and function in high temperatures."

The rates of allergies and asthma increased, Cox said.

Since the mid-1990s, houses — now fully insulated — use more electricity as the people inside them use windows less and breathe in air pumped over and through ducts in central air conditioning systems.

Thermostats are set cooler as expectations of people's comfort grow higher.

"The irony is — and what I wrote the book around — is that since the mid-1990s when central air conditioning systems became more efficient, we have doubled the use of electricity we are using to cool our homes, which is contributing to the greenhouse gases, which will insure we will need even more air conditioning in the future."

Survivors

How did people survive before air conditioning?

The summer of 2010 is beginning to rival some of the hottest summers in Wichita history — including the summers of 1934 and 1936, during the Dust Bowl, when, on July 25, 1935, the Topeka Capital's headline was:

"Death Toll From Heat and Drownings Jumps to 52 in Kansas; 120 Degrees in Phillipsburg."

Back in the summer of 1934 and 1936, Roderick Moore will tell you there simply wasn't any electricity on his rural family's farm to power the air conditioning.

"I was a teenager then and was born and raised on a farm between Mount Hope and Burrton," Moore said. "No ma'am, we had no electricity."

The only coolness came in the shade of a giant elm tree planted long ago along the south side of the house and in a 100-pound ice block the family would get at the ice plant in Halstead every week, then take it to their home where they chipped it in two and put in the wooden icebox.

A Kansas farm boy, Moore went summers shirtless.

"We drank a lot of water," he said. "The house got plenty hot. It wasn't easy but we lived through it with no problem."

Could he do it again?

"I am sure I could survive but I wouldn't like it," the 94-year-old Moore said.

"My house is nice and comfortable," he said. "I set the thermostat to 75 and never touch it. It stays comfortable day and night. And, when I go anywhere, it is in an air-conditioned car so I don't suffer."

It was different for the Kansans who lived in cities during the summers of 1934 and 1936.

The cities had electricity first and residents could rely on fans in windows to generate a breeze on those still summer nights.

In some neighborhoods, fire hydrants were opened and children cooled off in the sprays of water.

A popular option was to attend movies in the afternoons and evenings — where there was air conditioning. The price then for movies was typically 10 cents for a matinee, 40 cents for the evening show.

"It took a lot of perseverance," said Virgil Dean, historian at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. "A lot of people put wet towels around the windows and doors to bring some coolness in the heat."

But really, Dean said, most baby boomers and older grew up without air conditioning in the homes. Prior to central air, particularly the late 1960s and later, people often relied on window air conditioners and cooled off only a few rooms at a time.

Central air conditioning systems became more commonplace after the 1970s, and more efficient after the mid-1990s.

Health effects

Whenever there is an extended heat wave, it can quickly affect people's health if precautions aren't taken.

In recent weeks, Mark Rogers, assistant medical director in the Via Christi Hospitals on St. Francis and East Harry, has been seeing several heat-related cases.

Most people when they get too hot, their bodies try to maintain body temperature by sweating, Rogers said.

But as the body loses its ability to regulate temperatures, the brain starts to malfunction and the person can experience a heat stroke.

"That part of the brain that helps to control and regulate your body temperature shuts down and you lose your ability to sweat," he said. "The heart rate isn't as fast to maintain circulation and you start to become confused and lose consciousness."

When the body core temperature reaches 107 to 108 degrees, organs begin to shut down. A person's lungs begin to stop breathing, the heart stops and he dies.

Rethink AC strategy

That's why Cox is not contending people should go entirely without air conditioning — although he and his wife don't use theirs. The senior scientist at the Land Institute near Salina does have a fully functioning central air conditioning system in his home. But he turns it on only one day each summer — just to make sure it still works. That's it.

While some people have been openly hostile to his suggestion of life without air conditioning, others suggest alternative ways of keeping cool, he said.

"Some people don't like air conditioning," Cox said. "The most common complaint I hear is someone is tired of taking a sweater or space heater to work in July because their office is freezing."

Cox is hoping people will rethink their strategy on how they use those units for future summers.

"The best place to start is not in the middle of a heat wave like we have this week. Instead, I would like to see us get out of the common habit of switching the thermostat from heat to cool in April and May and take advantage of the days when we have moderately warm weather by switching it off and use fans."

He's also in favor of seeing people use geothermal ground cooling systems — where coils are buried underground and cooled by 50-degree soils rather than outside air.

"I compare it to people driving a heavily armored Humvee," he said. "It is good if you are going into a combat zone but it's not necessarily good for everyday use. You could probably get by with something that uses less energy and is less expensive."

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