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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

David Bouchier: Against Nature

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Ten years ago we moved into a house with central air conditioning, a luxury we never had before. It made me nervous at first. When I pressed the switch the house began to hum like a factory, and freezing air came roaring out of the vents. The electric meter was whizzing around like something in the Indianapolis 500.

Now we have this difficult choice to make every day in summer. When the air conditioning is on the house feels like an outpost in Antarctica, or a corporate office. When the system is off it feels like a Turkish bath, with President Erdogan turning up the heat.

The modern vogue for air conditioning began in the 1920s, and as you might guess, it began in Texas, which long ago replaced California as the world capital of unreality. Houston is reputed to be the most air-conditioned city in the world. In such places ordinary fresh air is regarded with about as much enthusiasm as poison gas. For several months of the year citizens live in an artificial bubble, very much like space colonists in old science fiction stories – aliens on their own planet.

I like to go out and walk in the fresh air every day in summer, no matter how hot it gets. There are many lovely places to walk on Long Island, and every one of them attracts a crowd of nature lovers, sitting in their cars with the windows closed and air conditioners running. It may be that for a whole generation brought up on family road trips and television nature specials, trees and oceans just don’t look right without a frame around them and glass in front, and an even air temperature of 72 degrees.

The human race got along very well without air conditioning for most of history. They lived and farmed and fished through the summers for thousands of years without air conditioning. The most tropical areas of world were explored and settled without air conditioning. Just about all the most important works of art and science and philosophy in the world were created by people who had no air conditioning. In other words we have strong historical evidence that a bit of sweat never did anybody any harm.

The trouble with artificial cooling is that you get used to it, and forget what it feels like to enjoy a healthy sweat or a minor case of heatstroke. We have spent a lot of summers in the south of France, which gets about as hot as Long Island or Connecticut in August. For the first few years we followed the example of the locals, most of whom have no air conditioning and rather despise it as a form of American decadence. They close their shutters for much of the day, run fans, and take cold drinks and long siestas.

But in the end we weakened and surrendered to the temptation of cool. A very basic air conditioning system was installed in one room, and it pumps out just enough chilled air to bring the temperature down to the mid-80s. That’s good enough, we don’t want to put ourselves into cold storage. But we also don’t want to forget where we are. So every day about noon, I go out for a half hour walk in the village, no matter what the temperature, just to show that I can. My wife hums an old Noel Coward song, to the refrain: “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.” But that’s ridiculous. I never see dogs of any kind, or Englishmen either. At high noon, the blazing hot streets of the sleeping village are all mine.

Copyright: David Bouchier