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David Bouchier: Against Nature

Image by Slawomir Kolwaleski from Pixabay

A United Nations scientific report issued last week told us that a warmer future is inevitable. No surprises there, but an international study from the UN, on top of the infernos we’ve seen out west this summer, seems to demand our attention. I predict a flurry of climate activism out here in the suburbs. When nature turns against us on such a grandiose scale we must pull out all the stops. Air conditioning systems will be upgraded, new swimming pools will be installed and scarce properties in Maine and Vermont will become more desirable than ever. Climate experts have different and more challenging suggestions. But not many of us are willing to make the lifestyle changes that will save the planet from baking like an Idaho potato — such as driving smaller cars, giving up long distance travel and consuming less of everything.

No, we will tough it out. A good air conditioning system alone will fix it. The whole point of civilization is to keep the natural world at a safe distance, and nothing does this better than air conditioning. It’s our way of saying that nature doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter and isn’t real.

A new book by Eric Dean Wilson, called After Cooling* tells us that air conditioning was first introduced for the comfort of the most indispensable workers, when the floor of New York Stock Exchange was air conditioned in 1902. The movement for universal air conditioning began in the 1920s in Texas, which rivals California as the world capital of unreality. Once Texans admitted that real men don’t have to sweat, the nation followed. By the 1960s, air conditioning was everywhere. Washington D.C., the capital of hot air, is the most comprehensively 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.

Given that the whole world, including stockbrokers, existed without air conditioning before 1902 we have to accept that life can go on, even in warm weather. Our ancestors somehow lived and farmed and fished through the summers for thousands of years without air conditioning. Great empires were gained and lost without air conditioning. Capitalism, factories, railroads and even democracy were built 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.

Air conditioning itself is an enormous consumer of energy and source of pollution, and it may be making global warming worse by encouraging constant, restless activity all year round. Before the magic cooling machine came along everyone made it through the summer by simply adjusting to the heat. Business hours were shorter and holidays were longer, as were afternoon naps. A man who lies flat on a lounge chair in the shade contributes nothing to global warming. A man who drives his air conditioned car to an air conditioned office for a day of energetic work in the cause of consumerism, might be considered a menace to the planet.

The moral of this story is: the cooler we feel, the warmer we will get.

Copyright: David Bouchier

*After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson (Simon & Schuster 2021)

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.