Monday, November 01, 2021

After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort

Air conditioning, like driving consumes huge amounts of energy and allows humans to more easily live in additional areas. People have lived for centuries without air conditioning. However, once air conditioning has become available, people find it difficult to live otherwise. The lack of exposure to heat prevents the body from adopting to heat and thus makes it harder for people to endure different conditions. Buildings are sealed off to optimize the efficiency of air conditioners. (I recently stayed in a hotel that had an A/C unit, but no openable windows.) Past buildings had windows, basements, high ceilings and other structures that allowed passive cooling. There were also more social structures set up for dealing with the warm weather.

There are plenty of good points in the book. However, they must be fished out from other rambling. The attempts to see social justice motives in everything also distracts from the points and can be contradictory. (A government official argued that we should just encourage people to use sunscreen and coverings rather than worry about the ozone hole. This was ridicule as nonsensical and drove people to realize there was no alternative to banning CFCs.  Later, the author argues that CFCs were banned because white people were more susceptible to skin cancer.  In another case, A/C was seen as a way for the factory owners to get their workers to work more. But it was also reserved for the wealthy and not for those from Africa since they could "handle the heat". It just felt like a big hodgepodge of details without a solid argument.)

The constant attention to racial motives ends up muddling what would be otherwise be a strong argument. An arbitrary worldwide "standard of comfort" is a huge problem. Different places may make different use of air conditioning, but most people currently aspire to it. This has lead to excessive cooling. Cooling is not without benefits. Refrigerators help increase food safety and medication storage. (Though it does seem funny when we heat a building in the winter, only to have the freezer in the building cooling the air back down to the outside temperature.) It is with irony that the refrigerants that allow us to live in a comfortable sealed-in environment also make it more dangerous for us to be outside. Is this just the steady march to a a man-made world that requires machinery for survival? Do we have a chance to get back to nature?

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