Air Conditioning Is One of the Greatest Inventions
Of the 20th Century — It’s Also Killing the 21st
Danny Crichton / Yahoo News & Rebecca Leber / Vox
(August 28, 2021) — When did indoor air become cold and clean?
Air conditioning is one of those inventions that have become so ubiquitous, that many in the developed world don’t even realize that less than a century ago, it didn’t exist. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that the air inside our buildings and the air outside of them were one and the same, with occupants powerless against their environment.
Eric Dean Wilson, in his just published book, “After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort,” dives deep into the history of this field. It took more than just inventing the air conditioner to make people want to buy it. In fact, whole social classes outright rejected the technology for years. It took hustle, marketing skill, and mass societal change to place air conditioning at the center of our built environment.
Wilson covers that history, but he has a more ambitious agenda: to get us to see how our everyday comforts affect other people. Our choice of frigid cooling emits flagrant quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, placing untold stress on our planet and civilization. Our pursuit of comfort ironically begets us more insecurity and ultimately, less comfort.
It’s a provocative book, and TechCrunch hosted Wilson for a discussion earlier this week on a Twitter Space. If you missed it, here are some selected highlights of our conversation.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Danny Crichton: The framing story throughout the book is about your travels with your friend Sam, who works to collect Freon and destroy it. Why did you choose that narrative arc?
Eric Dean Wilson: Sam at the time was working for this green energy company, and they were trying to find a way to take on green projects that would turn a profit. They had found that they could do this by finding used Freon, specifically what’s called CFC-12. It’s not made anymore, thank goodness, but it was responsible in part for partially destroying the ozone layer, and production of it was banned by the 90s.
But use of it, and buying and selling it on the secondary market, is totally legal. This is sort of a loophole in the legality of this refrigerant, because the United States government and the people who signed the Montreal Protocol thought that when they stopped production of it that it would pretty much get rid of Freon by the year 2000. Well, that didn’t happen, which is kind of a mystery.
So Sam was driving around the United States, finding Freon on the internet, and meeting people (often people who are auto hobbyists or mechanics or something like that) who happened to have stockpiled Freon, and he was buying it from them in order to destroy it for carbon credits on California’s cap-and-trade system. And the interesting thing about this is that he was going to basically the 48 contiguous states, and meeting people that were often global warming deniers who were often hostile to the idea of the refrigerant being destroyed at all, so he often didn’t tell them upfront that he was destroying it.
What was really interesting to me is that, aside from a cast of colorful and strange characters, and sometimes violent characters actually as well, was the fact that sometimes after establishing a business relationship first, he was able to have really frank conversations about global warming with people who were otherwise not very open to it.
In a time in which we’re told that Americans are more divided than ever politically, that we’re not speaking to each other across ideological divides, I thought this was a curious story.
Crichton: And when it comes to greenhouse gases, Freon is among the worst, right?
Wilson: I should be really clear that the main global warming gases are carbon dioxide and methane and some other ones as well. But molecule for molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are thousands of times greater at absorbing and retaining heat, meaning that they’re just thousands of times worse for global warming, molecule for molecule. So even though there’s not that many of them in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere, there’s enough to really make a sizable contribution to global warming.
The irony is that the replacements of CFCs — HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) — for the most part, don’t really do anything to destroy the ozone layer, which is great. But they’re also super global warming gases. So the ozone crisis was solved by replacing CFCs with refrigerant that exacerbated the global warming crisis.
Crichton: Now to get to the heart of the book, you focus on the rise of air conditioning, but you start by giving readers a wide view of what life was like before its invention. Why did you do that?
Wilson: This was a surprise — I did not go into the book thinking that I was going to find this. Before air conditioning really took off in the home, there was a really different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really argue in the book is that what we’ve come to think of as personal comfort, and specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I argue in the book is that it’s really in part a cultural construction.
Now, I want to be really careful that people don’t hear that I’m saying that it’s entirely a construction. Yes, when we get too hot or too cold, then we can die, for sure. But what’s really interesting to me is that there’s a lot of evidence to show that before air conditioning began at the beginning of the twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.
There was this greater sense that you could deal with the heat. I put that really carefully, because I don’t want to say that they suffered through it. Certainly there were heat waves and summers that got too hot. But there was a real sense that you could manage the heat through analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings that incorporate passive cooling. The thing that really disturbed me was that through the twentieth century, we really kind of forgot all that, because we didn’t need that knowledge anymore because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to kind of ignore the outside conditions, because you could construct whatever conditions you wanted inside.
I think the question that nobody really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And there’s a lot of people that find that the kind of American model of an office or American model of comfort is not comfortable, both in the United States, and in other places.
Crichton: Even beyond a homogenized standard though, you want readers to understand how comfort connects all of us together.
Wilson: I think that one of the pernicious things about the American definition of comfort is that it has been defined as personal comfort. And the reason why I keep using that is because it’s defined as individual comfort. And so what would it mean to think about comfort as being always connected to somebody else, as more ethical that way? Because it’s true.
The truth is that our comfort is related to other people, and vice versa. It’s really asking us to think interdependently, instead of independently, which is how we’re often encouraged to think, and that’s a huge, huge ask. Actually, that’s a huge task and a huge paradigm shift. But I really think if we’re really trying to think ecologically, and not just sustainably, we have to think about how we’re all connected and how these infrastructures, how they influence other people in other parts of the world.
Crichton: Air conditioning didn’t take off right away. In fact, its inventors and customers really had to push hard to get people to want to use it.
Wilson: Air conditioning really got its start in the early twentieth century, in order to control the conditions in factories. I was surprised to find out that air conditioning was used in places to make things hotter, or more humid and slightly hotter in a place like a textile factory, where if it’s not humid enough, cotton threads can break.
Outside the factory, movie theaters were really the first time that thermal comfort was used as a commodity. There were all kinds of other commodifications of comfort, but this was really the first time that the public could go someplace to feel cooler. And the funny thing is is that most movie theaters in the 20s and 30s were freezing cold, they were not what I would call comfortable, because the people who were running them didn’t really understand that air conditioning works best when it’s noticed least, which is a hard sell. In the 20s, though, it was a novelty, and the way that you caught people’s attention on a summer day was to crank the AC up, which felt good for like five minutes, and then it was terribly uncomfortable and you had to shiver through an hour and a half of the rest of the movie.
Crichton: I’m jumping ahead, but what does the future look like as global warming persists and our cooling increases in line with that heat?
Wilson: In so many cooling situations, there are major alternatives, like redesigning our buildings so that they require way less energy and way less cooling. There are really amazing architects who are looking to things like termite mounds, because the colonies that they build sort of have brilliantly engineered rooms with different temperatures.
That said, I was surprised how much our opinion on comfort could change by simply understanding that it could change. I think that we have to make the world of tomorrow desirable, and we can take a nod from the commercial advertising industry. We have to sell this future as one that we actually want, not as something that we’re giving up. And I think the narrative is always like, “Oh, we have to stop doing this, we have to lower this, we have to give this up.” And that’s certainly true. But I think if we understand that as not something that we’re giving up, but actually something that we’re gaining, then it makes it a lot easier. For people, it makes it feel a lot more possible.
After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson. (Simon & Schuster, 2021, 480 pages)
• Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich
• A Cultural History of Climate by Wolfgang Behringer
• The Climate of History in a Planetary Age by Dipesh Chakrabarty
(August 26, 2021) — What if the most American symbol of unsustainable consumption isn’t the automobile, but the air conditioner? In cool indoor spaces, it’s easy to forget that billions of people around the world don’t have cooling and that air conditioning is worsening the warming that it’s supposed to protect us from.
There are alternatives: We can build public cooling spaces and smarter cities, with fixes like white paint and more greenery. Some experts have hailed heat pump technology as a more efficient option. But as the planet warms and more of its inhabitants have spare income, AC sales are increasing. Ten air conditioners will be sold every second for the next 30 years, according to a United Nations estimate. Access to air conditioning can literally mean life or death for the young, elderly, and those with medical conditions such as compromised immune systems.
The rise of ACs has an enormous cost: Over time, chemicals known as refrigerants leak out of AC units and accelerate climate change.
International treaties have tried to fix this. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol banned the production of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that were rapidly depleting the ozone layer and damaging forests and croplands. The typical narrative is that as scientists sounded the alarm, the world came together and set binding targets for phasing out the chemicals. In doing so, we averted a catastrophic threat to life on Earth.
The chemicals that replaced CFCs are called hydrofluorocarbons. While HFCs don’t deplete the ozone, they are powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Phasing out HFCs, which are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is one of the most critical actions the world can take this decade to curb climate change. Earlier this year, the United States belatedly signed the 2016 Kigali amendment, which extends the Montreal Protocol to almost entirely phase out HFCs over the next 30 years.
Eric Dean Wilson, the Brooklyn-based author of the book After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort, is skeptical that phasing out these chemicals will be easy. He’s concerned that a form of protection from a warming world should involve swapping out one chemical for another.
He also made a more radical argument that, in the United States and even around the world, a big cultural shift could lead to a more communal idea of cooling, instead of a retreat to our separately cooled homes. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why Air Conditioning Is Becoming a Climate Disaster
What drew you to writing about ACs?
It’s easier for us to understand climate violence in terms of things like hurricane damage or wildfires. They’re very spectacular. But what’s actually happening is a lot more tedious and really difficult to narrate.
I realized air conditioning was a way to get at the very material nature of the climate crisis but in a way that is quite unspectacular, because the refrigerant is literally invisible to all the senses. The paradox is that we’re surrounded by air conditioning, but hardly anybody thinks about it.
What I hoped to do with the book was by tracing this history people could consider a radically different way of living, one that doesn’t have to be suffering. It can actually be pleasurable. I think a lot of people are too afraid to even try that because they think they have to give something up. I hope that it can open the door just a little bit for people to really re-contextualize what it means to be comfortable. I think there’s something to be said about making us a bit more comfortable with the discomfort of outside air.
The Montreal Protocol has been hailed as such a success at phasing out ozone-destroying CFCs that I didn’t even realize there’s still clearly a market for these chemicals in the United States.
The Montreal Protocol worked. It took years and years of revision, but it started with the international community coming together and deciding that this was a crisis, that they needed to act on it now. It wasn’t an easy win for international policy, but it was and remains the only international environmental treaty whose target emissions are legally binding.
The Montreal Protocol was a lot easier because it targeted a Western world. The ozone crisis was seen as targeting, first and foremost, white people (even though that narrative wasn’t actually true). The US government thought that because they banned production of CFCs, and most of the world was going to follow quickly behind, the supply of CFCs would run out by the year 2000. That didn’t happen. And there’s really no government program, still, to clean it up.
You profile Sam Schiller, who is in the business of tracking, reclaiming, and destroying this refrigerant, Freon, that is technically illegal to produce. What did his work tell you about the world‘s mission now, to phase out climate pollutants in air conditioners
Sam’s work reveals a huge gap in federal policy. The federal and international focus was on stopping production of a dangerous refrigerant. For a material like Freon-12 (CFC-12), which is what Sam was looking for, there’s a finite amount of it as material that is no longer produced. But there’s really no government program to clean it up. And once it’s been smuggled into the country, then it can be bought and sold legally.
It’s really difficult to actually destroy the refrigerant, or even contain it. And you can imagine why because you basically have to do what Sam did which is to trawl the corners of the United States looking for this material God knows where.
And Sam deals with some hostility along the way while buying these refrigerants to destroy them safely — some people who distrust environmentalists and who don’t believe in climate change. What did you learn from him?
The last section of the book is about Sam’s relationship with “The Iceman,” a guy who was particularly hostile and also a big shot in the refrigerant reclaimer business. That section tells the story of Sam being told to get off his property because he was a “carbon guy” and that he didn’t want Sam to buy it if he was going to destroy it. Sam is bold enough to try to have a conversation with him, and he was able to convince the guy that there was no reason why he shouldn’t sell it to him.
Over the years, they got to be actually really good friends, and just before he died he told Sam that he had really changed his views. I think talking to those communities is sometimes seen as a lost cause and a waste of energy, and Sam didn’t see that.
Sam shows you need radical systemic change, but if you don’t have cultural change along with that, it’s many, many times harder to actually do it — and maybe even fails.
I’ve gotten death threats in my DMs from people, daring me to come to their house and take their air conditioner. The actions of the federal government or policymakers are going to be seen as an infringement on individual rights.
Air Conditioning Has a Racist History and Present
You cite New York City‘s statistics that even though Black residents make up 22 percent of the population, they account for half of all the heat fatalities in the city. What are the ways we see racism play out in the disparities in air conditioning and cooling today?
From the very beginning, even before air conditioning’s invention, people who were enslaved in the 18th century were denied any cooling.
After World War II, the GI Bill famously gave mortgages to white homeowners and denied them to Black homeowners and basically anyone who wasn’t white. It was a lot easier for white homeowners to have access to cooling. So that left a huge gap, especially in the South, between Black homeowners and white homeowners.
It’s never really closed entirely. That is a huge issue in a city like New York, in working-class neighborhoods where there’s a higher percentage of Black and brown residents than there are white residents who are shut out from air conditioning. That’s because even people who can afford air conditioning may not be guaranteed they’ll have the energy to power them during a heat wave.
In a heat wave, because of the strain on the energy grid from climate disasters, a private, monopolized energy company will sometimes deliberately shut off the energy grid in order to preserve the integrity of the whole, and the neighborhoods that they choose to do that in are the ones that generate the least profit which are usually working-class neighborhoods of color.
And then there’s the wealth disparity that we’re seeing, especially in developing countries: that air conditioning units have become a marker of class and sometimes ethnic divisions, of who can and cannot afford AC. That’s why an approach to cooling justice — ways to make sure that everyone has access — is super crucial because AC has really become a dividing tool.
We don’t treat heat waves like the emergency they are
We’re all thinking a lot about the safety of indoor spaces because of Covid-19. What strikes you about those debates given your research on cooling?
I had done all this research on what’s sometimes called the open-air battles of schools in the early 20th century, especially in New York. There were these really fierce ideological divisions between people who thought that schoolrooms should be mechanically ventilated, and others who thought that schoolrooms should have open windows. There was even a school in Chicago where in the winter they had to give students fur coats and put them on the roof. It was still seen that fresh air was healthier. Healthy and fresh air is a debatable term when you’re in a city where there’s lots of pollution.
That debate really died out once you had central air conditioning systems toward the end of the 1930s and 40s. By then, it was mandated that schools were ventilated, and They’re supposed to have air conditioning although some still don’t have it.
With the pandemic, we see all these questions again almost exactly 100 years later. It’s like we haven’t really solved this. What’s healthy? How much ventilation is healthy? Should public spaces like schools be cooled all the time?
Many of the people reading this may be sitting in an air-conditioned space right now. So what is the alternative vision?
I’m interested in more radical changes so that the same technology that was bred in the United States, and that same definition of comfort, doesn’t just get carbon-copied and spread to the rest of the world.
When you have open asphalt, which often falls in sections of the city with the working poor, you have hotter cities. Planting more trees and green space can lower the urban heat island effect by several degrees. You can also have better-designed buildings, but that’s tricky because you need new materials and lots of money. You can provide heat pumps, but you also need to redesign the building’s air systems. And we also need more access to publicly cooled spaces so that we’re not all, individually, cooling our homes.
And then there are the cultural solutions: It’s really worth looking at why heat waves cause so many deaths. We don’t treat heat waves like the emergency they are. In a heat wave, people assume you just keep working. It’s not just that people die because they get too hot. It’s often because the medical infrastructure is not there. It’s often that even the people who have air conditioning are too afraid to turn it on because they can’t afford it. It’s often because people are left alone.
Climate Change Books Summer 2021
• “Can the world really just fall apart?” on How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens. Translated from French by Andrew Brown.
• “Bill Gates offers direction, not solutions” on How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates
• “Is the best way to solve climate change to ‘do nothing?’” on How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
• “How national security is being redefined by climate change” on All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change by Michael T. Klare
• “Air conditioning is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century. It’s also killing the 21st,” an interview with Eric Dean Wilson on his new book, After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort
• “On the future of walls, or The Wall” on The Wall by John Lanchester
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