Air conditioning

[I have added somewhat to this, since it was posted, for the usual motive: to clarify some minor obscurities that were leading certain readers to grief.]


It would be hard to convey my views on air conditioning in a brief essay, but I’ll try. The Holy Father conveyed his in less than a paragraph of Laudato si’. On “harmful habits of consumption” he writes: “A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.”

He has been mocked for this, I think about equally by Left and Right. I happen to agree with Pope Francis on this point — though not on specifically Catholic grounds, and with one important reservation.

If the “outsider” came from Mars, where the climate is somewhat cooler, he would immediately understand our use of air conditioners. He would not be inclined to attribute this to the usual market hype. Though I allow, if he came from Mercury or Venus, he might find our air conditioning a perverse extravagance.

The pope sleeps in a typically modern building, completed in 1996. According to my best information, it is air conditioned against the muggy Roman summers. They are nothing compared to India, however, where the pre-monsoon heat this year has reached nearly 120F for sustained periods, killing off thousands of the old, weak, and poor without air conditioning. This was reported as an effect of global warming, by our credulous media. I frankly doubt this. At first hand, I know it gets very hot there. So that, more hot than usual is very, very hot.

Up here in the High Doganate, we are equipped with two electric fans (a ceiling fan in one room, a floor fan for the other) — but also with large windows facing west, in a masonry structure that absorbs and retains heat in all seasons, and offers no cross-ventilation. It is wonderful in the winter. However, indoor summer temperatures often rise above 100F, and may not sink below 90F, even at night, for the length of any heat wave.

The temptation to buy, and even to install an air conditioner, has been overcome, but sometimes it has been a close-run thing. In the end, appearance trumped substance, and my revulsion for the sight and sound of air conditioners carried me through the broil of temptation. (One may go walking by the Lakeshore, where there is some tree cover, and with any luck, a breeze. Too, when no one’s looking, one may dress like Vlad the Poutine.)

In the days before I was born, according to usually reliable sources, the electro-mechanical air conditioner was rare. Willis Carrier may have invented the thing in 1902, but it took some decades to catch on. It wasn’t all market hype, but I’m sure some market hype came into it.

Five thousand years before that, people were hanging wet reeds and cloth strips in open windows and doors, to get the same effect from natural evaporation, but this does not work well in dead air. The clever Romans piped aqueduct-cooled water through the houses of the rich, but the urban poor were crammed into apartment buildings much like our own, with flats on both sides of corridors, and thus, poor ventilation. They had fountains, though — they still have many fountains — and convection chimneys. Their ceilings were anyway higher than ours; and there were many other intelligent features of design, still in use until the Age of Air Conditioning.


One laughs, parenthetically, at the various “green” innovations now advertised (by the capitalists) as state-of-the-art, which are actually retrogressions — things we used to make, ourselves, before the habit of never buying what you can make was inverted. And the capitalists are as happy to hype “climate change” to the over-monied suckers, as any global warm-alarmist; they make mass-market products to cash in either way.

One gets bored demonizing them. I’d rather demonize the suckers, for variety.

Or sometimes play, with malignant irony, to the gallery of socialist environmentalcases, by praising policies that will at least make everyone but their nomenklatura poor, hungry, and desperate again — every bit as consumerist as before, but now with nothing to consume.

But as a Catholic, and a man of the thirteenth century, I have a strong preference for voluntary arrangements. This is because the involuntary ones confer no benefits on anyone’s soul, except by unforeseeable chance. Observe that in His own daily relations with our human race, God shows a marked preference for voluntary arrangements, to the point of letting us learn from our stupidities, individually; and even though some of these, as it were, spill across the lanes of our common highway to salvation.


The truth is that our noisome machines (including elevators) make it possible to cram middle-class and even up-market people into ever tighter residential and office spaces, stacking them up to the giddy heights required by property values artificially inflated — in the course of which the human need for some privacy and a bit of space, makes the humans less and less convivial; more and more like cornered beasties.

As my papa, an industrial designer, taught me, “technological solutions” are for dunderheads. They are not likely to be “elegant solutions.” The cognitively unimpaired resort instead to design. Technology serves design, and not vice versa. That is to say, gizmo minimalism, not gizmo maximalism. For the less we depend upon technology to save us — the fewer gizmos that must work to keep us moving — the longer and pleasanter our days.

Moreover, design is not just for designers.


Late in 1977, I returned to tropical Bangkok, for the third time in my then shorter life. I had a job that paid extremely well. Driven by a Christianity that had not dogged me before, I resolved to live in poverty, and save my money for the future, or perhaps even for good deeds. Also, to avoid the farang (“foreign”) encampments, and live like an unwealthy urban Thai.

This resolution lasted until the hot season par excellence, in March, when I remembered that I was still a farang, of the Nordic racial persuasion, who could not function in the sweltering tropical heat. And so I moved into delightfully air-conditioned digs, which I could easily afford, and gradually came to take comfort for granted, working as I did in an air-conditioned office, and travelling about the city, often as not, in air-conditioned cars.

One concession led to another, and within months I was doing my part in stoking the GDP of an East Asian tiger economy, whose social and industrial progress was quickly obliterating everything that had once made Siam so beautiful, so mai pen rai (untranslatable Thai expression usually rendered, “it doesn’t matter”).

For I had also lived in Bangkok as a child in the mid-‘sixties, when air conditioners were an extravagant novelty; when traditional houses could still be seen everywhere, on teak stilts above the monsoon floods, with glassless open shutters. The climate had not changed much over the intervening years, but the buildings had changed, thanks to capitalist prosperity and rapid “modernization.” (A dictator had tried to arrest this progress, but been blown out of its way.)

The Bangkok someone else may want to visit today, was already under construction (skyscraper city), the klongs (“canals”) were being infilled for highways, cars were infilling those, trees were disappearing, and even the old plaster-wall shophouses with their high ceilings and fans, were being replaced with new concrete bunkers wherein, without air conditioning, you die — at least metaphorically.

From other travels, I’ve noticed that these phenomena were not restricted to Bangkok; that urban hell is expanding everywhere; that it cannot function without air conditioners. (And elevators, et cetera.)

It follows, to the shallow post-modern mind, that we are stuck with air conditioning, for we have built around it. Those who oppose it are therefore mocked, for refusing to accommodate this “reality.”

But no, we are only stuck with it while the electrical grid holds up. When it doesn’t, as has happened even in north-eastern North America, we discover that our entire civilization has been reconstructed on an ever-lengthening series of design errors.


Electro-mechanical refrigerators were a clever invention, too. Moderate Luddites who might draw the line at air conditioners, will allow that refrigerators (or, “reverberators” as I call them) are an indisputably Good Thing. After all, they keep our fresh food from spoiling.

For four years in England I lived without one, in a pre-Victorian workman’s cottage of inner London where, crank that I am, I did without electricity and indoor plumbing. I could do a post-modern William Cobbett, and explain how easy it was to re-adapt to the old simplicities, but not today.

I will only mention that my splendid, hearth-warmed and summer-cooled stone domicile at 60, Wilcox Road, Vauxhall — the happiest, most attractive quarters I ever occupied — has since been crushed under a tower block for perpetually discontented Labour Party voters. (Verily, it is the same almost every place I once lived: torn down and replaced with something hideous and evil and beyond fixing.)


Too, the question of climate control arises for the preservation of archives and treasures. I think of the ancient Janggyeong Panjeon, within the Haeinsa temple complex in the Gaya mountains of southern Korea. Woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana — ten-thousands of them — were housed in this ingeniously-designed facility from the fourteenth century. They remained in a perfect state of preservation until 1970, when they were removed to a high-tech bespoke, “state of the art,” climate-controlled facility. Within a few years the woodblocks were visibly deteriorating from mildew. The Koreans being smarter than most, they were therefore moved back.

The monasteries of old Europe performed like feats in the preservation of libraries over many centuries. As some of these still exist, despite more recent centuries of purposeful, anti-clerical, revolutionary destruction, we might wish to revisit them, and recover methods of controlling temperature and humidity that will work when all electro-mechanical power sources go down; which cost more skill to build, but little to maintain, and are immeasurably superior both morally and aesthetically.


In domestic and institutional arrangements, alike, we have more work to do, today, minding our machines, as well as paying for them, than we once had without them. (There are time studies to prove this.) And if we say there’s no way back, there must have been no way forward.

We “opted” for crazy; we could just as well opt for sane: keep what is genuinely useful, and discreetly trash everything else. Or if you will, refuse to buy this crap, and exit the rat race thereby, and live for considerably cheaper.

This would require only a re-orientation of our precious lives, towards tranquillity and holiness and immortality — a simple matter of religious conversion which, thanks to Jesus Christ, may be accomplished in a trice.

Gentle reader, I implore you to retrogress!