Air-con is without doubt one of the biggest innovations of the twentieth Century. It’s additionally killing the twenty first – TechCrunch
December 2, 2021 | by Noah Franklin
When did the indoor air get cold and clean?
Air conditioning is one of those inventions that has become so ubiquitous that many in the developed world don’t even realize that it didn’t exist less than a century ago. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that the air in our buildings and the air outside of the buildings were one and the same, and the residents rendered powerless against their surroundings.
Eric Dean Wilson delves into the history of this area in his recently published book, After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort. It took more than just inventing air conditioning to get people to buy it. In fact, entire strata of society completely rejected the technology for years. It took a hectic pace, marketing skills and social mass changes to put air conditioning at the center of our built environment.
Wilson deals with this story, but he has a more ambitious agenda: to show us how our everyday comforts affect other people. Our choice of cold cooling emits blatant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that are putting our planet and civilization under undreamt-of stress. Ironically, our pursuit of comfort creates more insecurity and ultimately less comfort.
It’s a provocative book, and TechCrunch invited Wilson for a discussion in a Twitter space earlier this week. In case you missed it, here are a few selected highlights from our conversation.
This interview has been compressed and edited.
Danny Crichton: The frame story throughout the book is about your travels with your friend Sam who is working to collect and destroy freon. Why did you choose this narrative arc?
Eric Dean Wilson: Sam was working for this green energy company at the time and they were trying to find a way to tackle green projects that would be profitable. They found out that they could do this by finding used freon, especially so-called CFCs. It is no longer manufactured, thank goodness, but it was partly responsible for the partial destruction of the ozone layer and the manufacture was banned in the 1990s.
But it is perfectly legal to use and buy and sell on the secondary market. This is sort of a loophole in the legality of this refrigerant, as the United States government and the signatories of the Montreal Protocol believed that if they stopped production, freon would be all but eliminated by the year 2000. that didn’t happen which is kind of a mystery.
So Sam drove around the United States, found freon on the internet, and met people (often people who are car hobbyists or mechanics or the like) who happened to have freon in stock, and he bought it from them to destroy it for CO2 California Cap-and-Trade System Credits. And the interesting thing is that he basically visits the 48 contiguous states and meets people who often deny global warming, who are often hostile to the idea that the refrigerant is destroyed in the first place, so he often didn’t tell them to him Advance that he destroys it.
What really interested me was that alongside a range of colorful and weird characters, sometimes violent characters, sometimes after building a business relationship, he was able to have really frank conversations about global warming with people who otherwise weren’t very open to it.
At a time when we are told that Americans are more politically divided than ever, that we do not speak to one another across ideological boundaries, I found this a strange story.
Crichton: When it comes to greenhouse gases, Freon is one of the worst, right?
Wilson: I really should make it clear that the main greenhouse gases of global warming are carbon dioxide and methane, and a few others. But, molecule by molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are a thousand times better at absorbing and storing heat, which means they are only a thousand times worse for global warming, molecule by molecule. While there aren’t that many of them in parts per million in the atmosphere, there are enough to really make a significant contribution to global warming.
The irony is, for the most part, replacing CFCs – HFCs (fluorocarbons) doesn’t really help destroy the ozone layer, which is great. But they’re also super global warming gases. For example, the ozone crisis was resolved by replacing CFCs with refrigerants, which exacerbated the global warming crisis.
Crichton: Now, getting to the core of the book, focus on the rise of air conditioning, but you start by giving readers a comprehensive overview of what life was like before they were invented. Why did you do that?
Wilson: That was a surprise – I didn’t go into the book because I thought I would find this. Before the air conditioning really came up in the house there was a whole different sense of what we would call personal comfort. thermal comfort, has changed. What I am arguing in the book is that in part it is actually a cultural construction.
Now I really want to be careful that people don’t hear me saying that this is pure construction. Yes, if we get too hot or too cold, we can safely die. But what I really care about is that there is plenty of evidence that before air conditioning started in the early 20th century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.
There was this greater feeling of coping with the heat. I put it very carefully because I don’t want to say that you suffered from it. Certainly there have been heat waves and summers that are too hot. But there was a real feeling that you could control the heat in analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings with passive cooling. What really bothered me was that we somehow forgot all of this in the 20th century because we no longer needed this knowledge because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to ignore the external conditions because inside you could create whatever conditions you wanted.
I think the question that no one has really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And many people find that the American office model or the American comfort model is not convenient in either the United States or anywhere else.
Crichton: However, you want readers to understand, beyond a homogenized standard, how comfort connects us all.
Wilson: I think one of the harmful things about the American definition of comfort is that it was defined as personal comfort. And the reason I keep using this is because it’s defined as individual comfort. So what would it mean to regard comfort as always related to someone else, as more ethical in this way? Because it’s true.
The truth is that our comfort is related to other people and vice versa. It really asks us to think interdependently instead of thinking independently, which we are often encouraged to do, and that is a huge, huge challenge. It’s actually a huge task and a huge paradigm shift. But I really think if we are really trying to think green, not just sustainable, we have to think about how we are all connected and how these infrastructures affect other people in other parts of the world.
Climate change books summer 2021
Crichton: The air conditioning did not go on immediately. In fact, its inventors and customers had to work really hard to get people to use it.
Wilson: Air conditioning started in the early 20th century to control the conditions in factories. I was surprised to find out that air conditioners were used in places to make things hotter, or more humid and slightly hotter in a textile factory where cotton threads can break if it’s not humid enough.
Outside the factory, cinemas were the first time thermal comfort was used as a commodity. There were all sorts of other conveniences, but this was truly the first time the public could go to a place to feel cooler. And the funny thing is that most of the movie theaters were freezing cold in the 20s and 30s, they weren’t what I would call comfortable because the people who operated them didn’t really understand that air conditioning works best when it is least noticed. which is hard to sell. It was a novelty in the 20s though, and on a summer day you got people’s attention by turning up the air conditioning, which felt good for about five minutes, and then it was terribly uncomfortable and you had to shiver for a half and a half Hours of the rest of the movie.
Crichton: I jump ahead, but what does the future hold if global warming continues and our cooling increases with that heat?
Wilson: In so many cooling situations, there are important alternatives, like redesigning our buildings so they use much less energy and less cooling. There are really amazing architects out there looking for things like termite mounds because the colonies they build have brilliantly designed rooms with different temperatures.
Even so, I was surprised at how much our minds about comfort can change when we just understand that it can change. I think we have to make tomorrow’s world desirable, and we can take inspiration from the commercial advertising industry. We have to sell this future as one we really want, not something we’re giving up. And I think the narrative is always like, “Oh, we have to stop, we have to reduce that, we have to give that up.” And that is certainly true. But I think if we don’t see this as something we’re giving up, but actually as something we’re gaining, then it becomes a lot easier. To people it feels a lot more likely.
After Cooling Down: About Freon, Global Warming, and the Horrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson.
Simon & Schuster, 2021, 480 pages