Modernity was born 116 years, 11 months, two weeks and two days ago, at a printing plant in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, when a junior engineer named Willis Carrier devised a contraption that blew air over water-filled pipes to dry out the humidity that was gumming up the pages of a humor magazine called Judge.
And in that moment (well, within a few decades), entire industries and geographies were transformed, and new technologies made possible, including, terribly, the internet: Without cooling, there would be no server farms.
Nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning, more than any other country in the world except Japan, though that will change as global warming alters more temperate zones, and swelling populations and rising incomes in hot zones mean the folks there will clamor for AC, too.
On an overheated planet, air-conditioning becomes more and more desirable, solving in the short term the problem it helped create.
It is another paradox that even as architects and engineers are making ever more efficient buildings to meet energy standards set by cities like New York, where a new law says that buildings over 25,000 square feet must reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, we are still freezing in our offices and fighting with our partners over whether to turn on the Friedrich.
Parts of Germany and France were recently steaming through record temperatures — during last week’s heat wave,police officers in Paris used tear gas on climate change protesters — while I was southbound on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, shivering in the quiet car, rugged up in a scarf, jacket, long pants and boots.
So were my fellow travelers, like Solange Singer, a 41-year-old fashion stylist muffled in similar gear, with a red wool scarf laid out on her lap like a blanket. The conductor seemed puzzled when I asked him what temperature the thermostat was set to. There is no thermostat, he said: “It’s either off or on.”
Fire, the saying goes, made us human. Does air-conditioning make us less so?
I like climate controls, and like electricity and plumbing and internet, I want air conditioning in my life. But there also tends to be a dismissiveness whenever climate control’s relative merits are brought up that I think obscures the fact that climate control fanaticism sometimes makes it difficult to enjoy summer for what it is—a warmer time of year.
When we use technology to systematically alienate ourselves from experiencing the natural world, we’re using that technology in a way that generally makes us less resilient and more reliant we make ourselves more comfortable but less familiar with the world of our ancestors. And without wanting to un-invent any particular technology, it should be simple enough to understand why too much alienation from this world, and from a natural experience of it, risks a kind of havoc.
Especially when a technology becomes ubiquitous should its use be intentional.