Sin Tracker: air conditioning

In: Uncategorized

24 Aug 2006

Monitoring the alleged sins of modern life

This is the first of my Sin Tracker columns in which I discuss specific targets for attacks on modern living by environmentalists. There are plenty of candidates for future columns including eating cheap food, using too much water, buying cheap goods, driving cars and going on holiday abroad. Additional suggestions are welcome. But this dispatch will focus on the hot topic of air conditioning.

Prospect magazine’s September issue includes an entire essay by James Fergusson , a British writer, on why air conditioning “while liberating us, increasingly threatens us too”. For Fergusson air conditioning belongs alongside the aeroplane and car as destroyers of the environment:

“There is a piece of 20th-century technology—seldom discussed or even noticed because it is practically invisible when working as it should—which has played a role in shaping the modern world almost as big as the motor car or the aeroplane. Its contribution to carbon emissions and climate change has been just as disastrous, in its way, and is set to make an even bigger impact in the near future. Step forward, please, the humble air-conditioning unit.”

Despite its heavy use of electricity (a terrible sin apparently) he is balanced enough to acknowledge the role of air conditioning in economic development:

“Since the 1950s air-conditioning has been partly responsible for the economic development of America’s sunbelt, internal migration towards which continues to this day. Never mind the cowboys out west: aircon was how the south was won. The same is true of many other parts of the world. The financial centres of Japan, the capitals of the Asian tiger economies, the hubs of the Gulf like Dubai—all would be almost unthinkable without temperature control. So too would the software that links and underpins them, since computer technology does not function well in hot and humid conditions. Without air-conditioning, the information superhighway would buckle in the heat.”

Environmentalist attacks on air conditioning were anticipated by Mick Hume, the editor of Spiked, in an article in the Times (London) on 28 July. According to Hume:

“Verily, they want us to suffer for our sins. The old puritans cautioned only that we would burn in Hell in the next life. The neo-puritans tell us we must burn on Earth in this one.”