When did the indoor air get 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, not so long ago, the air inside our buildings and the air outside were one, the occupants being powerless in the face of their environment.
Eric Dean Wilson, in his recently published book, âAfter Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfortâ, delves deeply into the history of this field. It took more than inventing the air conditioner to make people want to buy it. In fact, entire social classes have rejected technology outright for years. It took energy, marketing skills and mass societal changes to put air conditioning at the center of our built environment.
Wilson covers this story, but he has a bigger agenda: to show us how our daily comfort affects others. Our choice of freezing cooling emits flagrant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, putting unspeakable stress on our planet and our civilization. Ironically, our quest for comfort makes us more insecure and ultimately less comfortable.
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 from 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 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 take on green projects that would make a profit. They had discovered that they could do this by finding used freon, especially something called CFC-12. It is no longer manufactured, thank goodness, but it was partly responsible for the partial destruction of the ozone layer, and its production was banned in the 1990s.
Corn use of it, and buying it and selling it on the secondary market, is completely 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 believed that by stopping its production it would pretty much eliminate the freon from here in the year 2000. Well, that didn’t happen, which is a bit of a mystery.
So, Sam was roaming the United States, finding Freon on the Internet and meeting people (often auto enthusiasts or mechanics or something) who had stored Freon, and he would buy them some in order to destroy it for. carbon credits on the California cap and trade system. And the interesting thing about it is that he would basically go to the 48 contiguous states and meet people who were often global warming deniers who were often hostile to the idea of âârefrigerant being destroyed at all, so he wouldn’t let them know. often didn’t say up front that he was destroying it.
What really interested me was that aside from a cast of colorful and weird characters, and sometimes violent characters as well, was the fact that sometimes after establishing a business relationship he was able to ‘have very candid 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 divided than ever politically, that we do not speak to each other across ideological divisions, I thought it was a curious story.
Crichton: And when it comes to greenhouse gases, freon is among the worst, right?
Wilson: I should be very clear that the main global warming gases are carbon dioxide and methane and others. But molecule for molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are thousands of times more capable of absorbing and retaining heat, which means they’re just thousands of times worse for global warming, molecule by molecule. So while there isn’t much of it in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere, there is enough of it to really make a significant contribution to global warming.
The irony is that the replacements for CFCs – HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) – for the most part do nothing to destroy the ozone layer, which is great. But they are also super greenhouse gases. Thus, the ozone crisis was resolved by replacing CFCs with refrigerants which exacerbated the global warming crisis.
Crichton: Going to the heart of the book now, you focus on the rise of air conditioning, but start by giving readers a big picture of life before it was invented. Why do you do that?
Wilson: It was a surprise – I didn’t go into the book thinking I was going to find this. Before air conditioning really took off in the house, there was a very different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really support in the book is that what we have come to think of as comfort. personnel, and more specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I’m arguing about in the book is that it’s really part of a cultural construct.
Now i really wanna be careful what people don’t hear i say it is entirely a building site. Yes, when we are 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 in the early twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.
There was this greater feeling that you could face the heat. I put this very carefully, because I don’t mean that they suffered from it. Certainly, there have been heat waves and too hot summers. But there was a real feeling that you could handle the heat through analog means, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings with built-in passive cooling. What really bothered me was that during the twentieth century, we kind of forgot all that, because we no longer needed this knowledge because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture started to kind of ignore the exterior conditions, because you could build any conditions you wanted inside.
I think the question nobody really asked is, is it good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? No one really asked that question. And there are a lot of people who find the kind of American office model or American comfort model uncomfortable, both in the United States and elsewhere.
Crichton: Even beyond a homogenized standard, you want readers to understand how comfort connects us all together.
Wilson: I think one of the pernicious things about the American definition of comfort is that it has been defined as staff comfort. And the reason I keep using it is because it’s defined as individual comfort. And so, what would it mean to view comfort as always being connected to someone else, as more ethical in that way? Because it’s true.
The truth is that our comfort is related to others, and vice versa. It really requires us to think interdependently, rather than independently, which is often the way we’re encouraged to think, and that’s a huge, huge demand. In fact, it is a huge task and a huge paradigm shift. But I really think that if we are really trying to think in an environmentally friendly way, and not just sustainable, we have to think about how we are all connected and how these infrastructures, how they influence other people in others. parts of the world.
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Crichton: The air conditioning did not take off right away. In fact, its inventors and customers really had to put in some effort to get people to want to use it.
Wilson: Air conditioning really made its debut at the beginning of the 20th century, in order to control conditions in factories. I was surprised to find that air conditioning was used in places to make things warmer, or more humid and slightly warmer in a place like a textile factory, where if it is not humid enough, the cotton threads can break.
Outside of the factory, movie theaters were truly the first time that thermal comfort was used as a commodity. There were all kinds of other commodities of comfort, but this was truly the first time the public could go somewhere to feel fresher. And the funny thing is, most of the theaters in the 20’s and 30’s were freezing cold, they weren’t what I would call comfortable, because the people who ran them didn’t really understand that the air conditioning worked any better. when you noticed it the least, which is a hard sell. In the 1920s, however, it was a novelty, and the way you caught people’s attention on a summer day was to turn up the air conditioning, which felt good for about five minutes, and then it was awfully. uncomfortable and you must have been shivering. an hour and a half of the rest of the film.
Crichton: I’m moving forward, but what does the future look like as global warming persists and our cooling increases with that heat?
Wilson: In so many cooling situations, there are major alternatives, such as redesigning our buildings so that they require much less energy and much less cooling. There are some really amazing architects who look to things like termite mounds, because the settlements they build sort of have brilliantly designed rooms with different temperatures.
That said, I was surprised at how much our opinion of comfort could change just by understanding that it could cash. I think we have to make the world of tomorrow desirable, and we can nod to the commercial advertising industry. We have to sell this future as the one we really want, not as something we give up. And I think the narrative is always like, “Oh, we have to stop doing that, we have to turn this down, we have to give up that.” And that is certainly true. But I think if we understand that it’s not something that we give up, but actually something that we gain, then that makes it a lot easier. For people, it makes things 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