The world outside is getting warmer. To escape the heat, we turn on the air conditioner. But this small act has some unwanted consequences: by cooling the inside, warmth is created and extracted outside, increasing the heat. And of course, the energy that is used contributes to global warming. The example of air-conditioning in this story shows how our modernist tendencies to control nature (the “world outside”), bites us in the neck in the long run. If we want to escape technological dilemmas such as this one, we might have to let go of our wish to control nature. City planners and technology users should remain critical about simple solutions to complex problems and remain open towards other ways to cool our air.
Controlling the world outside
The air conditioner can be seen as a typical representation of ecomodernist tendencies. The ecomodernist way of thinking, supported by a manifesto, is stooled on the thought that technological development will in time be able to fix the climate crisis. This is modernist in its focus on technology and science as well as in the sense that it assumes a progressive arrow of time: we are working towards a common future. Moreover, modernist tendencies are often criticized for their uncritical separation of nature and culture, where this distinction might not always uphold. Airconditioning fits in this picture. After all, it helps us enforce the distinction between our inside airspaces and the outside world where hot air, smog and bugs prevail.
Originally however, the design of the air conditioner was meant for other purposes. Willis Carrier is widely credited as the inventor of modern air-conditioning in 1902. His ‘device for treating air’ was designed to dehumidify the room of a printing press, so the ink would not run. But after it was found that the device can be used to cool rooms as well, the invention was adopted in theatres and government buildings. Some thirty years later, air-conditioning was made available for the wider public.
The implementation was very successful. Not only because there was an increasing need for comfort, but also because the machine succeeded in creating its own market. Not long after the wide-spread marketization of air-conditioning, there was a post-war housing boom going on. To be able to build fast, houses were built according to a standard model. Thanks to the air conditioner, this model did not have to be adapted to the local climate. Even in places where it was very hot during summer, like the south of the United States, houses were built on a large scale. Cities like Phoenix and Miami were able to expand rapidly. Houses in these cities were built with air-conditioning in mind. In fact, energy providers incentivized a practice called ‘load building’; a building style that makes high energy use necessary. At the time, it was unknown (or ignored) that such a high use of energy has the unforeseen consequence of carbon emissions and thus contributes to global warming.
This particular part of the history of air-conditioning happened during the Great Acceleration, the period of excessive growth of resource use after the second World War. The example of load building is a very clear example how this acceleration happened: through a naïve and overenthusiastic implementation of new technologies, with the help of a political-economic obsession with growth and along with some climate ignorance, global emissions increased. The situation also created path dependencies: this modernist manner of building houses made it hard for individual people to get rid of their air-conditioning system. The houses are simply built for it.
Technologies such as the air conditioner are deeply entangled with social norms as well. The modernization of the rest of the world is often intertwined with, and achieved with, Americanized architecture. The air conditioner allowed glass and steel skyscrapers (not the most suitable materials in a desert sun) to pop up in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The worldwide adoption of this device, and the social norms that travel with it, also creates inequalities. In India for example, as Stan Cox states in his book Losing Our Cool, A/C means VIP. The wealthy distinguish themselves from the poor by retreating in air-conditioned rooms and train carriages, widening the gap between social economicclasses.
Technology often enforces dominant social norms. In a fragment for Sky News in 2015, The Telegraph’s Radhika Sanghani argues that office air-conditioning is sexist, because it mostly catered to men in suits. Along with gendered dress codes, this produces an environment in which women must bring a sweater to work in order to be comfortable. Her standpoint was often ridiculed after, but the debate raises important questions. Who benefits from the technologies we use? What baselines (such as temperature) are created? Who must adapt to them, and who is able to remain comfortable ignoring it?
Caring for humans and technology
But air-conditioning is not all bad. Elderly deaths during heat waves have decreased significantly, for example. Air-conditioning plays a crucial role in hospitals, but also in historical archives, museums, and internet databases, as emphasized by Gail Cooper in her book Air-conditioning America. A typically American air-conditioned mall can be seen as an example of the commercialization of public spaces, but on the other hand does make it possible for elderly people to, despite the suffocating heat outside, get their daily exercise by practicing ‘mall-walking’.
The caring capacities of an air-conditioning system show that a careful implementation of technologies is not insignificant. The air conditioner cannot be disregarded as something we have to get rid of. We must care for our technologies. The invention of Willis Carrier did not appear from the blueprint directly but was the result of constant conversation with the materials, of tinkering and adapting the pieces on the insides of the machine. When eventually the device was closed off, or ‘black-boxed’, the air conditioner appeared on the market as a unifiedproduct.
The risk of a machine such as air-conditioning, is indeed its uncritical adoption. It is too easy for a consumer to buy and use the product, without questioning if it is really necessary, or whether other solutions are possible. This is what scholars in the Science and Technology Studies call ‘opening the black box’: by critically studying the inputs, outputs and structures of established systems and machines, we learn a lot about what they mean culturally, what effects they produce spatially and environmentally, and how this might be done differently. The air-conditioner is an established system, but we can once again open the black box. By remaining critical to its material metabolisms and the effects that it creates, we should get rid of unnecessary harms while keeping the benefits. After all, before 2015, air conditioners used R22 as a cooling liquid, but when it was found that this contributed to the hole in the ozone-layer, this substance was banned and replaced. By building knowledge and improving technology, and most of all by handling with care, harmful effects on the climate might be avoided.
Conditioning air through urban design
Improvement of technologies should not be seen separately from the larger context they are part of. In an essay for The Ecologist, The Symbiosis Research Collective emphasize that air-conditioning is not the only way to apply cooling: “We don’t need a techno-fix to solve our problems, there are plenty of cool alternatives, involving rethinking urban design and how we use public space”. They argue for an ‘ecological approach’ to cooling, taking into consideration not only technology, but other factors as well “such as local climate, conditions, social norms, and built environment”. In their article they mention a plethora of ways in which social movements can come together to create cooler cities. Bottom-up initiatives should be facilitated and supported in order to create cooling in a democratic, equitable and convivial fashion.
There are great examples of alternative cooling, such as wind-towers in Dubai, catching wind at the top and directing it downwards to produce a cool breeze at street level. A lot of indigenous and tropical architectural examples are prevalent as well, but knowledge on this has often been lost. Only recently a rediscovered recognition of the genius of some cooling methods has become more mainstream, such as building air flows and shade into the structure of buildings and cities.
And it does not have to be hard: fountains and other water elements have a cooling effect, as well as trees and other structures that produce shade. An ecological approach demands a role for politics and planning. If the world is going to continue to heat up, we must rethink architecture, city planning and technology. We cannot afford these ecomodernist tendencies to implement a too-easy adoption of technofixes that harm the environment and contribute to inequity in the long run. We should not wait for technology companies to fix our crises. If we, planners and citizens alike, build cities together to be better adapted to rising temperatures, we might not need so much air-conditioning after all.