Air conditioning is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century. It’s also killing the 21st – TechCrunch

What was the first time indoor air became cold and clean?
Air conditioning is one those inventions that has become so commonplace that most people don't realize it wasn't even invented a century ago. It wasn't that long ago that the indoor air and the outdoor air were the same thing, and the occupants had no control over their environment.

Eric Dean Wilson's new book, After Cooling. On Freon and Global Warming and the Terrible Cost of Comfort dives into the past of the field. To make people want to purchase an air conditioner, it took more than inventing it. For years, entire social classes rejected the technology. Air conditioning was not easy to implement. It required a lot of marketing skills and mass social change.

Wilson covers this history but has a bigger agenda: To get us to understand how our daily comforts impact others. Our use of frigid cooling causes massive greenhouse gas emissions that cause untold damage to our planet and civilization. Ironically, our pursuit of comfort leads to more insecurity and eventually less comfort.

It's an provocative book. TechCrunch hosted Wilson earlier this week for a discussion on a Twitter Space. Here are some highlights from our conversation if you didn't catch it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Danny Crichton: This book's framing story is about you and Sam's travels. Sam works to destroy Freon. What prompted you to choose this narrative arc?

Eric Dean Wilson: Sam was at that time working for a green energy company and trying to find a way of taking on green projects that would make a profit. They found used Freon, or CFC-12. Although it is no longer made, it partially destroyed the ozone layer. Therefore, production was stopped in the 1990s.

However, the use of it and its sale on the secondary market are legal. This loophole is in legality because the United States government and those who signed the Montreal Protocol believed that Freon would be eliminated by the year 2000 if it was stopped being produced. It didn't happen which is a bit of a mystery.

Sam was driving across the United States looking for Freon online and met people who had Freon in their cars. He was purchasing Freon from them to use as carbon credits on California's cap-and trade system. The interesting thing is that he was actually going to all 48 states and meeting people who were often deniers of global warming. They were often opposed to the idea that the refrigerant was being destroyed so he didn't always tell them.

It was interesting to me that, apart from the cast of strange and colorful characters and sometimes violent characters, he was sometimes able to have open conversations about global warming with people who otherwise would not be so open.

This story struck me as a strange one in a world where Americans seem more divided politically than ever.

Crichton: When it comes to greenhouse gasses, Freon is right.

Wilson: It is important to be clear that the major global warming gases are methane, carbon dioxide, and other substances. But molecule for molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are thousands of times greater at absorbing and retaining heat, meaning that theyre just thousands of times worse for global warming, molecule for molecule. Even though they aren't very many in the atmosphere in terms of their parts per million, they still make a significant contribution to global warming.

Ironically, the replacements for CFCs and HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), don't really do anything to reduce the ozone layer. This is a great thing. They are also extremely global warming gases. The solution to the ozone crisis was to replace CFCs by refrigerant, which exacerbated global warming.

Crichton: To get to the core of the book, you concentrate on the rise and fall of air conditioning. However, you also give readers a broad view of life before it was invented. What made you do this?

Wilson: I was surprised to discover this. There was an earlier sense of personal comfort. I argue that the way we think about comfort and thermal comfort has changed since the advent of air conditioning. The book argues that it is in part cultural construction.

Now, I want people to not hear that it is a construction. Yes, we can certainly die if we are too hot or cold. What is really fascinating to me, however, is the fact that before the invention of air conditioning in the 20th century, there was no evidence that people were hungry for it.

This was a greater sense of being able to deal with heat. Because I don't want to claim that they were unable to deal with the heat, I made that statement very carefully. There were heat waves, and there were summers that were too hot. There was an understanding that heat could be managed analogously, such as sleeping outside, in parks, and designing buildings with passive cooling. I was disturbed by the fact that we forgot this information through the 20th century. We didn't have to know that we had air conditioning. Modernist architecture started to ignore outside conditions because it was possible to create whatever conditions inside.

This is the question that no one really asked: Is it good for everyone? Do we need a uniform standard of comfort? That question was not asked. There are many people who find the American model of office and American model comfort not to be comfortable in America, as well as in other countries.

Crichton: You want readers to see how comfort connects us all, even beyond a uniform standard.

Wilson: One of the problems with the American definitions of comfort is its personalization. That's why I continue to use it because its definition is individual comfort. What does it mean to consider comfort as always being connected to someone else? It is more ethical to do this. It is true.

Our comfort is a function of other people and vice versa. This requires us to think in interdependence, rather than independently as we are often taught to. This is a big task. It's also a paradigm shift. However, if we really want to think ecologically and not just sustainably then we must think about how infrastructures are interconnected and how they impact other people.

Crichton: The air conditioning industry didn't explode overnight. It was actually the customers and its inventors who had to work hard to convince people to use it.

Wilson: Air conditioning was developed in the early 20th century to regulate the temperature in factories. Surprised to learn that air conditioning was used to heat up, or make it more humid, in places like textile factories, where cotton threads can become damaged if they are not properly humid.

Movie theaters were the first place that thermal comfort was sold outside of the factory. Although there were many other comfort commodities, this was the first place where the public could feel cool. The funny thing about this is that while most movie theaters of the 20s and 30s were cold, they weren't what I would consider comfortable. This was because the people running them didn't understand that air conditioners work best when it is least noticed, which can be a difficult sell. It was still a novelty in the 20s. People would turn the AC on for five minutes and then they were uncomfortable. Then it was too hot and people would be shivering for the entire movie.

Crichton: I'm jumping ahead. But what will the future look like if global warming continues and our cooling increases in accordance with that heat?

Wilson: There are many options for cooling. One of them is redesigning buildings to use less energy and cool down. Amazing architects are exploring things like termite mounds. They are able to create rooms that are different in temperature and design them with great engineering.

Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised at how much comfort can be changed by just understanding that it is possible. The commercial advertising industry can help us to make tomorrow's world more desirable. This future must be something we want and not something we have to give up. The narrative goes something like this: We have to stop doing it, we need to lower this, and we have give up. It's easier to see it as something we were not giving up but something we were gaining. It makes it seem a lot easier for people.

After Cooling: On Freon and Global Warming and the Terrible Cost of Comfort By Eric Dean Wilson

Simon & Schuster, 2021, 480 pages

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