Thursday, July 13, 2017

Air-Conditioning and Its Discontents

It is summer. It is hot, very hot. So I virtually live in air-conditioning. I didn't do so growing up, of course, because then air-conditioning was (or was thought to be) an expensive luxury, something people of our social class presumably didn't deserve. Even the family car wasn't air-conditioned. Nor, come to think of it, was the only car I ever owned (as an assistant professor from 1977 though 1981). The seminary wasn't air-conditioned either, nor were some of the churches I have served in. I know there are people who don't like air-conditioning, who don't mind the heat. But I have no patience with heat, whether at  home or at work or in the car. Heat kills! And air-conditioning has been invented!

That said, I am all too aware of the vicious circle of environmental damage air-conditioning contributes to. As Brian Strassburger, SJ, has recently written at The Jesuit Post
“With global temperatures hitting record highs the past few years, AC use has likewise increased. World energy use for cooling has outstripped the energy used for heating. … In an increasingly hotter planet, air conditioning can be a life-saver. But if it is contributing to heating the planet, does that balance out?”

(Strassburger is a Jesuit-in-Formation, currently working - without air-conditioning - in Managua, Nicaragua. His entire post can be read at:

Air-conditioning has been a godsend - not just in beating the summer heat but also in enabling me to make it through allergy season each year. I can't even imagine anymore ever choosing to go without it. Still, I get the Jesuit's point - not to mention that of an even more prominent Jesuit, Pope Francis, who also has rightly taken aim at air-conditioning (see Laudato Si', 55).

Of course, air-conditioning is one of many culprits in environmental degradation and climate change. But so is so much of modernity. I consider the automobile to be perhaps the most disastrous modern invention - not just for its deleterious effects upon the earth's physical environment, but also for its destructive effects upon our social environment, the harm it has done to family life, community (especially urban) life, etc. I genuinely hate the automobile and all its works. Yet I drive every day. I have to - to do my job, to do almost anything. Like the rest of my contemporaries, I am trapped in modernity's self-destructive web.

All of which points to one of the core dilemmas of contemporary life. Modernity may be killing us (certainly spiritually and, in the case of environmental degradation and climate change, physically as well). We know modernity may be killing us, but we no longer know how to live without it - and probably couldn't do so even if we did know.

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