Would You Give Up Air-Conditioning If You Knew It Would Save the Planet?

Eric Dean Wilson on the Perpetual American Need for Comfort

Since the 1970s, NASA has published monthly colorized maps of ozone thickness around the globe. Warm colors represent a thicker, healthier ozone layer. Cool colors—blue, indigo, and a blazing shade of violet—mark thinness, the near absence of ozone and thus an increase in ultraviolet radiation. I find the maps terrifying.

A 3D animation on NASA’s website shows what would have happened to Earth without the Montreal Protocol. Two planets spin side by side as the years pass from 1979 to 2065. The planet on the left is labeled projected. It reflects data from the last 40 years coupled with projected levels of ozone for the next 50. As the sphere spins from 1979 into the future, I watch the ozone hole pulse with indigo at the bottom of the world, a beeping I can almost hear like an SOS. Eventually, as the years progress into the aughts and teens, then into the 2020s, the 2030s, the 40s, the 50s, and the 60s, the planet cycles back through the colors of the rainbow to stabilize around yellow. I sense the temporal scale of this continuing event, which just exceeds the span of a human life. It’s an event that’s far from over.

From 1979 to 1987, the planet on the right spins as a mirror image of the one on the left—a reflection of real data up until the Montreal Protocol. After 1987, however, the planet darkens with shades of blue morning glory, deep indigo, and, finally, wisteria—each the color of a flower the radiation they signify would have destroyed. By 2065, the planet spins without change, empurpled. The world reaches a chilling stasis.

A researcher on NASA’s website remarks that if we hadn’t stopped the production of chlorofluorocarbons in the 1990s, the UV radiation reaching us would be six times the level used by hospitals to sterilize metal instruments. Our skin would burn from just five minutes in the sun—not in the distant future but today, right now. Even if we covered our skin, a day at the beach or the ski slope could leave us blind. It wouldn’t even take a day at the beach. It could happen walking down the street, the angle of the head to the sky just so. The same unseen arrows of ultraviolet light could weaken the immune system, the body’s defenses now vulnerable to disease and infection.

In a warming world already poised for the unprecedented spread of viral infections, our natural defenses would crumble. Increased ultraviolet radiation would eliminate all but the most extreme organisms. The survivors would be limited to microscopic life—tardigrades, for instance, which can sometimes survive in the vacuum of space without protection from solar radiation. Perhaps it would have given rise to a new geologic time, the Era of Moss Piglets and Antarctic Lichens, from which a whole new line of life would evolve over tens of millions of years.

Thankfully, we don’t know exactly what would have happened. What’s important in this brief sketch of planetary collapse is that the shift wrought by the absence of the ozone layer could not support human life. It would be as if the earth were attempting to sterilize itself of its parasites, as a doctor sterilizes the surface of a scalpel, as if we were so many germs scrubbed clean.

The planet on the right is labeled WORLD AVOIDED.

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We’ve successfully avoided that world, it’s true, and we should celebrate that avoidance of sure suffering for so many. At the same time, the successes of the Montreal Protocol and its amendments have allowed us to avoid confronting the precarity of this world, the world of business as usual, the very world in which we’re living, which has further entrenched us in the chaos of climate instability. This business as usual is the business of destruction. The United States swapped refrigerants with hardly any critical thought about what it was doing controlling climate in the first place. Our failure to learn from the past is evident in the fact that, faced with a radically shifting climate, some see geo-engineering as the only way forward. When our attempt to control the climate has slipped from our grasp, some now propose we control it better, with a more authoritarian grip, instead of questioning what we’re doing. More complete domination has always been our goal, and that goal has led us to our current crises. Why do we think it will now, somehow, lead us out?

The ozone crisis forced the United States to confront its limitations. The nonpartisan earth itself confronted us. The ozone crisis showed, as a mirror reflects the blinding light of the sun, the humility in our own vulnerability. It showed us our interdependence with all the people of the world. It revealed a rip in our conviction of unending invincibility as much as it revealed a hole in the sky. But instead of gazing into that rupture, we turned away from it. We missed the opportunity to embrace the fact of our limits—both the unsustainability of certain ways of living for all and of our own individual lives. We missed the chance to understand that we’re only as strong as those of us who are most vulnerable. Those thrown into the positions most vulnerable to death on our planet—those of us who are Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples, the poor, the women and femmes and gender nonconforming, the disabled, those in much of the Global South—are not the exceptions on an otherwise humanitarian planet. The continual production of their vulnerability by those in power sustains a variety of comforts—both material and psychic—for a minority of the planet, which includes very many of us in the United States, even many of us who don’t see ourselves as complicit in the production of comfort.

The problem of the 21st century is the problem of the comfort line: Who gets to be comfortable and at what cost to others?

In the aftermath of the ozone depletion crisis, we momentarily avoided the physical destruction of our world without critically reflecting on the root of our problem. In avoiding that, we also avoided revolutionizing our infrastructure, our values, our economic system, and our forms of governance in order to continue the dual manufacturing of vulnerability and comfort. That avoidance has now presented us with yet another world we must avoid. And this one is much harder to avoid.

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The problem of the 21st century is the problem of the comfort line: Who gets to be comfortable and at what cost to others?

I don’t mean to suggest something so foolish as “the color line is no longer a problem,” nor that the question of comfort now takes precedence. Instead, what I mean is better put by the poet Rickey Laurentiis: “the problem / Of this century is still the color line since the problem is / simply / the line.” This tension is difficult for many of us in the United States to perceive: that the comfort so persuasively defined in 21st-century America by the white middle class, a model that now extends beyond this demographic, is at odds with the survival of the poor, the nonwhite, the otherwise vulnerable, and, indeed, many forms of other-than-human life.

The effects of climate change are showing us that the material gains for certain of us are at the expense not only of others in the present but of future citizens of the planet. Seeing the current crises in terms of the comfort line allows us to understand how many of the existing problems of petrocapitalist modernity—racial inequity, resource scarcity, uneven development, environmental racism, thriving white supremacy, wealth disparity, sex and gender discrimination, toxic masculinity, the violent effects of extractivist industries—have deepened. They’re ecologically interconnected.

Alongside this thought, hundreds of millions of people in nations with growing middle classes—India, China, Indonesia—who’ve historically lived without (indeed, been denied) the material comforts US residents take for granted now want many of them, air-conditioning included. What is to be done? For Americans to claim that the people of those regions have no right to these comforts is a brutal act of hypocrisy. Everyone deserves them. In a limitless world in which our collective actions wouldn’t trigger ecosystem collapse, justice might look like the global achievement of this form of comfort.

But we don’t live in a limitless world, and I don’t think it’s a matter of merit. It’s crucial to approach this question by asking not who deserves comfort but from whose viewpoint we define comfort. The problem isn’t that demographics once denied comfort are now demanding to achieve it. The problem is that the white, middle-class American view of comfort—energy-intensive material comforts defined by and, in turn, further strengthening a sense of individualism, social status, and personal safety as ends in themselves—has become the desired model for much of the world, in part because it has overtaken and erased other ways in which humans have historically lived together as a collective.

For this reason, I have little faith that technological advances in energy efficiency or carbon capture will solve our crises by carrying us magically toward a solution. Instead, I suspect, the answer lies in expanding or transforming our definitions of comfort, not in achieving it without critical reflection; in shattering our naive illusion of assured safety, which only ever makes our world more dangerous; and in recognizing the interdependence of our actions.

The predominant sense of the American self is predicated on personal comfort as an end in itself for the individual rather than as a means of building better community—whether local or global. Just like the economic system in which this sense was born, personal comfort—a commodity whose achievement depends on the denial of that same commodity to specific other groups—pits us against one another so that the only question to squeeze out of this dilemma is the one I posed above: Who gets to be comfortable? Yet the question is already doomed to a troubling answer. If we have to choose who gets to be comfortable—white or Black, the United States or China, middle class or working class, us or them—we’ve already lost. It’s the wrong question, a false dichotomy.

US culture has stigmatized discomfort to such a degree that our avoidance of discomfort causes harm to others. Instead of thinking critically about why discomfort arises, we’re taught, instead, to fix it with the push of a button or the purchase of a product (or sometimes by avoiding the purchase of a product). But discomfort is vital information that the planet’s vast, dynamic climatic system is transmitting to us. Instead of listening to our bodies or questioning the poorly designed buildings in which we work and live or challenging the cultural norms of what is deemed appropriate work attire, those of us in the comfort zones have chosen—indeed choose day after day—to insulate ourselves from discomfort by carefully curating ideal, sealed environments while exporting that same (uncomfortable) information to bodies we deem less valuable and who don’t have the option of ignorance. I’m not suggesting that this is a conscious decision every time or even most of the time, but our lack of attention to it is symptomatic of the problem.

Bodily comfort has, for centuries, worked in tandem with certain psychic comforts—particularly the comforts of whiteness and the middle class. I’m struck, for instance, by how many times the words “comfort” and “discomfort” appear in the sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. DiAngelo describes how white participants in her workplace antiracism training often “falsely describe… discomfort as dangerous,” with one white woman going so far as to claim that DiAngelo’s feedback on her racist and insensitive interaction may have triggered a heart attack.

DiAngelo writes that “White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness”—an equilibrium sustained, in part, by material comforts and the homogeneity of the indoor, built environments. “The racial status quo is comfortable for white people,” she writes, “and we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable.” Our inability to distinguish between discomfort and danger has made the world a far more dangerous place. Discomfort—and the extensive training we in the comfortable world must do to sustain discomfort productively without shattering—can only begin to point the way out of our crises.

Instead of shrugging it from waking life, History, to paraphrase the artist David Wojnarowicz, should keep us awake at night.

This American aversion to discomfort carries over toward our approach to history. It is one of the curious mechanisms of living history that we inherit the problems of our ancestors. “Humans create their own climate—,” writes philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “not of their own free will, however, under self-chosen circumstances, but under found, given and handed-down ones.” Not only geographic climates but racial and cultural climates, too. “The tradition of all dead climates,” he writes, “burdens the moods of the living like a nightmare.” But history isn’t a nightmare that, as Stephen Dedalus hopes, we can shake off. History isn’t past.

Our history is, quite literally, present in the atmosphere, which holds a refrigerant that froze our food and medicine, that cooled our skin, that thins all that stands between us and speedy death. The air is filled with the by-products of so-called historical progress and of the need to accelerate, the sputum of motors and pipes that we half hoped would get us somewhere beyond the orbit of this planet—in vain. Instead of shrugging it from waking life, History, to paraphrase the artist David Wojnarowicz, should keep us awake at night. The process of learning our history better should produce discomfort. In fact, I’m starting to believe that true comfort—at least in the narrow, Euro-American sense—is no longer possible, if indeed it ever was. Following the midcentury wars, that gloomy philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” To feel discomfort, to feel unsettled, to feel ill at ease in the third millennium—how could we not?

Americans may feel that we need air-conditioning, that we can’t live without it. That may be so. But we might also invert the idea of need. As a condition for living, do we not also need to know that we’re not passively increasing the likelihood of violence to strangers who didn’t invite it? And if not—if this knowledge is not a necessary part of living in the world—what kind of people are we that we can live with that knowledge comfortably?

If we did see air-conditioning as a choice between two needs at odds, which would we choose? And could we live with that choice? Why do we think we can live with one choice but not the other? Why do we think that living in cooled environs with the knowledge that our energy is the energy of the luxurious, which is robbing the poor and the vulnerable of access to this same luxury, is in the end better for us? Why do we think our judgment isn’t warping our ethics, our relationships? If we can do this to a stranger, could we do it to a friend? And have we suffered through summer after summer and arrived at the conclusion that we need air-conditioning after years of careful trial and error? Or do we claim we need AC after shutting it off and sweating for five minutes? What do we actually know about our own limits? How far are we willing to be pushed?

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After Cooling

Excerpted from After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort. Used with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2021 by Eric Dean Wilson.

Eric Dean Wilson
Eric Dean Wilson
Eric Dean Wilson’s essays, poems, and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Tin House, among other publications. A graduate of The New School’s creative writing MFA program, Wilson is pursuing a PhD in the English Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where his work focuses on American studies, environmental humanities, and the Black radical tradition. He currently teaches writing at Queens College. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, he now lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn.





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