Philosophy and the Question of Air Conditioning

Now that summer is upon us, there is a question whose neglect by philosophers constitutes nothing less than a scandal: why does air conditioning always feel excessive?

In principle, it seems it should be possible to adjust air conditioning to a reasonable level, approximating that of a moderately warm summer day. In this way, one could reach a state in which the same clothing would be appropriate for both indoors and outdoors, as opposed to the present absurd situation where one often feels compelled to wear a sweater or some other supplement indoors during the summer. In addition, such a state would moderate the shock of moving back and forth between extreme outdoor heat and extreme indoor cold, which can lead to sickness.

Why does such a reasonable state of affairs so seldom exist when air conditioning is employed? I suspect that the problem is that air conditioning is more than a utilitarian cooling device: it is a marker of luxury, of the ability to transcend the elements. That shock of cold air, so incongruous in the hot summer months, is precisely the point. It is not enough that air conditioning actually cool the air — it must draw attention to the fact that it is doing so.

Other methods for keeping buildings cool during the summer months exist, and they are effective except for extremely hot environments. This, I learned from a technician for AC repair in San Antonio while traveling. One can leave the windows open at night to draw in cold air, for example, and then close them in the morning in order to capture that cool air, in addition closing the blinds to minimize the effects of the sun. What separates air conditioning from this relatively effective strategy, however, is the ability to control the temperature in complete indifference toward nature.

Where the method I outline responds to natural rhythms in order to create conditions more favorable to human thriving, classic air conditioning and heating closes off the influence of nature entirely, instituting a completely artificial environment. And that artificiality, that achievement of human self-sufficiency that constitutes the true essence of air conditioning much more than its mere utilitarian value, must announce itself as such — hence the need to introduce uncomfortable, excessive cold in the middle of summer.

11 thoughts on “Philosophy and the Question of Air Conditioning

  1. All this philosophical theorizing is perhaps not entirely without merit, but there are technical issues. In places where humidity is a big part of the problem with the summer heat, it can be difficult to set the air conditioner appropriately, as air conditioners provide both cooling and de-humidifying effects, and setting the air conditioner to an insufficiently cool temperature on a day that is more humid than hot can fail to address the humidity issues, while setting it cool enough so that it runs long enough to eliminate the humidity can mean setting it cooler than is actually comfortable once the air is reasonably dry.

  2. AK, are you proposing a “constant fiddling” approach to setting air conditioning under high humidity/moderate heat conditions? Certainly this could produce more comfortable results, but I don’t think that only someone who felt a need to revel in luxury and thumb their nose at nature might find it somewhat inconvenient in practice, at least some of the time.

  3. I live in Houston. Curses to anyone who says air conditioning is a luxury. I tell you this as I sit at a Starbucks in the local mall sipping a hot coffee with a jacket on because its so cursedly cold in the mall.

    That said I do like the point about air conditioning being about the ultimate luxury and more about transcending the elements. I cannot imagine having to grow up in a time without this precious asset because it reduces stress immediately upon the experiencing of its blessings.

    As always enjoying the posts!

  4. Couldn’t tell you. I live at 6062 ft, and neither have nor need AC. (Although I was raised in FL, and we did have AC, which was scrupulously set at 80 degrees and woe to the household member that fiddled with that.)

  5. The Girlfriend and I were just discussing this and wonder if it’s an American middle class “luxury through excess” thing, akin to excessive portions at restaurants, etc. — do really rich people and really fancy restaurants actually have reasonable temperatures?

  6. There is a great book on this by Stan Cox (2010) Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-conditioned World. The second chapter, Making the Weather, supports your point about complete indifference towards nature. The rather obvious irony is that the emissions from Air Conditioning (circa 1/2 billion tonnes in US each year, more than many countries) are making for warmer summers, which leads to the cranking up of the AC. The joy of feedback loops. It would be interesting to pursue the luxury question and see if there is a positive correlation between the frostiness of the AC and the higher levels of wealth and excess.

  7. Richard Nixon used to have the air conditioning at his ‘western’ White House set really low so he could sit by a log fire on a summer evening.

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