Air conditioning and a “homogenized standard of comfort”

In an interview, the author of a new book on the development of air conditioning describes the rise of new comfort standards:

Photo by Sergei Akulich on Pexels.com

Before air conditioning really took off in the home, there was a really different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really argue in the book is that what we’ve come to think of as personal comfort, and specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I argue in the book is that it’s really in part a cultural construction.

Now, I want to be really careful that people don’t hear that I’m saying that it’s entirely a construction. Yes, when we get too hot or too cold, then we can die, for sure. But what’s really interesting to me is that there’s a lot of evidence to show that before air conditioning began at the beginning of the twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.

There was this greater sense that you could deal with the heat. I put that really carefully, because I don’t want to say that they suffered through it. Certainly there were heat waves and summers that got too hot. But there was a real sense that you could manage the heat through analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings that incorporate passive cooling. The thing that really disturbed me was that through the twentieth century, we really kind of forgot all that, because we didn’t need that knowledge anymore because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to kind of ignore the outside conditions, because you could construct whatever conditions you wanted inside.

I think the question that nobody really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And there’s a lot of people that find that the kind of American model of an office or American model of comfort is not comfortable, both in the United States, and in other places.

Air conditioning made a lot of modern life possible. This includes the modern office with hundreds of workers in a single building and in new arrangements. It includes the expansive McMansions and large single-family homes of suburbia. The increasing population of the American Sun Belt is possible due to inside cooling.

But, as noted above, it does lead to new standards of comfort at the individual and collective level. How much heat is too much before air conditioning is needed? Is airflow an important factor when designing homes and buildings or does it not matter much because of what can be done with machines? Collectively, are we willing to pollute more because we have certain expectations about how we should feel?

The biggest backlash I have seen to this is the concerns expressed by many about temperatures within office buildings. Because different people experience the standard temperatures differently, there are expectations about how people should adjust to those standards, and most workers have no control over the temperature for everyone, these can be difficult situations. But, this does not generally lead to a call for no air conditioning whatsoever; it usually leads to a call for a different temperature.

If limiting air conditioning use is a goal, how would it work to move people to different comfort levels? Workplaces could be a good place to start as people can spend a good chunk of the day there.

The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…