Politics & Policy

The Menace of Air Conditioning

In their quest to ban ‘harmful’ luxuries, progressives want to solve something that has not been considered a problem for 250 years.

Something strange has happened to air conditioning of late. It has become one of America’s chief sources of hot air. For the last decade, each summer as temperatures rise, so does a tempest of dismay at Americans’ affection for artificially cooled air. The latest gust of disapproval was vented by the Washington Post’s Karen Heller, the title of whose rambling, incoherent column against Willis Carrier’s gift captured well the attitude of a small but vociferous cabal: “I don’t need air conditioning, and neither do you.”

Heller offers various reasons for her dislike, some serious (lower electric bills), some not (it ruins film noir). None, however, is her real motivation. For underneath it all lurks a strong suspicion that air conditioning is somehow wrong, unnatural; an affront to an order of things that does not exist but could and should — and would but for AC. Heller isn’t explicit, but her meaning is clear enough: Without air conditioning, life would be better.

Air conditioning isn’t the only thing people are being urged to give up for a better life. An array of commentators, predominantly on the left, have been imploring their compatriots to forswear not only air conditioning but cars, meat, soda, and even children. While air conditioning and its “accomplices” are usually charged separately, it’s not difficult to discern a common reasoning behind the indictments. I don’t mean environmentalism, either, though that’s part of it. Rather, all are driven by the conviction that the items in question are luxuries, things people don’t need — and, because they aren’t needed, it is proper to beseech (and ultimately compel?) others to surrender them.

There are two ways to get people to give up goods society doesn’t want them to have: making them more expensive and banning them. The records of both can charitably be described as mixed. Nevertheless, the Left has been clear that it is open to both approaches to reduce the presence of these “bads.” The Left does have historical precedent on its side. For most of history, luxury items were subject not only to moral and social but also legal sanction. For most. But not all, and there’s the rub. For the Left’s solution to the perceived ills of air conditioning etc. is to revive sumptuary laws — a solution that, to be viable, requires turning the consumption of luxury goods back into a social problem, something it hasn’t been considered for 250 years.

A History Lesson

The moral stigma that once attached to the idea of luxury has been effaced from the West’s cultural memory. (Look at some advertising if you don’t believe me.) Yet until recently, most societies regulated the purchase of luxury goods. They did so via sumptuary laws, as laws restricting personal expenditure are known. Sumptuary laws don’t outlaw the sale of certain goods; rather, they outlaw their purchase by certain people. The goods that can’t be purchased are “luxuries,” and the people who aren’t allowed to buy them are the poor. Sumptuary laws, write the scholars Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, “confine the consumption of specific commodities to the elites,” thus “enforc[ing] rigid status structures.” Different societies defined luxury differently, but whatever it was, they all thought it was something the poor shouldn’t have.

They kept thinking it, from ancient Sparta to the court of Louis XIV. Then, in the 18th century, the entire complex of moral and social constraints underpinning the animus against luxury was subjected to withering and ultimately successful attack. Leading the assault was the Anglo-Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), whose Fable of the Bees (1714) was the century’s first and most influential vindication of luxury. Mandeville claimed that unless we call everything a luxury “that is not absolutely necessary to keep a Man alive,” the concept is, effectively, meaningless. If anything is a luxury, then nothing is. Furthermore, there is nothing in the world, however extravagant or superfluous, that someone won’t consider a necessity. Mandeville observed that society itself operates by this principle: Many objects once considered luxuries are now “counted so necessary, that we think no Human Creature ought to want them,” not even the “miserably poor” who now receive them as “Objects of publick Charity.”

Mandeville aimed to provoke, and he succeeded. His book became one of the most notorious of the century. Yet he also succeeded in provoking a revolution in the social standing of luxury, a success perhaps best exemplified by a people that experienced a different kind of revolution. In 1780, Samuel Adams hoped the United States would be a “Christian Sparta.” Seven years later John Stevens Jr., writing as “Americanus,” would have none of it: “Away with this Spartan virtue and black broth; we’ll have none of them.”

The stigma against luxury went with them. Two centuries later our body politic remains immune to it. Every so often, however, someone is tempted to test its resistance in the hope that it has worn down. The lifestyle cops are the latest to try. They don’t frame their case against air conditioning and the rest in terms of luxury; they can’t, thanks to Mandeville and his successors. Yet even if the word luxury were nowhere to be seen (in fact, it is not entirely absent), substantively they are identical. The present antagonism toward air conditioning, cars, meat, and having children is animated by assumptions similar to those that inspired the traditional hostility to luxury.

What the historian Henry C. Clark says of “luxury” in the 18th century is no less true of air conditioning (etc.) today. Both presented ideal vehicles for “rethinking the boundaries between private morality, social obligation and public interest.” Now as then, guardians stand ready to patrol those boundaries. Which is to say that once again the rich have arrogated to themselves the duty of telling the poor what they may and may not have.

Some Like It Hot

Karen Heller’s screed was but the latest entry in a genre that has become as much a summer staple as comic-book movies — the cri de compresseur. From William Saletan’s 2006 critique of “the deluded world of air conditioning” to Kate Murphy’s 2015 lament of the “deep freeze” offices experience every summer, the genre shares a belief that air conditioning is wasteful, indulgent, misguided, and even immoral.

In 2012, two participants in a New York Times forum prompted by a Times report that AC use was exploding in the Third World answered the question “Should air-conditioning go global, or be rationed away?” in terms that could have been borrowed from an 18th-century anti-luxury tract. Stan Cox advocated limiting air conditioning (“a luxury we can’t afford”) on the grounds that we must distinguish “between absolute necessities like food or water and manufactured necessities like a houseful of refrigerated air. And making such decisions could help us recover some of the resilience our own culture has lost in the age of air-conditioning.” Rajendra Shende, former head of the U.N.’s ozone program, said air conditioning, iPads, fatty foods, and cars are not “rights” but “are luxuries, and they often make us soft.” Literally soft, perhaps, as some investigators have found a link between air conditioning and obesity. Luxury makes society soft. Air conditioning is a luxury. QED. Mandeville must have been spinning in his grave.

Of all the contributions to the literature, perhaps none is more characteristic than Leon Neyfakh’s 2013 portrait of the idyllic life Americans might enjoy if we “decided we could no longer afford our addiction” to AC. People would wake up earlier, take naps in the afternoon, and “ride bikes and scooters everywhere.” “Porch culture,” with its “screened-in card games and flowing iced tea,” would make a comeback. They’d even sleep on their porches, as they did in the good ol’ days.

Some of the accommodations that would be necessary to get by with less air conditioning (less-formal attire at work) can be effected with little difficulty. But others are not as feasible. “We can also build houses to offer extra protection against the heat,” avers Neyfakh, “using principles ignored by most modern architects.” That’s fine for someone building a new house, but what about those who aren’t? And where would residents of urban high-rises find porches to sip iced tea and sleep at night on? (There is at least a modest tension between the Left’s disdain for air conditioning and its valorization of cities, which are generally hotter than their environs.) Like many critics of AC, Neyfakh proceeds from the conviction that it deprives us of a better world. Without it, he concludes, “we might discover we’ve been missing out on a way of life that actually feels quite natural.”

Neyfakh exemplifies the attitude of those who, according to Daniel Engber, their most percipient critic, have “come to see the air conditioner as a stand-in for everything that’s wrong with the country and the world.” “The case against cooling,” he wrote in 2012, “stands on a foundation of half-formed ideas and intuitions” about global warming, health, “moral laxity, and some ambiguous notion of what it means to live in harmony with the natural world. And running through them all is the strange and puritanical politics of human comfort.”

Like most puritanism, this version too is hypocritical. Indoor heating is just as artificial as air conditioning and expends as many resources, but no one is clamoring for the abolition of central heating. This double standard infuriates Engber. Heating has made the transition from luxury to necessity. The comfort police, however, refuse entry to AC. Neyfakh concedes that in limited circumstances it is necessary, but like Heller he believes that for the most part we can get by without it. If that’s so, it’s not really necessary. What is not necessary is superfluous, and what is superfluous can be dispensed with.

Except air conditioning is a necessity in the modern world. Many of our most crucial systems would not function without it, not least the servers that make the Internet possible. There is also the small matter that lack of air conditioning literally sickens and kills people: by the hundreds and the thousands. If something that prevents people from dying is a necessity, then air-conditioning would seem to fit the bill.

If something that prevents people from dying is a necessity, then air conditioning would seem to fit the bill.

Europeans remain unconvinced. The argument is an even harder sell to those who scorn air conditioning as a symbol of American extravagance and decadence. Returning to the fray last year, Engber again castigated the selective outrage that condemns AC but excuses heating, calling it “provincialism in the guise of eco-consciousness. To inveigh against the air conditioner is to claim that someone else’s discomfort isn’t worth the same as yours. It pretends that feeling hot and feeling cold are in different moral categories.” The principle that goods and consumers occupied different moral categories is what once justified sumptuary legislation.

Engber’s indignation against this “naked ideology and posture” is entirely appropriate. What irks him most is how facile the stance against AC is. It endures without any factual support for a simple reason: It has become a way for “cosmopolitans to claim their bona fides, and to place themselves in opposition to irresponsible, American excess.”

For all the hot air it generates, on the scale of social malfeasance, air conditioning remains a minor nuisance. When it comes to supposed excess, nothing provokes the consumption cops like Americans’ diets. Here they are much more open about their desire to impose sumptuary laws (though never by that name) to curtail availability of two foods they want to see much less of on Americans’ tables: meat and sugar.


Let Them Drink Water

The news that in 2015 U.S. meat consumption rose at the highest rate in four decades was greeted with hand-wringing and consternation on the left. ThinkProgress grieved that “America Cannot Kick Its Meat Addiction.” Vox, mouthpiece of bien-pensant censoriousness, was more verbose but equally finger-wagging: “Americans should eat less meat, but they’re eating more and more.” There may be good reasons to alter how we consume meat, such as health and animal welfare. Yet the hectoring tone of many anti-meat diatribes leads to the suspicion that the goal is not moderation but elimination. What else is one to conclude when they sport titles like “Meat is horrible” and have URLs that declare “meat is destroying the planet”?

Since many progressives take it for granted that the production and consumption of meat is an environmental calamity, exiling meat from our kitchens seems the only certain cure for the maladies it causes. Sharply reducing meat intake would reduce one’s carbon footprint; in half by adopting veganism, according to Vox’s Brad Plumer. The consequences of not doing so are proclaimed by the minatory title of a 2015 New Republic story by Rebecca Leber: “This Is What Your Hot Dog and Burger Are Doing to the Planet.” They are, in so many words, killing it. Or, rather, you are. So stop being a planet murderer, Leber admonishes us, and eat a veggie burger instead.

The anti-meat campaign savors of a moral panic. And where one finds a moral panic, efforts to impose behavioral modification, whether voluntary or otherwise, can’t be far behind. Two English academics, Caroline Wood and Wayne Martindale, contend that citizens of wealthy countries must “reduce their meat consumption and embrace other sources of protein.” As there are numerous alternative sources of protein (Wood and Martindale stump for pulses), meat cannot be considered a necessity. And what is not a necessity is a luxury. Wood and Martindale say so flatly: “Meat is a luxury item.” (Perhaps surprisingly, Mandeville agreed. He thought meat was one luxury everyone should go without, as he believed killing another creature for food was immoral.) If you can’t ban a luxury, you tax it. A few proposals to tax meat have been floated, but they have not gotten much traction in the United States. There is also doubt about their efficacy. Which is just as well, given concerns that vegan diets can be harmful to children.

Meat won’t be treated like tobacco anytime soon. Sugar, however, is already heading down that path, and the food police won’t be satisfied until it experiences the same ostracism from polite society. Progressives, paternalists, and other assorted busybodies have been pushing for a “soda tax” on sugar-sweetened beverages for years. As Nanny Bloomberg could tell you, except in Berkeley, all attempts to implement such a tax went down in flames.

Until, that is, this past spring, when Philadelphia became the first major city to pass one. When it was still being debated, Philadelphia’s proposed soda tax became an issue in the Democratic presidential race. While Hillary Clinton backed it, Bernie Sanders opposed it on what seemed to be impeccably progressive grounds. It was, he said, a “regressive grocery tax that would disproportionately affect low-income and middle-class Americans.” For once, the Vermont senator found himself to the right of a cleavage on the left, as many progressives believe such a tax affirms rather than violates progressive values. Writing in Mother Jones, Anna Lappé depicted soda taxes as an eminently progressive idea whose revenues can be used to fund an array of progressive initiatives. The funding for new and expanded programs more than justifies the tax, as does the goal of reducing sugar consumption. If it falls disproportionately on the poor, so what? “It’s not like this tax is for something people have to buy,” sniffed Lappé.

Whatever they’re drinking in Berkeley, it’s not soda. Progressives were euphoric at news of a study showing that Berkeley’s tax apparently put a significant dent in soda consumption. The fact that none blanched at the likelihood that the results would “confirm that a soda tax will encourage low-income consumers to choose different beverages” shows that progressives are willing to tolerate taxes that hit the poor if they facilitate progressive goals. As one researcher told Vox, “the big picture is that, thus far, particularly among low-income populations, the sugar-sweetened beverage taxes do work — they do reduce consumption of sugary beverages.” The results of the Berkeley study were released only a few days after the news that Americans were eating more meat. If the Berkeley findings are replicated in Philadelphia, don’t be surprised if progressives start pushing for a meat tax.

Abstemiousness and self-abnegation are hardly virtues one associates with the Left. Yet those are what it preaches when it comes to meat and sugar.

Such a tax would impact the poor most. But we’ve just seen that progressives have little compunction about squeezing the poor’s pocketbooks. Indeed, that seems to be the point. There’s an old adage that holds that if you want less of something, tax it. Progressives want less meat and sugar in our diets, and they’re willing to tax them out of it. The cost will always hit the poor first and most: The less they can afford, the less they’ll buy. It’s for their own good, after all. For not the first time, progressives have become evangels of temperance.

No doubt they would scoff at the comparison. Not without reason: Abstemiousness and self-abnegation are hardly virtues one associates with the Left. Yet self-abnegation is what it preaches when it comes to meat and sugar. Taxing alcohol because demon rum encourages ungodliness and undermines the moral fabric of society is something no self-respecting progressive would now support. But taxing sugar-sweetened drinks to strike a blow against “Big Soda” and its baleful effects on society’s health is something no self-respecting progressive can now oppose. A constitutional amendment against Mountain Dew is not on the horizon; if progressives get their way, it won’t be necessary.

Carless Whisper

For all their agitation about Americans’ consumption habits, nothing wounds the pride of our latter-day Catos like Americans’ continued refusal to give up their cars. Earlier this year a California-based writer, Edward Humes, decried the “absurd primacy of the automobile in American life.” Enumerating a litany of harms it purportedly causes, from wasting money and fuel to the havoc it yearly wreaks on life and limb, he pronounced that “in almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane.”

A reflexive recourse to cars may be legitimately questioned, but the continual befuddlement expressed at Americans’ unyielding embrace of four-wheeled transport often reeks of condescension. The hoi polloi simply refuse to heed their superiors’ wisdom, a refusal often couched as ignorance and denial. Why do Americans keep driving? Because, for one thing, low gas taxes relieve them of the burden of bearing the true “social cost” of their cars. Eric Jaffe’s sketch of a world in which gas prices are more representative of “the true cost of driving” bears a striking resemblance to Karen Heller and Leon Neyfakh’s AC-free utopia:

Fewer loved ones killed in car crashes. Healthier pregnancies and babies. More time spent with family and friends. Better access to jobs, and perhaps as productivity increased, higher wages. More livable developments and, with them, slimmer waistlines. Cleaner and quieter air. The sorts of things we can’t fit in our purses or wallets, but which cost us dearly just the same.

Progressives have a name for this utopia: Europe.

One common charge leveled at our infatuation with cars is that the Interstate highway system ruined America’s cities. Curiously, though, just as “we’re finally getting sick of cars ruining our cities,” many writers with urbanist inclinations have begun arguing that cars may well be their salvation. Hence the recent profusion of articles extolling the virtues of autonomous cars and their potential benefits for cities.

In one scenario, “taxibots” will “transform cities in extraordinary ways” by allowing city planners to re-engineer urban infrastructure to be more adaptive to shifting needs. Self-driving cars could be great for cities, but only if the social and political will exists to transform how Americans use cars. That transformation, unsurprisingly, ends with Americans’ giving up their own cars. In one version of this future, by 2030 all cars on the road are self-driving. Eliminating private car ownership is a requirement for the “heaven” prophesied by urban futurists to be realized. In this “alternative universe” where traditional cars are retired, the space once devoted to roads could be reclaimed for “trees, bike lanes, sidewalks, play spaces, bike parking, café expansion, community gardens, or even swimming pools.” Yes, we would have to surrender our cars (and our autonomy, as not only cars but trips themselves would have to be shared), but the price would be worth it.

Progressives, it turns out, love cars — as long as no one is driving them. The problem with this vision is its very city-centrism. All these articles talk about how great driverless cars will be for cities, as though somehow people will stop living in Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska, or the rural parts of states along the I-95 corridor.

Most people, when they think of a city, imagine one like New York, all density and skyscrapers. But many of America’s fastest-growing large cities (such as Phoenix, Austin, and Charlotte) have a decidedly suburban character. This poses a potentially fatal challenge to the vision of an urban revolution propelled by the adoption of self-driving vehicles, for it is possible that instead of dampening Americans’ enthusiasm for sprawl, SDVs, thanks to the efficiencies they introduce, will accelerate it. As the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims put it: “It is a kind of wishful thinking, an act of technological determinism, to think that self-driving cars will override Americans’ longstanding preference for wide open spaces.”

That our glorious self-driving future may not belong to cities but instead prolong progressives’ suburban nightmare would be a delicious irony. Delicious like a Big Mac, Coke, and fries. (One imagines, should they become the norm, a new genre of dystopian thriller in which it is a crime to reprogram your self-driving car to drive to a speakeasy McDonald’s.) However autonomous vehicles play out, cars in one form or another would remain a necessity. But personal ownership could well become a luxury. And we know what happens to luxuries.


Please Don’t Think of the Children

The “luxury good” that progressives, at least those of a more verdant hue, most want to see less of would at first glance seem to be the one most necessary for human survival: children. This makes a certain sense — every new human is a potential air-conditioned, meat-eating, car-driving suburbanite. You can never have too few of those. Most Americans, I think it safe to say, don’t factor environmental considerations into the decision to have children, if they are aware of them at all. But for a few they are a major variable in the calculus. Hence the almost Hamlet-like agonizing about having kids that has of late become almost de rigueur in more-enlightened precincts.

According to a 2009 study, having a child increases one’s carbon footprint more than can be offset by a lifetime of energy-saving measures. A 2015 Wired story was slightly less subtle: “The Biggest Threat to the Earth? We Have Too Many Kids.” The story doesn’t always match the headline, but this time it did. “The only way to save the world is to stop making more (and more, and more, and more) humans,” wrote Nick Stockton, its author.

Agreeing with that sentiment, a handful of people have vowed publicly not to have children and thereby contribute to the “population problem.” Erica Gies, an environmental writer, announced that “I’m not having kids because I can’t in good conscience contribute to the rapid diminishment of our world.” For one thing, “the habitat is not conducive to successfully raising human young.” (Doubtless she’d have preferred the habitats of the Ice Age or Europe during the Black Death.) But she also touts her choice as proof of human superiority: “Part of human ingenuity, part of adaptation to a changing world, part of learning to do things better is to stop or greatly reduce breeding.” Not having kids: It proves how great we are. No wonder environmentally conscious people who do have children experience anguish and something bordering cognitive dissonance.

Gies’s headline tells the real story: “Why I’m Not Having Kids — and You Shouldn’t Either.” You. Should. Not. That is a moral imperative, one very like Karen Heller’s injunction against air conditioning. I don’t need it, and what I don’t need, you don’t need.

For Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins, the only possible answer to the question “Should we be having kids in the age of climate change?” is a resounding no. (What the answer was to the question “Should we be having kids in the age of the atom bomb?” is left unstated.) Philosophers like paradoxes. Rieder, being no exception, proffers this one: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” But how do you persuade people to save humanity by helping it cease to exist? You guessed it: a tax. Rieder would have wealthy nations impose a progressive childbirth tax that increases with each additional child a family has. If you want less of something, you tax it; Rieder is adamant that he wants less humanity. It’s the only way to forestall inevitable ecological calamity.

To save the planet by letting mankind go extinct: Such is the reductio ad absurdum of the sumptuarian (to coin a term) outlook. Framed this way it sounds ridiculous, yet there is a certain cold logic to it. Without children, you wouldn’t need airplanes to take them to Disney World, or cars to drive them to toy stores, or meat to feed them, or air conditioning to keep them cool. Reduce the one, reduce all the rest. No wonder the Left is so infatuated with cities these days. Yet our cities, increasingly child-free, are less a promise than a warning of what happens when children are regarded as a luxury. A city with no children is a harbinger not of a better future but of none at all.

Children are the ultimate luxury. In many ways, they are the costliest good someone can have. Any luxury good may be subject to sumptuary laws, yet to treat another human being this way, even on the pretext of a supposed duty to prevent environmental cataclysm, is to violate a principle that exists on an altogether more fundamental level of moral obligation: the principle that no human being shall be treated merely as a means to an end.

Is the future itself a luxury? For the sumptuarians, especially those motivated by environmental concerns, the answer is almost assuredly yes. But Rieder (and those of like mind) would perhaps counter that it’s not that we can no longer afford the future, but that the future can no longer afford us. Once more, luxury finds itself at the treacherous crossroads where private morality, social obligation, and public interest come together.

Luxury for Me, but Not for Thee

Throughout history, one generation’s luxury has been the next generation’s necessity. What is novel about the goods discussed in this essay is that in their case, some advocates hope to reverse the process and turn this generation’s necessities into the next one’s luxuries. (Nor are the more ambitious likely to rest content restricting only these.) Some find that a laudable goal. Personally, I can’t help but think that a world without children and road trips would be a poorer world than the one it succeeded.

Even today, few of humanity’s greatest advances would meet Mandeville’s definition. Are antibiotics a luxury? Humanity survived for eons without them. But who now would give them up because they are not strictly necessary? What about broadband Internet? The federal government certainly thinks it’s a necessity, as it is subsidizing access for the poor, thus sparing them from suffering the same deprivation all mankind did until 20 years ago. Examples could be adduced indefinitely.

By now it should be clear that there are no definitions of luxury or necessity that can definitively describe even a single commodity, for even a single commodity will meet both definitions depending on who is applying them. And who is most likely not to have air conditioning, or to bear the brunt of consumption taxes? The poor. If an affluent, middle-aged white woman telling someone he doesn’t need air conditioning isn’t white privilege, there’s no such thing.

We don’t think of it that way, so thoroughly has the matter been scoured from the Western imagination, but what one scholar termed the “de-moralisation of luxury” is a cornerstone of modernity. The demise of sumptuary laws and the prejudice against luxury was a great victory for human liberty. The resurrection of either would be profoundly, deplorably retrograde.

The rich have complained about how the poor spend money for as long as there has been money. For most of history, this was an illiberal posture. Now it seems to be gaining currency on the left. Sumptuary laws are oppressive. They exist solely to reinforce social hierarchies; that is, to keep the haves up and the have-nots down. They were already reactionary in the 18th century. They would be even more so today.

— Varad Mehta is a historian who lives in suburban Philadelphia. He can be reached on Twitter @varadmehta.


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