Dominion by air conditioning?

A recent news item described how the occupants of a federal courthouse in Phoenix, Ariz., were upset by temperatures in a large atrium that can exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Certainly this level is outside the classic “comfort zone” used by engineers to design heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems for office buildings. But as the building’s defenders point out, the atrium is (except for security guards) unoccupied space that one passes through on the way to one’s air-conditioned office, and the building’s design called for it to be mostly unconditioned as part of the building’s energy-efficiency strategy.

What I find remarkable about this story is the expectation of Phoenicians that any space in Phoenix should be less than 90 degrees in the summer. We are not that far removed, a scant 100 years, from the first use of air conditioning in buildings that didn’t involve large blocks of ice. For most of human history, Phoenix was boiling hot in the summer. But now that air conditioning exists, we expect it to exist everywhere, all the time.

As a Christian, this gives me pause. As anyone who has paid a summer electric bill knows, air conditioning is an expensive choice. The fact that we make it routinely doesn’t make it less of a choice. And the majority of the world's population, much of it in climates as warm as Phoenix, lives without it by necessity, not by choice.

I’m not suggesting that Christians eschew air conditioning as a show of solidarity with our impoverished global brethren (although that might not be a bad idea). I’m suggesting that most North American Christians have bought into a Modernist, man-versus-nature narrative that contradicts the creation story.

God created this good world for us to inhabit, to cultivate and subdue. Manufactured weather can be considered a part of subduing this world, but I think sometimes we need to step back from our unquestioning technological subjugation of nature and ask, is this really necessary? Is it necessary for an atrium in Phoenix to be cooled to 72 degrees so the workers passing through it don’t break a sweat?

In idle moments, I think back to Kansas City summers of yore, before my birth, when downtown office buildings all had canvas awnings to preserve views but keep summer sun off the windows, which were always open to the (hot and humid) breeze. Paperweights were a necessity, as were short-sleeve dress shirts, cotton underwear and, presumably, deodorant. Was life really so much worse then? Did commerce grind to a halt in August as workers literally headed for the hills of Iowa and Minnesota to cool off? What if it did? Could August in Kansas City be God’s way of telling us to take a break for a few weeks?

My complaint is that manufactured weather, like artificial lighting and other modern conveniences, has put us out of touch with the natural rhythms of God’s good world. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not suggesting we go around smashing air conditioners and fluorescent lights (although fluorescent lighting is a tool of Satan - but that’s another story). I’m simply suggesting that we consider, thoughtfully, Christianly, the ebbs and flows of light and heat that God baked into our world as we go about our daily work. Maybe there’s a reason for days being longer in the summer than the winter if you don’t live at the equator. Maybe August should be a month for leaving town. (Egad! What if the Europeans are right about that?) Maybe, in Phoenix, it’s OK for a just-passing-through zone to be warm in the summer.

I have been in a cathedral in Belgium in February, where there was no warm air blowing from big ducts to keep me toasty warm, where the thought occurred to me: maybe it’s OK to worship God with your coat on in the winter. Can your mind stretch that far? Can mine?

What Do You Think?

  • What role does air conditioning play in your life?
  • How do we balance subduing the earth with appreciating God’s creation?
  • What do the earth’s natural rhythms and temperatures reveal about God and His world?


Comments (6)

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Good bit, David. Maybe the Europeans DO have it right… maybe our dependence on AC follows on our ever-accelerating push for productivity.

Sometimes I miss the sleeping porch where everyone slept on a row of beds because it was just too hot inside. I miss cricket concerts and moon light. But I also remember trying to dry off after a cool bath in the summer and breaking into a sweat before I was even dry. As a South Louisiana native and now Central Texan who grew up with no AC I am grateful for air conditioning every single day.

David, while I appreciate the sentiment of a clash of environmental worldviews, I take a fairly strong line on temperature control in professional environments. Undoubtedly we have lost some of our affinity for naturalism through our technology, and - equally undoubtedly - some of that nostalgia is the privilege of romanticism in developed contexts. Heating and cooling technology have made enormous leaps in the past few decades, especially regarding electrical consumption. It is now possible, at relatively modest electrical cost, to provide a comfortable and temperate working environment. I, for one, celebrate that innovation, the human habitation patterns it enables, the sweet summer night’s sleep even when temperatures slip above 40 centigrade. I do not think this makes me a combative modern domineering the environment anymore than I think my Frisian forebears claiming farm land from the sea were. The Europeans may now well abandon the office over August months, but then we’ve seen those results. I can empathize with a work/nature balance, but I wouldn’t start around Greece.

Rob, I too celebrate technology. I much prefer my furnace to gathering and burning sticks in my living room. The nature of my lament is not that we need to stop inventing (what we need is a type of air conditioning that is orders of magnitude more efficent than what exists now—engineers, start your calculators!), but rather that our insistence on living our lives at a constant 72 degrees F has perhaps pulled us away from some natural rythms that we were better off attending to.

Due to the brevity of this piece, I didn’t even broach the topic of how air conditioning has killed the socialization offered by the front porch. Perhaps that’s another piece altogether.

Admittedly I’m not much for front porch socialization, but I will say I’ve seen AC drive people together into one temperature controlled space like no other force in a heat wave. If it’s an air conditioned pub, all the more. My suspicion might be in qualifying what exactly counts as a “natural” rhythm, and why some kinds of community are more authentic or natural than others.

I wonder if the back deck is more responsible for clearing the front porch than A/C. The front porch welcomes passers by. The back deck is only available to specific invitees—all others are, essentially, trespassers.

I spent my first 10 years in Australia and now live in SC. I remember lying on my soaked to sheet looking out the window at the stars on those sweltering summer nights. Tonight, last October, we have the A/C on so my wife and I can sleep better. Honestly, I’m not sure which is better, but I’m heading to a comfortable night’s sleep. Good night.

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