Air conditioning was a landmark invention of twentieth-century capitalism, and has shaped the world we live in.
It gave rise to the summer blockbuster as movie theatres with air conditioning units were the main place people could go in the heat. It allowed capitalist modernisation to transform post-colonial Singapore. It even inspired H P Lovecraft’s short story Cool Air.
One of the most attractive features of air conditioning units for American capital in the early twentieth century was that it consumed a lot of electricity. Utility companies had a strategy of selling electricity cheaply whilst relying on high demand, and air conditioning being marketed as essential for homes was a key part of that.
1957 was the first year that peak electricity usage began to be recorded in the summer rather than winter, as air conditioning was consuming more power than winter heating. This remains the case today.
This technology has enabled buildings which would have otherwise been untenable. Skyscrapers and shopping malls are ridiculously energy-inefficient, with wide open indoor spaces and plate-glass walls, so require extensive air conditioning to keep them habitable. It has also become “easier” to build homes which have reduced air flows, are architecturally simpler, and cheaper in the initial construction stage.
The state of Queensland in Australia, with its hot sticky summers, provides a case study.
From the mid-nineteenth century the typical Queenslander (wooden) house was built on stumps raising the ground floor off the earth, which cooled the house from under the floor. It had large verandas, and (small) windows and doors aligned to allow ventilation throughout the entire house.
Over the decades there has been a push towards more standard “American-style” brick-box homes, with air conditioning to make them habitable. As late as the 1990s air conditioning was rare in Queensland houses, but nowadays it is ubiquitous in new-builds.
Geneva, in Switzerland, which is not much cooler in the summer than southern Queensland, has a law requiring anyone installing air conditioning to prove the need for it. So buildings there are still designed to stay cool without air conditioning. But the more common trend is like Queensland’s — designing buildings on the assumption of air conditioning.
Industries which might otherwise go obsolete or shrink under any rational system of planning are given under capitalism the opportunity and drive to justify their existence.
In many places it is very hard to manage without some air conditioning. As the planet continues to warm people will likely use it more, contributing to a vicious circle. However, building houses with creative architectural solutions to keeping down temperatures would break that vicious circle and go a long way as an alternative to the constant and indiscriminate use of this incredibly energy-intensive technology.
The primary cause of climate change is the production of energy and materials from pollutive and world-altering resources: fossil fuels. However, building a new society requires other steps besides replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
Combating needless waste and unsustainable practices will be essential.