Moral Discomfort, Privilege, and the Politics of Air-Conditioning

August 17, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed
Freedom image via shutterstock. Reproduced on with permission.

We don’t have central air conditioning in our house; nor do we run window units.  Other than the fact that my family is part of a 13% minority in the United States, where 87% of all households artificially cool their air, the lack of air-conditioning in itself should not be remarkable.  Friends and acquaintances will nevertheless express disproportionate astonishment.  Sometimes they express something beyond surprise, bordering on irritation, almost to the point of intimating a sense of having been betrayed.  This is all unprompted, because I don’t go around proselytizing about our lack of air-conditioning, though I do think going without is an important—and rarely understood—moral stance.  But I never bring this up in my day to day interactions, and am happy to politely enjoy the cool of others’ homes.  Because I am the driving force in our house behind our apparent stifling misery, I suspect that some of my wife’s friends pity her for having to live with such an unfeeling ogre such as myself.  They understand that I am an “environmentalist” of some sort, but I get the sense that I am occasionally thought of as sort of over-reactive zealot willing to make other suffer needlessly for my quirky “politics.”  Most of all, I’m guessing, they are glad that they don’t have to suffer through the scorching Wisconsin summers without the help of the magic of cheap, coal-generated electricity, compressed air, and Freon.  “I couldn’t survive without my air-conditioning” is a common refrain.  Many wear it as a badge of identity, strangely proud of their dependence on an environment-destroying luxury just to make it through the day.

There is, in this attitude, a lack of cultural and historical perspective, accompanied by a sense of inevitability and entitlement, all kept safe by basic energy and environmental illiteracy.  This drives me crazy, especially when it comes from our academic friends, many of whom cut their intellectual teeth on the same study as I did of the way historical and cultural perspective profoundly shapes our assumptions about what we deserve and our sense of what we actually need.  The subtle criticism of my air-conditioning-free lifestyle that I overhear also makes me feel misunderstood and, quite frankly, alone—a stranger among those who have the tools and the moral concern to understand what I am doing, and why.  I suppose this essay is a response to these feelings, but it is also meant as a “come on y’all” to the people who would seem most primed for serious concern and action over the plight of our planet, but haven’t yet looked the problem directly in the face.

Consider the cultural and historical perspective. Of course you could survive without air-conditioning, just as your grandparents and great-grandparents did and just as most people living in far hotter parts of Africa, South America, and Asia do.  At least a billion people of the world, mainly women, wash clothes exclusively by hand, and in climates much hotter than ours.  Most people still don’t own cars, but manage somehow nonetheless.  We often pity them but without really understanding their lives, supposing that we are the only people with happy and fulfilling lives.  Humans are far more adaptable and resilient than we are led to believe, and find joy and meaning in a broader range of conditions than we, who can command comfort at the push of a button, are often able to imagine, our sense of possibility withering under the cool dry air, perhaps.  Very few of us would actually be stricken with heat stroke by continuing with our daily household toil in all but the rarest of conditions.  As someone who works outdoors year-round, and for many years as a roofer, I can confirm that extreme heat can be uncomfortable (I dislike it far more than cold). But with a little bit of acclimation, the right attitude, and several gallons of water a day, it is entirely manageable, even in one hundred degree weather on south-facing roofs.  In the end, it is only discomfort and it is not permanent.  A sense of accomplishment can far outweigh the mild agony of the heat.

It is useful for my own perspective, and how I share it, to remember that there was a time in which I did happily enjoy the comforts of air-conditioning and gave little thought to its use.  But that all changed when I started thinking, and then learning, more and more about global warming, resource depletion, and North American levels of consumption.  Because I was spending more time in a community where these considerations were first nature, I began seeing my life through a lens of finite resources and global emissions.  I began hearing stories about people (mainly poor people in the southern half of the globe) who were already suffering in meaningful ways (i.e. more than sporadic discomfort) from the consequences of global warming.  We may hear abstractly about faceless crop failures in India, nameless floods in Pakistan or mudslides in India, and the disappearance of unfamiliar islands in the Pacific, but once they became populated with real people whose stories you have heard, you can’t easily go back to a place of indifference.  When I turn the ignition or flip on a switch, my head often becomes filled with images of people struggling to survive or raising children in a refugee camp.  Those images, as is the knowledge of the world I am leaving my children, are far more uncomfortable than a sticky damp shirt plastered on my back.

But the lives of others make up only half the moral picture.  The other is our role as North Americans in creating this reality, and therefore our responsibility in redressing it.  Part of the reason we Americans love to talk so much about ideals, freedoms, and values is that it helps us forget the underlying material reality that supports them all.  The people of the United States make up only 6% of the world’s population.  But we use 25% of the world’s energy (90% fossil fuels), consume 25% of the world’s industrial products, and are responsible for 25% of current carbon emissions.  If everyone in the world lived and consumed as Americans, we would need something on the order of 5 additional spare Earths, just to dump our waste and to mine for raw materials.  If all people used air conditioning at our level (calculated in terms of population and number of days of hot weather) the total world energy used on air-conditioning would be multiplied by a whopping factor of fifty—fifty times as much energy devoted to indoor comfort, fifty times the emissions.  If you run an air-conditioner, you are doing something that you should be damn happy that the rest of the world cannot.  But if you also believe that the Earth’s resources should be shared equitably, you have a bit of a moral conundrum on your hand.

When, at any rate, you start learning and thinking about such things, a web of interconnections emerges, illuminating the link between small choices you may make and the lives of others.  A world of climate-caused pain and suffering has already begun and is likely to increase with levels of disruption that few can begin to imagine.  A two meter rise in sea levels is pretty abstract until you begin to consider the billions of refugees, fleeing without home, without occupation, with nowhere to go.  If the overheated future is anything like the present, these refugees will not be welcomed in the hinterland.  The scale of preemptive and reactive military conflicts should be easy enough to imagine.  Just take our current level of conflict, some of them attributable already to climate change, and see how many times over it expands on a pressure-cooker Earth.  

As Americans, we are a primary cause of this–the greatest single squanderers of the Earth’s dwindling bounty and its capacity to absorb waste.   The way of life that we still work to export to the rest of the world is almost entirely responsible for climate change and the rapid depletion of natural resources.  Climate change is not being caused mainly by someone else.  As a group, the American middle-class is the greatest polluter and emitter.   New efficiencies, despite the multi-billion dollar marketing budget of the global financiers and industrialists, will not save us—not even close.  The rest of the world cannot enjoy luxuries that about 87% of us consider non-negotiable necessities without an warp speed acceleration towards the climate cliff over which we will eventually all cascade.

 One of the reasons why these basic and undisputed figures remain banished from most people’s consciousness, (which are more likely, instead, to be primed with unsubstantiated beliefs about the way renewable energy will allow us to maintain our current way of life without any consequences) is that they bring us to a pretty stark choice: either we have to admit that we are using way more than our share, and then come to grips with it, or we have to find a way to justify this gross inequality as something we have earned and deserve, as something inevitable, or as something about which there is nothing we can do.  

Or, to put it another way, the fact that we as Americans use and waste at about four times the global average, permits three basic types of response: 1) remain ignorant about it; 2) somehow maintain that this inequality is morally and politically justifiable; or 3) accept it as a violation of our moral principles and start making changes.   The first option is the easiest, especially for globally-minded liberals, intellectuals, and academics, who generally feel uneasy with the suggestion that our “national virtue” or “way of life” entitles us to more, or that our might makes right.  The hazy sense about world energy consumption and emissions enjoyed by the educated and informed classes in North America, and the accompanying wishful belief that things are improving (or will), remains the best way of evading moral responsibility.   Our most vaunted news and information sources aid in this evasion.  Neither NPR, the New York Times, nor left-leaning national periodicals will ever seriously put American consumption into an international perspective and rarely question the alleged promises of alternative energy and forthcoming efficiencies.  Renewable energy provides only a few percents of the world’s total energy diet.  But, almost all by itself, it powers a dangerous illusion: that the rest of the world could consume at our level without steering us onto a short-cut to ecological collapse and the exhaustion of finite resources.   

I would also speculate that the requirements of moral comfort explain the attitude many of my peers have towards my relatively modest attempts to curtail my own energy consumption: I think it may threaten to lift just a little bit of this haze and bring the seriousness of our situation into view.

Moral Discomfort

The information presented above is my own brief attempt to perform some preliminary consciousness-raising.  Consciousness-raising is a phenomenon with which the same educated and informed classes just mentioned are, it turns out, very familiar.  It is, of course, a matter of learning new information about things that one hadn’t been forced to think about, along with a new sense of one’s own personal connection to the world described by this new information.   My refusal to run air-conditioning in my home, my near-complete moratorium on airplane travel, my reluctance to buy any unnecessary “consumer goods” are all the simple results of my heightened consciousness about American energy use and its consequences, which, I might add, was heightened largely by accident, rather than because of some kind of  unusual personal integrity.   

This “awakening” is not the first moral shift of my adult life, nor the first one that happened by accident.  In 1990 I began graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in an English and Comparative Literature program that focused on cultural studies, with a decidedly left-leaning orientation.  I had come freshly-scrubbed from St. Olaf College, where I had only one woman professor in 4 years of study. St. Olaf was overwhelming white, comprised largely of Lutherans from wealthy Minneapolis suburbs, along with a smattering of Valedictorians from the small (equally white)   towns of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas.   The course of study, for a large plurality at St. Olaf, was geared towards entry-level management jobs in corporate America.  Student culture was not only geared towards fine-tuning the skills needed to leverage our privilege, it was also deeply sexist, classist, racist, and openly homophobic. I recall resident assistants in my dorm printing-up and selling homophobic t-shirts and stickers during my freshmen year.  There was not, to my knowledge, any response from the college administration.  Any subsequent consciousness-raising that has occurred in this prominent corner of America had not yet made its way to the Twin Cities’ suburbs or the northern plaines.

While I had prided myself on being the campus radical at St. Olaf (not all that difficult an endeavor), I didn’t know shit about shit when I showed up in Milwaukee and was forced to grasp, in my first few dizzying weeks, new terms like “compulsory heterosexuality,” “the male gaze,” “the critique of the family,” and all sorts of other concepts that would begin to undermine my previously unruffled enjoyment of straight, white, middle-class male privilege.  Some of the veteran graduate students could be quite unkind and impatient, humiliating me and other newcomers for not yet knowing what no one had ever taught me before; others were more gentle, reminding me nonetheless that it wasn’t their job to take care of my feelings.   (Male graduate students, it turns out, often try to turn every woman in sight into nurturing mother-figures.)   For many of my graduate school peers, the politics of gender and sexuality were deeply personal; the lives of their identity at stake.  During my first two years, at any rate, I felt uncomfortable most of the time and rarely dared to speak in class.  A seemingly innocent question might sound homophobic or racially insensitive, and could trigger a storm of reprisal.  While I don’t recommend this pedagogical style without qualification, this fear and discomfort gave me some great practice listening, and I will always be grateful for these difficult and often painful experiences.

The great lesson I learned, in addition to all the specific stories and insights from which I had been previously sheltered, was that my discomfort within the confines of a graduate seminar was nothing compared to the discomfort (or real danger) that, for instance, women can regularly feel on an ordinary city street.  In contrast, I could escape from the uncomfortable seminar room to those safe streets (for me) any time I wanted.  I learned about the daily stress that having dark skin in America causes, the wearing-away caused by the constant vigilance, the uncertainty, the not-knowing how people were judging and what they might do.  I had a vivid, if second-hand, understanding of the pain inflicted by the compulsory heterosexuality of a place like St. Olaf, with a freshmen orientation week composed mainly of pairing young men and women off with each other, first by height, then by dorm-room location,.  I was uncomfortable in graduate school, but that was part of the point, and it had great pedagogical effect, for discomfort plays a central daily and existential role in the lives of many.  Without the moral discomfort, moreover, I would not have been forced to transform my cultural lens, would not have been forced to see my privilege, would not have become aware of the way cultures of exclusion and hierarchy actually work.  Instead of being bitter about my sudden status as a second-class citizen in this tiny graduate school sub-culture (for that is why it was uncomfortable), unique in the way it privileged people often excluded from the American mainstream, it taught me a lot about context and proportion, and the gap between what I consciously intended and the impact I might nevertheless cause, and, most of all, how part of what makes inherited privilege privileged is its sense of normalcy.  These lessons have remained at the center of my consciousness ever since.

These same lessons are also applicable to energy, consumption, and the devastating environmental consequences of American privilege.  Before going any further, I need to note that there is a certain amount of risk in comparing my lessons in graduate school about race, class, gender, and to some extent cultural imperialism, on the one hand, to the world of energy, the environment, and consumption, on the other.[i]  They are not the same thing, and to imply that they are is, as we might say, “problematic.”  The pain and suffering that, for instance, slaves and their descendants have experienced at the hands of white America has a historical specificity that is lost when it becomes a metaphor for other kinds of pain and suffering—such as when the metaphor of “energy slaves” is employed. It takes a different kind of cruelty and a different kind of denial to look another human in the eye than ignore events that are distant and abstract[ii].  Likewise, to note another common way past suffering is turned into measuring stick for current events is the use of the label “holocaust.”  The murder of six-million Jews at the hands of German Nazis has very specific historical causes and is part of a very specific tradition of anti-Semitism.  To refer to anything else as a holocaust, I imagine, is to borrow without permission someone’s very personal story and turn it into a more general bench-mark, thus using it for one’s own purpose.  It may be rhetorically useful as a way of expressing a high-level of suffering, but only at the expense of others. 

When we talk about modern slavery, today’s holocaust, or the moral equivalent of sexism–or when others deny feel compelled to deny all similarity–we also risk creating a hierarchy of suffering, according to which different sorts of suffering and injustice are ranked in order of importance.  Such a hierarchy does no one any good, for it turns the art of compassion into competition.  Except for the finite time available to any one activist, or limited room available in any one curriculum, there is no reason why we need to choose between the fight for marriage equality and the struggle against excessive consumption.  The two are not mutually exclusive, even as some individuals may be committed to the one, and resistant to the other.

That being said, I’m going to risk sticking my out far enough to suggest that there are some very helpful lessons to be learned from the fight against racism and sexism, and from the mainstream resistance to this fight and the subsequent backlash.  I will propose that the stakes of environmental destruction are more than high enough to make this risk worth taking.  So even as the millions, even billions, that are likely to be displaced from their homes, on the one hand, and affluent nations and the people living in such a way to accelerate this process, on the other, may have little in common with slaves stolen from Africa  and the cruel slave-owner who looked his property in the eye before whipping him, with subordinated wives and the righteous domineering husband insisting on the truth of tradition, or the way citizens of Nazi Germany smelled the burning flesh but did nothing, there remain some similarities worth mentioning, and worth mentioning for a very simple reason.  The compassionate consciousness previously raised by now recognized and well-understood suffering and mass injustice might again be raised by the environmental and resourced-based suffering that we, in America, are disproportionately responsible for.  And even as the suffering may have entirely different ideological or historical causes, there is nevertheless a profound sort of similarity.  In nearly all the cases of mass cultural cruelty or indifference that I can think of, the average person involved in or benefitting from this perpetration, has used pretty similar strategies to keep their crimes out of their own consciousness, to deny the connection between their behavior and other peoples’ suffering, and to maintain their privilege.  To put it bluntly, when someone says “I couldn’t possibly survive without my air-conditioning,” I hear echoes of perpetrators past–perpetrators who also could not have dreamed that they were doing anything outside the normal, the proper, or the inevitable: “I don’t know how I could survive without my house-slave.”  “The station-house will never work if we allow women in.”  “Orderly society needs to follow a natural hierarchy and have clear roles for different people.” “The institution of marriage will be destroyed if anyone is allowed to marry anyone.” 

As I learned in graduate-school, the legitimate fear of change and the unknown expressed in each case is, more significantly, working at the same time to protect some form of unacknowledged and unseen privilege.  Go without your house-slave, your male-exclusive workplace, your society with clear forms of hierarchy, your exclusive institutions, and you probably are going to have to do some things and feel some things that are new and uncomfortable.  The only difference with running an air-conditioner is that you probably haven’t yet considered who or what is suffering for your convenience and comfort.  Unlike your freed house-slave or the woman firefighter or gay and lesbian friends or neighbors, these people don’t yet have names and faces that you are able to recognize.

To put this another way, all the routines practices and habits of American consumption, as well as all its privileges, seem entirely normal, natural–even a near-sacred entitlement–to those who enjoy them.  The consequences of this normal-seeming behavior are mainly unknown, or are believed to be caused by other people doing other things, or are seen as acceptable collateral damage of our currently superior arrangement of things.  The gap between this normal and its consequences has similarities between the gap between previous normals that we now view with clear knowledge of their consequences and privileges.  Forgoing air-conditioning, casual airplane jaunts, or new consumer goods is as little part of the current American middle-class normal–even among intellectuals and professionals who believe they are  willing to do their part “to protect the planet”—as was the belief fifty years ago than women might reliably hold positions of power in our society.  Then, as now, when consequences of this belief were made conscious, people felt unsettled, uncomfortable, pushed and pressed into unfamiliar territory.  A new moral reckoning was required, even a reassessment of one’s identity.  Men especially were made uncomfortable for behaving simply as they had been taught.  They were suddenly asked to be more careful about what they said, to learn a new etiquette even though the old one seemed perfectly fine to them.  Most significantly, though, they were being asked to relinquish some of their patriarchal privilege.  While some men did listen and learn, and there has been slow and ongoing change, many men also responded without much grace or equanimity, doubling-down on male privilege or by celebrating symbols of traditional gender roles.  A similar dynamic can be seen with nearly all kinds of meaningful social change in which identity, freedom, and power have had to cross paths. 

Flip the Switch and Keep Discomfort at Bay

One of the most important similarities between the sort of consciousness raising that most liberal academics and professionals take for granted, and the sort of environmental consciousness-raising that I hope they will entertain with all the seriousness it deserves, is the sort of strategy used to create barriers between “normal,” on the one hand, and unquestioned forms of privilege and the uncomfortable moral knowledge that from time to time storms its gates or wafts over its walls, on the other.   This strategy employs at least two basic lines of defense.

The first line of defense is to keep the victim voiceless so that the voice of privilege goes unchallenged.    It was illegal to teach slaves to write.  Women were enfranchised less than one hundred years ago in the U.S.  It is still legal to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation in some states and in many parts of the world.  The current victims of climate change and resource depletion are also voiceless.  At best, they are “recipients” of quasi-well-intentioned “development aid,” aid which tells them to be more like us and puts them into debt so that they may try to live the way we do—a silly and mathematically impossible prospect which earns our investments interest in the meantime.   Most of the victims of global climate change and resource depletion, however, have yet to be born and literally have no voice, no way of demanding for themselves a livable planet.  They depend entirely on our moral conscience.  This is one of the reasons why our impeding ecological collapse has had a difficult time finding a receptive ear among liberal knowledge makers.  It has no specific constituency—at least not within current ear-shot—while the privilege these victims would question if they could belongs to nearly all Americans.

The second line of defense is to ridicule voices protesting the status quo and according to some familiar techniques.  The most common, of course, is to call the protestors “extreme” or “zealous.”  By so doing, one admits there may be a point to all this hub-bub (who, after all, can actually dismiss recent climate science?), but dismiss the inconvenient voices wanting to introduce some sort of moral and physical discomfort as overstating the case, of denying the natural progress that will occur at its own pace if left alone, of failing to understand the natural or inevitable order of things.  In this vein, my own hope that the industrialized world will begin to “power- down” before it is too late is often dismissed as being unnecessarily extreme (what with innovation and all), as being too off-putting or alienating, or of  being too unrealistic (“people will never go along with that”).  Although the names, faces, and dates have changed (and, need I repeat it, these changes are highly significant and well-worth keeping in mind), one might recall the way many good and forward-looking liberals in the early sixties believed that segregation was ultimately untenable, but nevertheless remained part of an overwhelming majority of people who believed the civil rights movement was far too radical and impatient and needed to slow down to let society adjust at its own pace.   A generation ago, gays and lesbians were tolerated in many parts of academic culture only if they kept their affairs entirely private and didn’t disturb the comfortable heterosexual order of things.  Go ahead and burn your bra, some husbands must have said,  but don’t expect me to do the dishes or change those diapers.

During the 90s when I was up to my waste in the University and the “identity politics” of the time, I witnessed the struggle for previously marginalized voices to find a place at the table where decisions were made about the curriculum, hiring, and pedagogical mission. The old guard would often concede that younger trouble-makers “had a point” about gender inequality or the history of racism in America, but also argued that they were “going overboard” when they argued that the traditional literary cannon and the literary criticism with which it had been taught might also represent, and help maintain, a form of privilege.  This was too extreme, they said, a form of zealotry.  There already was a “women and literature” course, and black history month, and that should be enough—no reason to undo an entire way of doing things and traditional way of thinking about culture.  The goal of those trying to put the study race, class, gender, and sexuality at the center of the curriculum and to weave it into all aspects of academic and intellectual culture was an ambitious one.  It proposed that a change in academic curriculum and of the stories we tell ourselves about our culture and our history might help alter the beliefs and attitudes outside the walls of academia.  Although there is undeniably much more work left to be done, people outside of academia in liberal and professional circles do in fact employ much of the same language and vocabulary that was hammered out in the academic “culture wars” of a few decades ago.   Concepts like “institutionalized racism,” or “cultural imperialism,” which would have been unknown to most college graduates even in the humanities or social sciences a few decades ago, are now part of a fairly mainstream liberal vocabulary.  The previously “extreme” has now become a new normal within a large and powerful swath of American culture.

There are, one can safely argue, cruelties and injustices in the world against which it is difficult to imagine too extreme a position.  What, for instance, would constitute too drastic a position over widespread racial discrimination, the creation of a permanent underclass in the world’s most powerful nation, the shooting of unarmed African Americans by white police officers?  Nothing less than the call for complete equality and an instant response to the prejudices that cause police officers to see non-existent weapons and imagine unrealistic threats would be appropriate to the situation.  Every form of assumption, privilege, and attitude are up for grabs.  Voices urging patience or acceptance are quickly shouted down.  Similarly, there is little one could question or say about marriage equality that, in my subculture of university-educated liberals, could possibly be deemed “going overboard” or “overstating” the problem.  The issues are clear, the lack of fairness and equity obvious.  While there are many remaining subcultures in which people would argue that gays and lesbians should hope only for a second-class institution like civil union, because marriage is “going too far,” as consciousness becomes increasingly raised this is becoming a less and less popular position, with little threat of a reversal of the trends favoring complete statutory equality for gays and lesbians.

But when it comes to formulating a realistic response to climate change, resource depletion, and the economic and political instability they are likely to cause, even modest commitments to living with less are routinely seen as an overreaction.  Widespread public opinion offers no protection for the ecologically committed from scorn or mockery, even if in the form only of patronizing comments, subtle ostracizing, or dismissive humor.  “Is this another one of your things?”  “I didn’t think you’d actually eat that, what with all your tree-hugging.” “Please don’t be a killjoy about this, we just want to enjoy ourselves.” The same sort of comment was made about recycling only a few decades ago.  But because it too has become a cultural norm without any inconvenience, very few among the informed classes make fun of the practice of separating cans and bottles.  But actively think about what you eat and the consequences of your food choices, or vote for a restaurant within walking distance because you don’t want to drive across town just for the sake of culinary novelty, and you can expect people to suggest that you are engaging in a silly and self-congratulatory quest for me meaningless purity—and without consideration for the real and immediate needs and wants of your friends.  That one might decline an airplane flight for the simple reason that it is not sustainable is simply beyond the ken.  “Certainly you don’t believe that can really make a difference.  You’re not really going to live like that, are you?”

Without rating climate and global ecology as more or less important than any other political struggles that have been aided by programs of consciousness-raising, I would still hold that protecting the future of all life might achieve the status of a serious moral consideration for which one’s commitment would receive a modicum of respect and even curiosity, rather than trivializing humor, among those who do, in fact, have a well-tuned ear for the workings of ideology in other realms.  I’m not sure how making scientific calculations about levels of carbon dioxide or the slow but steady death of the ocean, and then determining how much each of the world’s seven billion human habitants can safely consume, is “extreme.” But far from expecting a degree of respect for this position, the roles are more often reversed: in polite academic company, rather, the sustainability activist has to be careful not to offend anyone’s current level of privilege and opportunity.  Unlimited consumption, with the exception of a few of the most crass symbols (like a Hummer), is still the social norm.  Using more than one’s share, as Barbara Kingsolver has suggested, is not even seen as remotely rude.

The reason, of course, is not hard to explain.  It has nothing to do with the seriousness of the problem or the sort of solution required.  It has to do with the fact that most educated and informed people still remain in the dark about these details and prefer to stay there.  For at stake is privilege, a way of life and, in the meantime, a whole boatload of moral discomfort that must be kept at bay.

Cool Conscience

One might argue that my own emphasis on air-conditioning is hypocritical.  I do, after all, still drive, live in a one-family house, and in many ways have a normal middle-class American lifestyle, even if it has been downsized a few notches compared to the norm.  Does turning off the air-conditioning really make that much of a difference?  Shouldn’t you get rid of the automobiles, grow all your own food, and forego all the products and devices of industrial society?  Does air-conditioning really use that much energy?  Will your personal abstinence make a bit of real difference?  Why not enjoy yourself until society is ready to make the massive changes necessary?

There is, I will admit, something to this argument.  While air-conditioning does, in fact, draw a lot of electricity (about 16% of the average household electricity use, though with additional environmental effects), it is by no means the average middle-class person’s largest source of atmospheric carbon.  Even as it is difficult to know what exactly to do and where to start if the goal is just to reduce one’s own personal carbon footprint, the elimination of air-conditioning, alone, may have an overly selective feel to it.   Beyond this, the reduction of a few personal carbon footprints among the anointed pales in comparison to the amount of energy required just to keep one’s small slice American society up and running, one’s personal choices notwithstanding.  As permaculture founder David Holmgren has argued, the only plausible solution to global warming, at this late date, is the collapse of the global economy.  That, he argued, should be our main goal as activists.  Beyond that, any decisions we may make are meaningless and symbolic and will succeed only in making a few smug environmentalists feel that they are better than everyone else.

There is much here, that I actually do agree with, though with far more qualifications than I’m going to discuss right now.  While there is something about air-conditioning that is symbolic, it is a kind of symbolism that is deeply important to me, and (I’m throwing out for consideration) worth thinking about more widely.  Morality and political justice, we should know by now, cannot only be calculated according to a strict utilitarian formula.  Sometimes we avoid something just because it is wrong, regardless of its overall impact.  So here’s how I think about it:  between the American way of life, on the one hand, and one that is sustainable and globally just, on the other, stands a nearly unbridgeable gulf.  Every aspect of what we own, where we live, what we do for entertainment and relaxation, how we keep ourselves employed would have to change in order for Americans to take from the Earth in a way that is fair to other humans and that will allow for future humans to have a chance of success.  Many of these changes (some of which will happen regardless of our choices) would uproot nearly every aspect of our social and economic being.  Powering-down to a just and sustainable level will be far more difficult than flipping a switch; it should not escape our observation that most people who go off the grid for reasons of conscience are able to smooth the path with considerable privilege and wealth.  It takes a new set of skills, training, even equipment to live with drastically less; it takes more time and freedom than those who are closer to the margins of poverty, as we define it, tend to have.

This may not change the utilitarian morality of it.  It does not change the fact that our basic routines require resources that should not be ours, and for the simple reason that they take away life-sustaining resources for people who are truly living at the edge of survival, as well as the future generations who will increasingly live closer to that same brink.  This is true whether we are using resources to prolong a life through an intensive medical procedure, or for a  new flat-screen television; whether we are commuting in old vehicle to a low-paid job miles away or are enjoying a cheap weekend flight to Vegas or Orlando; whether we are pulling into McDonalds because we couldn’t be bothered to take the time to cook a meal, or because it is all we can afford; whether you are driving up north to go cross country skiing or to binge at the nearest Indian casino.   Regardless, we live on a finite planet: my emissions, whatever their source, mean either that you cannot have as much, or that there may be nothing useable left in the future.  This is not hyperbole; these are easily verifiable facts.  To make it through a day in America, it is virtually impossible to adhere strictly to the limits that we nevertheless have a moral duty to heed.  Every time we flip on a light, stop hurriedly at the Seven-Eleven, or turn the ignition we risk taking more than we can responsibly have.  As one struggles towards a more sustainable life, there will be a never-ending series of compromises and a conscious life lived in perpetual moral discomfort.  The mantra that fills my oft-tortured days is “sorry Earth, I know I shouldn’t do this.”

The distinction may, ultimately be spurious—this much I admit: but it is far easier to make this apology when I am consuming in order to keep my job (even as I’m considering how to make a sustainable living), driving to visit family, or making sure my three-year olds have some fruit that they will actually eat (homegrown food notwithstanding), than it is when it is matter, simply, of my comfort or idle amusement.  To turn on an air-conditioner, for me, would be the peak of thoughtless indifference.  It would be to say to the Earth and to its other inhabitants, “a few degrees of temperature for me are more important than your species or your homeland.”  Setting aside the lives of the elderly or sick, air-conditioning is only a matter of comfort, of feeling good for a few otherwise sweaty hours or days.  Since my consciousness has been raised and the consequences of my way of life are known to me, artificially cooling my house presents itself an act of supreme arrogance and disregard.  “I will not sweat or feel sticky–damn the suffering of others.”  “I want to relax under a cool rush of air and burrow under the covers, never mind the extinction of other species.”  “I will not experience the discomfort for the sake of anyone else as long as I can afford it.”

Am I fooling myself with this arrangement of different kinds of consumption within a moral hierarchy?  Perhaps.  Is there a level of subjective judgment here, a bias created by my own self-interest or unique perspective? Probably.  But if I am not open to the possibility of being a little uncomfortable—or similarly of ignoring a craving or a rush of longing or desire for something I want, of going without from time to time–it difficult to imagine how I could possibly prepare myself for the greater changes that we must all make, the changes required to live justly within the Earth’s limits, occasional moral and physical discomfort included.  I do not mind being called a hypocrite by those trying to learn more and do better.  But as an excuse to do nothing, that is an insult to both conscience and consciousness alike, yours and mine.

[i] Please note: I say “risk” and try to keep in mind the consequences.  I never say such comparisons shouldn’t be made, only that they need to be made carefully and with as much awareness as possible.


[ii] “Different,” here, means different—whether “better” or “worse” I refuse to speculate on principle.



Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: air conditioning, limits to growth, powering down