the AC wars

13Jul10

So this will be quick but: Historiann’s hosting a conversation about the merits (or more accurately, the demerits) of air conditioning. These conversations touch a nerve with me and I’ve been hearing a lot of them lately as people try to convince themselves that their misery during the recent heatwave is for some higher good.

I’ve finally figured out what irks me about these conversations in which those of us who think AC is a necessity (and here I’m really only speaking about the United States) are made to feel like we’re some less advanced species: these discussions reek of privilege.

I’ve never heard a person of color say that air conditioning isn’t necessary, unless they live in places where it truly isn’t. I’ve never heard some blue collar worker in the south brag about his abilities to ride out sweat-soaked nights. No, the only people I’ve heard this line of logic come from is white, upper-middle-class (or at the very least, members of the cultural elite) graduate students and, apparently now, professors. Interesting, that.

So what bugs me really isn’t the air conditioning. It’s that in this conversation about AC, we have yet another incarnation of the pervasive ethos among those who aren’t actually poor that we should be embracing as much suffering and discomfort as possible. (Another version of this narrative is the “trial by fire” graduate school theories, by which there’s some intrinsic value to surviving an ordeal made much harder than it need to be. There’s also the always fun eagerness to be poor, so rampant among certain graduate students, who then proceed to look down on anybody who has the gall to expect a decent paycheck after eight years of extra schooling.)

But people whose lives actually are economically and physically hard don’t see the need to heap on more unnecessary hardship, just to make a point. There is no virtue in excess suffering; life is hard enough and frankly, if you’re having conversations that criticize others for not being able to withstand a little discomfort, something tells me your life probably isn’t so bad.

It’s only those who can afford to have all the modern conveniences of life who spend a lot of time talking about how they’re unnecessary.

(For what it’s worth, Tenured Radical’s recent Teach for America post makes a related argument about how TFA’s really just a program for elites to feel good about themselves, not to actually solve the problems of our public education program.)

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7 Responses to “the AC wars”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve kept my mouth shut in the discussion over at Historiann’s place, but my thoughts as I read through the post and comments are pretty much in line with yours.

  2. 2 Anastasia

    Can we put Habitat for Humanity on the list of programs that are primarily about making elites feel good about themselves? Are we really solving the problems of substandard housing by letting white people who don’t know what they’re doing build houses?

    • 3 thefrogprincess

      Anastasia, I emailed you last week in case you missed it.

  3. 4 Di Di

    I completely agree. Heat can literally kill, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly. But even without the risk of death, it’s completely legitimate to choose AC over months of suffering.

    It’s unfortunate that the environmental movement is so elitest, lecturing people that they should suffer without AC and spend money they don’t have on expensive organic food… it’s incredibly irritating, not to mention this approach will never work.

  4. 5 thefrogprincess

    Great point about the environmental movement, Di Di. I gave up at Historiann’s, which I usually do but the point they’re all missing is that there is a way to talk about the environmental costs of AC (and think about ways to counteract one’s usage of it) without adopting a position of superiority and without using bogus justifications. “I don’t use AC because I can’t justify its environmental costs” is very different from “how dare other people not want discomfort/let’s connect with our bodies and our communities.”

  5. (coming in late, I only just read your post – I commented over at historiann)

    Your comment:
    “It’s only those who can afford to have all the modern conveniences of life who spend a lot of time talking about how they’re unnecessary.”

    sums it up perfectly.

    It’s the people paying thousands to get onto a plane to India and Thailand because they want to go somewhere “more spiritual” and “less materialistic”…

    I see the no-aircon brigade as in the same camp as the “only-organic” camp – another way of flashing one’s wealth is to boast about only buying organic food, and I think not having aircon is another way of demonstrating moral superiority with some claim to a more authentic lifestyle. It’s bullshit.

  6. 7 servetus

    I agree with you, but I read those debates as identity-defining as opposed to political. It’s not so much about “let’s show how green we are and be self-righteous about it” as it is about “let’s rebel against the assumptions that we were raised with.” It’s a central identity-development pattern in certain parts of the middle classes, I think.


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