illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
India diary (4)
In the warmest and populated / richer places —be it regional capitals in India, or Las Vegas in the Mojave desert, or Dubai— modern humans have a strong temptation for using air conditioning.
While air conditioning might seem a necessity, it requires stubborn views to imagine that humans "should" live in such places.
It also requires stubborn views that, just because one 'can' do something, it probably is legitimate, acceptable or ethical.
It finally requires stubborn views that causality doesn't apply and that one can be selfish without incurring negative consequences, without harming others and oneself.
Air conditioning systems are huge consumers of energy.
Right now, producing energy isn't clean (be it by 'burning' and generating global warming gases, or by 'fissioning' and generating long-lasting nefarious nuclear waste, or by solar panels requiring the mining of rare earths to be produced, or even by wind turbines).
Even when the cleaner forms of production are used, ethics would suggest that clean energy shouldn't be wasted, otherwise more of the 'dirty' energy will likely be produced in order to fulfil the total demand.
If you think ethics aren't involved in electricity, think again: it has been evaluated that American homes use as much electricity for air conditioning as the whole of Africa uses for all purposes! Priorities?
Right now, the efficiency of air conditioning is low: the air conditioning system itself generates significant heat (on top of the heat taken out of the cooled room). This means that, globally, heat is added to the environment by air conditioning, heat is not just displaced (from inside to outside).
Between the increase in demand of energy (leading to either waste of clean energy which could be put to more ethical use, or the generation of more dirty energy) and the 'net' warming of the environment, the use of air conditioning is an ethical question.
Even with perfect efficiency, the goal is to prioritise energy consumption and step out of the self-centric "my comfort first, Africa's survival later".
Now, it is true that in hospital, maternity wards, homes for the elderly, etc., moderate air conditioning helps survival… so, ethically, we might give it the benefit of the doubt. One may still consider whether a retirement home "has to" be in such an unwelcoming setup (e.g. 'sunny' Florida) that air conditioning is actually required for survival, but let's use the "benefit of the doubt".
What is clearly not needed is 20 ºC / 68 ºF inside, in the middle of the day, when outside temperature is above 30 ºC / 86 ºF (or even above 35 ºC / 95 ºF). It's not needed for survival, not even needed for comfort!
It requires stubborn ignorance to have an air conditioning unit on full blast for most of the day (or all day for that matter) in homes, offices, shops, restaurants… to get temperatures which might be comfortable in moderate climates but are also great recipes for thermic shocks in hot climate.
It requires stubborn ignorance to have an air conditioning unit with a timer that kicks in in advance of your arrival, just so that the room is 'already' cool the moment you arrive.
It requires ignorance of the ethical issues in relation to energy production… It requires ignorance of causality: heating up the atmosphere more than the room is cooled is a sure recipe for a vicious circle requiring more and more air conditioning (cf. e.g. theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/09/air-conditioning-raising-night-time-temperatures-us )… It requires ignorance of the damage that global warming causes to millions of people (from rise in sea levels, to droughts and/or floods, to starker storms), possibly far away but still impacted by a selfish desire for a ignorantly-cold room… [It doesn't matter if global warming is mainly man-made or not, you just need to consider that there's no reason to make the situation intentionally worse, due to selfish intentions!]
In India, A/C rooms are so cold they allow people to wear Western 'office' clothes… A/C rooms are a must in posh restaurants, and the air is freezing cold just to make sure the customers feel the A/C (s)he is paying for… A/C is basically to show off: money, clothes, 'sophistication'… If you phone for a cab, you might need to specify if you want an A/C car or non-A/C car: if you asked for A/C, the driver will likely put the temperature so low, you could catch pneumonia just by being driven through the city!
In a country where hundreds of millions are below the poverty level, where year after year floods are devastating to millions, where tropical climate comes accompanied with tropical diseases, one of the measures of economic development reported in the news is "electric consumption per capita." (cf. e.g. articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-09-11/news/53811473_1_power-consumption-most-power-power-issues).
This is like one of the worst measures ever! According to such a measure, the least efficient your electric equipment, the better. According to such a measure, the more energy is wasted (in terms of what it is used for, not just how efficiently it is used), the better. According to such a measure, cooling rooms to inappropriate temperatures (actually putting one's health in danger due to thermic shocks) is a good thing, and the more people do so, the better.
The Middle Way isn't just some fancy theory, it has to be realised, applied, effected.
While moderate air conditioning might help the weakest to 'function' well, and might even (at its best, big assumption already!) be beneficial for health, strong air conditioning is clearly not ethical, on many fronts!
Often people wonder what they can do to "benefit all sentient beings"; easy acts, with real causal consequences, for the benefit of all lie in switching off the air conditioning when not needed, in not switching on the air conditioning in advance, and in accepting higher temperatures (even when the air conditioning is on).
From a thermodynamic perspective, it takes less energy to drop 1 degree from the outside temperature than to drop 1 degree from an already lowered temperature, just like it takes less energy to keep a refrigerator cool than a freezer.
If you think the comparison is abusive, the California energy commission has a nice statistic: on average, a refrigerator uses 13.7% of a home's energy, the largest energy-user behind… an air conditioner (16%)! The advice of the commission is: « Don't put the refrigerator near a heat source - an oven, dishwasher or even direct sunlight from a window - or it will have to work harder to maintain cool temperatures. If you must install a dishwasher or stove next to the refrigerator, place a sheet of foam insulation between them. (…) Check the temperature – a fridge that is 10 degrees colder than necessary can use 25% more energy. (…) Many refrigerators have small heaters built into the walls to prevent moisture from condensing on the outer surface – as if the refrigerator doesn't have to work hard enough already! » Same as for air conditioning: thermic insulation helps; not cooling down many degrees below the ambiant temperature helps; not using ovens, cookers or even many strong lights while air conditioning helps…
If you're serious in your practice, isn't the "benefit of all sentient beings" worth a bit of sweat?
What is clearly not needed is 20 ºC / 68 ºF inside, in the middle of the day, when outside temperature is above 30 ºC / 86 ºF (or even above 35 ºC / 95 ºF). It's not needed for survival, not even needed for comfort! At 30 ºC, most people don't need air conditioning: just dress (or 'undress') appropriately! At 35 ºC, if you're in the weaker members of the population for whatever reason, you might consider cooling down to e.g. 30 ºC but there's usually little need to go much lower! "Not clinging" includes not clinging to "get 'cooler' and then even 'cooler'," while "avoiding extremes" includes refraining from "as cool as it can get." This applies anywhere in the world, for the benefit of all sentient beings! You can also "vote with your feet", and not eat in ignorantly-cold restaurants and not shop in ignorantly-cold malls!
photo: IMG_2201 « Boat Quay is a row of restaurants and pubs along the Singapore River all of which attempt to air condition not only their own premise but the whole city by leaving their doors open at all times. That means that the ally behind Boat Quay is in the running to be the air conditioner capital of the world. » © Brian Jeffery Beggerly (flickr.com/photos/beggs)