Monday, October 28, 2019

AC/DC (air conditioning / digging complex)

borne ceaselessly into the future

An old episode of The Simpsons ("Homer the Vigilante," s05e11) concludes with a parodic riff on It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. A frenzied mob tears through Springfield in search of a cache of stolen riches buried at the foot of a T-shaped tree. After it becomes obvious that they've all been bamboozled, a handful of dimwittedly tenacious treasure hunters perseveres in the excavation until they've tunneled themselves to the bottom of a veritable well shaft.

"How are we going to get out of here?" Otto asks.

"We'll dig our way out!" Homer declares, and with undiminished vigor the doomed adventurers resume plying their spades.

"No, dig up, stupid!" Police Chief Wiggum reprimands them after the fade-to-black.

That was the first bit of cartoon tomfoolery I was reminded of while reading a piece in the Washington Post about how Qatar has taken to air-conditioning its outdoor spaces as anthropogenic climate change puts the thermal screws to the small (but exceedingly wealthy) Persian Gulf state:
Already one of the hottest places on Earth, Qatar has seen average temperatures rise more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial times, the current international goal for limiting the damage of global warming. The 2015 Paris climate summit said it would be better to keep temperatures "well below" that, ideally to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.... 
To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the outdoors —— in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls so people can window shop with a cool breeze. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” says Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development. 
Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, according to the International District Cooling & Heating Conference. 
And it’s going to get hotter.
By the time average global warming hits 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, Qatar’s temperatures would soar, said Mohammed Ayoub, senior research director at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute. In rapidly growing urban areas throughout the Middle East, some predict cities could become uninhabitable.
The second cartoon that came to mind was—well, a comic I drew seven years ago that articulates the problem so succinctly that I'm a little offended the Post didn't contact me to inquire about reproduction rights. (Actually I thought of my own strip before I did "dig up, stupid," but I don't like to toot my own horn.)

In case the first metaphor wasn't obvious: adjusting to climate change through an expanded use and increased reliance on air conditioning (powered by hydrocarbon fuels) is like trying to move upwards by digging down.

Another excerpt: Derek Thompson of The Atlantic speaking to economist Tim Hartford, author of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (2017), about air conditioning:
Thompson: Truly, thank God for [inventor of air conditioning] Willis Carrier. The global effects of air-conditioning that you describe are mind-blowing. Air-conditioning transformed cities’ skylines, allowing for tall glassy skyscrapers that didn’t broil people in the top floors. It transformed demographics, allowing for migration in the U.S. to the Sun Belt, to Atlanta and Phoenix. By allowing politically conservative retirees to move south and west, you quote the author Steven Johnson saying that air-conditioning elected Ronald Reagan. 
Harford: Yes, and it’s key to have a global perspective, too. This didn’t just reshape America. Air-conditioning reshaped the world. Places like Singapore and Shanghai are miserable when they’re hot and humid, but today they are global metropolises. There are studies saying that human productivity peaks around 70 degrees. That means that air-conditioning made us more productive, but also, by creating density in Singapore, it allows people to work longer and keep making the world a rich place.
Hartford then adds that air conditioning contributes to climate change, exacerbating the factors which make it necessary in the first place. But Thompson is eager to move on.

You needn't be a student of dialectical materialism to appreciate this object lesson in the way that a dominant paradigm's operations supply the conditions that will eventually undermine and negate it. A place like Qatar's Doha, as Harford implies, could not have become a financial juggernaut and regional trade hub without air conditioning. Imagine having a desk job on the sixtieth floor of a glass skyscraper and trying to focus on a spreadsheet and send emails when the temperature in your office is 110° F during the summer. You couldn't do it. Commerce would grind to a halt for half the year. People would perish of heat stroke in their upstairs apartments. The existence of a dense, towering metropolis in a region whose climate once precluded such a mode of urban development was made possible by artificial means. If those artifices fail, or become insufficient to preserve the contingencies upon which the place's habitability depends, the city must die.

In this regard, it's unfair to single out Qatar because this sort of thing is happening everywhere. In the United States, climate change may force New Orleans into a similarly precarious situation. Can levees, floodwalls, and pumps be relied on indefinitely to preserve a coastal city (with an outsized carbon footprint) sitting below sea level on a planet with rising oceans and intensifying hurricanes? I doubt it: the Army Corps of Engineers is saying that their celebrated flood barriers, reconstructed at a cost of $14 billion to prevent another Katrina, will only provide adequate protection for another four years. But what's to be done? What politician in his or her right mind would vote for (let alone propose) something like a ten-year-plan to desert the city and relocate its population and capital? More likely we're going to wait for The Big One to force us to action. There will come a time when all but the most stubborn concede that to rebuild from the third or fourth iteration of the same inevitable disaster would be pointless. I'm willing to bet that New Orleans' days are numbered, and we'll defer from facing that reality until the moment it becomes incontrovertible.

If we wished to describe the overall situation of humanity in the twenty-first century with a single word, it would undoubtedly be "precarity." We've risen to precipitous heights on an unstable edifice and didn't have the foresight to construct a ladder back down.

Triumphant economists once touted the American breadbasket as a once-and-for all refutation of Malthus' gristly predictions of mass starvation, but they may have spoken too soon. Industrial agriculture continues to provide for an exponentially increasing population, but its methods exhaust the soil, decimate insect pollinators, produce pesticide-resistant insects, deplete groundwater reserves, and, yes, make a significant contribution to the nation's carbon emissions. The industry adapted to the threats it created by zombifiying its soil through petrochemical fertilizers and mineral injections, hiring pollinator brokers, and developing new pesticides—dulling the pain in lieu of disinfecting and bandaging the wound. In response to the existential problems of drained aquifers and changing weather patterns—well, the Midwestern farming community appears to be waiting to see what happens. But if the rains stops falling in the summer and the wells run dry—or if a disruption to the supply chain preempts the use of manufactured substitutes for topsoil, if colony collapse disorder leaves us without a viable population of captive pollinators while insecticide-immune pests run amok in the pastures—the system buckles. I doubt most Americans are truly capable of imagining how ugly that would get.

While the most publicized innovations in technology and design are those of the "disruptive" and "game-changing" variety, the ones that will be increasingly important and invested in will be those that don't change the paradigm, but forestall the disintegration of the current status quo—holding the global infrastructure together like duct tape and wads of gum applied to the loose joints and ruptured tubes of a jangling, failing machine. To dismantle, repair, and refurbish it would be unacceptably expensive, and the interruption of services would foment a public outcry. People generally aren't keen on consenting to make sacrifices for the public good, especially not when most of them are convinced that everyone outside of their own social class or geographical region is angling to screw them.

It is unwise to ignore feedback, particularly when it comes from an agency that cannot be flattered or negotiated with—but that is precisely the purpose of Qatar's outdoor air conditioning, New Orleans' levee projects, and industrial agriculture's various palliatives. Responding to a kitchen fire by muting the smoke detectors.

I've said it before: the climate and sustainability crises will be what ultimately shatters the central dogma of neoliberalism—the "rational actor" theory.

In the meantime, we will optimistically continue to dig.


  1. I think well meaning enviromentalists became part of the problem by endorsing one exaggerated prediction after another: The world was supposed to run out of oil and copper by 1990. Their cries were not ignored, either: One of the reasons the British allowed Baathists to assume control in Iraq was the perception that there wasn't much oil left in the region anyway. Birth control pills were released into the market prematurely (the first pills contained a heftier hormone dose than was necessary) partly because policy-makers were influenced by pessimistic population projections.

    Now people find it difficult to be roused into action after the 30th or 50th doomsday alert they heard also turned out to be bogus. Ten years ago, I actually heard a self-described specialist say: "Cell-phone emissions are going to kill everyone in ten years"

    Newly industrialized nations (like China) also hear a self-serving and self-righteous tone whenever their carbon footprint is criticized by the Western media. (You used to ride huge Cadillacs and now tell me I cannot own a car!)

    There is hope, yet. London used to be a pile of brick, garbage and horse feces hidden under perpetual smog in the 19th century. Now she is one of the cleanest, greenest cities on earth. It IS possible to keep cities cool without causing global warming. People in Eastern Iran did do so in the 9th century: They built dome-shaped houses with cold-water pools in the atrium and earthenware water canisters near windows. Desert winds would blow over the dome and suck the warm air inside it through Bernoulli Effect, forcing outside air to flow in over the pool and canisters, causing evaporative cooling.

    Sorry for my long comment, by the way. And don't forget that you have readers even in the Turkish Republic!

    1. Greetings from across the world!

      Now people find it difficult to be roused into action after the 30th or 50th doomsday alert they heard also turned out to be bogus.

      Sure, but to be fair: the warnings about global warming, rising oceans, desertification, etc., are bearing out. That's one problem with how information must pass from researchers to the public through for-profit media organizations that have a financial incentive to sensationalize their reporting. What's happening is more like an inexorable death by a thousand pinpricks than a bullet or a bomb—but since what gets the most attention are distorted and amplified "by 2020 there will be no oxygen left" stories, the people led expect a sudden, violent shock may begin to disbelieve the seriousness (or the existence) of the problem. I suppose the individual can't be blamed for that, but I do reserve the prerogative to grind my teeth at struggling farmers in the United States who look at historic flooding and consistently deviating weather patterns and refuse to admit the possibility that anthropogenic climate change might be a factor.

      Newly industrialized nations (like China) also hear a self-serving and self-righteous tone whenever their carbon footprint is criticized by the Western media.

      This is somewhere within the upper decile of my list of reasons why Trump's plan to pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement makes me want to tear my goddamn hair out. It really is proper that the West take the initiative in making deep cuts to emissions, seeing as how Europe and North America were the first to usher in and reap the benefits of the hydrocarbon revolution. But you'd have as much luck expecting an addict to voluntarily give up skinpopping without an intervention or a health crisis. (I'm hoping for the intervention.)

      People in Eastern Iran did do so in the 9th century: They built dome-shaped houses with cold-water pools in the atrium and earthenware water canisters near windows. Desert winds would blow over the dome and suck the warm air inside it through Bernoulli Effect, forcing outside air to flow in over the pool and canisters, causing evaporative cooling.

      Yeah! I was thinking about that earlier. We don't give antiquity nearly enough credit. But unless I'm mistaken, that technique isn't applicable to the skyscrapers that constitute the modern cosmopolis. Of course, I don't claim to be an engineer. Maybe it would be feasible to do something like, I don't know, place an open-air pool on every second or third floor of a tower and let the evaporation cool the stories above it?

      (Hmm. My cousin IS an engineer, and he's moving to the area this month. I'll ask him if he has any ideas.)

    2. Thanks for your answer! I hope engineers will come up with some energy-efficient, eco-friendly way to keep cities in southern latitudes functional: A large part of this planets population lives in hot climates.

      The analogy (or is it a simile?) you draw between drug addiction and our addiction to polluting the enviroment is excellent. The better part of any addiction is denial. Which reminds me of Asimov's novel: The Gods Themselves.