Deidre Woollard: All right, Fools. It is two o'clock here on the East Coast. Our usual Millionacres Hour. I'm taking things in a different direction today, not talking directly about real estate, but talking about air conditioning which lives inside real estate. My guest today is Eric Dean Wilson, who is the author of this book, After Cooling. Now, you may have not have thought much about air conditioning except for being really grateful it exists. But this book, by the time I was through Chapter 1, I was already tweeting him like, "Hey, I need to interview you." Thank you so much for joining me, Eric.
Eric Dean Wilson: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be on the show.
Deidre Woollard: Well, I think this book just fascinated me. One of the things I found most interesting was that in the beginning of air conditioning, there was this resistance to this idea of comfort. I find that really fascinating considering where we are all at now.
Eric Dean Wilson: Absolutely. It was one of the most surprising things that I found too was that we have this assumption that the whole history of civilization was just waiting for air conditioning and that once it appeared and the technology was available for it, it would've gone wild. That's not at all what happened. The infrastructure came after a really long and concerted effort on the part of air conditioning engineers and advertisers of convincing people that they actually wanted this. One of the funniest things that happened is that the real start of the history of air conditioning begins in the 1840s, as far back as the 1840s in Florida. Physician named Dr. John Gorrie, who really wanted to help people with malaria. At the time, we have to remember that people didn't understand the connection between mosquitoes and malaria. Also, malaria in the deep South in the United States was really, really bad. Hundreds of people would die every season. So this doctor, Dr. John Gorrie, had this brilliant idea to create a cooling machine. Various scientists, British scientists, and some American scientists had worked out more or less the basic physics of how mechanical cooling might work. Dr. Gorrie thought these feverish patients could be cooled mechanically and feel better, if not cured. He did indeed invent the first air conditioner, it was about the size of like a small room with what would look like a big car engine, it was probably very noisy, it used water as refrigerant and it worked. It also accidentally became the first ice maker because it was left on at night and there was ice that clogged the pipes. John Gorrie, naturally, like all of us, probably thought he was going to be rich. Here's this new invention, everybody is going to want one, I'm going to be famous. He spent years traveling up and down the eastern seaboard at trying to find investors. He found one in New Orleans and the man died before he agreed and signed the paper. Dr. Gorrie died a penniless man. Nobody was interested in this contraption, it was too weird, people thought it was unhealthy, and when he died, he had a patent pending for the air conditioning machine but his wife never sent the patent office the necessary paperwork. After a few years, the patent office destroyed it. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the idea of air conditioning really became possible again. Part of that was improvement in technology, but part of it was also a shift culturally and psychologically. Air conditioning was almost exclusively used before World War I in manufacturing. It would make things hotter and more humid as well as cooler and less humid, depending on the product. If you had cotton, for instance, you wanted a pretty humid room, so that the strands didn't fray. If you were making movie film, for instance, you wanted to really cool, no humidity. It really depended on the product. After World War I, because the brutalness of the war and the wildness and ruckusness of the Roarin' 20s, the idea of the individual comfort and leisure began very, very slowly to catch on and it really started with movie theaters.
Deidre Woollard: I like the part in the book about movie theaters because there were a lot of times that the air conditioning didn't work. [laughs] You have some funny stories of the book of people with newspapers because there's dripping. It wasn't exactly the pleasant experience that we think of now.
Eric Dean Wilson: No. If you think about it, air conditioning was a hard sell in the '20s because how do you market something that's totally Invisible and it's actually a felt experience and a new one at that. In the early 1920s, air conditioning wasn't unheard of, but a lot of people still hadn't really experienced it firsthand unless they went to the movies. A good air conditioning engineer understood that great AC meant that when you walked into a place, you should feel so comfortable that you forget about the temperature in the room. But because you forget about the temperature in the room, you're not really cognizant of the air conditioning. That's something that's really hard to sell if you're totally unconscious about the thing that you're trying to sell. What happened was that air conditioning engineers would often suggest a certain level of temperature, which was a lot higher than what movie theater palace owners would put. They put it so low so that in the summer heat, when you walked in, you had this icy blast of cold air. It felt amazing for like two minutes and then you sit through an hour, an hour and a half, two hour long movie in 55/60 degree weather, basically, a refrigerator, it's not so pleasant anymore. In the '20s, sorry, there is a helicopter above me, it became this funny notion of how do we sell this thing that works best when you notice it least?
Deidre Woollard: Well, I wanted to talk to you about one of the stories in your book about an inventor who I find fascinating, the story is just great. About Thomas Midgley, who's called this Two-time Environmental Loser because he's not just involved in air conditioning, he's got another mark against him.
Eric Dean Wilson: That's right. Thomas Midgley Jr is really one of the 20th century's wildest and kookiest people. He is famous for the invention of Freon, and he is also famous for the invention of leaded gasoline. Thus the name Two-time Environmental Loser. He was a quite eccentric man, quite gregarious. He was trained as not a chemical engineer, but a mechanical engineer, which might tell you something a little bit about his inability to see the far reaching effects of some of his inventions. So he made a lot of money inventing leaded gasoline, which as we know now had very bad health effects especially in urban areas. There was a whole controversy around that even before it was out. Because in the '20s, there was a lot of research that lead was highly toxic. We've actually known that since ancient Rome. They tried to disguise it by calling it ethyl gasoline and taking the word "tetraethyl lead" out, but workers at the plant we're dying. Then they pulled a few strings because when your salary depends upon your not understanding how something is harmful, [laughs] you ignore a lot of the warning signs. Leaded gasoline wasn't really controversial until really the '60s, and it was finally phased out in the '90s. His second major invention was way less controversial at the time, and that was Freon. At the time, there was of course air-conditioning before Freon, and it used a whole bunch of refrigerants that are called natural refrigerants. These are things like ammonia, methyl chloride, things like that. Air conditioning existed before Freon, but the problem with air conditioning is that the refrigerant was either poisonous or explosive, or sometimes both. [laughs] It always came with some risk, occasionally you'd have an ammonia leak in a movie theater, and then suddenly you got the smell of ammonia, which if you've ever smelled it, is not a great smell. People would go out throwing up outside the theater. It didn't happen all the time, but it wasn't so rare that it caused huge controversy every time it happened. In the '20s, Frigidaire, which was the cooling division of General Motors, was really looking for a perfect refrigerant, something that was non-corrosive, something that was non-explosive, non-toxic, and something that was relatively cheap to manufacture. They set Thomas Midgley Jr, because he did such a great job with leaded gasoline, onto the task. The story goes that he and two research assistants, after being given the task, hit upon dichlorodifluoromethane, soon to be known as Freon, in a matter of hours. Midgley was this mad genius in the way that we often talked about mad geniuses. He was able to look at a periodic table and based upon what he knew about the chemical elements, knew that it had to involve fluorine which is usually incredibly toxic. But he just took a crazy guess, that when it was combined with other chemicals, it would suddenly be non-toxic, and he was right. Fast forward a couple of years, and Freon became what they started calling a miracle refrigerant. Suddenly, it was the refrigerant, there was no other one really and variations on the exact chemical that Midgley came up with. The family name is called the CFCs. They were suddenly in everything, everything that cooled from about '30s, '40s, '50s on, involved one of the Freons in it. It wasn't really until the 1970s when two scientists Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, Mario Molina who just died, actually, a year or two ago, both of whom won the Nobel Prize for their discovery, found out that Freon, which is so stable chemically, that was one of the reasons that made it such a miracle refrigerant. Is that it didn't break down very easily, and it didn't react with anything, which normally is great. They discovered that what happens is when it gets into the upper atmosphere, it's finally broken down by the rays of the sun. When that happens, it starts to interact with the ozone layer, which is this very thin layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere which is really the only thing that keeps us from the deadliest rays of the sun. Without it, there's no life on earth that can be possible. It is really what keeps us alive. [laughs] They were finding out that this had the potential to completely destroy that. That was alarming, of course, because suddenly, it seemed as if this little bitty shield that was protecting everybody from the sun's radiation could vanish. There was a whole controversy about whether this was true, to what extent it was true, the companies that were manufacturing Freon. Again, because they were making a lot of money, refused to really see the potential of the danger. Then, in the '80s, a scientist named Joseph Farman, who happened to be working in Antarctica and measuring ozone levels, which are usually incredibly stable, so stable that his boss kept asking him why he was measuring ozone levels every day, if they're so stable. It was like asking if the sun would rise every day, of course, it would. He was noticing that in between September and October, over Antarctica, this giant absence of ozone, soon to be known as the ozone hole, would appear suddenly over the course of two months. There was virtually no ozone over the Antarctic, and then it would close just as quickly as it appeared. He thought his instruments were acting up because Antarctica is a pretty harsh environment. Surely, something was wrong, and as it turned out, he was not wrong. The extreme conditions of cold in the Antarctic were causing this really rapid depletion of ozone in the ozone layer. That was spreading out to places where there actually were populations of people, in Chile. Then quickly a hole appeared at the North, in the Arctic, the North Pole too. That was scary and terrible. The good news about that is that [laughs] it was so extreme, and the image of the ozone hole was so scary for people, that it actually galvanized action, international regulation pretty quickly. What came out of that was something called the Montreal Protocol to prevent substances that deplete the ozone layer. What that did was put in motion the mechanism that would eventually phase out and then ban the production of Freon. It took international effort of some of the most industrialized countries in the world. Some of them were making a huge profit off of Freon, to finally agree that, yes, this chemical is destroying not just our planet, but it's going to destroy us very soon and to put regulations in place that would stop it. It is still the only international environmental regulation that's legally binding with its emissions quotas to prevent future environmental disaster. There's never been one since, and it's still the most effective one. If there's any kind of story of hope out of the history of air conditioning, it's really that. That we've done this once, the whole planet work together to do this, and we can do it again, I think.
Deidre Woollard: One aspect of this that you mentioned in the book that I think is important too is the ratio aspect around this. Part of the reason that people acted so quickly was because white males were more up to get skin cancer, were up to be the ones who would benefit the most by fixing this problem essentially.
Eric Dean Wilson: Absolutely. The racial aspect of it, as you said, it runs through the whole history of air-conditioning from the very beginning to that, which was something that I was completely surprised about at first. But then once I started thinking about it I thought, "Of course, this makes sense." Before you even get to the ozone layer, one of the things that was surprising to me to find out was the post-war housing boom had a very disturbing, racist aspect to it, which is that the Federal Housing Administration, which had been created in the 1930s to make it more possible for Americans to own homes, had a what was called an underwriting manual, which was not something that was officially published, but was circulated within the company. The history, and Richard Rothstein has a great book on this called The Color of Law.
Deidre Woollard: Yeah. That's a great, great read.
Eric Dean Wilson: Such a great read. I feel like it should be necessary reading for everybody, especially in the real estate. It tells a very disturbing history of how, explicitly in the underwriting manual, it said that these new loans that were possible after World War II, that had all these great things with them. Let's see. I had written this down because I couldn't remember it. They ensuring bank mortgages that covered 80 percent of purchase prices had terms of 20 years and were fully amortized. They explicitly said no loans to black developments or black homeowners. This Federal Housing Administration underwriting manual was adopted full sale in the G.I. Bill, that came later and it was really important to the housing boom that followed. Essentially, all of these benefits and all of these legs up from the government were given exclusively to white homeowners, or white aspiring homeowners. As a friend just pointed out to me recently, it wasn't just black Americans that were excluded, it was also often Jewish Americans too. Basically, anyone that wasn't seen as white at the time. This has ramifications of course, generational ramifications. Something that I just found out the other day is that just a few months ago, the city of Evanston, Illinois, I don't know if you heard about this, but they just moved to enact racial reparations.
Deidre Woollard: Yeah, I was reading about that.
Eric Dean Wilson: They are the very first city in the United States to do that. The way that they chose to manifest these racial reparations was through access to housing because of the red lining that had happened in the City of Evanston from the '20s to the '60s. That is really the first community in United States that's fully acknowledged the damage and the intergenerational damage that this red lining happened. The way that air-conditioning is connected to this, it might seem like this is not connected, but the way that it's connected is that the housing boom really made air-conditioning in the home for a couple of reasons. For one thing, by 1957, all this quick housing was being put up and it was a modernist housing, so boxy housing that we think of now and it really required air-conditioning. The reason for that is that if you didn't have it, it was so sealed up that you would basically like suffocate without [laughs] air-conditioning. They were making, in my view, a bad design that required air-conditioning and ignored the outdoor environment. They began in the late 1950s to include installing AC in mortgages for houses. Again, only to white families. It was very common for white families to have central AC. It was not very common for non-white families to have central AC or AC at all really. Then over the decades that followed, the racial gap closed a little bit, but never really fully closed. There's still a discrepancy between white homeowners and black homeowners and who has air-conditioning and who doesn't. The other aspect of it is that part of the advertising campaign to convince people that they wanted and needed air-conditioning in the homes, in some cases, this was a true need because of the bad building design. In other cases, it was not a true need it was just a typical company convincing you, "You don't have air-conditioning, don't you want it? That's very enticing." What they did, Carrier was one of the main people who did this, but there were other companies. The ads in the '50s were highly racialized. They used stereotypes of individuals who were from Africa or Mexico and painted them as lazy workers because of the heat and then showed a sweating white businessman and said that air-conditioning will help him work in the workplace and get further ahead in the economy. They really preyed upon people's racial fears and also the work cultures that were in place to try to sell air-conditioning. Fast-forwarding this racialized aspect, what you had mentioned about the ozone hole is something I was thinking about while writing this book is necessarily speculative and I'm clear about that in the book, but I also feel that it's definitely a factor in solving the ozone crisis. That is the fact that, as I said, the ozone layer is what allows life. Without it, there would be crop failures, food chains in the ocean would totally collapse. There's all these horrible things that happen, but with just a little bit of ozone depletion, the immediate effect is increased radiation that would lead to skin cancer. I want to be clear that everyone can get skin cancer regardless of skin color, but it is far more common for people with lighter skin color to get skin cancer. It's something like 20-30 times more likely. The interesting thing is that even though there were these greater planetary collapses, the US media and the media of the industrialized world, really focused on skin cancer. There might be a couple of reasons for that. One is it's more immediate, it's more personal. It's really hard to relate to global food collapse because it's just such a big and scary idea. But the skin cancer was easier to communicate directly. The consequences of that is that the whole discourse on the news was about skin cancer and the fear of that, which is to say that it was a fear that was particularly acute for white people. One of the things I ask in the book is, it's so great that we solve this crisis and the Montreal Protocol is so great. But is one of the reasons why it was such a successful campaign is because it appeared to target, first and foremost, white people and I flip the question around and ask, would we have had the same success if it only targeted dark-skinned people or black people, and they don't know that it would have for a whole bunch of reasons. That's one of the more provocative questions that I explore in the book and I also think it's one worth that we can learn from as we try to think about and address the climate crisis.
Deidre Woollard: I think it is one of the important things in the book. I think the other thing that I found really interesting in the book was the division between the carbon guys and the other guys involved in buying up Freon. The interesting thing I found in this book is this whole shadow, I love shadow economies in general and there's this whole shadow economy about buying up Freon and it's really fascinating. You went out on the road with a friend and bought Freon and there were some interesting situations there. Tells us a good story about that because there are a lot of them in the book.
Eric Dean Wilson: Absolutely. The way that I really got into this is through my friend Sam. Sam, he has a different job now, but he was working for a green energy startup and they were looking for various sustainable energy projects that would make money. They tried wind farms, that didn't work. Then bizarrely, they landed on Freon. It's illegal to produce Freon, but it's perfectly legal to buy and sell Freon on the secondary market. You can, through California's cap and trade system, you can, if destroy Freon anywhere in the Continental United States and you're certified to do so, you can get what's called carbon offset credits, which proved that a certain amount of pollution is destroyed, which allows big companies in California that are regulated under the state to pollute in just that amount more. Usually, it's capped. But if you pollute like five pounds in Iowa and you prove that you've done that, then the company that buys those offset credits from you can pollute five pounds more than the regulated limit. By buying those, which is if it sounds problematic, it is. But if you buy credits, then the person selling them obviously gets money. Sam and his partner were wondering, could we actually make money off of destroying this? Although the offset market and cap and trade is problematic in all these ways, what's interesting is that for a finite resource that's not produced anymore, which Freon is. It does work to tangibly destroy this material that you're not producing any more of. Although it creates a market for destroying the pollution, which is to say it creates a market for the pollution. If you're not producing the pollution it actually can work and there's really one chemical that they found worked for this and this is Freon, a specific kind of Freon CFC-12. They found actually to their surprise, that the United States was loaded with Freon and why it's still a little bit of a mystery, lots of people, way more people than the government expected stockpile this. What's interesting is that and what Sam told me was that, in talking with these people, why they had it, there were all kinds of reasons, but a main one was actually a reason that a lot of environmentalists would see as familiar, which is that they didn't want to be wasteful. They felt that it was perfectly good chemical, they and sometimes, didn't understand or most of the time didn't believe that it was actually harmful to the planet. They would say, why would I destroy this perfectly useful tool? It's just wasteful, why not sell it and continue to use it? There's actually an interesting conservation ethic behind that, even though it doesn't really take into account the planetary effects of it. After talking with Sam a lot about this, I said, "I'd really like to see you interact with some of these people." The interesting thing is that Sam was incredibly eco-conscious and trying to reconcile business with his environmental ethics. Most of the people he bought the Freon from were not, they were often very suspicious of people who identified as environmental. Sometimes, they were global warming deniers. Sometimes, they found out what Sam was doing with the Freon, destroying it for carbon credits, calling him as you said, "A carbon guy" and would say, I don't want to do business with you. There was a divide between people who would use it and then people who destroy for carbon credits. In some cases, if Sam was able to establish a good business relationship first, he was able to have honest conversations with some of these people. One of the most touching stories that he told me that's in the book was with this reclaimer who went by the name of the Iceman. He was known throughout the Midwest as having hundred of thousands of pounds of Freon and other refrigerants. He was just this savant about getting this used refrigerant. He was also this gruff Midwestern macho guy. The very first time that Sam showed up on his property to buy the Freon he connected with him, I think through Craigslist, some online thing. He showed up and the Iceman is just sussing out his polo shirt and nice jeans. He said, "Are you a carbon guy? Are you going to destroy this?" Sam was honest and he said, "Yeah, I am" and he said, "Get off my property." Sam decided to push back and say, "I will, I understand, but I drove four hours out of here, which is a waste of time for me and also for you and we're both dealing with this material." He said, "Honestly, if you sell it to some of the bigger guys, they're going to tell you one thing and they're probably going to destroy it for carbon credits too because it's a market that is making so much money that really everybody is doing this." They leveled and had a conversation and the Iceman said, "Well, okay, I guess we're both business people. It doesn't really matter to me what you'd do with it." The funny thing is that over several months, their business relationship turned into a friendship and a friendship across a deep political divide, to the point where this man who had previously not really thought about the environment, thought people who are interested in the environment were elitist, were not interested in people, they were interested in the planet, things like that, begin to understand that actually it was more complicated than that. Once he understood that it was about the next generation, he had two children then he really, really began to agree. "Oh, I understand. It's actually for my children. This is why you're doing this? For the next generation, it's for kids. It's also for us in the present, but it's about continuing to make life possible." This to me with such a remarkable story in an era where we're used to hearing almost as a cliche that Americans are more divided than ever. Here was a story about two people across vastly different political divide able to first establish a business relationship and then through that, have really tough conversations about the future, about business, about climate change. They reached a point where they were able to talk about this and Sam was able to change his mind just a little bit. I find that remarkable. Not to say that we should all stride to go coerce each other into believing our own political beliefs. But with a lot of time, and patience, and care, and honest conversations, and also willingness to be wrong, then our opinions can shift radically. The very less moment in the book explores how the Iceman became very ill with cancer and said that he was given just a few weeks to live. As one of his last gestures, he left his entire Freon stock to Sam to destroy. It's really such a beautiful and touching story.
Deidre Woollard: It definitely is. But he did leave some of the other chemicals for other guys, I think that was at the end of the book that he also. [laughs] Interesting point to mention too, but I loved that conversation in the book, the idea of that cliche of the coastal elites and their agenda and people who are in a more rural area being like we're just trying to get along in the world. It's a cliche, but it's also something that I think still exists. It's something we're all going to have to figure out because this summer, one of an example of the need for air conditioning. It has already been incredibly hot, most of us are putting on the air conditioning without thinking about it, some of the office buildings where there aren't even people in them are being kept really cold. You talk a lot in the book about our comfort levels and how our comfort levels have shifted and I thought that was really interesting. One of the things you mentioned in the book was, I think it was a quote from a scientist from Botswana who was saying that people in the US will have a more difficult time adjusting to a different comfort level if we need to than in other places where there were used to not having walking by a store and you get that blast of cold air.
Eric Dean Wilson: Absolutely. That was such a shock for me to hear her say that and all evidence points to that being the case. A couple of points about that is that we have a really hard time, especially in the United States, distinguishing between danger and discomfort. I want to be clear that the heat wave that's been glaring over the Pacific Northwest has been incredibly dangerous. That's an instance in which if people don't have air conditioning, they can die or don't have access to cooling. I want to table that because I'm afraid that sometimes when I'm talking about this people, immediately jump to the most extreme example, which is that and think that I'm saying that those people shouldn't have air conditioning, which is not true, I don't think that. Everyone should have access to life-saving cooling, but what's interesting is that we have a hard time distinguishing between discomfort and danger. One of the things that's emerging in a lot of peer-reviewed research is that the air conditioning can actually makes us more vulnerable to heat waves. The body acclimatizes and anybody can acclimatize over a period of three or four weeks. They did a study with a high school football team where they had one football team practice gradually in a very controlled environment in increasingly hot and humid conditions and nobody had a heat-related illness. They had another group where they were vacillating between highly air conditioned and very hot conditions, so not acclimatized at all. It just thrust them out in a game, when it was 80, 90 degrees. Unfortunately, a couple of players ended up in the hospital for a heat-related illness. What happens in that moment is that over a period of 3-4 weeks, it's an evolutionary adaptation, is that the body can acclimatize a little bit. Again, to be clear, there is a limit. We can't acclimatize to a 110 degrees, but when you're spending all day in a office that's air conditioned in 65-degree weather and it's 90 degrees outside, you're actually more vulnerable to the heat stress than you would be if your body was acclimatized, that's one thing. I had another point that just left me. [laughs] The other thing is that there's a feedback loop that happens, which is that in the early 20th century, they did all this research on what makes somebody most comfortable. Then they came up with the standard for that and then all the buildings were built to that standard, but the irony is that once you get used to that standard, when you don't have that standard or when that standard breaks, you become incredibly uncomfortable. It's not because you're naturally uncomfortable, it's because you're used to the standard that was set by somebody decades ago. Our level of comfort is remarkably wider than we actually think it to be. Part of what I'm trying to do in this book and ask in this book is that yes, we need cooling in certain extreme situations, but we also need to widen our definition of comfort. I'm not asking anybody to just suffer through these things, but I'm actually as somebody who's done this and also talked to a lot of people from places who don't have air conditioning, like Ecuador or El Salvador, or people who grew up in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of those places they grew up in very hot conditions without air conditioning. Invariably, I hear people say, "I grew up in Ecuador in 90-degree weather, humidity and it was hot. But it was fine and you get used to it and you learn how to call yourself without using technology." The last thing I remember I was going to say is that it's worth looking at why people die in heat waves, which is very interesting. This is what sociologists can tell us and I look at the work of a really brilliant sociologist named Eric Klinenberg who I believe to just went to NYU, he wrote this book called Heat Wave. He found that there was a heat wave in Chicago in 1955, that killed a certain amount of people, it was brutal, it was very bad. There was a heat wave 40 years later in 1995, very similar conditions and despite in that time span being way more air conditioning, twice as many people died in the 1995 heat wave. This book asks why is that? If there was more cooling, why did more people die? He found out that the reason why, and not everyone, but the reason why people actually die or end up in the hospital in a heat wave has less to do with access to cooling than it does to things like access to community support, access to shade in neighborhoods. The places that were hottest had no trees, no parks, asphalt everywhere, which makes the surroundings at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. The people that were most vulnerable were often elderly men who were too stubborn to go to a cooling center, for instance. They were also often depressed or drinking a lot, which of course, dehydrates the body, so there were other problems that were happening. Yes, the heat is important, but there's community infrastructure that we need to look at also, and it's actually crucial. Of course, there's the irony that during a heatwave, what tends to happen? You have blackouts. Even if you have air conditioning, the very tool that's supposed to cool you, you might not be able to afford the electricity. Even if you can, then during the heatwave, everybody is using it, and what happens is it puts stress on the grid and the electrical grid goes out. Now, you don't have this tool that we're supposed to save you. What's amazing to me about Klinenberg is that he really challenged us to look at the problem ecologically in terms of the community. Do our neighborhoods have what they need to survive the heatwave? Are we acting like this is an emergency? When we're all supposed to get inside and turn on the air conditioner and just every man for himself, to me, that's not really acting like it's an emergency. The whole city needs to mobilize like it would in a hurricane. When we're left to our own devices, the people who have access to air conditioning, either because they're in a better neighborhood or because they can afford the electricity are fine. The people who don't have access to that are just left on their own, and sometimes they die, and that's horrible. Part of what I think we need to really come to terms with is understanding how individual comfort is a very limiting idea about comfort, and we actually can think about neighborhood and even municipal health rather than every man for himself because we're all connected. Actually, when you save the neighborhood and when you make the whole neighborhood better, it's actually an act of self-preservation. [laughs]
Deidre Woollard: What do you think about the fact that we're in the middle of this Sun Belt migration? We've got so many people moving to Phoenix. Phoenix is growing by leaps and bounds. Homebuilders are centering in those areas. People are moving to Austin in droves. There's so many people moving to the areas that are going to be the hottest, and it seems like that's already putting more stress on the power grids and things like that, so is that something else that you're concerned about?
Eric Dean Wilson: Absolutely, and it's such a great question. I don't know that I have a really satisfying answer, but a couple of things come to mind. One of them is that certainly the need for renewable energy in all aspects, and I don't want to downplay that. That's super important. Transforming our infrastructure, which is in all the things that I've read also a pro-jobs, pro-business move, if not both in the short term and the long term, so we have to do that. But my mind keeps going back, and you're right, Phoenix actually can't exist as a city year-round without air conditioning. It's the air-conditioning capital of the world, and it's the extreme version. The question I have, which I really truly mean as a question, I don't mean it as a provocative leading answer is, should we be living there year-round? Is it really, truly sustainable over a long period, a century, say, two centuries, three centuries, will people still be able to live there? I'm thinking that far ahead because we need to. We're so used to thinking in terms of one generation over one lifespan, but that's gotten into a lot of trouble. Can we really be there in a healthy way? I'm not sure that the answer is yes, and so that is really scary because people live there and they don't want to uproot their lives, and it's certainly not their fault, and I think that it's the result of bad leadership and bad assumptions that are made in terms of what technology can do and can't do. I think of an idea that's related to coastal sea rise around this similar idea, which is called managed retreat, just over the course of several decades thinking about, "What do we do with New York City or Boston or something like that?" You have millions of people here, do you build the seawall? Do you entice people to move away from that? There's all these thinkers and policymakers who are working on this right now and under the loose heading of managed retreat. I think we have to seriously consider whether managed retreat might be a concept for these desert climates. There's all other issues too like access to water, things like that. That's a really scary prospect for people, but we also have to think about whether it's safe to live in these areas that are, in some cases, on fire, and whether that is actually a sound investment or not.
Deidre Woollard: Absolutely. We've got a couple of questions coming in. One of them is, are there any good resources on the natural hole in the ozone layer that you mentioned that appeared above Antarctica?
Eric Dean Wilson: Yeah. Well, there is a great book by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray called, I'm blinking on it right now. [laughs] But I can find the answer real quickly while I'm talking. Firstly, it's somewhere out of print, but you might be able to check it out in a library. It's the whole story of what's called the ozone war. One of the reasons why I wanted to tell the story in the book, and the story is also in After Cooling, so you can check that out too, is that a lot of these histories are out of print or hard to find. The story has been told before, especially for an older generation but people who are younger didn't grow up with the story because it's a story that had completed, we solve the ozone crisis, case closed, and we're not used to hearing the story anymore. But strangely, I think this is the only book that's really told that story recently. Also, the Nathaniel Rich book that came out, I'm having trouble with titles right now, but it's his previous book. It's a new book about essays called Second Nature of this right now but his previous book about the earth also covers a little bit about the ozone crisis. It's actually about global warming when we first discovered it, but the two are connected.
Deidre Woollard: Excellent, thank you. Next question is from Lisa who was wondering if there are any environmentally friendly solutions for cooling spaces on the horizon?
Eric Dean Wilson: Definitely. I am told that heat pumps are a pretty good alternative to air conditioners. If you just Google heat pumps, you can read about how they work. They're like air conditioners in reverse, and they use way less energy. There's a whole new generation of refrigerants called HFOs that look very promising and are starting to be used in design in Europe and even in the United States, and they're not global warming gases and they don't deplete the ozone layer. We're funny enough, going back to some of those natural refrigerants that are either poisonous or explode, [laughs] but the difference is that they are better able to be contained and the technology that's using them is a bit better. I imagine that they're way safer than they were in the 1920s. But yeah, a lot of vending machines, for instance, Coca-Cola made headlines for switching the global warming refrigerants to carbon dioxide, which could be used as a refrigerant. It's not the ideal miracle refrigerant that Freon was. But then again, Freon just almost distorted the ozone layer so that wasn't quite as ideal as we thought it was. It's funny, there's two directions; new chemicals that are a little bit more friendly, although they still require energy, which produces emissions. Then going back to the early 20th century refrigerants.
Deidre Woollard: Before we wrap up, I want to talk a little bit, you mentioned in the beginning about the industrial uses of cooling. There's a few that I'm thinking of right now. One of them is cold storage, obviously, growing by leaps and bounds. The other one that I really been thinking about a lot lately is data centers, especially during the pandemic, we keep using more and more data. Where are the Cloud? The Cloud is in these big giant buildings that all need to be cooled because they are all very hot. Is there any solution to those types of situations that's out in the offing?
Eric Dean Wilson: Yeah, and that's such a great question. Because we often trick ourselves into thinking that the Internet is not a material place, [laughs] but it actually is, it's a material place, our warehouses as you said. It's a fantastic question. I'm not an expert in this, but I did think about having a section in the book about this and then I started working on it, ended up taking it out. The good thing about data centers is that, it's very tricky to cool people. It's way less tricky to cool computers, because they don't complain. [laughs] There's a couple of things that come to mind. I know that there are some data centers, I think that Google, maybe not in all of them, but in a lot of their data centers, they cool through cold water. Where the data centers are, is a huge factor. If you can put them in naturally cold places and use the surrounding environment like a lot of the Google data centers do, that's fantastic. You're not using any extra energy. You can take cold water and it doesn't have to be portable water, it just has to be cold water, even seawater for instance and you can use that. Again, you don't have to cool people, so you just have to cool the actual center. The other thing is that we sometimes get fixed on the idea of cooling whole spaces, instead of the actual things that need to be cooled. Better cooling-centered design where only the processors are cooled, but maybe the rest of it isn't, could help a lot. But you're right, it's a huge problem in something like, for instance, Bitcoin. The cooling of data centers for Bitcoin generates an enormous amount of global warming emissions. That's a huge problem and we really need more work and more studies on how to keep this cooling infrastructure more sustainable.
Deidre Woollard: Yeah, absolutely. In the book, you talked a little bit about, and we talked about this a little bit, but your own experience with acclimating yourself, you've said that you don't use air-conditioning that much. Is that something we should all be doing? Should we all be experimenting with our own comfort level?
Eric Dean Wilson: I would say yes, in conditions that are certainly not dangerous, that's for sure. But I was surprised. I grew up in the south. I think when a lot of people hear what my book is about, they assume you must have grown up in the south. Well, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee where it was regularly in the '90s, 100 percent humidity. I love air conditioning, I loved it. When I started working on this part of what I wanted to do, and of course I moved, I live in Brooklyn now, so I'm not in the Deep South and that's very different and it makes a difference. But even when I moved to New York, for instance, I carried with me the same level of comfort and the same expectations of the thermal environment. I remember when I first moved, there was summer that it was in the mid-'80s maybe and I was living in this apartment and I didn't have air conditioning, and I survived maybe two hours and then went out and bought one and I couldn't bear it because I just thought it was ridiculous. After experimenting with it and acclimatizing myself, I realized that, oh, actually, with strategically placed fans, cold showers, hydrating a lot, also lowering expectations for productivity, which I know that not everyone has the capacity to do. But a lot of what the problem is that we assume that we can keep going at the productivity level. We can keep working at the exact same rate all year round. That assumption is a very contemporary assumption. What I'm challenging us all to do, is to challenge that assumption in ways that large and small, not everybody can do that. Not everybody has the flexibility to do that. But I think that we've touched on this just a little bit. But one of the things that makes air conditioning, in cooling in general, so tricky, is that it's so closely related to work cultures. I think that underlying the energy crisis is really certain assumptions about work and labor. I think that one of the interesting things about studying air-conditioning is that you can actually get to the labor issue or the work issue, the economic issue through this idea of air-conditioning. All to say that I was deeply surprised at how my level of comfort shifted. I haven't used air conditioning, I used it for two days in 2019, I haven't used it at all here and we've had some mid-90 to high 90 degree days. I had to adjust my expectations and use a hand fan, which is quite fashionable [laughs] as an accessory and you wear less items of clothing and things like that. But to expect that we could just continue like we are in 65-degree environments seems a little bit ridiculous to me and there I say it's fun too, not having air-conditioning because you get to experience the outdoors a little closer. You are not insulated in this sensory deprivation chamber of air-conditioned room. [laughs]
Deidre Woollard: I think about that too. Because I've been thinking about work from home, is that all of our relationship with our air conditioning has probably changed because working in the office, everyone just brings in a sweater. Because you know it's going to be cold on the summer. But if you're working from home, you've got control over things. I think that maybe hopefully is changing people's relationship with air conditioning. I think you mentioned a really good point earlier, which is that idea how it's harder to cool people. But I've seen some architects start to be more cognizant of how to use shade. How to have buildings that have automatic sensors and things like that, that close windows. Because I feel like the past used to be, you'd have these big giant office buildings, all glass just heat pouring in and air conditioning trying to combat that. We seem to be getting a little smarter there.
Eric Dean Wilson: Absolutely and this is the hope that I have in good design, is that we really need good designers to lead the way. There have been big office buildings that have just pretended that the given environment doesn't exist. I don't think we can continue like that. We have to work with the hyper-local climatic conditions that we're given. That's a great thing. It's a limitation that I think leads to a lot of creativity. I mentioned in the book, one of the best examples of this is the architect Zaha Hadid, who passed away a couple of years ago. In the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia, she created the Petroleum Studies Institute and it uses a little bit of air conditioning, but not really. It has these hive-like structures that catch the wind that tend to come from one side and it reroutes the wind into these open air courtyards. It keeps the direct sunlight out, and it keeps the space of the building incredibly cool with just minimal electricity in the middle of the desert, because of good design and she designed that by looking at nature, certain hive-like structures in termites which can build these incredible structures that have different chambers that are kept at really specific temperatures. I think that we can actually learn from animals who build these complex architectures that have climate-controlled spaces, obviously without air-conditioning. The best designers I think, are doing that today.
Deidre Woollard: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time today. This was amazing. I'm really glad that I reached out to you on Twitter. For listeners, the book is After Cooling. We will put a link in the resources and thanks again.
Eric Dean Wilson: Thank you very much for having me. Have a great day.
Deidre Woollard: All right, you too.