Friday, July 19, 2002

The Value of Air Conditioning

There are probably a lot of people who think that "Air conditioning is one thing you can't do without in hot, humid Japan." I'm mostly in agreement with that statement. I have a reason for saying, "mostly" and that's because, at the beginning of the 20th Century, no one in Japan thought so. The reason I'm certain that is so is because, at that time, all people in the world, not only Japanese, were able to live their lives without it. So, to be more precise, the first sentence should read, "For most Japanese today, air conditioning is essential in getting through the hot, humid summers." The high in Tokyo today is 32.7 degrees Centigrade (90.9 degrees Farenheit), 3.5 degrees higher than in years past, and the humidity is at 63%. I turned on the air conditioning in my office for the first time this year.

With global warming becoming increasingly more serious, I generally don't turn on the air conditioning at work, but, instead, use an old electric fan. On days like today, though, when I meet with people for extended periods of time in my office, I like to avoid forcing my own "preferences" on others. Although I've never looked into the difference in energy expenditure between an electric fan and an air conditioner, it's obvious that the latter uses more electricity. Another problem with air conditioning is that it's made so that "in making things cool on the inside, it heats the outside." It seems to me that this is really the ego of people of this day and age. With individual families, businesses, shopping arcades, and even the countless number of cars that are driven through the city all contributing to this, the temperature in the city climbs needlessly higher. In trying to lower the temperature, we are actually increasing it.

Reading this, it might seem that I don't appreciate the value of air conditioning, but that's not necessarily so. It's just that I don't think there's a need to cool the cities of Japan to that extreme. There are department stores and movie theaters so cold that there is an unmistakable waste of energy. This all goes against the demands of environmental preservation. But when one thinks of the use of air conditioning on a global level, this technology has had too big an effect on the lives of people, and changed the economic structure of too many countries to be called "of no value."

This year is the 100th Anniversary since the invention of the first air conditioner. The first air conditioner was an "Apparatus for Treating Air" installed at a printing plant in Brooklyn, New York by Willis Carrier in 1902. This printing plant made lithographs, and the color in these lithographs would fluctuate with the change in temperature and humidity. The need for something to resolve this problem brought about a new invention, and, a century later, has changed the lives and economy of people dramatically. Before air conditioning, people in New York would sleep on their front porches or on stair landings, or even on the grass in Central Park to escape the heat.

The city of Houston, situated in southern Texas in the United States, is known for being the place where NASA is located, but being at 30 degrees latitude, it's extremely hot. This is approximately the same latitude as Amami Ooshima in Japan, Cairo in Egypt, or Delhi in India. Without air conditioning, it's doubtful that the more than 1,600,000 people would be able to live there. And, in Dallas, located in the same state in the U.S., it would probably have been difficult for Texas Instruments, the world's foremost manufacturer of computer chips, to establish itself were it not for air conditioning. When you think of it in those terms, then, with air conditioning, it would be possible to manufacture computer chips in India.

There's no doubt that, with the birth of air conditioning, the manufacturing productivity in the "subtropics" or "tropics" has improved. But, now, as it has spread explosively throughout the world, what should we think of it in terms of being a major factor in global warming? With my brain feeling dizzy from this extreme heat, I don't seem to be able to come up with a good answer.

A movie that details the hot summer nights before air conditioning, is "The Great Gatsby", starring Robert Redford (1974). Set on Long Island in the 1920's, it depicts the flamboyant life of Gatsby who owns a huge mansion there. There's a scene where, gentlemen dressed in white three-piece suits, their faces red with the heat, trying to find a way to pass the time with the woman of their choice. So, even 20 years after its appearance, air conditioning hadn't yet made its way into the homes of even the richest people. Strange when you think about it.

Pondering these things, I went to my mother's house next door, and found a beautiful indigo blue fan there. It made me feel cool and refreshed just looking at it. I realized that, in the days before air conditioning, Japanese people used their visual and aural senses to feel cooler. Goldfish, cotton kimonos, wind chimes, and shishiodoshi (bamboo scaredeer), unlike air conditioning, don't actually lower the temperature, but play on a person's senses in perceiving coolness. It struck me as being a very refined way of doing so.

- MT

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