Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly


Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly


Article excerpt

The Cool Revolution

Remember the old theory that climate shapes the economic, cultural, and political destinies of nations? An exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., unintentionally restores a bit of credibility to this very un-PC notion. On display until January 2, 2000, Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America shows how "man-made weather" transformed 20th-century America, and leaves the distinct impression that an engineered indoor climate is an important source of the country's sustained success.

Imagine a world without computers, reliable pharmaceuticals, glass skyscrapers, space modules, or precision equipment - a world where cities "emptied in summers as residents fled to mountain and seaside resorts," as the exhibit puts it, and "workers' productivity declined in direct proportion to the heat and humidity outside." Imagine Silicon Valley - or Houston or Las Vegas or Atlanta - thriving in 100-degree heat.

Oddly, the transformations wrought by air conditioning have attracted little scholarly attention, with notable exceptions including Raymond O. Arsenault's 1984 article in the Journal of Southern History and Gail Cooper's Air Conditioning America (1998). As early as 1888, factories installed mechanical cooling systems, allowing pasta and chocolate to be made year-round without turning limp or gray. Film, computer chips, many synthetic textiles, and medicines are among the goods that could not be made at all without a controlled climate. Nor would Hollywood likely exist. The Folies Bergere Theater in New York offered patrons summertime frost and fantasy as early as 1911, ending a theater custom of shutting down in summer.

"Engineered air" changed our living and working quarters as well, though not always for the better. After air conditioning entered the average American home during the 1950s, deep porches, high ceilings, and thick walls disappeared. Man-made climate also reshaped city skylines. Without air conditioning, soaring skyscrapers on today's scale were unthinkable. What the exhibit doesn't mention is that without air conditioning we also wouldn't have "sick" buildings and, perhaps, the frenzy of the "24/7" life. It's remarkable to think that between the office and the car, Americans now spend much of their time in environments that simply did not exist a century ago. Stay Cool! leaves no doubt that life before AC differed from that of today in more ways than temperature.

Please Pass the Poison

The controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer recently arrived in the United States to take up a new chair in bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values. Singer is the chief theoretician of the animal rights movement - he compares the human "speciesist" dominion over the animals to "the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans." A thoroughgoing vegan, he pads around in canvas sneakers. Yet he is also an aggressive advocate of euthanasia and infanticide. It all makes sense if, like Singer, you're a radical utilitarian and believe that animals and humans have similar experiences of pain and suffering. Not one to mince words, he has argued that infanticide is justified when it makes way for another baby with "better prospects of a happy life." Discussing one case, he wrote: "Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him."

Singer has been equally plainspoken about his new country, writer Michael Specter notes in his New Yorker (Sept. 6, 1999) profile of the philosopher. Singer once declared that America's social fabric "has decayed to the point at which there are grounds for fearing that it has passed the point of no return." Specter writes: "When I asked him why he thought it was worth bothering with the place if it was so far gone, he replied, 'The alternatives are all too horrible to consider. I have to at least give it a try. …

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