Culture At Large

Dominion by air conditioning?

David Greusel

A recent news item described how the occupants of a federal courthouse in Phoenix, Ariz., were upset by temperatures in a large atrium that can exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Certainly this level is outside the classic “comfort zone” used by engineers to design heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems for office buildings. But as the building’s defenders point out, the atrium is (except for security guards) unoccupied space that one passes through on the way to one’s air-conditioned office, and the building’s design called for it to be mostly unconditioned as part of the building’s energy-efficiency strategy.

What I find remarkable about this story is the expectation of Phoenicians that any space in Phoenix should be less than 90 degrees in the summer. We are not that far removed, a scant 100 years, from the first use of air conditioning in buildings that didn’t involve large blocks of ice. For most of human history, Phoenix was boiling hot in the summer. But now that air conditioning exists, we expect it to exist everywhere, all the time.

As a Christian, this gives me pause. As anyone who has paid a summer electric bill knows, air conditioning is an expensive choice. The fact that we make it routinely doesn’t make it less of a choice. And the majority of the world's population, much of it in climates as warm as Phoenix, lives without it by necessity, not by choice.

I’m not suggesting that Christians eschew air conditioning as a show of solidarity with our impoverished global brethren (although that might not be a bad idea). I’m suggesting that most North American Christians have bought into a Modernist, man-versus-nature narrative that contradicts the creation story.

Most North American Christians have bought into a Modernist, man-versus-nature narrative that contradicts the creation story.

God created this good world for us to inhabit, to cultivate and subdue. Manufactured weather can be considered a part of subduing this world, but I think sometimes we need to step back from our unquestioning technological subjugation of nature and ask, is this really necessary? Is it necessary for an atrium in Phoenix to be cooled to 72 degrees so the workers passing through it don’t break a sweat?

In idle moments, I think back to Kansas City summers of yore, before my birth, when downtown office buildings all had canvas awnings to preserve views but keep summer sun off the windows, which were always open to the (hot and humid) breeze. Paperweights were a necessity, as were short-sleeve dress shirts, cotton underwear and, presumably, deodorant. Was life really so much worse then? Did commerce grind to a halt in August as workers literally headed for the hills of Iowa and Minnesota to cool off? What if it did? Could August in Kansas City be God’s way of telling us to take a break for a few weeks?

My complaint is that manufactured weather, like artificial lighting and other modern conveniences, has put us out of touch with the natural rhythms of God’s good world. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not suggesting we go around smashing air conditioners and fluorescent lights (although fluorescent lighting is a tool of Satan - but that’s another story). I’m simply suggesting that we consider, thoughtfully, Christianly, the ebbs and flows of light and heat that God baked into our world as we go about our daily work. Maybe there’s a reason for days being longer in the summer than the winter if you don’t live at the equator. Maybe August should be a month for leaving town. (Egad! What if the Europeans are right about that?) Maybe, in Phoenix, it’s OK for a just-passing-through zone to be warm in the summer.

I have been in a cathedral in Belgium in February, where there was no warm air blowing from big ducts to keep me toasty warm, where the thought occurred to me: maybe it’s OK to worship God with your coat on in the winter. Can your mind stretch that far? Can mine?

What Do You Think?

  • What role does air conditioning play in your life?
  • How do we balance subduing the earth with appreciating God’s creation?
  • What do the earth’s natural rhythms and temperatures reveal about God and His world?


Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Environment, Theology & The Church, Theology