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CatholicHerald.co.uk » Has the Pope condemned the use of air conditioning?
CatholicHerald.co.uk Â» Has the Pope condemned the use of
A man checks an air conditioning unit in an apartment in Chicago (AP)
Francis is right in that we need to build more ecologically
I have not yet had the chance to give the Pope's new encyclical on the environment the careful
attention and study it deserves, but a distinguished Anglican theologian has pointed out to me the
following paragraph, number 55, of Laudato Si as of particular interest:
55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls
and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has
not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing,
appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-
conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An
outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-
Has the Pope condemned the use of air conditioning? Or more exactly, the excessive use of air
conditioning? Is Pope Francis beginning to sound like the Blessed Pius IX, in the popular imagination
at least, condemning all sorts of modern innovations?
Actually, the Pope is certainly not wrong to bring the excessive use of air conditioning to our
attention. There was a time, and the Pope, being nearly 80, will remember this better than most,
when air conditioning was virtually unknown, even in hot countries. I doubt anywhere was air
conditioned in the Argentine of his youth. When I was growing up in Malta in the 1970's we had no
air conditioning, and neither did anyone else we knew. Neither did cinemas, shops, or hotels, as far
as I can remember. But, and this is important, we had fans (which are more economical) and we had
natural means of keeping cool, such as sitting in the breeze, living in houses with thick stone walls,
swimming, and of course, most important of all, not going out of doors in the middle if the afternoon.
Nevertheless, it was also true that all the adults used to complain about the heat (particularly those
who never went to the beach) and we used to talk about air conditioning as some sort of Nirvana
that was denied us through no fault of our own.
Nowadays, I imagine, with the knocking down of so many old houses and their replacement by
modern buildings less adapted to heat, air conditioning must be common in Malta. So, Nirvana has
come, but I am not sure it is quite as good as we thought it would be. Having experienced air
conditioning in America, and having also done without it in places like Trinidad, Rome and
Mombasa, I think the old way of doing things is best. Like the Pope, I am an air conditioning
But can we turn back the clock? American cities simply cannot function without air conditioning. In
places like New York, air conditioning is necessary, thanks to the high population density that makes
the city environment stifling. (Once you get out into the countryside, in places like Connecticut, then
you no longer need it, and the relief is palpable.) Washington, DC, the seat of government, would
cease to function in the summer without air conditioning. Indeed, there is a historical lesson here:
the British government of India used to move to a special summer capital at Shimla to get away from
the heat of Delhi. This is a nice idea, but government nowadays has become so huge, that the cost of
an annual move would far outweigh the cost, in money and in environmental damage too one
suspects, of air conditioning. The cost of moving to avoid heat is now a thing of the past, and the
summer palaces of yore now lie deserted - and that includes the Papal Summer Palace.
Then of course we have to face the fact that with rising population and rising property prices, most
urban dwellers are living in ever more confined spaces: these have to be properly air conditioned if
we are to survive heat waves. And I mean that quite literally: a heat wave can kill, and air
conditioning can save lives.
But the Pope still has a point. Many of our modern buildings in Britain are frightful, in that they have
too much glass and windows that cannot open, which makes them like greenhouses in summer - this
seems to be particularly true of hospitals. We need to build more ecologically, and we certainly need
to rein in our consumption. There is no getting away from that. But the next time I am sweltering in
some American hotel room, will I really stay my hand as I reach for the temperature dial on the air
conditioning control? I doubt it. We love telling others to rein in their consumption, but in our own
cases we tend to make generous exceptions to the rules!