What’s all this about air conditioning?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 23, 2015

It never ceases to amaze me that some people who consider themselves good Catholics are ever ready to jump all over the Pope, even with ridicule, whenever he says something that—in their sole and generally ill-considered estimation—is “stupid”. Such persons frequently appear driven (by what spirit we can only guess) to find fault by interpreting everything out of context and in the worst possible way.

Thus I have noticed several writers who have condemned Pope Francis for writing in Laudato Si’ that the use of air-conditioning is seriously sinful, and for implying, therefore, that contributing in some way to global warming is a greater sin than, say, abortion.

Please.

The pope mentions air-conditioning just once in paragraph 55. Here is the text:

 

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 behavior, which at times appears self-destructive.

 

This paragraph is in the section on “Weak Responses” to the need we have to take greater care of Creation—to use Creation in a way which conserves it, perfects it, and assures that its gifts are enjoyed by all, as God intended. In the opening paragraph of this section Francis stated: “The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis.” He explains that we simply have no coherent way of addressing these problems today, which is why the main request of the encyclical is that there be a wide-ranging dialogue (among all affected parties) to develop not only new approaches but a culture which takes Creation seriously as a gift.

In paragraph 55, Pope Francis simply states that the growing use of air-conditioning is a good example of this problem. In the affluent West, we take this for granted (I don’t know about you, but I do not want to lose my air conditioning), yet air-conditioning depends on staggering energy consumption (remember brownouts?) which almost certainly has some sort of significant negative impact worldwide. It is probably safe to assume that 90% of the world’s population lacks AC. Heck, we lacked it when I was a small child. The first air conditioners in America were in department stores; we’d sometimes go shopping to keep cool.

The point is that we live in a certain culture which, despite growing ecological sensitivity, takes its tremendous consumption of energy for granted. This means we find it very difficult to think about it “outside the box”.

Is this really such a stupid thing to say in a social encyclical on the subject of how we care for our “common home”, and how we honor the gift of Creation? Is the Pope really to be mocked for mentioning this example of how wastefulness is so endemic in our culture that we don’t even see it as waste? Might this not be a reasonable example to use in jogging the mind?

Nowhere does Pope Francis says that the use of air-conditioning is a serious personal sin. He says it is an example of tremendous energy use which we take for granted without really grasping the consequences. And he suggests that our privileged, wealthy, dominant culture tends to be like this across the board. I do not find this stupid; I find it painful.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 24, 2015 3:23 PM ET USA

    I think the Holy Father is trying to tell us to be mindful of all we use, and occasionally mortify our desire to spend our way out of a little discomfort. BTW, I remember being in that rat maze they built at the Vatican Museum, packed in with hundreds of other breathing people and sweating like I usually do on the elliptical. It really needs some AC, Your Holiness.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jun. 24, 2015 2:35 PM ET USA

    Thanks for your observations. Living in AZ, I also like my a/c and would chose not to live here without it. I often find your comments reflect good old "common sense" to the exclusion of the extreme comments of some others on both the Left and the Right. Articles such as this remind me why I read Catholic Culture every day. Oh yeah, then there are Phil's articles too! Thanks to both of you! I wonder if the Vatican has any a/c?

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jun. 24, 2015 9:50 AM ET USA

    The thing is that even in hot places architects make those pretty corporate buildings all out of glass, which makes them greenhouses in need of air conditioning that otherwise wouldn't be necessary if the architecture was more rational.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 23, 2015 10:58 PM ET USA

    Using the air conditioning argument; couldn't we also say the use of cars, trucks, trains, ships and airplanes are wasting energy? Should we go back to horses and sails?

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jun. 23, 2015 10:54 PM ET USA

    "He says it (air conditioning) is an example of tremendous energy use which we take for granted without really grasping the consequences." Could you please tell me what the consequences are when I use my air conditioning? I can assure you that I don't take air conditioning for granted on a hot, muggy day. I thank God I earned and saved enough money to pay for it so I can sleep at night. Now I can agree that maybe our churches don't need air conditioning for that one hour a week on Sunday.

  • Posted by: Sed contra - Jun. 23, 2015 8:50 PM ET USA

    Nice try, Jeff, but this attempt to "explain" the Pope just won't fly. (Why does this Pope have to be constantly "explained"?) Here he clearly cites the use of air conditioning as a "harmful habit of consumption," of which he morally disapproves even if he doesn't use the "sin" word. And it's the profit-driven markets which stimulate us clueless consumers to indulge in this "harmful habit"! C'mon! Next you can explain how the Allies really divided Europe after WWII for purely economic interests.

  • Posted by: Leopardi - Jun. 23, 2015 7:59 PM ET USA

    It must be pointed out that airy conditioning renders otherwise uninhabitable or unhealthy areas suitable for human habitation and that's a good thing. It's a fine line between excessive consumerism and technical advances that benefit and expand options for mankind. Consumption of energy and it's possible ill effects must be put in the context of the advancement of mankind. We fail when we have not developed rational, effective sustainable policy for renewable ecofriendly energy solutions.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jun. 23, 2015 7:31 PM ET USA

    The lands most in need of development are generally in the tropics. Here's what Lee Kuan Yew, long-time president of Singapore, had to say: "Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics." Certainly AC can be used unnecessarily, but there are more obvious evils to pick on, like people who fly halfway around the world to go trekking.

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Jun. 23, 2015 7:00 PM ET USA

    Thanks for digging out the quote. I was wondering what he really said. The best thing about air conditioners is that they are needed most on a hot and sunny day. Installing solar panels to power the A/C is a great way to power them and keep the roof a little cooler too.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Jun. 23, 2015 5:28 PM ET USA

    The vast majority of people in Africa and Asia lack air conditioning. For many of them, even clean water and access to electricity are lacking. We in the West have tremendous wealth when considered both in history and, in modernity, when looking around the globe. This has spiritual impacts as well. If I can flip a switch and have light, turn a lever and have clean, hot water, use a machine so I'm never hot or cold, surely my abilities to suffer and to surrender to God are reduced.