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Foreign Correspondence: All hot and bothered over aircon

Although you are most likely not doing this in the middle of winter, it is possible to think too much about airconditioning. It has been blamed for everything from the rise of a racist strain in the Republican Party to rheumatism. Just recently, Donald Trump said it was why he would be forced to spend August at his New Jersey golf retreat – because, it seems, Obama didn’t install the White House’s system correctly.

Airconditioning in the US is a bipartisan issue. Along with deep-frying meat on sticks, and finding new ways to add extra cheese to pizza, Americans of all stripes love freezing fake air. I spent many a New York City summer – as humid as the Amazon but with all its biodiversity concentrated in different species of cockroach – hovered in my office by a space heater. Which is why, by the way, airconditioning is sexist. I favoured sleeveless tops and skirts as a matter of survival when outside. Yet one study found the standard office temperature caters to the preferences of a 40-year-old man in a suit.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

There are only two other countries I’ve been to which approach the US in its ardour for airconditioning. The first is the United Arab Emirates. Cooling air actually uses less energy than heating it but, either way, the Gulf states probably don’t worry too much about their gas bills. Hence the decision to build a massive ski field inside a Dubai mall. The second is Singapore, where the country’s first PM, Lee Kuan Yew, nominated airconditioning as the most important invention of the 20th century. Beforehand, business ended at 11.30am, when the affluent escaped the relentless heat by retiring for gin and tonics on the verandah. Cooling air was not merely a matter of comfort but a way of vaulting a tropical island into the big league, economically speaking. (Some Pacific nations took a different approach. Iolu Abil, a past president of Vanuatu, saw airconditioning in the face of rising tides as a moral issue.)

It’s difficult to find data on airconditioning in developing countries, but it seems safe to say most do not use it with abandon. Rich nations generally find a happy medium. Japan is very humid in summer, and indoor spaces can be a welcome reprieve, but you are still conscious of how it’s hot outside. Most of Europe is the same way. At the opposite extreme is Russia, where being cold has in the past proven a life-or-death issue. So much so that Russians I know refuse iced water in restaurants, believing – as Ayurvedic wisdom also espouses – that the dramatic plunge in temperature does our internal organs no good.

There is Russian folklore about how women should steer clear of sitting on cold surfaces, like marble or tile, because of what it will do to their ovaries. And I’ll never forget the balmy July day in Moscow when, descending many floors into the subway, the ticket attendant refused to open the sliding window of her glassed-in office in order to better hear my question because she’d catch a cold. “It’s the draught,” she explained in Russian, pulling her shawl tighter around her body. (This is not a humble-brag; a friend was translating.) Need I mention there was little to no airconditioning down there on the underground platform? But really, who am I, from a place where it rarely dips into single-digit temperatures, to judge?

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