Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ayn Rand romanticized cigarette smoking--I forget in what context--as a profound act of human domination over nature: taming fire to our pleasure, to the point of holding it between our fingers. The same principle could be applied to a plethora of pleasurable indulgences. In a recent Wall Street Journal review of Stan Cox's book on the far-reaching environmental, social, geographical (etc.) effects of air-conditioning, Losing Our Cool, Eric Felten cites this "can-do" defense of technological comforts on behalf of American use of AC:
[Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini] notes that the refusal to suffer the sweaty indignity of equatorial heat is "the antithesis of passive resignation," and thus a perfect expression of the can-do American character. "In America, air-conditioning is not simply a way of cooling down a room," Mr. Severgnini writes. "It is an affirmation of supremacy."

I don't believe Felten and Severgnini have considered the full hierarchy of supremacy asserted in the decision to turn on the AC (to escape the "equatorial heat" which has magically swept up a thousand miles north of the equator). I exercise supremacy over nature, to be sure, when I adjust the thermostat, but my exercise of power is itself subordinated to the hierarchy of power within me. I have often turned on the A/C in my car or in the house with as little thought as a chain smoker gives to lighting his second cigarette. Precisely what compels me I am not prepared to say, but it suffices to observe that pressing buttons, flipping switches, and turning dials is not generally speaking a free act of self-assertion. Compare the will with which one turns on the AC, and the will with which one says, "Enough!" and flips the switch in the other direction.