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The Big Air Con Elite climate hypocrisy is not sustainable

A festival-goer escapes the heat in an air-conditioned tower during Stagecoach Country Music Festival (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A festival-goer escapes the heat in an air-conditioned tower during Stagecoach Country Music Festival (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)


June 26, 2024   6 mins

Airport world is a parallel dimension. No matter where they are geographically, all airports are essentially the same place, with a simplified “international English” and a time zone only loosely tethered to its location. Airport world even has its own climate: uniformly air-conditioned, typically somewhere in the 21-24°C zone that studies also suggest represents the zone of maximum human productivity and cognitive performance.

Last week, airport world deposited me in Boston for a few days, during a heatwave that reached humid highs of 36°C. But the heat barely registered as such, thanks to America’s ubiquitous climate control, which helpfully kept my seminar strictly in the productivity zone.

On the rare occasions when I did venture outside, feeling my mind, skin, and limbs adjusting to the solid presence of heat, I found myself mulling over the meaning of air conditioning. What kind of culture sets about engineering away every local variation, even those of the air itself, in pursuit of a maximally standardised, rational and productive environment? The answer was, of course, originally America — but now, increasingly, that aircon culture has propagated worldwide.

A glance at the history and implicit ideology of air conditioning reveals that this technology began as industrial machinery, and swiftly became (at least in the United States) a domestic amenity for Everyman, on a par with indoor sanitation. It has flourished worldwide, as an enabler of economic development. And it expresses, in microcosm, the internationally homogenising power of American culture and technology.

The habitual denizens of the air it conditions, especially in airports, comprise a now-global supra-bourgeoisie. This class has come into its own in tandem with the digital and financial revolutions; its allegiance is, as conservative commentators are fond of complaining, often less to a nation than a placeless international culture of information work, buoyed by air-conditioned flights, offices and hotels, all linked by air-conditioned taxis, and facilitated by frictionless apps. Its members probably studied at Ivy League universities, but may originate from anywhere: for this aircon class, “diversity” genuinely doesn’t mean much more than minor variations in food preference, and the accent with which International Business English is delivered. This group is also, paradoxically, often at the forefront of climate-conscious and passionately egalitarian calls for global emission reductions.

But this poses a challenge: for as well as being a principal delivery mechanism for the placeless, timeless, frictionless diverse-but-homogenous and climate-controlled culture of the international bourgeoisie, aircon is also incredibly resource-hungry. Depending on how hot the ambient temperature is in any given country, cooling the air to the temperate productivity zone can be hugely expensive, in energy terms. Should it come down to a contest between Net Zero and air-conditioned comfort, which will prevail?

The story of aircon is also the story of American global hegemony. Invented in 1902 by American engineer Willis Haviland Carrier, to address summer humidity problems in a Brooklyn printing factory, aircon swiftly spread first to other factories and then to private homes. The first mass-produced domestic aircon units cost the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars; but by 1947 it was already so widespread the British scholar S.F. Markham hailed it as “the greatest contribution to civilisation in this century”. By 1979, Time reported many Americans simply took it for granted: they “no longer think of interior coolness as an amenity but consider it a necessity, almost a birthright, like suffrage”. No wonder, then, that half a century later the American Olympic team should react with horror to news that the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris proposed achieving “the greenest Games yet” by providing athletes only with passive, air-source underfloor cooling and fans.

US Olympic organisers were among a number of countries that responded by promising to supply their own air conditioning. By contrast, the Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge hailed the aircon-free Paris Olympic village as a positive step in emissions reduction. But perhaps this just reflects just how unevenly distributed airport world still is: Kipchoge grew up in (and still lives in) Kenya, where only around 15% of homes have air conditioning despite average summer temperatures of 35-40°C. It’s reasonable to imagine he is less alarmed by the prospect of a warm night or two, than someone from a country where 88% of homes have it despite far lower average summer temperatures.

Kipchoge’s relaxed response to the prospect of heat also points to something discreetly masked by the seeming neutrality of aircon: the way it flattens local differences. Heat doesn’t just affect comfort: it shapes whole cultures. When you don’t have access to aircon, beyond a certain level of heat, the air stops being a backdrop to everyday life; instead, it becomes something elemental. Even well before the level of heat that threatens health, in the absence of climate control it transforms what is possible — even what is thinkable.

This is obvious at the level of architecture. For example, “riad” palaces, built for wealthy Moroccan traders before the aircon era, are constructed to maximise shade and curate hidden, refreshing luxury for the chosen few. Such buildings have few or no external windows where the sun hits, but look inward instead, to an internal courtyard usually built around a pond or fountain. It’s obvious in the way climate shapes behaviour, too: even in relatively temperate Spain, before aircon the hot summers impelled a norm of working in the early morning and late evening, with a “siesta” during the hot part of the day. (Spain has only begun to abandon this practice since the spread of aircon.)

Nor is it just cultural practices. Decades of research support the conclusion that mathematical ability, academic performance, and clarity of thought in general, are most easily sustained at airport temperatures: that is, in the mid-20s. Heat affects our emotions, too: as the New York Times put it, over a comfort threshold (again, roughly consistent with airport world norms) being hot makes us “irritable, impulsive and aggressive”. Murder, assault, and domestic violence all rise when the weather is hot.

In his travelogue A Passage to England (1959), Nirad Chaudhuri suggests that the English temperament is formed by the comparatively mild and changeable climate of the British Isles, speculating that this made the English “responsive to changes in the environment, capable of meeting surprises of all kinds […] and of taking contretemps with good humour”. Conversely, Chaudhuri argues, for the British imperial administrators, the extreme Indian heat turned a habitually temperate people into “extremists with an incredible stridency in their opinions, which became raw and crude”.

If, in Chaudhuri’s view, the heat was capable of affecting otherwise self-controlled Englishmen in this way, it invites the question: how much more of the rationalism, the work ethic, and the low-time preference commonly associated with “Western” cultural norms is at least in part the product of relatively temperate European and North American climates? Whatever the answer, studies on temperature and productivity suggest the converse is already demonstrably true. If you want rationalism and productivity to be normative, even in a hot country, you need to engineer ambient temperatures to suit.

“Access to cooling seems a matter of global justice for progressives.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the American empire of technology, commerce and global homogenisation began to spread roughly concurrently with the spread of air conditioning. For in practice, that’s really what “development” means: the global rollout of temperate-world lifestyles, behavioural norms, and commercial practices, underwritten by artificial climates adjusted to enable that mindset. The great Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew understood this: in a 2010 interview, he said: that, along with Singapore’s signature style of pragmatic multiculturalism, air conditioning was the single most important factor in its success, “by making development possible in the tropics”.

But this raises uncomfortable questions about the real meaning of “climate justice”. If, as Lee Kuan Yew suggested, an artificially engineered temperate climate is a precondition for the “development” referenced in the phrase “developing world”, then the unevenness of global climates is itself an injustice. As long as you understand “justice” to mean widening access to economic development, the world’s variable temperature is discriminatory to the extent that it impedes populations from being more like the denizens of airport world.

Once you add the fact that climate change is driving dangerous increases in summer heat across many parts of the world, access to cooling seems a matter of global justice for progressives. But the emissions generated by climate control are also part of what is causing temperatures to rise. Today, around 8-10% of Indian households have aircon, but International Energy Agency projections expect this to grow to 50% by 2037, impelled by steadily-rising temperatures in the country — even as the power required to operate these new units helps to accelerate the rise.

How, then, does widening access to aircon square with the need to rein in global carbon emissions for climate reasons? Is the solution a global redistribution of climate control in favour of hot countries? I suspect the US Olympic team’s response to the prospect of doing without is emblematic of the one you’d get, if you proposed to the 88% of American households with aircon that they sacrifice their cooling systems for the sake of people in Uttar Pradesh. And I also suspect that such a reaction stands as a metonym for the way “emissions reduction” will play out overall, between the aircon class and the rest.

The denizens of airport world may currently profess to be both climate-conscious and egalitarian. But this lifestyle cannot sustainably be generalised to the whole planet. And as this becomes more obvious, even the most progressive among their number will surely abandon their egalitarianism long before they switch off the aircon. After all, the only other solution would be to try and move the planet’s entire human population to the temperate zones of Europe and North America, before retreating into (presumably air-conditioned) enclaves a safe distance from the resulting chaos. And surely not even an elite blinded by aircon culture to the real depth of global human cultural differences would consider something as reckless as that.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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jason mann
jason mann
26 days ago

Fantastic article.

J Bryant
J Bryant
26 days ago

Today I read an Unherd article about an online rumor that the Israeli Defense Force was training its dogs to rape Palestinians. Apparently this unfounded, improbable and vile rumor has gone viral.
I was reminded of that viral rumor when I read the following statement in Mary Harrington’s article: “if you proposed to the 88% of American households with aircon that they sacrifice their cooling systems for the sake of people in Uttar Pradesh.”
Now that possibility could easily be turned into a credible rumor in connection with Biden’s climate agenda. I’m surprised Team Trump hasn’t picked up on it.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
26 days ago

If, as Lee Kuan Yew suggested, an artificially engineered temperate climate is a precondition for the “development” referenced in the phrase “developing world”, then the unevenness of global climates is itself an injustice.
Obviously the solution is to move the entire population to a less racist planet, like, say, Neptune.

M James
M James
26 days ago

Mary doesn’t claim to be a scientist, yet she has a superior and uncanny ability to discern science and technology’s ability to transform culture and society.

I often think of the expression “hidden in plain sight” as I read her articles. Always a worthwhile read.

Ian_S
Ian_S
26 days ago

“the internationally homogenising power of American culture and technology”

Except that refrigeration was invented in Glasgow. Let’s not overclaim.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
26 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

One must make a distinction between discovery and invention. The discovery of the relationship of alternate compression and expansion of gases to induce cooling was discovered by Dr. William Cullen in Glasgow in 1756; however, he never was able to develop a device to produce usable refrigeration at any scale and it remained only a laboratory curiosity, a discovery certainly but not an invention. The first patented refrigeration device is attributed to another physician, Dr. John Gorrie, in 1844. Gorrie was American. My reference is the recent book, Ice, by Amy Brady.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
26 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Another Scot, James Watt, devised a system which is the standard today in all Scottish homes to condition their air – central heating.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
25 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

The Scots are a clever and under-appreciated people. I am partly descended from them but, sadly, instead of the clever lot, mine were the lowland lowlife borderer types first transported by King James to Northern Ireland in the 1600’s, where they caused trouble and then a century later departed for America, where their descendants, the “Scots-Irish”, still make trouble (and pretty good bourbon whiskey).

Cristiana Bertola
Cristiana Bertola
26 days ago

Solar energy?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
26 days ago

Quite so. There is an in-built fix should humanity wish to take it. All it requires is high-end engineering innovation. Because it shouldn’t in theory be beyond the wit of engineering to extract the huge amounts of energy hitting the surface and causing difficult living conditions, and use that energy to create air pressure differentials generating localised areas of cooler air. We do that anyway but circuitously – the energy to drive air cooling comes from elsewhere. My contention is, it should be possible to do this in-situ within a single artefact to collect and extract solar energy and power air cooling. The fact that we haven’t done it yet is to me indicative of the fact that we don’t really want to, because we have much easier sources of energy extraction available. Why eat an orange when you can have the instant hit of a haribo sweet?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
26 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You probably ought to look into where solar panels come from, what it takes to make them and how long they can last before they end up in landfill.
Then consider that it is hot and muggy at night too and when you think ahh batteries! You should look into where batteries come from, what it takes to make them and how long they can last before ending up in landfill.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
25 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

You cant see the thermometer in the dark.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
25 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Everything is possible, people have walked on the moon. You know one or two.
Its just a small matter of ramping up 1or 2 to 10 billion that is an issue.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
25 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

No question all the technology exists to do this right now, but the equation is about the price point, and driving that down. Someone somewhere sometime in the West made the decisions to spend trillions on developing green alternatives but with relatively low-end engineering. Ditched Nuclear (high-end), and went for solar panels, huge wind turbines, ground heat extraction, electric batteries and so on, all low(ish)-end engineering, but the truth is it hasn’t worked – the promised levels of energy delivery look anything from flakey, to too small, to too expensive. And that’s not even counting the self defeating costs of mining lithium and rare earths and so on. Instead of admitting this has failed and we need to flip to something else, they are all doubling down on the original bet, which is a disaster in the making. Imagine instead, they had all invested trillions into technology for completely cleaning up burning fossil fuels in the engines and stations for oil, lignite, shale etc. Now we could have carried on burning fossil fuels no problem. Ditto flipping to Nuclear and improving the technologies so those are totally safe. But the real problem is not about making the wrong decisions, it’s about not admitting the decision mistakes and adapting quickly to alternatives. But for political reasons no one will do that.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
25 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes, green energy resources are too diffuse, and the best places to generate aren’t near where they needed. But companies are getting rich off government subsidies for them. I hope they pay the piper for it somewhere down the line.

Cristiana Bertola
Cristiana Bertola
24 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

On the innovation, engineering and at-scale manufacturing side, your reply has initiated a thoughtful follow-up. Green energy sources and carbon recycling technologies are obvious complements, if not alternatives, to fossil fuel. The article seems to embrace a zero-game sum position on the vital issue of the use of AC–and to insist on the civilizational aspects is to ignore its existential purposes. If one reads Western European literature from the 19th century, for instance, one can find out that people dying because of hot summer days was common back then. The article’s theoretical position seems to imply a sort of reverse teleological unfolding: the only rational response to the technological progress’ downside would be a return to the status quo ante. Coupled with the zero-sum game, such a framework only exposes its contradictory underpinnings. Perhaps this was the article’s purpose.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
26 days ago

I enjoyed this essay, even though I disagree with the premise that climate change is some kind of existential threat. It’s amazing how a simple device like air conditioning can change the world.

One semi quibble though with this statement; “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the American empire of technology, commerce and global homogenisation began to spread roughly concurrently with the spread of air conditioning.”

I think MH has it backwards. The availability of cheap, abundant, reliable energy allowed the U.S. and western countries to adopt widespread use of aircon; not the other way around. Kenya has less aircon because it doesn’t have an electrical grid as robust as the west.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Good point. The implication that the spread of air conditioning caused the spread of American technology, commerce and global homogenization does not seem right. Correlation does not imply causation.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
25 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I think she is talking about hypocrisy.

Mark Royster
Mark Royster
25 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Yes. You got it. Thank God! I was giving up on UH readers.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
26 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

More importantly, and this is about everything not just aircon, if developing nations are to develop (and keep their people from wanting to economically migrate – they are not migrating to escape the tiny increases in temperature that have been experienced over the last 150 years) then they need the same access to cheap abundant and reliable energy that the developed world enjoyed and still enjoys.
Net zero, if followed globally (which there is no way it ever will be – all we are doing is outsourcing our emissions to China) would not only destroy developed country’s economies but place a complete halt on the developing wold’s development.
The inconvenient fact denied by the likes of just stop oil is that the increase in temperatures and, in my view largely coincidental, increase in atmospheric CO2 levels has so far been a net benefit to humanity. Fewer people dying from cold and better agricultural yields. So if the downside to people everywhere having cheap abundant and reliable energy is that they need to use some of it for aircon so be it.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
25 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes, that was an incoherent line. The technology of aircon has been spread by commerce because given a free market people everywhere like whatever improved level of comfort they can afford. This is as true for Indians as for everyone else and has nothing to do with any “American empire.”

Christine Novak
Christine Novak
25 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think she needed an essay for UnHerd

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
24 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think you’re right. There were rather a lot of things invented by American inventors and companies in the years from 1850-present. The US had both the first electrical grids and the first air conditioners, and this is not coincidental. Electrical power generation and distribution was a critical factor in America’s industrial success, and air conditioning is just one small part of that. There were all kinds of other inventions as well, like washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers, radio, and eventually computers. They all started, like AC, as industrial and/or military hardware designed to give manufacturers an economic advantage and/or the US a national advantage. They all required a robust electricity generation and distribution system. As costs decreased, companies figured out ways to sell small versions of these things to households. They all required electricity. There were also other things developed for industry that required the same electrical power, such as the assembly line which never made a transition into some domestic equivalent for obvious reasons. Considering AC alongside other inventions that are arguably as important or more so paints a different and more complete picture. Mary seems to have reversed cause and effect.
It’s an interesting dynamic that developed over those years and up to the present. Nearly all of the scientific discoveries that enabled modern technology were discovered in Europe, while many if not most of the practical applications of said technology were developed in the USA, which eventually benefited sufficiently from said inventions to catch up to Europe in terms of basic science. Perhaps Americans with their egalitarian values and dogged determination were simply more apt to look for, and find, technological solutions to various problems and find ways to widely distribute and sell those technologies. Perhaps a more individualistic culture led people to adopt advantageous technologies more quickly to, to use the American expression, ‘keep up with the Joneses’. AC is just one of several inventions that are more common in American households. I suspect you’d find that more American households have a lot of those other inventions as well, and more of them, things like dishwashers, carpet cleaners, washing machines, home computers, power tools, lawnmowers, and I could go on. I can almost guarantee all those things are more common in America than Europe despite being similarly high income countries. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to perceive a bit of the European stereotype of the ‘decadent American’ at play in this article. That stereotype is itself likely related if not the direct result of this exact phenomenon.

The Paris Olympics decision to forego AC for climate change and the predictable American reaction to it are an interesting highlight of the cultural differences between these societies. Mary has the score correct. American’s won’t give up their AC for the global south. That’s a notion you can put to bed. If there is a solution to climate change, it’s in more invention and technology, more and better sources of electricity that can enable more people to have more amenities comparable to Americans. If the elites want to ‘solve’ climate change, they should dump every last dime they can spare into research and development of new sources of power generation, fission, fusion, and whatever else might be invented. Everything else is a waste of time and resources.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago

I live in quite a hot place (summer maximums over 40C common enough). When I was a child 1960s and 1970s, private houses and cars weren’t air conditioned. I don’t know how we managed, and I wouldn’t go back.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Growing up I lived in a hot place in summer too, with a house that was not air conditioned. Our family car had air conditioning, but my dad’s vintage cherry red 1966 Mustang convertible did not. (You might guess which one I liked to drive.)
It wasn’t that bad. We sweated a lot during summer, and took a fair amount of cold showers. But the basement rooms were underground enough to be quite pleasant year round without airconditioning. Upstairs, we had to open windows and use fans.
My wife grew up in Japan. Her house was quite primitive by today’s standards, but perfectly adequate. No sewer hookup, so a vacuum truck came every now and then to empty out a septic tank. No air conditioning in the hot, humid summer. No central heating in the bitter, snowy winter. Just stoves and kotatsu to keep warm. She didn’t mind much.
I think it’s good to feel hot in summer and cold in winter. When we maintain homeostasis in our lives, we tend to weaken our ability to withstand variations. Just like trying to avoid all allergens and viruses weakens our immune systems.
Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker (What does not kill me makes me stronger), Friedrich Nietzsche said. Nassim Taleb built on that with his book Antifragile. We shouldn’t take that philosophy too far. But I’m afraid more and more we don’t take it far enough.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I wear a suit and tie to work, so air conditioning is even more crucial for me. I couldn’t care less about the cold (not that it gets cold here anyway – never below freezing) but I suffer in the heat. Funny you should mention Nietzsche, as I am a big fan of his. My favourite of his sayings is “If you stare at the ibis long enough, the ibis will stare back at you” (or something like that anyway….)

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Ah, yes, the full aphorism is: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
I like that saying too. I don’t really understand it, but at the same time, I do.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
25 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

As an ex-soldier, I have often wondered about those who fight in long wars; when the killing stops how do you stop looking at all problems as being solved by killing. That is how I read that aphorism. A bit more complex but I have taken some painkillers and am having trouble thinking clearly.

Martin M
Martin M
25 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Nah, I’m sure there was something about an ibis in there somewhere….

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
26 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

That’s quite amusing, when it ought to be abysmal!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
25 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Are we voting? I like the ibis story!

Martin M
Martin M
25 days ago

I actually have a t-shirt with a picture of Nietzsche on it, and the caption “I gazed into the Abyss, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

I wear a suit and tie to work

If the world climate is at stake, a change of dress code might be a cheap and cheerful solution. And let’s face it, a good suit and tie might look good, most look shoddy and over worn, and none really keep you warm in the cold or cool in the heat.

Martin M
Martin M
25 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes, but I’m a lawyer, so they go with the job. They are (in my case) also tailored, but I’ll leave it to others to say whether they look good.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Add to that, the ‘catastrophizing’ by mainstream media of what amounts to a bang average summer’s day in the UK, i.e. sunshine and a temperature around 25C (77F) with “yellow heat warnings” on the BBC

Inducing a sense of disaster into pleasant sunshine should be grounds enough for withdrawal of the Beebs licence fee on its own.

Peter Stephenson
Peter Stephenson
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Really great Mr Danger, love it. Nice and then some.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

The original aphorism is “From the military school of life: What does not kill me makes me stronger”. I always took this as an ironic take on the soldier mentality, but it’s sometimes translated to imply that life as a whole is a military training.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Familiar memories! My parents had a 1955 Chevy Bel Aire about which they joked that it had “2-60” air-conditioning: 2 windows down at 60 miles per hour. Our house also had no A/C and only one portable fan, which was always pointed at my stepfather. We were allowed not to make our beds each morning during the Oklahoma summers so that the sheets could dry from a night’s accumulation of sweat. Despite it all, we thought ourselves lucky, having heard stories of no electricity, running water, or sewers from our grandparents who grew up on farms where they worked like dogs even as kids. Now we all pee our pants when the WiFi gets spotty.

William Fulton
William Fulton
25 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

“What does not kill me almost always makes me really miserable”.
There. Corrected that for you and that hack Nietzsche

Mary Thomas
Mary Thomas
25 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I grew up in Hong Kong where sometimes in summer the humidity equalled the heat – 98 for both. We had no aircon and we used ceiling fans and got hot. Aircon in shops was freezing cold to us. We never suffered and we took all our exams in the summer… we were bright kids and have done well over the years.
In short I think this is much exaggerated.

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
22 days ago
Reply to  Mary Thomas

I must refer you to Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
26 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

I live in the same city as Martin M and only got an air-conditioner when I was in my 40s. I do love it, but I know I would adjust if I had to live without it. Before that I lived for a couple of years right on the equator (about an hour from Jakarta) and certainly didn’t have an air-conditioner (or the electricity to run it). Also lived in Canton for a few years without air-conditioning despite the trying humidity of the late spring/early summer. It takes me about two years to adjust to a different climate … and then you’re just living life, like everyone around you.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago

I could get by without an air conditioner too, provided I lived in Hobart (or, better still, Dunedin).

J Hop
J Hop
26 days ago

I live in South Carolina and it’s currently 97F. (36 C). I do love it when people from England quip about the evils of air conditioning.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
26 days ago
Reply to  J Hop

The greatest talent of the English middle class is our ability to convince ourselves that our motives are altruistic when of course they’re anything but. It’s the heritage of Methodism.

The Scots, being Presbyterian, are worse though.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
26 days ago
Reply to  J Hop

Not all English quip about the evils of air conditioning! Come summer, I’m a grumpy English woman unless I’m air conditioned! These people who love summer and feel recharged in the sunshine are weirdos in my book, I scurry to my cellar like a good little Morlock!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
26 days ago
Reply to  J Hop

Huh! I’m in SWFL and it’s averaged 91F for the last several weeks. I wonder what the temps in the north western part of SC average in the summer?
Anyway, as a life-long New Englander who moved down here when my formerly sane state completely lost its collective mind during the Covid hysteria, I wouldn’t have considered it without AC. The extraordinary growth of Florida would never have occurred were it not for indoor climate control.
Hurricanes, we can do nothing about.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
26 days ago
Reply to  J Hop

You have misread the essay if you think that Mary implies that aircon is evil.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
25 days ago
Reply to  Rick Lawrence

A/c is necessary because of rising temperatures but a/c and refrigeration contribute to those rising temperatures. That’s the problem.

Martin M
Martin M
24 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Yes, but refrigeration also contributes to cold beer!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
25 days ago
Reply to  J Hop

Do they really?

Martin M
Martin M
24 days ago
Reply to  J Hop

And yet, when they ran the British Empire, they dressed like they were in London even when they were in Calcutta.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
26 days ago

How did people in different parts of the world evolve to adapt to different climates in the tens of thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution brought energy for heating in winter and cooling in summer?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
26 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

The point is they didn’t. They were controlled by their environment. Now they control it.

There never was any pre-lapsarian idyll or noble savage. That’s just romantic twaddle.

D Glover
D Glover
25 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

They evolved. Lots of melanin protects you from exposure to sunlight at low latitudes, thus avoiding skin cancer.
At high latitudes you run different risk; a diet deficient in fresh fruit and veg for part of the year. Then you evolve pale skin to increase synthesis of vitamin D, thus avoiding rickets.
People who die young don’t leave descendants.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
26 days ago

Even in today’s world, there’s a fair bit of evidence that demonstrates even within individual countries that climate plays a massive part in productivity. Take Australia, the poorest city there is Darwin, which is closer to the equator and therefore, the hottest. The wealthiest ones are Adelaide and Melbourne in the south, thus cooler. In America, the poorest states are those of the Deep South and even in Europe there’s a significant wealth gap between the countries north and south of the Alps.

In short, hot weather is seemingly bad for productivity. It might also be one reason why slavery was so prominent in the histories of countries and empires in areas like the Mediterranean, Middle East, Asia etc?

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Very good point. And it coincides with the research Mary Harrington noted in her article about how people have greater mathematical ability, academic performance, and clarity of thought in moderate temperatures.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
26 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Since the sixties the economies of the US Deep South have been utterly transformed by Aircon. They would depopulate rapidly if they had to give it up.

Anyone who has witnessed the same thing happening in eg Vietnam knows that the hair shirt approach to climate change proposed by Monbiot, JSO etc is a complete and total non-starter.

Peter B
Peter B
26 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Not entirely true. There has been a huge migration of people and companies into states like Arizona and Texas over the past 20 years. Arizona (certainly around Phoenix) is way hotter than the Deep South. Singapore (pretty much on the equator) is also very hot – and humid (you can break into a sweat just standing and waiting for a bus).
Some cultures are certainly less productive than others and climate certainly shapes culture. But there are exceptions. And air conditioning is a leveller.
Only my experience, but dry heat (New Mexico) is far easier to live with than humid heat (Louisiana).
Whether the US migration to the Sun Belt is wise and sustainable is another question. I remember driving from Utah to Las Vegas and passing astonishingly green golf courses in the middle of parched landscapes. They’ve been expanding as if cheap water is an unlimited resource. But the Americans have always been quite wasteful.

Martin M
Martin M
24 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I too have driven from Utah to Nevada (although not all the way to Las Vegas). All I remember seeing was some hills, and the Bonneville Salt Flats. The latter were spectacular in their way, but not somewhere you’d hit a golf ball.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
25 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

I may have gotten this wrong but didn’t the world’s greatest inventions come from countries with colder climates -more time spent indoors to think and more introverted personality types who tend to be more intellectual?

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
26 days ago

The answer is an affordable abundant dependable and relatively clean source of energy with which to generate electricity on a widely distributed basis. SMRs???

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
26 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

Alternatively we embrace subterranean living, I wouldn’t say no to a hobbit hole!

Ben Scott
Ben Scott
26 days ago

Wonderful article, which illustrates the levels of hypocrisy throughout the luxury belief system that is the climate change gravy train.

Utter
Utter
25 days ago
Reply to  Ben Scott

Energy from renewables would mitigate the negative climate effects.

peter lucey
peter lucey
26 days ago

Aircon – not the revolver, or the train – is the machine that won the West.

Tho on a biz trip to Dallas, in sweltering September, I used to pack a thin sweater when going out to dinner with the team — the restaurants were simply frigid.

Cool Stanic
Cool Stanic
26 days ago

I was struck by: “the fact that climate change is driving dangerous increases in summer heat across many parts of the world”. My understanding is that in many parts of the world, cold places are getting a little less cold and that night time temperatures are rising slightly. This has given rise to an increase of a fraction of one degree per decade in the global average temperature. You would need an extremely accurate thermometer even to measure this, let alone experience it as a human being. If I recall correctly, globally, cold still kills 9 times as many people as heat. That said, air conditioning provides massive benefits to people living in hotter climes and it is not virtuous for those in the developed world to suggest or imply that developing countries should not aspire to have it, least of all on the grounds that it will increase carbon dioxide emissions.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
26 days ago
Reply to  Cool Stanic

The problems are mostly around the urban heat island effect, where cities can be many degrees hotter than their surroundings. An important anthropogenic effect, but one which has nothing to do with CO2 and would not be changed in anyway by achieving net zero. Unless you consider that net zero could kill so many people that there would no longer be a need for such densely packed cities anymore – I would hope sanity would prevail long before then.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
25 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

“No longer” + “anymore” = pleonasm

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
26 days ago

There is a very definite correlation between latitude and culture, maybe even a causation?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
26 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

You mean altitude causes attitude?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
25 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Nice one … and definitely behind the wheel of a car.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
26 days ago

My brother lives in Perth WA and in the 50s they prided themselves on having bigger plots for housing as the place was relatively small and land wasn’t at a premium. That meant all the houses had gardens with trees that gave lots of proper deep shade in hot weather.

As it became more popular and housing needs increased, they started packing homes onto smaller plots, claiming they were being green but in fact just making bigger profits.

Naturally, to make them livable, every unit had to now have air-conditioning, thereby making all the green claims absurd.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
26 days ago

Great essay. I also cringe at the woefully accurate sarcasm of those last two sentences. Mrs Harrington is truly a skilled writer.

Mark Royster
Mark Royster
25 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Hurray. Another person got it! Don’t give up, Mary!

Richard Hopper
Richard Hopper
26 days ago

In the hot UK summer of (I think) 1976 I spent a couple of days stuffing insulation into the roof space of the house I had just bought. – It had none and the bedrooms (upstairs) were unbearable. That insulation brought down their temperature to the point of comfort.
I was ridiculed then by friends for doing what was very effective. All my (UK) living space since has been comfortable, summer and winter, with no aircon and below-average heating bills. Yet no mention in the article or comments of insulation or building standards. Science?

Kevin McGeary
Kevin McGeary
26 days ago

For four years, I worked in the HQ of one of the world’s largest air conditioning manufacturers in southern China.
In 2015, they had the workers at one of their air con factories come in on their day off to record a music video and display their togetherness as an organisation and they also often trumpeted their green credentials. The HQ building, which was like a five star hotel, was mostly populated by what Paul Kingsnorth has described as the ‘citizens of nowhere’ or ‘airport world’. Around twice a year, factory workers would come to the HQ to stage a protest about their treatment. For the sake of my own sanity, I didn’t ask too many questions about what they were protesting about.
When a company claims to be ‘more than just a company’, it’s like when a bloke claims to be a feminist – run!

Martin M
Martin M
24 days ago
Reply to  Kevin McGeary

Yeah, the other warning bell is when companies describe themselves as “good corporate citizens”.

John Riordan
John Riordan
26 days ago

“But this raises uncomfortable questions about the real meaning of “climate justice”. If, as Lee Kuan Yew suggested, an artificially engineered temperate climate is a precondition for the “development” referenced in the phrase “developing world”, then the unevenness of global climates is itself an injustice. As long as you understand “justice” to mean widening access to economic development, the world’s variable temperature is discriminatory to the extent that it impedes populations from being more like the denizens of airport world.”

Disagree here: the variations in global climate do not of themselves represent any sort of injustice. Mother Nature does not obey the laws of humans and cannot be made to obey them. The injustice only arises at the point where humans impose differing rights and restrictions upon each other, and in this particular instance that doesn’t happen until Progressives start deciding that the planet can’t afford economic development because of carbon dioxide emissions.

The fact is, China is going to be bashing out millions of cheap A/C units a year to an increasingly prosperous developing world, and they are going to have them no matter what we in the West say about it. The developing world is no more going to listen to Western Progressives bleating about CO2 emissions than are we westerners willing to tolerate Leonardo di Caprio using his private jet to fly to climate conferences and lecture the rest of us about the evils of using passenger jets to travel to our 2weeks a year in Spain.

However, at least most of the developing world having this heat problem also has enough sun to provide at least part of the cooling energy with solar panels. And if we’re serious about reducing CO2 emissions, then nuclear power has been the answer for 70 years, and still is.

No hair shirts wanted, and none needed.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant
26 days ago

As wind and solar energy proliferate, energy use will come to seem less sinful. And to the extent that energy conservation remains a desirable goal, we can hope for a gradual migration in favour of passively-cooled architecture.

Helen Hughes
Helen Hughes
26 days ago

I think it’s really important to talk about this subject, Mary – thanks for approaching it. It seems bonkers that we are desperate to insulate our homes and workplaces for the winter to save energy and the planet whilst at the same time using so much energy to cool them in the summer, abandoning the tried and tested methods of previous times and cultures. Another way we could be worrying less about how much ordinary people driving their cars to get to the places the system requires them to contributes to planetary collapse…
I’m not sure the idea of an optimal temperature for office work is true across the board, though. My Egyptian neighbour in a part of Europe which can get very hot in the summer says he could only start to think really well when it reached over 30 degrees C, in contrast to my British thinking zone of around 20C! I knew quite a few locals of that area who also only felt “comfortable” when it was way too hot for me.
My parents lived and worked as teachers in Malaysia in the 1950s and 60s. My mother disliked the heat even more than me but they had no aircon and she simply did as the natives did and kept out of the heat of the day (contrary to Noel Coward’s belief) and the full sun and was fine. Later, when she went back to visit in the 1980s and 90s, she thoroughly disliked the, by then, ubiquitous aircon. It feels very unnatural.
I smiled to read the quotation from Nirad Chaudhuri. I was working as a home carer briefly in Oxford in the 1990s and regularly visited the Chaudhuris to care for Nirad’s wife Amiya. She lived in exclusively on the upstairs floor, and while with her I’d often hear Nirad downstairs practising his speeches out loud. 🙂
Thanks again, Mary.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
26 days ago
Reply to  Helen Hughes

Chaudhuri was quite right..the British Raj in India since the 1840s spent an enormous amount of resources and energy in transhipment to the “summer capitals”- Simla, Mussoorie, Darjeeling, Ooty etc- hill stations with temperate weather to escape the searing heat of the plains.
The AC is sadly a necessity in today’s global warming scenario in much of the subcontinent. That statistic cited by Mary maybe slightly dodgy as it doesn’t account for several ” illegal” connections which slum- dwellers, avidly courted by populist parties on the Left, freely draw power from innovative but dangerous sources.
Urban heat island effects arising from wrong construction techniques are increasing the ferocity of heat waves- we just had ” Real Feel” temperatures of 50-56 degrees Celsius in May in most of India.
Air conditioning is unfortunately a necessity now. Even the non ” aircon classes thus require it, which means that talk of sustainability by removing it will be a pipe dream.
Perhaps rightly so- because climate justice to many in the non West epitomises a very elitist concept, bearing no relation to aspirational societal needs.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
25 days ago

Well said. I am in my 70’s, grew up in California’s Central Valley where summer temp reached into the lower 100’s/38 C. My family didn’t acquire aircon (love that term) until I left for college. My college didn’t have aircon either, not any of the schools. I remember sweating, and more sweating but it never seemed to bother me that much, probably because I was young. I am not a fan of climate-controlled buildings but the author has hit on a wonderful solution. Aid to underdeveloped countries should prioritize energy development as well as medical, food, and water. I really don’t recall any foreign aid given by the U.S. that tries to develop energy infrastructure. I know a few independent companies have tried windmills and solar but with not much success. If that is wrong, please correct me. I see a much greater need for solar and windmills in these countries than I do sticking them willy-nilly across America, even placing them in the ocean. So far, they have been a failure, except for the “elites” who got the bucks upfront and have a LOT of bucks riding on the “Climate Change” emergency. My solution is to direct them to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East but the trouble is that can’t make any money there. I loved this article, it reminds me of how boring our politicians, bureaucrats, business, and educational classes have become. Besides being greedy and totally inept. I know this rambled, but if felt good!

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
25 days ago

I couldn’t finish this article because when a writer proclaims that air-conditioning and toilets are a symbol of American imperialism, I know they are either mad or drunk or both, certainly dumb.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
25 days ago

Another aspect of climate hypocrisy is the measure they apply. CO2 per person. There is no egalitarian aspects to this number. Where you can die in 10 minutes because its too cold you’re going to have a higher number. Also, its a measure of productivity. The more CO2 you produce per person the more you are mechanized. One guy with a D9 moves alot more dirt then 50 people with shovels.
Economic emergencies require productivity to overcome them and the response is to tax productivity.

Liakoura
Liakoura
25 days ago

“(Spain has only begun to abandon this practice since the spread of aircon.)”
Or its membership of the European Union?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
25 days ago

I see another, different “Big Air Con” connection to the climate change alarmism.
Most everyone I know lives the great majority of their days in a climate controlled house or workplace or car. With the windows kept strictly closed. They’re simply unfamiliar with the variability and uncooperative nature of weather. (Two of my favorite bits!) So they’re ready to believe whatever their smartphone tells them. This helps, if only somewhat, to explain why so many otherwise intelligent people are convinced that the earth is “boiling”, the seas are rising dangerously and the polar bears are all starving, etc.

El Uro
El Uro
25 days ago

Its members probably studied at Ivy League universities, but may originate from anywhere: for this aircon class, “diversity” genuinely doesn’t meanmuch more than minor variations in food preference, and the accent with which International Business English is delivered. This group is also, paradoxically, often at the forefront of climate-conscious and passionately egalitarian calls for global emission reductions.
.
A few years ago, my wife and I were traveling in Switzerland and stopped in a cute town whose main street was crowded with climate change protesters that day. Since I was determined to show the middle finger to these enthusiasts, my wife took me to a parallel street. There we saw a large group of bikers, they were Harley Davidson fans at their rally. They walked around their motorcycles, which delighted my wife, my wife likes Harley .
The contrast of the situation amused me and I asked one of the bikers what he thought of the protesters nearby. He answered seriously and sincerely that he fully and completely supported them. This is where our conversation ended.
.
I just now realized that the biker was not a hypocrite. He is simply, in principle, unable to understand what he looks like from the outside. This is worse than hypocrisy, much worse.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
25 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

They need to get them to compete for protest space. There are no easy answers in an emergency,

Liakoura
Liakoura
25 days ago

“Conversely, Chaudhuri argues, for the British imperial administrators, the extreme Indian heat turned a habitually temperate people into “extremists with an incredible stridency in their opinions, which became raw and crude”.
Actually the British imperial administrators, to the consternation of many, drank copious amounts of hot tea, which baffled, until it was revealed that the increased sweat such hot beverage produced, as it evaporated, cooled the drinker.
And where laundry was all but free, a regular change of shirts and underwear, was at worst a mild inconvenience. A bit like those parts of the writer’s and my airports, where for some reason there is no aircon. 
And just to cite the opposite, in the early days of the Covid pandemic, I chose to stay in a freezing cold corridor between two terminals at Xi’an airport, rather than accept the ‘cancelled onward flight’ hotel accommodation, somewhere in a city of over 9 million. So during the 7 hour wait in a cold corridor between terminal, I transferred much of my clothes from suitcase to body, just to keep vaguely warm, and along with a few other wary stranded passengers. waited for the next flight announcement. It was another four years on a visit to the UK that I got my first Covid infection, and that from a good friend who thought he had a heavy spring cold.
But of course most of us in the rich west, survive this mild inconvenience, with or without aircon.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
25 days ago

Our heat pump loving politicians don’t seem to have realised that they can be run in reverse as air conditioners. If I had one, I would definitely be running it today – it’s scorchio in southern England. Have they factored this increased demand on our creaking grid into their calculations?
I also have to point out that Mary has unfortunately been, perhaps subliminally, influenced by the “world’s on fire” alarmists. Far from “climate change … driving dangerous increases in summer heat”, the very modest increase in global average temperatures over the past few decades is the result of milder winters, not hotter summers.

Christine Novak
Christine Novak
25 days ago

And what about heating systems? Don’t we function better when it’s not below freezing indoors. BJorn Lomborg (False Alarm) would argue that these are all pluses and we can solve the climate problem and provide more people with the comforts. I fall into Charles Mann’s “wizard” category; we can both be comfortable and solve the problems.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago

The Portuguese manage to maintain a pleasant indoor temperature through the sensible use of blinds. And presumably the Spanish retreat to their homes for a siesta because it is hot outdoors but far cooler inside.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago

Why would anyone want to be lucid in an airport?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago

In Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock there’s a small background sketch in which rising temperatures cause major infestations of ‘fire ants’ in the SE states of the USA. The ants are attracted to the ozone given off by the relays in air conditioners, get electrocuted, clog the relays and the aircons fail. The chinese company that produces the relays can’t keep up with demand. East Texas becomes uninhabitable for half of the year and the population become semi-nomadic, living in campervans in cooler areas before their homes become habitable again, for a time.
Amusing, but a reminder that the technology we come to rely on is vulnerable to small things going wrong, and to glitches in global supply chains.

Mark Royster
Mark Royster
25 days ago

I haven’t read quite every comment but as yet it doesn’t seem like anyone got the “joke”. Read the last paragraph again. And remember that “con” has at least two meanings.

George Scialabba
George Scialabba
25 days ago

“if you proposed to the 88% of American households with aircon that they sacrifice their cooling systems for the sake of people in Uttar Pradesh.”
Why on earth would you do that? Of course some Americans should make sacrifices for the sake of the needy in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere — especially those 10 percent of Americans who control 50 percent of the national wealth. Why would you ask the 50 percent of Americans who control 3 percent of the national wealth to sacrifice a potentially life-saving appliance, except perhaps to discredit the whole idea of international economic justice?

Lane Burkitt
Lane Burkitt
25 days ago

Thanks for this article MH. As always, your insight is welcome and thought provoking. I am a member of the Airport Elite, flying more than 100k miles most years, but at home in Arizona my family chooses not to use aircon for many of the reasons you cite. Waste, unnecessary cost and a total disconnect from the outside environment being our top concerns. I appreciate you putting more eloquent words to principles we try to enact.

Zaph Mann
Zaph Mann
25 days ago

Another article spun out of a contradiction, I agree with Jim Veenbaas in the most voted comment – a little research by the author would have also revealed that 1 – much cheaper and more efficient aircon technology is already developed and 2 – New materials will transform the whole heating/cooling issue in the next ten years.

Keith Payne
Keith Payne
25 days ago

Well done. It’s about time someone pointed out the hypocrisy of the global elite who go on about climate change, imposing restrictions on the world while creating more emissions than the majority. One way to reduce global emissions at a stroke would be to ban private jets.

Adam K
Adam K
25 days ago

‘After all, the only other solution would be to try and move the planet’s entire human population to the temperate zones of Europe and North America, before retreating into (presumably air-conditioned) enclaves a safe distance from the resulting chaos. And surely not even an elite blinded by aircon culture to the real depth of global human cultural differences would consider something as reckless as that.’

Judging by the open border polices of today, one would think the elites are trying to fit the while world into the West.

I enjoyed this thoughtful and well-researched article.

If air con becomes ubiquitous in Somalia, the progressives will have a lot to explain in the event that Somali GDP does not amount to that of Germany in a few decades.

https://theheritagesite.substack.com/

Andrew H
Andrew H
24 days ago

An enjoyable read. Just a shame that Mary has fallen for the myths of hysterical climate alarmisn. For the avoidance of doubt: there is no climate crisis. However, there is certainly an energy crisis for many. Billions of people in the developing world still lack access to plentiful, dependable electricity. Meanwhile in the wealthy West, idiotic hair shirt policies are exacerbating fuel poverty. We need more fossil fuels, more nuclear and more hydroelectric power across the world. Then we can all enjoy the benefits of air conditioning.

George Scialabba
George Scialabba
21 days ago
Reply to  Andrew H

For the avoidance of doubt: this comment is utterly daft (or else indulging in very rarified irony). The earth’s overall temperature has risen by 1.5 degrees and may well reach 4 degrees by the end of the century; atmospheric PPM of CO2 is 425, up from 320 in 1960 and steadily increasing; polar ice is melting at a horrifying rate; the permafrost is on the verge of melting and releasing vast quantities of methane; etc, etc. For details see The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and Our Final Warning by Mark Lynas.

Andrew H
Andrew H
12 days ago

You’re clearly utterly daft as you lap up what you read (presumably with your lips moving) in the Grauniad every day.
Here’s a reading list for you:
Ross Clark: Not Zero
Michael Shellenberger: Apocalypse Never
Alex Epstein: Fossil Future
Bjorn Lomborg: False Alarm

Claire D
Claire D
22 days ago

I remember reading somewhere that Lee Kuan Yew was a fan of watersports.