The leftist critique of capitalism and all the improvements in the quality of life that it has brought remains what it has always been: the desire of intellectuals to dictate to the rest of humanity how they may live. Or even more to the point, how many of them may live at all. Thus, the latest New York Times feature about the evils of air conditioning and how the increasing demand for it in the Third World is unsustainable tells us a lot more about the left and its mindset than it does about the future of society.
The piece in the Sunday Review by Elisabeth Rosenthal at least is honest about why more air conditioning is needed. It is a major factor in productivity around the world. The economic boom in places like Singapore and other warm-weather cities was made possible in no small measure by air conditioning. As population growth and economic activity rises in other Third World cities, more AC will be needed. But for the Times, this spells environmental doom since they tell us the energy used to run the units and the emissions from the coolants will create more global warming. The answer from the left to this conundrum is typical of the sort of eco-Luddite argument we’ve been hearing for decades. People will have to learn to live without air conditioning in the same way they are told to live without the freedom that automobiles give them. Sweat more and shut up about it seems to be the mantra. But the problem with this sort of thinking is not just the arrogance of western liberals telling people to do without modern conveniences; it is that it reflects a lack of understanding of human potential.
There is something slightly disingenuous about this entire discussion since it is the use of heat in winter rather than air conditioning in summer that may have the bigger carbon footprint. But, as George Will wrote Friday in the Washington Post, forty years after the Club of Rome’s seminal work about “The Limits of Growth” that spawned a generation of environmental hysteria, there is a reason why what he calls “apocalypse fatigue — boredom from being repeatedly told the end is nigh” has set in. The idea that “intractable scarcities” in virtually all commodities would be created by continued population growth” has effectively been debunked by virtually every technological development since then. But don’t tell the environmental extremists.
Those plagued by Malthusian pessimism about the future of humanity have always underestimated human innovation. Instead of humanity being reduced in the decades after the first “Earth Day” to a “Soylent Green” nightmare of shortages and poverty in which scarcity of limited resources as swamped by a surplus of people, we have seen prosperity grow. To the surprise and dismay of the doomsayers, this has happened not only in the West but also in developing nations whose citizens believe they have the same right to comfort as the residents of the Upper West Side.
As both Abe and John Steele Gordon noted on Friday, just as nobody among the environmental hysterics foresaw the decline of CO2 emissions because of the way the free market mandated changes in the way we produce energy, so, too, are they unable to imagine that humanity is capable of solving other problems. And one need only read the hundreds of comments by the liberal readership of the Times in response to the article about air conditioning to see that many of them are still focused on the thesis that underlined that original fallacious Club of Rome report about scarcity: there are too many people on the planet and laws must be passed to limit procreation.
That is the inevitable conclusion of any such argument against capitalism. The default position of the left is to always fall back on the idea that there too many people and that those who are allowed to live in the future must heed the instruction of the intellectuals and accept restrictions on their freedom if they are to be permitted to remain.
The eco-Luddites may sweat in the summer if they like and preach to the masses about the benefits of fans and tell us why sleeping (naked) in rooms where the temperature is 84 degrees is really comfortable as Ms. Rosenthal suggests. The rest of us will rely on the free market to do what it has always done: provide cost-effective solutions to humanity’s problems and keep our air conditioners humming when it is hot. The only answer to the problem the Times references is more growth, more wealth and more innovation. Which is to say more capitalism and more individual freedom.