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Perils of modern living

Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered as enemies.

Polders-Grootschermer-Netherlands.jpg.990x0_q80_crop-smartFor millions of years, humans have survived the extremities of nature without conditioning the air. If so, can’t we survive the present climate change without air conditioners? Theoretically yes, but attitudinally difficult, for it’s no more air conditioning that is the challenge, it is the human conditioning.

Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered among the enemies of nature. A few decades ago, AC was installed where it was inevitable, but today it is projected as a necessity, which is a myth driven by the consumerist market.

Human settlements across the globe have shown that we can manage with 4 or 40 degree Celsius temperature with minor adjustments in food and clothing, two major means of adapting ourselves to the changing weather. Different civilisations have discovered many other means, including shifting working hours; summer and winter indoor spaces; orientation-based wall thickness; and varied window detailing.

In many ways, human adaptation to weather was akin to those of slumbering animals or leave shedding plants, learning from the animal and survival instincts we all possess. Given this natural phenomenon, it is more important that we adapt to room temperatures and not install air conditioners to force the room to adapt to us.

If millions of Indians are living without AC, it should be possible for the minority few of us also to live so. If we deny this possibility, we get into a trap where the combination of physiological and mental states will ensure we justify the AC. Even if an ecologically aware mind denies it, the body will demand it. The reverse where the mind demanding it even if body could adjust is also true.

The real challenge of summer is not to cool our body with cold rooms and even colder drinks, which only increase the variation between body and atmospheric temperatures. We need to reduce this variation by consuming warmer drinks and keeping the indoor air humid. After all, we cannot air condition the whole city, but can condition the body to adapt.

In case AC is already a habit, we can try modulating indoor humidity, air velocity and room temperatures to minimise damage to environment. Instead of 22 degree of dry cold, 28 degree with increased humidity may be better. If outside temperature is around 40 degrees, indoors at 28-35 could still be fine. Individually, we cannot switch off hotel or office AC, but can avoid the coldest parts, totally avoiding AC elsewhere.

The perils of modern lifestyle are yet to dawn on us. The few who talk about climate in kitty parties are yet to walk the talk. One simple way of doing the walk is to minimise or live without air conditioners.


What if the air conditioner had not been invented?

By opting for excessive use of technological innovations, we have degraded the ecosystem. Can we think ahead and set right things?

18bgp-greesense_18_2898898eMost people and many Hollywood films fantasise about rewriting history. After anger breaks out in a talk, we wish we had not said something that triggered the anger. After buying a pair of footwear that bites into our feet, we wish we had bought the other pair. Sometimes we wonder if we had left for the family trip one week earlier, we could have escaped the monsoon rains that spoiled the holidays.

Life is a golden opportunity of tremendous possibilities, which we may be frittering away on most occasions. The dreams of leading an ideal, happy, content and healthy life dominates us so deeply that half the time we wish for a time machine that could reverse the past into favouring us, mostly individually and selfishly.

Despite the logical reaction that would ridicule this mental exercise, we may still continue wondering what if the air conditioners were not invented, ecologically an extremely harmful product. What if air travel was not explored, today among the major causes for greenhouse gas emission? What if the western culture did not support a consumerist lifestyle, which is sweeping the world today?

What if return of investment, GDP, quarterly net profits and such others were not to be the litmus test for success, which lets business dominate over happiness? What if individual earnings could be based on needs and not on maximum limits of earning capacity?

For the future

It is futile to continue with such millions of what if’s for the past, but imagine we are able to foresee the future, forecast the occasions when we may ask ‘what if’. If we could do that, may be, today itself we can avoid that questionable action. Does this hypothesis sound like another fantasy trip? It may be so for some, but in deeper reality, it is not. Many futurologists have been suggesting what can be anticipated tomorrow, simple examples being water crisis, home automation, fragmented families, reduced personal bonding, artificial intelligence or robotic assistances.

Many of us have realised the opportunities we have lost in making the world a more humane place to live in. The least we can do is not to lose out on the future opportunities also. May be it’s time to promote solar and electric cars; use bio-degradable short-life materials instead of manufactured long-life materials; reduce travel to localise the living or ban food chemicals that do not serve health.

If we are dreaming of seeing a different world tomorrow — sustainable, justifiable and equitable — we need to act today. ‘What if’ we do not act is as clear as the writing on the wall.


Switching on the air conditioner is not the right solution as it only creates heat islands.

02bgp-greensens_02_2392591eThis summer season has been a much talked about one, at least for one reason. Which ever city one lives in or travels to, everyone gets to hear people discussing the rising temperatures. Architects and builders, especially those who claim to design eco-friendly houses, get frequent complaints from some or other house owners about how unbearable the indoor temperature has been. Most of us being impulsive in nature, start looking for an immediate answer as well.

From an ecological perspective, the rising summer temperatures and increasing financial affordability is prompting thousands of families in the tropical regions to buy air conditioners. A study published in National Academy of Sciences has placed air conditioners among the products poised for exponential growth in the coming years – a product already infamous for releasing Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) which indirectly accelerates climate change. Besides, they transfer the indoor heat to outside, leading to heat island effects in business districts with large number of air conditioned buildings. In majority of cites in south India, the window ACs are used just for a few weeks in a year, questioning the idea of investment and benefit, even if it is at the individual levels.

It is a fact that no house can be built to perfectly suit all our local seasons of summer, winter and monsoon rains. If a house in coastal Kerala has to be designed to allow cross ventilation even during the rains, the same model may not be needed in Hyderabad or if built so, will end up filling the house with hot air during the summers, making it unlivable. Any study of traditional local architecture reveals that they were in general good for all seasons, but would perform badly in case of extreme conditions. While a non-stop flash shower with wind would make Bangalore buildings suffer, sudden spell of dry weather in an otherwise hot humid Chennai would create discomfort to the locals.

Unfortunately, by specifying 22 degree Celsius temperature, 50% humidity and hourly two cycles of air change, the habit-forming air conditioning creates a yearning in us for AC every time, diluting our inborn capacity to let the body get adjusted. All our ancestors lived all through the seasons, by appropriate food, clothing, indoor activities and bearing with the lead time required to get adjusted. Today, in the name of comfort, we are letting our lives get conditioned.

So, the challenge is two fold – firstly, to design the building most suited to all seasons, if not best suited to one season, and secondly, in the case of occasional extreme weather conditions in one season, let our human bodies get adjusted to the changing nature of heat and humidity.

Towards the first challenge, insulation and ventilation are among the major criteria, being the technical aspects of passive cooling, which can be further explored. However, for the second challenge of getting adjusted, it is only our wish and will power that can make a difference.

Is air conditioning sustainable?

Whether it is worth living with artificial ventilation, inadequate air change cycles, increased carbon dioxide intake, questionable indoor air quality and finally, the now much discussed sick building syndrome?

Twenty years ago this question would have got brushed aside as a nonsense statement, but today many subject experts feel, in its present form, air conditioning cannot be sustained towards a greener future. We condition the air such that we need not sweat or shiver, but we are making the earth sweat and shiver.

Humans can easily adopt their bodies to live in 4 to 40 degree Celsius temperature, with appropriate clothing. So, all our past generations have lived without air conditioning, even in climates harsher than the range mentioned. Our bodies are biologically made for gradual transitions in temperatures and humidity, on daily and seasonal basis. In reality, the body cannot adjust from 22 to 40 degree C. variations as we come out of an air conditioned office, hence moving in and out of A.C. creates body stress and strains.

Right balance

We need a balance and parity between outdoor and indoor temperatures for smoother body adaptions, but in India we follow the western standard of 22-23 degrees Celsius, which is more suited to their colder climates. No wonder when we walk into an A.C. bus or office, most often they feel like freezers. Also, the impact on body varies in auditoriums or offices with the number of occupants.

In urban contexts, people quote sound, smoke and dust to justify A.C., which is valid. But, how many of us can live 24 hours inside the A.C. and even if we can, would it be a greatly healthy life? The choice between letting the body get acclimatised or get conditioned is left to the individual, but what follows the A.C. is a fact — living with artificial ventilation, inadequate air change cycles, increased carbon dioxide intake, questionable indoor air quality and finally, the now much discussed sick building syndrome.

As a nation, India today is embracing this technology at a frenzied rate in every type of building, be it a college or a coffee shop, without being fully aware of the havoc it is creating. Fortunately, industrialised nations are worried about it, considering the energy it consumes, urban heat it increases and the potential it has to deplete the ozone layer. They have realised that HVAC systems (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) cannot perform without equipment, electricity, gas generation or creating waste at the end of the life cycle.

Better options

As such, many options for indoor comforts without air conditioning such as air cooling through humidifiers, chilled water pipe systems, earth tunnels, wind catchers with water pots, passive cooling systems, designing for the climatic zone, and design ideas with sky-lit atrium lobbies are being explored. Besides such ongoing research towards alternatives to A.C., the technology of air conditioning is also being improved for low energy consumption, efficient heat transfer systems, long life for machine components or environmentally safer refrigerants.

However, sustaining the growing popularity of air conditioning is still a big challenge.

For clean air indoors

Ideally we should shun air conditioners and try to live in tune with nature.

There are two terminologies that are going hand in hand in the world of urban indoors today – air conditioning (AC) and indoor air quality (IAQ). The first refers to a great technological achievement on our part where we can control the natural indoor air to any temperature, humidity, ventilation or speed of flow that we desire. In total contrast, the second refers to a human failure in understanding what is a healthy indoor and ensuring it.

Construction chemicals are among the top offenders in interiors, mainly in paints, plasticizers, adhesives and varied kinds of plastic-based products, which slowly release toxic vapours into the air. These volatile compound-based pollutants result in adverse effects on the health of the occupants. Problems like headache, respiratory infections, allergies and nausea are routinely reported, though they may not sound like a major disease. Natural materials have been so dominantly replaced by artificial options today, even indoor experts are struggling to find newer ways of ensuring IAQ. Often people believe air conditioning is the solution, but possibly it is among the problems.

Among the senior consultants of air conditioning technology in India, Surendra Shah once comically said that air conditioning ensures 100 per cent cold air and 0 per cent fresh air. Quoting this line here is not to negate the idea of air conditioning which has become part of our lives even in villages now, but to realise what evils have we created in our pursuit of comforts and luxury. We may have to continue to promote it, but need to realise its negative implications and resolve them at the earliest.

The fact is air conditioning collects the heat from the warm stale air, cools it through systems of condensing and compressing to re-cool the air again. Fresh air does not come in like in a room with windows. The refrigeration system does not eliminate harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. As such, if ventilation is ineffective, air quality also goes down. Majority of conditioned interiors, unfortunately, lack effective air change systems, breeding unhealthy chemical and microbial contaminations.

How does one identify the unhealthy conditions on interiors? We cannot be running lab tests on the air every week, but there could be symptoms like odour, signs of moisture, discolouring, fungus, molds, dirt accumulation or dusty surfaces that would shelter microbes. Carbon dioxide levels can be checked by simple equipment and detailed investigations can be undertaken if IAQ appears to going down.

Unfortunately, we do not have stringent standards for indoor air quality in India and no institutional systems to assess them. Even if we introduce them all, finally it is people who will have to comply with them. May be we can arrive at them and people will comply with Indoor Air Quality, but still better would be to increasingly live with nature, eliminating the root problem.