We need to talk about technology

Air conditioners attached to a building
Now is the time for experts, activists and workers to collaborate on well-designed, affordable and energy-positive buildings.

We can aim at a good life in cities so wonderful we can only begin to imagine them, built and supplied in ways that don’t deepen the horrible rupture between humanity and the natural world.  

Housing for working people is becoming as central an issue for labour and social movements in the twenty first century as it was in the nineteenth and twentieth. And not just decent housing, but housing that is comfortable, aesthetically pleasing – and, crucially, low energy, zero energy or even energy positive. 

Here is a wonderful opportunity for our movement to get a grip on technology. We can and should find ways to bring the experience of architects and energy conservation engineers into discussions about housing among community activists and building workers.

A good example of how not to do this is the call for mass installation of air conditioners, made by Leigh Phillips in his article, In Defense of Air Conditioning published by Jacobin

Improved design

The problem that Phillips purports to address – the cruel effect of heat on millions of urban residents, during summers such as 2018’s – is real enough.

The need to provide ourselves with homes that shelter us from extreme heat as well as colder weather – something ruling classes down the ages have never done for working people – is indisputable. 

But Phillips’s techno-fix – mass AC installation, supported by a grand expansion of nuclear and hydro power – is not the answer. He sounds like someone proposing the state-funded distribution of armour-plated BMWs to parents demanding safe cycle routes to school for their children.

Better temperature control can and should be achieved not in the first place by AC, but mainly by better building design, better insulation and better urban planning, in the context of better ways of living generally.

We can aim at a good life in cities so wonderful we can only begin to imagine them, built and supplied in ways that don’t deepen the horrible rupture between humanity and the natural world.  

This ABC of AC is widely understood by three groups of people, ignored in Phillips’s article, who spend time thinking about our homes: community groups organising on housing issues; building workers and architects; and energy conservation researchers. 

Radical municipalism

Community groups in London, where I live, are battling against right-wing Labour councils that neglect social housing for working people and strike deals with profiteering property developers.

A grass roots alliance last year defeated such a deal in Haringey and reprioritised social housing: the potential for 'radical municipalism', to renew cities for their people in ecologically sustainable ways, was spelled out by Gordon Peters, one of the group’s organisers

Owen Hatherley, a socialist writer on architecture, in a recent call for the Labour Party to get its act together on housing, argued that Labour “ought to look at scaling up the small-scale experiments made in low-energy and zero-carbon construction” by community groups in Leeds and Bristol. 

This potential for low-energy and zero-carbon building seems to have passed Phillips by.

Low-energy housing

Building workers and architects, by contrast, are well aware of these potentialities.

In the UK labour movement, the example of City Building in Glasgow, a union-linked co-operative that builds low-energy housing stock, is often mentioned. It uses site-appropriate combinations of solar thermal, photovoltaic, combined heat and power, ground and air source heat pumps and optimisation technologies. 

Architects understand perfectly that while AC may sometimes help to cool buildings, it is usually the wrong answer.

When The Economist, that bible of neoliberalism, last month gave qualified support to expanding AC, Richard Lorch of Building Research & Information responded, in a letter to the magazine, that “cities often exacerbate high temperatures” by the heat-island effect; that the micro-climate of streets had to be taken into account; that “it is far better to create cities and buildings that can provide thermal comfort with little energy demand”; and that “the capabilities and technologies exist to provide an alternative to AC”. 

Passive techniques 

Energy conservation researchers have been writing about those capabilities for at least 40 years.

Amory Lovins, in his classic 1977 pamphlet Soft Energy Paths, estimated – relying partly on analysis by the American Institute of Architects – that design improvements could save 50 percent or more of energy use in offices and 80 percent in some new houses.

The passage of time, and the ballooning of the property development and construction industries, has only amplified this point. 

Researchers have repeatedly argued that good insulation, high-reflective materials, shading, windows with low solar heat gain, and “passive” techniques such as underground earth pipe cooling can be combined, in most conditions, to give as good temperature control as energy-intensive heating and cooling systems.

Engineers have proposed that, where AC is essential, oversize systems be avoided and solar power be used.

A research group at Cambridge University synthesised years of advances in building and materials use and reached similar conclusions. 'Passivhaus' techniques could reduce energy consumption in buildings, mostly for heating and cooling, by 83 percent, they showed. 

Electricity networks

The Global Energy Assessment (2012) summarised dozens of academic publications on building design, and concluded that they can achieve reductions in gross energy requirements of upwards of 75 percent in new buildings, and upwards of 50 percent in existing buildings.

It is not that that labour and social movements might never want AC fitted anywhere. But it is a myopic and outdated place to start.

Phillips's approach to electricity generation is little better. He acknowledges that AC is very energy-intensive, but claims that nuclear and hydro – and, as he specifies in another article, with a co-author, “a vast build-out of dependable base-load electricity” from those sources – can easily provide the necessary non-fossil energy.

He seems unaware of, or uninterested in, the last 30-plus years of changes in electricity networks, towards decentralised renewable generation and better-integrated distribution.

The trend towards ever-bigger, more centralised, generation started to reverse in the 1980s, with combined-cycle gas turbines (which can easily be used in power stations smaller than earlier coal- or gas-fired ones), and cogeneration (i.e. plants that produce electricity and heat).

Decentralised generation 

Since the turn of the century, a much greater degree of decentralisation in generation, and better ways of integrating intermittent renewable sources (i.e. wind that doesn’t always blow and sun that doesn’t always shine), have become possible, thanks to networked computing. 

Phillips objects to what he calls “a return to the small and local”, and portrays it as an approach by “greens”, who want to replace multinationals with small businesses.

This is a misrepresentation of where electricity technology is at. The discussion among electrical engineers has, for several years now, focused on further step-changes in computing (so called “smart grids”), that pave the way for systems dominated by renewables and help deal with the always knotty problem of storing electrical energy. For a summary, see Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley; for details see e.g. the multiple volumes edited by Fereidoon Sioshansi.

There is potential both in decentralised generation and in more integrated – and in that sense, centralised – networks. The main obstruction to this potential is the corporations that control the systems.

Why, then, should socialists focus on nuclear power - almost always, and everywhere, linked to militarism - and centralised hydro - which has time and time again been fought against by people in the global south, and indigenous people in Canada, for example, whose communities have been threatened, or wrecked, by it?

Fighting back 

As many people who think about electricity – from social democratic enthusiasts for energy cooperatives, to engineers working on off-grid systems in the global south – are well aware, the danger is not decentralised generation technologies, or integrated (centralised) networks, but that the multinationals will find ways of enclosing it and commodifying these.

How to fight back against them? That is the discussion that matters. 

Phillips’s arguments on AC are underpinned by four ideological fixations about technology that can only obstruct the development of socialist thinking. 

First, Phillips identifies an element of good living – being able to keep cool in the summer – with a consumer product, AC. A convincing riposte to Phillips, by Aaron Vansintjan in The Ecologist, deals with this point.

Vansintjan wrote: “Let’s not confuse ‘the right to be cool’ with the right to a consumer good [...] There are plenty of cool alternatives, involving rethinking urban design and how we use public space.” The way towards these alternatives, Vansintjan argued, is “a political movement that links people’s needs to their capacity to have more control over their own lives”.

Capitalist control 

Second, Phillips falsely paints each and every expression of doubt about the efficacy of AC as part of a pro-austerity, anti-worker environmentalism. People who advocate passive cooling systems, or suggest that some rich world citizens could turn the AC down a little, are lumped together with Pope Francis, who cited AC as a “harmful habit of consumption”.

Having a go at the Pope is an easy crowd-pleaser in a socialist publication. And of course there are strands of environmentalism that focus on moralistic appeals to reduce individual consumption, rather than the technological, social and economic systems through which fossil fuels are consumed.

But the discussions among community housing activists, building workers, architects and energy researchers are streets ahead of this, i.e. they almost always assume that both improving living standards, and harmonising the relationship between human society and nature, are desirable aims.

One essential contribution socialists could make to this discussion is to underline that, as long as technologies are controlled by capital, they will primarily be directed neither at making people’s lives better, nor at overcoming the rupture between human society and the natural world, of which global warming caused by fossil fuel use is a key element.

The potential of progressive trends in urban planning and building design, or decentralised renewables-based electricity networks, can never be fully realised, or even understood, as long as these processes are controlled by the now-dominant centres of wealth and power.

Superior alternatives 

Third, rather than questioning technologies that have been shaped by urban development under capitalism, and thinking about why alternatives have been squashed or sidelined, Phillips appears to see technologies as socially neutral.

He claimed that AC is an “essential, life-saving part of public health” – as though it is the only way to keep cool (it isn’t), and as though its absence is the main reason that people die in heat waves (the research Phillips himself cites shows that AC is a minor issue among many, including the effects of poverty and ill health).

AC, like other technologies, has been shaped by the capitalist social relations in which it emerged. It took off in the USA from the 1920s, and was diffused across the rich world in the post-war boom, not only because it was a way of keeping people cool, but thanks to the profiteering of corporations who produced it. I wrote about this in History Today recently.

Just as car manufacturers lobbied against rail networks and public transport, so AC makers lost no opportunity to favour their product over less energy-intensive alternatives.

We can’t know what a socially just society would have done with AC, but we know that the architects’ superior alternatives have for decades been pushed aside by property and construction companies.

Imaginative optimism 

Fourth, Phillips is ideologically committed (a) to action through the state, rather than by society independently of the state, and (b) to economic expansion as a prerequisite of “progress”. He advocated these principles in his book Austerity Ecology (2015). 

In the case of AC, this means action through the currently dominant capitalist state. Phillips wrote: “New buildings must come with AC as part of any ‘Green New Deal’”. 

His declaration that “we [who?] are capable right now” of producing more electricity is telling. The really urgent thing, in fighting for a socially just society, is not to produce more electricity, but to take electricity out of the corporations’ hands, and transform the way it is distributed and used.

I am very optimistic that, by using it rationally, society as a whole could manage with less, not more. But this will only become clear as and when society takes hold of technological systems.

Phillips said: “Nothing’s too good for the working class”. Too right. So leave your dogmatically contrived techno-fixes at home!

Building on what community groups, building workers, architects and energy researchers have done, give us a serious discussion about technology. Then we can aim at a good life, in cities so wonderful we can only begin to imagine them, built and supplied in ways that don’t deepen the horrible rupture between humanity and the natural world.  

This Author

Simon Pirani is the author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, Pluto Press, August 2018.

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