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By Nga Than

I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Dean Wilson, author of After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort, and Teaching Fellow in the Mellon Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research through the Center for Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Eric gave insight on the fascinating intersections of environmental humanities, discussing his recently published book from conception through publication.

Nga Than (NT): Can you start by introducing yourself?

Eric Dean Wilson (EDW): I’m Eric Dean Wilson. I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee. If I remember correctly, we have in common that we both spent some time in the South. I went to school in Chicago for creative writing and have been in New York for about twelve years now.

I come to academia through the creative writing world. I got an MFA in creative nonfiction, trained as an essayist, and I think of myself as an essayist. That sort of tension between creative writing, scholarship, and activism is something that's always in my work. It's always a tension; sometimes they don't really feel aligned with each other. But I think that's a productive tension.

Actually, the process of writing the book brought me to the PhD program. I was never planning on going for a PhD, but about three or four years into the research process of this book, I realized that I was essentially doing the work of an academic anyway. I was adjuncting in different positions and teaching first-year writing. I realized that I was actually doing all of the work and getting paid less than if I applied to a PhD program. So what brought me here is quite unglamorous and a sort of backdoor route to the discipline, but I found that it really has informed my creative writing in ways that I didn't expect. In a funny way, the process of writing the book also brought me to environmental humanities.

I had wanted to write about climate change in a very vague sense before this, but it wasn't really the topic that brought me here; it was a relationship.

NT: Could you clarify what you mean when you say a relationship brought you here?

EDW: I had a friend from college, and I didn't know what his job was. His partner, who’s also a close friend of mine from college, kept telling me, “You should talk to Sam Schiller about his work because it's really interesting, and it might be something you'd be interested in writing about.”

She was absolutely right. The book began with that friendship. I started talking with him and learned that he was working for a for-profit green-energy startup that was looking to make money from renewable energy projects. The main project, from then and throughout the rest of his time there, was driving across the United States, finding old CFCs, better known as Freon, and buying them on the secondary market from people who'd stockpiled them, such as car mechanics or auto hobbyists. They were buying them and then destroying them for carbon credits on the cap-and-trade market.

I had never heard of any of these things, so I quickly learned a little bit about them while I was talking to Sam. I thought I was going to write a profile of him and pitch it to a place about this guy who was making money off of destroying pollution. The more that I started researching, however, I realized that this had the potential to be much bigger and was really a book.

I got sucked into the history of air-conditioning, which was a lot more complicated and more fascinating and full of kooky historical figures than I’d originally anticipated. Everything that I thought I knew at the beginning of this project was turned upside down.

I thought I was going to write a defense of the cap-and-trade system, and it ended up being an attack. Another thing that surprised me was that the history of air conditioning is also the history of a socially constructed feeling of personal comfort. This idea that we think is innate is, in large part, culturally constructed through things like identity.

I've gotten a lot of pushback on that idea now that the book is out, especially from people on the political right. My picture and a quote from an article I wrote was on The Ingraham Angle on Fox News a few weeks ago. I got a bunch of trolls in my DMs telling me to go fuck myself. But what's interesting is that, even from the left, I have resistance from people saying that it's not a very important idea that we consider how our comfort is constructed. Tellingly, I only hear this from people in the US.

For people who grew up in Ecuador, for instance, or sub-Saharan Africa, or even places in Central or Eastern Asia, consistently almost every single one of them tells me that these ideas resonate with their experience. It’s very, very telling to me that those who grew up in spaces that were better designed to be without air-conditioning or were more open to the outside and who lived in a culture that was not so reliant on air-conditioning found it to be true. Also, interestingly, when they moved to the United States they found that they couldn't live without it. That’s complicated because of the legacy of modernist building design in the United States, where everything's a box. You kind of need air-conditioning, because if you didn't have it you’d suffocate. It’s also culturally pervasive. When you spend your whole day in air-conditioning every day during the summer, it becomes very, very difficult for you to not do that.

I unexpectedly found myself writing a book that had two modes. One of them was tracing the history of air-conditioning and, in particular, the refrigerant Freon and its replacements, to understand how we got to this place technologically, culturally and politically. The other mode of the book is a description of a road trip that I took with Sam, watching him buy this stuff and talk to the people who he bought it from.

The most interesting thing I found is that while I didn't think that cap and trade was doing much toward furthering ecological goals, I found what Sam was doing to be really interesting and quite moving. He was buying Freon from these people that are often global warming deniers, often Trump voters, often suspicious of the government. If they found out that Sam was destroying the material, they’d often not sell it to him because they didn't want to deal with what they called “carbon guys.”

Sam, who’s this particularly patient, very smart person, tried to forge connections with as many of these people as he could. With some of them, it didn't work out. But with a lot of them, he was first able to establish a strong business relationship, then have these really tough conversations about global warming. In some cases, he was able to change their minds or really try to get them to question their own beliefs. I found that to be really important during a time when we’re told that Americans are polarized and not talking to each other. This was a rare, unlikely story of a leftist environmental business entrepreneur—which is itself kind of a contradiction—talking with people whom he’d normally never meet. When they were able to have honest conversations about climate change and he was able to get them to question their beliefs, that was the real work that I saw him doing.

NT: That's fascinating. I myself fall into the category of people coming from other countries to the US who are then unable to live without AC after a while. When I was growing up in Vietnam, AC was a luxury product that not every household could afford and not every office had. It’s a rarity, not a common thing, so most people don’t demand it.

In terms of the idea that comfort is socially constructed, not just from the cultural point of view but also from a materials point of view, I thought a lot about American buildings being poorly constructed. When I first moved to the US, I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and we could put up a house in less than two weeks. I wondered how it was possible and what kind of materials could be used to build a house that fast. Habitat for Humanity didn't take into account the specific types of materials a surrounding area could have or the weather in particular environments.

For example, in southern Germany there are all these big houses that look beautiful outside, but inside they use the mud in that particular region to cool the house in the summer and warm it up faster in the winter. There’s some very smart engineering that’s built into the folk knowledge there that is somehow not passed down through generations in the US.

I see part of it as a killing of US workforce innocence, meaning that when you industrialize everything, people think that building a house is somebody else's job, not theirs. They don’t learn how to construct the building themselves. For example, when my dad was in his twenties and thirties, he wanted to build a house for himself. He learned the process and how to construct each floor of the house. There is a lot of knowledge that goes into that. Here in the West, we're talking about home ownership, not home building. There’s no process from owning land to home building; it seems to be more like graduating from college, then instantly owning a home.

EDW: Totally. That's something that surprised me, too. Obviously, I’m not a scientist—I’m not even a social scientist. I’m in the humanities. What the book tries to do is really examine the narrative of air-conditioning and the way that it becomes a symbol for people “having arrived,” especially for the middle class. In the United States after World War II, it took on symbolic presence. If you could afford it, you'd “arrived” in the middle class in a certain way. It also became a racially symbolic tool. It was marketed by Carrier Corporation and others as a way for white men in the office to get ahead of the immigrant populations. They would often show drawings of ancient slave civilizations, Black men with palm fronds fanning an emperor, with lines suggesting that this is what happens when you don't have air-conditioning. They never used images from the pre–Civil War South—just from three generations before, in which the exact same thing was happening. There's this total willing ignorance to the fact that the continent held thriving civilizations of people for thousands of years before air-conditioning—it's just that they lived very, very differently.

So it's wrapped up in exactly what you were just saying: the idea of industrialization. It's also wrapped up in the history of eugenics. Some of the most prominent advocates of air-conditioning in the industry were eugenicists, and one was the president of the American Eugenics Society. They were explicit in their search for what they called the ideal weather, which was “the white man's weather.”

The question of what climate is the ideal climate for civilization is an old Western concept that goes all the way back to ancient Greece. In the twentieth century, it really intensified, especially with the rise of fascism and other eugenic cultures.

There was this idea that if you could control the climate, then you could control the kinds of people who would gravitate toward that climate, which is another way of saying eugenics. One of the things that I argue for now is that we're still in that mode. The impoverished parts of the world are receiving the brunt of the heat because they don't have access to air-conditioning infrastructure. At the same time, the air-conditioning infrastructure all over the world is expanding—not on the model of local culture but on the model that was forged by the US.

For instance, most cities in China are now getting air-conditioning at a rate that is unprecedented historically. They went from nearly nobody having air-conditioning to about 80–90% of domestic places having air-conditioning in about ten years. What's strange is that this model of comfort, which is very culturally specific to the United States, is just being imported into China, even though they have a very different way of understanding the self and the collective in the environment. I often hear policymakers talking about the crisis of expanding air-conditioning infrastructure in East Asia. Not only is that a very problematic way of framing it, but it strikes me as just completely wrong. The problem isn't the expanding cooling infrastructure. The problem is that the cooling infrastructure is expanding in the model that was forged in Western industrial society, which is particularly destructive.

I think they're doing that because it's cheaper and it's easier to do it faster. There's a cultural part of that too. A lot of China, for instance, is a consumer of a certain kind of Hollywood American lifestyle. For example, superhero movies are huge in China. As silly as it sounds, all of that is wrapped up in air-conditioning. Hollywood movies themselves were only made possible with air-conditioning. You cannot sit in a dark, enclosed space in the summer without air-conditioning. One of the things I'm trying to do in the book is to try and bring some of these historical narratives to light so that they don’t become invisible.

NT: Great, so let’s move on to the next question: What was your process of writing the book? What kind of resources and materials did you use, how long did it take you to collect this corpus and then translate these narratives into the arguments in your book?

EDW: It took me six years from the first conversation I had with Sam to the publication date. Even though the book’s out, I'm still being asked to write articles about it, so it's still continuing.

My research process is quite haphazard and might make some more traditional academics cringe, but it's my creative process.

I was trained as a creative writer. A lot of my creative process hinges on conversations with people, putting my body in a space in order to observe it directly, but then also just coming across things by chance.

When you work on something for that long, over a six-year period, things will come up that turn out to be related. I had my Scrivener project file open, and I happened to see Todd Haynes’s movie Safe with Julianne Moore. It seemed to me that it was very much related, and I spent the whole day researching it and thinking about it, but it wasn’t something I was seeking out. So many things like that happened. I was reading Cities of Salt in a class at The Graduate Center, and there was this beautiful passage about air-conditioning in it. I would say that more than half of the research came from things that I just happened to come across when I was doing other things. Air-conditioning was always on my mind and, sort of like a magpie, I just put it all together. A lot of the research was cultural—things that I just happened to be encountering like films, books, and poems.

Then there was the more conscious research, diving into debates about the social construction of comfort. I was looking at academic articles, papers, and books on the built environment, involving how comfort is constructed. I think I read all of the histories of air-conditioning that exist in English, which took me a really long time. They're also very complicated, technical, and, in some cases, very boring.

A huge part of the book for me was translating boring mechanical narratives into something that was engaging. It’s very important to me that this is not an academic book. If it’s not engaging, people aren’t going to read it. I think that's true for academia, too. In the name of objectivity or sound methodology, people will create something that’s very dull to read. I think that if you've done that, you haven’t succeeded. Lots of people would disagree with me, but that’s where I'm coming from. If it's a slog to read, there's something that's wrong there.

I did a lot of reading of current environmental philosophy, too, looking at new ways to think about the climate crisis. I don't think that the traditional narratives of “the Earth is in danger, we must save it” are helping us. The last thing was the in-person research, which involved talking with Sam, the man who’s profiled in the book, and going on the actual road trip. I made a lot of voice memos, then flushed it into a narrative. It’s multimodal. It’s part journalistic, part academic, part personal essay, and part historical. I’m really only trained officially in one of those, which is the personal essay, but I’ve learned how to do the others on the fly.

NT: I think that's the beauty of being an academic—you can just figure things out. We don't know everything in advance. So who is the main audience of this book? What I’ve gathered is that you’re aiming to write for a popular audience.

EDW: It's a tough question. I would say it’s written for a general audience, but what does that mean? When I was first thinking of the book, I was imagining a smaller literary audience. Sometimes I'm even confused about who we actually mean when we talk about audience. When you say the book is for this specific audience, how do you prove that somebody has not only bought the book or opened it or downloaded the file, but actually read it from page one to the last page? Can you prove that? I don't think that you can. I think it’s interesting how our imagined audience is always a fiction. For example, a book by Donna Haraway has an imagined audience, but does that imagined audience actually read that book, and who reads it that you wouldn’t expect? It's always imperfect in those ways.

The book was sold to Simon and Schuster, which was one of the big five at the time, and now one of the big four because they’re merging. It’s a major corporate publisher, which I wasn’t expecting. It didn't mean that I had to write for a corporate audience at all, although it did mean that I knew it was going to have a very wide readership across not just literary people, but people who didn't even think they were interested in climate change. I willingly did a lot of revisions from the original manuscript I’d first turned in because I was very conscious of somebody who might not know a lot about climate change encountering this book. So I wasn't writing to people who'd be hostile to climate change, but I was writing to people who might be interested in the history of air-conditioning but also not very radical. It was a challenge for me to take what I think of as my radical politics and try to patiently explain it to somebody who might disagree and might still disagree afterward, but that's a careful line to walk.

In a microcosm, I had that experience replicated a few weeks ago when I was asked by the Wall Street Journal to write an op-ed. I agreed because I thought it was a great opportunity to talk to a conservative media. I spent so many hours working on this very short, 1,200 word op-ed with a lot of feedback from editors. I was really happy with the way it came out. I was essentially arguing for the s-word without using the s-word, by which I mean “socialism.” Everyone that I sent it to—my editor, publicist, even a conservative editor—said it looked great. So we sent it to the Wall Street Journal, and they rejected it.

NT: They invited you to write it and then they rejected you?

EDW: Yeah. That was a great lesson in having an imagined audience and thinking, “Oh, this is going to be provocative for them, but also not going to compromise any of my political values.” At the end of the day, they chose not to publish it. It's interesting how power works in those publishing gateways. I think it’s safe to say that the book is for a general audience, meaning that it's widely available through a major distributor.

I was also very conscious about not having it be a book that was apocalyptic. I think there's too much of that out there, and I also don't think it's a very effective strategy. I think that unless people are already deep into the climate world, they shut down. I know a lot of people who have bought climate books that are apocalyptic, have read maybe thirty pages, and then put them down without picking them back up. Again, that goes back to that audience question: even if someone who bought the book seems to be the target audience, if they don’t read it, then they’re not an audience. I was very conscious of being realistic about what's at stake and about the violence, but also making it something that is both a pleasurable experience and also an experience that would not shame people or lead people into a spiral of guilt. I think that just makes it about them and wouldn’t actually get them to question the things that I was trying to get them to question.

NT: Right. So now let's step back a little bit. My personal journey into this interview started when I stumbled upon this concept of blue humanities and environmental humanities. I didn’t know what they meant, and your book seems like an entry into these fields. Can you tell me a little bit about these different concepts and fields, and how your book fits in with them and engages with other literature and scholars in these fields?

EDW: Yeah, in the very traditional sense, neither my book nor a lot of my work resonates with the blue humanities, despite this being a key word for the Mellon Seminar. I personally have little working knowledge of the big names in the blue humanities, but I would not say that I’m very strong in that. Blue humanities, sometimes called water humanities or ocean humanities, can have a large range. It can be water literature that has nothing to do with ecological crises, such as literature that appreciates the beauty of nature. On the other end, it can be a book like Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold, which won the Pulitzer a few years ago. It’s about how fracking in western Pennsylvania has poisoned the water, and it’s a beautiful work of literary nonfiction. There's a whole range between more traditional nature writing and environmental justice literature. Also blue humanities is necessarily interdisciplinary, so it can take into account things like philosophy, history, literature, creative writing, and the arts.

The funny thing is that I believe both blue humanities and environmental humanities are gross misnomers. I say that because the best examples of them are not just the humanities. They're interdisciplinary with social sciences and especially the natural sciences. I’m getting more and more confused as to why they're called the environmental humanities and the blue humanities, because often they’re in close conversation with biology, chemistry, and atmospheric chemistry.

For my own book, which I definitely think of as an example of environmental humanities, I did a lot of research in the realms of chemistry and atmospheric chemistry, which I didn’t know anything about before. It was really tough just reading scientific papers. It would take a whole day to just read a two-page paper and understand what it was actually saying. That's really where my passions all collide, which is this belief that the sciences can be communicated in a better way. Not just more engaging, but also more carefully worded, avoiding things like gender discrimination. The way that certain scientists frame an ecological problem often ignores the political context. That seems problematic to me because it’s part of the material reality we live in, but is often seen as a scientific no-no. You don't include capitalism in your description of pollution in the atmosphere.

What we as interdisciplinary academics need to push for is the need for the natural sciences, which are so obviously important, to work more closely with the humanities and social sciences. Any time you're rendering something in language, it's not objective. We have to be more conscious about talking about how our world is at least partly shaped by language. That's where a lot of my head is academically, in wanting to have those conversations. That’s what the environmental humanities means to me—something that’s truly interdisciplinary outside of humanities. In a way, I think that the climate crisis and ecological crisis are a partial result of the separation of the disciplines. You have one conversation going on in philosophy and literature, and you have another conversation going on in biology and geology. Their separation is the problem.

NT: Super, thank you. What was your favorite moment while conducting this research and while writing this book?

EDW: There's a part in the book where I tried to define comfort. I think my favorite moment was a very long stretch of writing and research where I was really trying to nail down that slippery term. I tried to understand to what extent comfort based on temperature is socially constructed. It was a time when everything I was reading for school, historical materialism approaches, cultural studies approaches, and also my own experience came together to try and construct this argument that our comfort levels are at least partially constructed and, because of that, we can also change them. The argument is very hopeful to me.

People get locked into this logic of “if technology can't save us from living the same way that we are without destroying the planet, then we must all be headed toward doom.” The other part of that is that we can actually change the way we live without suffering. It's way less sexy to think about that, because people don't want to think about living within their means, but actually that could be more desirable. One of the things that I found really fun to think about was what if, instead of environmentalism being about martyrdom or selflessness, it was actually just about making our world more pleasurable for everyone? What if activism was a form of pleasure? I think the best activism is when people fight because they want to. It’s not to say that these people don’t have to fight, but there are plenty of people faced with the exact same dangers who aren't activists. There's a reason why they do that, and it's because the community that they find in it is pleasurable—the sense of making the world a better place is pleasurable. All of these things are forms of pleasure, and we often don't talk about them like that. We think of them as people sacrificing their lives to save others, but I think that's bullshit. I think it's not some kind of heroic altruism. It's people understanding that their lives are connected to others’ lives and, when they help others, they're actually helping themselves. That's actually a form of ethical selfishness that I think that environmentalism can learn from. I don't think we all have to be moral warriors. Environmentalism gets trapped in that, because then you get a lot of people pretending to be better than everyone else by recycling, and they look stuck up.

NT: Cycling recycling, right?

EDW: Totally.

NT: So whose work, books, or articles have been influential in this particular book, or in your work in general?

EDW: A couple come to mind. This one is a dated answer, but William Cronon has an article called “The Trouble with Wilderness. or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In it, he talks about how the typical Western idea of wilderness is a social construction. That has obvious parallels to the argument that I’m trying to make about comfort. I still teach that essay. I think it's brilliant, and what he was trying to do inspired me to think about it this way.

Elizabeth Shove and Heather Chappells were also influential. In the past twenty years, they have been writing both together and separately on this idea of comfort. They’ve really done the research of what makes somebody in the built environment more comfortable, where that comfort is coming from, what temperatures are comfortable, and how it’s variable. They're at the forefront of this cultural construction of the environment. When I encountered their work and started reading a lot of it, that was hugely influential.

I was majorly influenced by Rachel Carson, too. She’s the go-to environmental literature person, and I had heard about her for years and years. I finally just sat down and read a bunch of books by her. Her writing is just incredible. Her book Silent Spring is such a great example of how literature, science, argument, and a form of activism can come together to create something that has had an impact.

NT: As a graduate student and having already published a book, what is your advice for other graduate students who also want to publish a book either during their PhD career or immediately after? It sounds like a huge task to me.

EDW: Yeah, I wouldn't recommend doing both. I wouldn't recommend doing what I did. I was hoping to finish this book before I got into grad school, and then I ended up totally rewriting it because of grad school, which I'm very thankful for. I would say that, in terms of actually completing a PhD or book or anything else like that, it's all about finding time every day to work just a little bit, even for just an hour. That habit of writing is so important. During a huge portion of this, I was just reading. I was taking minimal notes, not really writing, and that actually was time lost for me. People have different processes, but I have to write while I'm reading.

It was particularly difficult because the book was really different from what I’m doing in academia. I felt like I had to compartmentalize, which is not something that I would recommend. I think the best work in academia is highly collaborative in this way where it's difficult to create the book that I did. There was a lot of collaboration in this book, but in a really different way. Most of it was just me in my apartment writing for hours every day, which is not what is seen as collaborative for a lot of academia, so those things are sort of at odds with each other. I do think it's difficult to make a book with somebody else that actually works. There's lots of reasons for that. People have done it and, as soon as I say that, I expect that people are going to come forward with exceptions, but these are exceptions to the rule.

NT: So last question: What’s next for you? What can we look forward to in your work?

EDW: I’m getting really interested in things that fall under the heading of “queer ecology,” which includes everything from the history of certain sexualities seen as natural, to public sex, to what's deemed public and private, to cruising and public parks, to narratives of how nature is used to augment masculinity because of a fear of femininity. I'm interested in the ways that particularly people in the US construct nature, which are always in response to a fear of queerness or femininity. There's a lot that's already been written about this, but I'm curious and kind of thinking about how some of those notions still persist.

One of the things that I just learned, which was surprising to me, is that the National Park system and the city and state park systems in the United States were a direct response to the fear of homosexuality spreading in cities. The cities were seen to cause people to be gay, so the solution for them was to create parks where people can go to “be manly.” The joke on everyone is that there's a lot of historical evidence that homosexuality was not a city phenomena. To give one example, in the nineteenth century, loggers in the Pacific Northwest, who were all men, were apparently having lots of sex with each other. I find this absolutely fascinating because we still have these dichotomies of “queer people are in cities,” and “it's more dangerous in rural areas for queer people.” This sometimes is true, but I'm interested in pulling those distinctions apart and understanding how the narrative image of the woods and queerness intersect.

NT: So interesting. Thank you so much! This is so awesome.

EDW: It was so great to talk with you Nga!

NT: I learned so much. I’m definitely going to read your book and recommend it for our book club next academic year. I want everybody to read the book and learn about this very, very important work. It’s so topical. I'm hoping that the Wall Street op-ed is going to be published somewhere, because it should be published.

EDW: Thanks!


Eric Dean Wilson

Teaching Fellow
Eric Dean Wilson is the author of After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort. His essays, poems, and criticism have appeared in Time, Esquire, the Baffler, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Tin House, among other p...

Nga Than

Digital Publics Fellow
Nga Than is a PhD student in sociology at City University of New York – The Graduate Center. Her research interests are in social media, computational social science, international migration, and sociology. As a mixed-methods scholar, she has conduct...