Many articles concerned with the energy crisis have addressed the role that air conditioning plays in adding to carbon emissions. Last summer, for example, Salon.com published “How Air Conditioning Remade Modern America” , describing how the technology disrupted cultural, economic and political life. In 1998, Arthur Miller wrote an essay in The New Yorker entitled “Before Air Conditioning” , which reminded (or taught) Americans of a time when the homed, not the homeless, slept in Central Park to escape their sweltering apartments. Elsewhere, air conditioning enabled places like Japan, Southern China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the American South to mimic and become integrated with the global economy of the industrialized North.
When Henry Miller (1891-1980) returned from France to America in 1939, he was quick to identify air conditioning as both a metaphor and a real cause of a lamentable degradation of life. His first writing upon his return, published as “The Air Conditioned Nightmare” in 1945, was based on his road trip across America in 1939.
Looking at this book from the 21st century, it is surprising to read his tirades against Americans’ submission to technology. We have come to think of the 1930s as an economically depressed time when industry regressed and people were forced back to agrarian self-reliance. You might think, “Technology? Gadget overload in the 1930s? How quaint.” The contemporary perception is that the reaction to the excesses of materialism didn’t become apparent until the 1960s when baby boomers rebelled against the affluence and suburban culture of the 1950s.
But in every crisis there is transformation, and Miller was able to notice the changes going on in spite of the Depression. In the same way that iPhones became an embedded item in our economy regardless of the crash of 2008, there were similar changes in the 1930s. Miller saw the new air conditioned factories and offices, and, showing little sympathy for white or blue collar workers, was aghast at the millions of people clamoring to be able to buy a car and drive to a job in glass towers and assembly lines, so eager to join the “dull, monotonous fabric of life.”
Henry Miller lived as an expatriate American writer in Paris in the 1930s where he earned notoriety for his books that would be banned in America for decades to come—“Tropic of Cancer,” “Black Spring” and “Tropic of Capricorn.” He returned reluctantly to his native New York as war broke out in Europe and did not have a nice re-acquaintance with his homeland. During his road trip, one that must have inspired Jack Kerouac to follow suit a few years later, he wrote of the grim American landscape he found in Depression-era America on the eve of world war. He saw only some hopeful signs for the future of humanity in a few exceptional individuals he encountered.
There is no cheering here for “the greatest generation” that would soon defeat fascist enemies on two fronts, although he did express some sympathy for the young people who would be called on to do the fighting.
Instead, Miller saw dictators and tyrants on all sides, declaring, “We have our own dictator, only he is hydra-headed.” (p. 18)
What is striking for the modern reader is to see how many passages of “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” resemble what now comes from the Occupy Movement, or books by Naomi Klein. Rejection of the post-war order is found here in a writer who saw it all coming before the war. Lately, his caustic regard for the world order seems to have been discovered anew by a generation that has connected with these older roots of the 2008 financial disaster.
There is another chilling irony in Miller’s choice of title because, although he had a premonition of something horrific emerging from the coming war, he couldn’t have been consciously aware that the invention of air conditioning was a prerequisite for making nuclear weapons. The sprawling nuclear fuel factories required tremendous amounts of electricity—equal to what was consumed by Manhattan at the time—to cool the machines that produced fissionable isotopes.
This energy input, this massive carbon footprint of a supposedly “carbon-free” source of electricity, remains as a part of the nuclear energy cycle (although some less energy-intensive processes have been developed). The cooling systems needed for nuclear fuel production even led to a well concealed exemption from the 1987 Montreal protocol limiting the emission of ozone-depleting gasses.  The gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky spewed ozone depleting, heat trapping gasses long after they were banned worldwide. 
Henry Miller didn’t specifically foresee the top-secret Manhattan Project that would soon be underway, but he might have been aware of headlines of the early 40’s (censorship on the topic began after 1942) reporting on the splitting of the uranium atom. For example, these headlines appeared in The New York Times before the Manhattan Project got underway:
- Vast Energy Freed by Uranium Atom; Split, It Produces 2 ‘Cannonballs,’ Each of 100,000,000 Electron Volts Hailed as Epoch Making, New Process, Announced at Columbia, Uses Only 1-30 Volt to Liberate Big Force. Jan. 31, 1939.
- Vision Earth Rocked by Isotope Blast; Scientists Say Bit of Uranium Could Wreck New York. April 30, 1939.
- New Key is Found to Atomic Energy; Actino-Uranium Is Credited With Power to A Mixture of Physics and Fantasy. March 17, 1940.
- Third Way to Split Atom Is Found By Halving Uranium and Thorium; Scientists at University of California Say Cleavage Creates Much Energy — Tokyo Men Also Report Uranium Fission. March 3, 1941.
- Research Institute is Seized in Denmark; Germans Are Expected to Work on New Secret Weapon. December 12, 1943.
(These headlines from a list prepared by students at Korean Minjok Leadership Academy)
Then there is this quote from an article in Scientific American in 1939 which, along with the headlines above, makes one wonder why people claimed to be so shocked and ignorant about nuclear energy when they got the news of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945:
These secondary neutrons constitute a fresh supply of ‘bullets’ to produce new fissions. Thus we are faced with a vicious circle, with one explosion setting off another, and energy being continuously and cumulatively released. It is probable that a sufficiently large mass of uranium would be explosive if its atoms once got well started dividing. As a matter of fact, the scientists are pretty nervous over the dangerous forces they are unleashing, and are hurriedly devising means to control them … A large concentration of isotope 235, subjected to neutron bombardment, might conceivably blow up all London or Paris. 
Miller wasn’t the first of Western civilization’s malcontents, but he seems to have had an uncanny intuition about the dreadful era of the nuclear arms race and the permanent-war economy that was taking shape over the horizon.
This article finishes with the following excerpts from “The Air Conditioned Nightmare:”:
A great change had come over America, no doubt about that. There were greater ones coming, I felt certain. We were only witnessing the prelude to something unimaginable. Everything was cock-eyed, and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons. Something disastrous was in store—everybody felt it. Yes, America had changed. The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism—I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that same veneer of fatuous optimism—only now decidedly cracked. (p.13)
A new world is not made simply by trying to forget the old. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values. Our world may have begun that way, but today it is caricatural. Our world is a world of things. It is made up of comforts and luxuries, or else the desire for them. What we dread most, in facing the impending debacle, is that we shall be obliged to give up our gew-gaws, our gadgets, all the little comforts which have made us so uncomfortable. There is nothing brave, chivalrous, heroic or magnanimous about our attitude. We are not peaceful souls; we are smug, timid, queasy and quaky. (p. 17)
We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred. This is the melting-pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment.
Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?
The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle. The goal of all our striving has long been forgotten. We no longer wish to succor the oppressed and homeless; there is no room in this great, empty land for those who, like our forefathers before us, now seek a place of refuge. Millions of men and women are, or were until very recently, on relief, condemned like guinea pigs to a life of forced idleness.
The world meanwhile looks to us with a desperation such as it has never known before. Where is the democratic spirit? Where are the leaders? As Democrats, Republicans, Fascists, Communists, we are all on one level. That is one of the reasons why we wage war so beautifully. We defend with our lives the petty principles that divide us. The common principle, which is the establishment of the empire of man on earth, we never lift a finger to defend. We are frightened of any urge which would lift us out of the muck.
We fight only for the status quo, our particular status quo. We battle with heads down and eyes closed. Actually, there never is a status quo, except in the minds of political imbeciles. All is flux. Those who are on the defensive are fighting phantoms. … What is the greatest treason? To question what it is one may be fighting for. (p. 21)
Man in revolt against his own cloying nature—that is real war. And that is a bloodless war which goes on forever, under the peaceful name of evolution. (p. 22)
There are experiments which are made with cunning and precision, because the outcome is divined beforehand. The scientist, for example, always sets himself soluble problems. But man’s experiment is not of this order. The answer to the grand experiment is in the heart. We inhabit a mental world, a labyrinth in whose dark recesses a monster waits to devour us. Thus far we have been moving in mythological dream sequence, finding no solutions because we are posing the wrong questions. We find only what we look for, and we are looking in the wrong place. (p. 22)
… the toiling masses of humanity look with watery eyes to this Paradise where the worker rides to work in his own car … they want the lethal comforts, conveniences, luxuries. And they follow in our footsteps—blindly, heedlessly, recklessly. (p. 33)
The worst is in the process of becoming. It is inside us now. Only we haven’t brought it forth. (p. 42)
We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth today is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything—except his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, today he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer.
Destruction now is deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. Tomorrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make that choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. (p. 175)
Why is it that in America the great works of art are all Nature’s doing? There were skyscrapers, to be sure, and dams and bridges and concrete highways. All utilitarian. Nowhere in America was there anything comparable to the cathedrals of Europe, the temples of Asia and Egypt – enduring monuments carved out of faith and love and passion. No exaltation, no fervor, no zeal—except to increase business, facilitate transportation, enlarge the domain of ruthless exploitation.
The result? A swiftly decaying people, almost a third of them pauperized, the more intelligent and affluent ones practicing race suicide, the underdogs becoming more and more unruly, more criminal-minded, more degenerate and degraded in every way.
The men of the future will look upon the relics of this age as we now look upon the artifacts of the Stone Age. We are mental dinosaurs. We lumber along heavy-footed, dull-witted, unimaginative amidst miracles to which we are impervious. All our inventions and discoveries lead to annihilation. (p. 228)
Though I became what is called an expatriate, I look upon the world not as a partisan of this country or that but as an inhabitant of the globe. That I happened to be born here is no reason why the American way of life should seem the best. That I chose to live in Paris is no reason why I should pay with my life for the errors of the French politicians. To be a victim of one’s own mistakes is bad enough, but to be a victim of the other fellow’s mistakes as well is too much. (p. 17)
The only artists [in America] who were not leading a dog’s life were the commercial artists; they had the beautiful homes, beautiful brushes, beautiful models. The others were living like ex-convicts. The impression was confirmed and deepened as I travelled along. America is no place for an artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability. A corn-fed hog enjoys a better life than a creative writer, painter or musician. (p. 16)
I was frequently reminded of the fact that I was an expatriate, often in an unpleasant way. The expatriate had come to be looked upon as an escapist. … Nobody thought of calling a man an escapist in the old days; it was the natural, proper, fitting thing to do, go to Europe, I mean. (p. 16)
I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans—the poets and the seers. Some other breed of man has won out. The world which is in the making fills me with dread. … It is a … false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal. (p. 24)
If it takes a calamity such as war to awaken and transform us, well and good, so be it. Let us see now if the unemployed will be put to work and the poor properly clothed, housed and fed; let us see if the rich will be stripped of their booty and made to endure the privations and sufferings of the ordinary citizen; let us see if all the workers of America, regardless of class, ability or usefulness, can be persuaded to accept a common wage; let us see if the people can voice their wishes in direct fashion, without the intercession, the distortion, and the bungling of politicians; let us see if we can create a real democracy in place of the fake one we have been finally roused to defend; let us see if we can be fair and just to our own kind, to say nothing of the enemy whom we shall doubtless conquer over. (p. 25)
Finally, some comments from an itinerant man at the Grand Canyon whom Miller affectionately described as a “desert rat.” This voice from seventy years ago is priceless as it sheds light on a loss that modern people are no longer aware of, and it speaks volumes about fear going hand in hand with reckless endangerment of the planet:
The automobile had done one good thing, he admitted, and that was to break up people’s clannishness. But on the other hand, it made people rootless. Everything was too easy—nobody wanted to fight and struggle anymore. Men were getting soft. Nothing could satisfy them anymore. Looking for thrills all the time. Something he couldn’t fathom—how they could be soft and cowardly yet not frightened of death. Long as it gave them a thrill, didn’t care what happened … He had seen lots of cars turn over in the desert, racing at … a hundred and ten miles an hour. (p. 222)
Passages above from:
Miller, Henry. “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” (New Directions Publishing, 1945).
 Henry Grabar, “How Air Conditioning Remade Modern America,” Salon, August 17, 2014.
 Arthur Miller, “Before Air Conditioning,” The New Yorker, June 22, 1998.
 Arjun Makhijani, Lois Chalmers, Brice Smith, “Uranium Enrichment: Just Plain Facts to Fuel an Informed Debate on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Power,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, October, 2004, http://ieer.org/resource/reports/uranium-enrichment/.
 Geoffrey Sea, “Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah,” Ecowatch, May 22, 2013. http://ecowatch.com/2013/05/22/countdown-to-nuclear-ruin-at-paducah/. This excellent series of articles tells the whole story of the political and environmental disaster created by the nuclear fuel facility in Paducah.
 Jean Harrington, “Splitting the Atom,” Scientific American, October 1939. http://blog.modernmechanix.com/splitting-the-atom/.
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