THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE: Sweating Out a European Identity

By Eric frey

Published August 04, 2006, issue of August 04, 2006.
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Earlier this summer, a group of Israeli academics attended a conference here in Vienna. Half of their visit was spent complaining about the heat.

To be fair, the air conditioning system in the newly built conference hall was, in fact, unable to cope with the 90-degree temperatures outside. But given that generations of Viennese had travelled to Israel, and before that Palestine, to lament the unbearable Middle Eastern climate, it was an ironic twist of history indeed.

Like most of the industrialized world, Israel has already discovered the joys of air conditioning, making life bearable even during the most sweltering heat. Unless you are forced to go outside, average temperatures for most Tel Aviv residents are around 70 degrees, similar to those in Miami Beach, Los Angeles, Sao Paolo or Shanghai.

In western, northern and central Europe, however, air conditioned buildings are still a rarity. Most private homes, offices and even subway cars go without any artificial cooling. Even buildings that do feature air conditioning systems hardly ever run them at full power. Sweating, in short, has become the tie that binds Europeans.

This was fine so long as the average European summer offered only a few rare days with temperatures in the 90s. In recent years, however, European summers have been getting hotter and hotter.

After a record-breaking heat wave in 2003 in which nearly 15,000 elderly in France died in their homes, the continent is suffering through another sweltering heat wave this summer. Although Europe is located in one of the world’s temperate zones, the lack of air conditioning has turned the continent’s cities into some of the hottest places to live.

So why are Europeans sweating away when the technology and resources for cooling are widely available?

Sometimes circumstances are at fault. On the London tube lines, the narrow tunnels do not allow enough air circulation for an air conditioning system in the passenger cars. On some days, temperatures in the cars rise to 115 degrees. Only the drivers, thanks to union pressure, can stay cool. Many old buildings, and Europe is full of them, do not lend themselves to the type of pipes needed for good air conditioning units. What’s more, during regular summers their thick walls offer slightly better insulation from the occasional heat than the modern glass towers found in younger cities.

However, forgoing air conditioning is often the result of a conscious choice. With plenty of vacation time available, many people can escape to the beach or the mountains for part of the summer, reducing the number of sweat-soaked hours at the workplace. Most of France and Italy, as well as European Union headquarters in Brussels, close down for all of August. However, that is of little help if the heat wave hits the continent in July, as it did this year.

Europeans often complain about overdone air conditioning when they visit the United States. They are quick to complain of runny noses and stiff necks, and quite a large number say that they prefer to sweat.

The ailing, however, may be more psychological than physical. Air conditioning is widely seen as just another aberration of the American way of life, a symptom of a culture that is at odds with nature. Living without air conditioning is a way to resist the Americanization of the continent, a way to express a distinct European identity.

Furthermore, by stoically suffering the heat, Europeans can make their own small contribution to save the planet. This is the continent where the fight against global warning is taken quite seriously, where power plant and factory operators have to pay for the right to emit carbon dioxide.

If the summer heat is truly a consequence of climate change, then it would be simply reckless to protect oneself with a technology that makes the problem worse by boosting electricity consumption and thus causing more fossil fuels to be burnt. Many Europeans, it is worth remembering, abhor nuclear power.

The whole idea may be masochistic, but at least it leaves people with a clean conscience.

Still, as average temperatures rise and more and more summer nights are turning tropical, the European resistance front is crumbling. The loss of both workplace productivity and quality of life caused by the ever-hotter summers is staggering.

So it is perhaps not so surprising that sales of private air conditioning units are at record highs, and utility companies are reporting a noted increase in electricity consumption on hot days.

A few years from now, Paris, Berlin and Vienna will probably be just as air conditioned as New York and Chicago. One can expect that many Europeans will lament the Americanization of their continent and mourn the loss of their distinct lifestyle — but I wouldn’t sweat it.

Eric Frey, managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard, wrote this article in a 92-degree, non-air conditioned office.

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