I had no idea where we were headed, only the slightest of what we were after. I was driving. We were late. I was speeding through downtown Memphis in a borrowed minivan with no more than a vague idea of our meeting spot—some park along the Mississippi. (A park? I thought. In broad daylight? ) Sam, at ease in the seat next to me, seemed unaware of my growing discomfort. His thumbs lightly drummed the armrest.
I accelerated through a yellow light. I’d waited months to shadow him on one of his deals, and now I was sure I was about to botch it.
A phone rang—Sam’s cell. He put the call on speaker as I turned left along the river. It was the client. He was running a few minutes late. (My fingers loosened their grip on the wheel.) But not to worry, the client added, his tone less assuring than annoyed, as if he’d heard a note of doubt. He was bringing us the stuff.
Sam smiled. He held the phone in the air between us, and I opened my mouth to ask for directions—I’d made a half dozen U-turns look- ing for the spot—but stopped. The client sounded impatient. He was already doing us a favor by driving over from Arkansas. I didn’t want to ask too much.
At least, that was what I told myself at the time. To be honest, I was afraid that, in speaking even a word over the phone, I would reveal in the timbre of my voice what I was attempting to hide: that I wasn’t an air-conditioning mechanic or refrigerant reclaimer, that I wouldn’t know a tank of Freon from propane, that I didn’t work with my hands (unless you count typing, which you shouldn’t), that I was “too” feminine (a familiar fear for a queer like me who grew up in the US South, a fear that says as much about misogyny as homophobia), or that I preferred a book to a ball game. I was afraid that, in answering—in unconsciously revealing any one of these—I might blow the deal.
So I said nothing. Sam ended the call.
What did I know of refrigerant? Not much at the time. But I was learning.
I’d learned, for instance, that the rise of modern air-conditioning in the early twentieth century had depended, in part, on the invention of a chemical: the refrigerant commonly known as Freon. I knew that Freon—the go-to for any kind of mechanical cooling—had reigned for fifty years until, in the 1980s, scientists found that it destroyed the ozone layer, after which its production was banned. I knew, too, that Freon, when released into the atmosphere, acts as a highly potent greenhouse gas—far more potent than carbon dioxide. This double power to destroy our climate makes Freon, in Sam’s words, “pound for pound the worst stuff on the face of the planet.” Good thing, then, that no one makes it anymore. And yet, thanks to Sam, I also knew that despite that fact, there was still a hell of a lot of Freon left in the United States.
At a red light, I looked over at Sam, who’d snapped into business mode. He’d pulled a stack of forms from a black briefcase, and, balanced on his knee, his phone lay open to an email. His head swiveled sharply from phone to page, phone to page, as he scribbled something on the top form, using the length of the briefcase to brace himself as I took the car roughly over railroad tracks. He was silent—unusual for Sam—focused on whatever it was he was doing.
At last, I found what I hoped was the park—not so much “park” as “parking lot”—overlooking the Mississippi. It was still early morning, the lot empty. I pulled in and shut off the car. Sam and I sat in silence. The engine ticked.
Modern refrigerant—that is, the gas in fridges, freezers, air conditioners, and anything else that cools mechanically—has come to us in waves. The first arrived in the 1930s with the development of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), better known as the Freons (after their DuPont trademark), a family of industrial chemicals each with a boiling point below room temperature, a property that makes it possible to augment the cooling power that comes from evaporating a liquid. Confined within the coils of a fridge or air conditioner, the refrigerant is compressed into a liquid that cycles through a series of circuits. A sudden ease in pressure within the coils causes the refrigerant to absorb the heat around it and vaporize (boil), which lowers the temperature of the surrounding air. Thus, cooling.
A closely related set of refrigerants, the hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), were developed then, too, but they’re not as stable or lucrative. Though HCFCs worked in much the same way, they weren’t an improvement on the cooling power of CFCs. HCFCs served mainly to supplement niche needs in small air conditioners after World War II. CFCs continued to dominate the market until the 1980s, when scientists proved that, after escaping into the air, these refrigerant gases endure for decades. Their presence in the upper atmosphere, they found, was causing the chemical breakdown of the ozone layer, which protects us from the worst of the sun’s radiation. In 1987, when the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer set an end to production of CFCs, some HCFCs (primarily HCFC-22) replaced them temporarily. (HCFCs also deplete the ozone layer, though much less so.) The ban invited a second wave of refrigerants, the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Although they have an ozone-depleting potential of zero, HFCs are highly potent greenhouse gases that, like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, absorb infrared radiation from the sun and the earth and block heat from escaping into outer space. We should remember that the problem isn’t greenhouse gases per se, since their intricate dance—the exchange of energy—stabilizes the planetary climate. The problem is the overproduction of greenhouse gases due to industrial processes, which disrupt the balanced choreography that gives us stability. In fact, all three fluorinated refrigerants—CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs—tend to have extremely high global warming potentials—that is, they’re really good at absorbing and emitting infrared radiation over long spans of time without being absorbed by the oceans or forests, as carbon dioxide is. CFC-12 can trap 10,200 times as much heat as an equivalent mass of carbon dioxide. Other refrigerants have global warming potentials as high as 12,400 and 13,900 times that of CO2. So while the number of refrigerant molecules in the atmosphere is far fewer than those of other greenhouse gases, their destructive force, molecule for molecule, is far greater.
Although the production of CFCs is banned, the use of them isn’t. Whether reclaimed from old systems or taken from stockpiles, existing CFCs are legally bought and sold on the secondary market. Despite the fact that HFCs are now cheaper, some demand for Freon persists, particularly in rural areas, where car collectors refill classic models with vintage refrigerant or farmers opt to buy the old stuff rather than retro- fit a tractor for the new. Some people claim that Freon actually works better. It probably does, though one would have to consider only the scale of the individual. (For whom, I wonder, does it “work better”?) Some have hoarded CFCs since the ban, waiting to find a use for the stuff or make some money off it. Others have scavenged abandoned buildings, hoping to find industrial chillers containing refrigerant they can reclaim and sell. The refrigerant still circulates—first through the hands of buyers and then, inevitably, through the open air.
I’ve come to believe that, paradoxically, studying cooling can help us understand global heating. The ongoing climate emergency is impossible to comprehend as a whole, a slow destruction so broad and big that it resists intimacy. No one person can see the totality of what drives the chaos and what the chaos drives except through abstraction. Its causes and effects are stretched across time and space. But as this necessary abstraction becomes habit, we can train ourselves to ignore the concrete forces that confront us, a loss of attention that is its own form of violence—that is, narrative violence. The most insulated of us can fool ourselves into not thinking about global warming for a while. But soon it manifests itself in the unseasonable temperature, in the intensity of a hurricane, in the sustainable business model, in the promise of a political campaign, in the invitation from an activist neighbor, in the disruption of a supply chain, in the price of a cotton T-shirt, in the wording of a headline, in the persistence of a sleepless night—or in the gentle sloshing of the refrigerant in our air conditioners. And when it appears so certainly and suddenly, it can arrive as a paralyzing shock.
I’d found myself falling into this habitual abstracting myself, a quiet voice convincing me that the consequences of global warming didn’t constantly pass through my body in some way, until some object or person or event would come crashing into my attention. If I were going to stop this brutal cycle of inattention and attention, of carelessness and terror, I needed to become more intimate with climate violence. I needed to understand that I didn’t have to search so far to find it.
This was why I was there with Sam, whose job it was to find and purchase Freon. A few years earlier, I’d gone to the Chicago Blues Festival with Sam, whom I’ve known since college. That afternoon, as we stood at the back of one of the concert lawns, I realized that even though we’d known each other for almost a decade, I didn’t know what he did for a living. We talked mostly politics or music, since Sam was an avid drummer in a band called Funky Hot Grits, after the Rufus Thomas song. As we vibed to the sound of whatever band was playing, I ventured a few questions about his work. By the time a light rain came, neither of us was listening to the band anymore. We took shelter in Sam’s office, just a few blocks away on Michigan Avenue. There, he told me about his relationship with Freon.
He was working for a small green energy business that sought to destroy pollution in the form of old refrigerant. He and his team tracked down used or stockpiled Freon (specifically, CFC-12), bought it on the secondary market, and saw that it was destroyed in an energy-efficient manner. Their destruction of Freon generated carbon offset credits through California’s emissions trading program. The team sold the credits on the carbon market and turned a profit. In turn, California businesses bought the credits, which allow them to pollute more than their state-regulated limit.
Sam was trawling the corners of the country to reclaim, combine, and destroy as much of the stuff as he could. He was in the business of destruction, but the destruction of refrigerant was an attempt to slow the global destruction wrought, in part, by the refrigerant itself. To add to his intimacy with the problem, Sam’s clients were often people who perpetuated the myths that global warming wasn’t happening or that industrial processes played little part in its happening.
A year and many recorded conversations later, Sam insisted that I see the business of destruction for myself. After a trip to visit my family in Memphis, I met up with Sam and his wife, Rebecca, also an old college friend. The three of us would spend the next day driving from Tennessee down to New Orleans, making as many pickups as we could. “There’s an awful lot of Freon down there,” he said, in a tone that was, perhaps, enthusiastic or cautious or both. I couldn’t tell.
Just how much Freon is still around? More than there should be. It’s hard to give an exact number, but there’s enough so that, in several years of scouting, Sam never glimpsed the end of the country’s supply, a curious fact for a substance the US hasn’t manufactured since 1995. If the owners of a tank of Freon don’t use or sell it, they probably can’t throw it away either. Few dumps accept fluorinated gases. Most don’t have the means to destroy them. Unwilling to waste a perfectly good chemical but unsure what else to do with them, many owners keep the tanks.
These airtight containers come in varying sizes—from 12-ounce spray cans to half-ton vats—piled in the backyards of crafty reclaimers, stacked in the basements of handymen recently deceased, or lining the back shelves of machine shops. When stored this way, in a metal container with the lid on tight, the compressed refrigerant should remain there indefinitely. The cooling coils of an air conditioner are supposed to be a closed system, too, but, really, they’re not. The system leaks. Once it’s charged into a system—the air conditioner of a car, the cooling coils of a vending machine, a pre-ban tractor—the gas escapes slowly over time, which is why it needs continual replacing. In order to prevent this escape, refrigerant can be reclaimed from a machine—that is, sucked back into an airtight container, a kind of real-world ghostbusting.
Of course, even in an airtight tank, the continued existence of Freon ensures the continued possibility of its future use and so its escape. So-called closed systems are only temporarily so. Once CFCs escape, they wander into the stratosphere, where they inflict chaos on the planet’s delicate life support systems. Thus the importance of destroying the refrigerant.
After a few minutes of waiting, a black Chevy pickup pulled in next to us. I watched the driver zip up his navy fleece and pull down his maroon cap so that the white hog nearly covered his eyes.
Here was the client, no doubt: a white man in his mid-forties, in red, white, and blue—a Razorbacks fan.
Sam grabbed his briefcase, and we both swung out of the van to greet him. Before I’d even made it around to the other side, I heard the truck door creak, and Razorback, in a kind of Sports Authority boom, shouted at us, “Y’all work for the government or something?” He wasn’t so much asking as accusing.
It seemed like a joke. He looked and sounded exactly like a radical leftist’s paranoid vision of a rural conservative paranoiac. It was interesting, Sam had warned me earlier, in a nearly clinical tone, how some of his clients were suspicious of him at first. Still, Razorback’s aggression caught me off guard. There was no hello. I decided not to introduce myself.
Sam, however, opened into easy laughter. “No,” he said, “I work for a company. We just buy a bunch of this Freon.”
Razorback told him there was R-12—that is, Refrigerant-12, a generic name for CFC-12, the particular kind of Freon Sam was hunting—all over the mid-South. He’d seen it online. Sam knew this already but pretended not to.
With a quick click, Sam unclasped the briefcase. Inside was a digital scale, which he laid on the asphalt between the cars while Razorback retrieved the white tank of CFC-12, compressed into a liquid, from the back of his truck. Razorback handed me the tank—heavier than I would have thought for a refrigerant, but then again, what did I know of refrigerant?—and I placed it on the scale.
“Oh, shit,” said Razorback, as the climbing numbers came to a stop. It didn’t weigh as much as he’d said over the phone, and Sam was paying by the pound. Razorback crossed his arms and tipped his hat forward so that, facing the river, the early light from the sun cast a shadow over his eyes.
“I think your scale’s wrong,” he said, bluffing, and insisted it was ten pounds off.
Sam chuckled. He announced his weight—he was a handsome short and stocky—and stepped onto the scale himself. In order to read the numbers, he lowered his head, bald not from age (he was thirty-something) but from meticulous shaving. His hands hovered at the sides of his jeans as he waited for the numbers to slow.
As the day unfolded, I would come to suspect that Sam could pass, in the right frayed flannel and greased jeans, with the right stance and spoken drawl, the right blend of masculine and friendly, for a typical American mechanic—whatever that might mean—unlike me (thin, in slim pants, and a little too curious). Sam carefully curated a neutrality his clients were more likely to trust.
Sam’s prediction matched the scale’s. “It’s a pretty accurate scale,” he said, keeping it casual. “We calibrate it.”
The two stood in silence, staring at the scale for a very long moment. I thought maybe we’d reached the end of this transaction.
In 2017, an environmental nonprofit gathered a team of experts to define the one hundred most effective solutions for addressing climate change. More than two hundred researchers compiled data and crunched numbers for the list, focusing on existing solutions rather than new or untested ideas. The results were published as Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming—an ambitious title but one probably deserved. The list was the first of its kind—a large-scale aggregation of every known worthwhile solution supported by enormous peer-reviewed evidence communicated in clear terms.
I was shocked and frustrated at first to discover that such a list didn’t exist already. What had we been doing all this time, since 1988, when the climatologist James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, first testified to the US Senate that global warming was real, that deforestation and the increased burning of fossil fuels were driving it, and that it was intensifying extreme weather events like summer heat waves, threatening the safety of all?
And yet the late appearance of such a coordinated list seemed fitting: it spoke to the limited responses from so many of us in the United States—pessimism, paralysis, and panic—to a problem caused largely by the country’s most powerful citizens, past and present. The rarity of such a research effort mirrors not only the absence of federal action but also the reluctance of so many of us to discuss climate change freely—at least, for longer than a grimace. Recently, we’ve opened old wounds in fresh language across new media: Income inequality. Systemic racism. Misogyny. Capitalist violence. Regardless of whether these wounds will or can be healed, the mere presence of language around them—and the intensity of our dialogue—suggests that we’ve acknowledged these problems and that we’re working toward ways to address them. The same can hardly be said of climate change. When I introduce the topic of global warming, I see the otherwise glossy eyes of friends and colleagues suddenly matte. They hesitate to take a breath. It’s as if they’re waiting for the topic to pass on its own, like weather.
For each solution defined, Drawdown listed the total weight of global warming gases the project was expected either to remove or prevent from 2020 to 2050. Then the solutions were ranked, according to those amounts.
The top solution? “Refrigerant Management.”
And top by far. According to Drawdown, sequestering or destroying CFC, HCFC, and HFC refrigerants could prevent 89.74 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions over the next thirty years. That’s roughly equal to all the water in 36 million Olympic-size swimming pools, or to the weight of about 989.4 million blue whales, the heaviest creatures on Earth. For scale, total global energy-related CO2 emissions for 2019 were about 33 gigatons. Though the solution of refrigerant management is only one of many, its magnitude is as hopeful as it is daunting: addressing this one sector could radically lower global emissions. The top solution must have raised a few eyebrows. In an interview, Drawdown’s editor in chief, Katharine Wilkinson, even acknowledged this oddity. “The official number one, I’m sorry to say, isn’t very sexy,” she said. “It’s focused on refrigerant chemicals.” We’re used to hearing about wind turbines, solar energy, food waste, and afforestation—all categories within the top ten—but “Refrigerant Management” crowned a list with far more compelling ideas like “Educating Girls,” “Electric Vehicles,” “Indigenous Peoples’ Land Management,” and “Bioplastic.” “Refrigerant Management” must also appear strangely impersonal to the average person. Who is to manage this refrigerant? Not I! It’s not a solution, in other words, in which we feel we have much agency.
In many ways, that’s correct. The industry and the Montreal Protocol, not the consumer, decide what refrigerants we can and cannot use. The problem of cooling, like most ecological problems, is systemic. Switching refrigerants leaves us with the problem that air-conditioning consumes energy—and lots of it. Rather than focusing on individual consumers, refrigerant management as a strategy requires regulation at a federal and international level. It must hold corporations and elected officials responsible.
But I think there’s more to the idea of refrigerant management than this. It’s odd to me how unfamiliar refrigerants are to so many of us despite the fact that we’re surrounded by them. We can hardly escape them if we’re living in the cities of North America, Europe, Japan, or Australia. And refrigerants are beginning to invade much of the rest of the world as well, particularly China, India, and Indonesia, some of the most populated places on Earth. The world we’ve built over the last century has been both directly and indirectly driven by the possibilities now available through artificial cooling. We’ve launched nearly ungraspable amounts of refrigerant into the stratosphere without thinking, and still, we hardly notice them. They remain literally invisible to us, hidden as they are within pipes and coils, unlike the car exhaust that we can see and smell and that we think about far more often. Even when released, refrigerants are vaporous, intangible; ghosts in the machine that cool our cars, our rooms, our fridges. They underwrite a certain standard of comfort—a peculiar idea of the good life—that we rarely think about critically until that standard breaks down. Then the room becomes sweltering. The popsicles melt. The meat rots.
I’m unsettled by this unfamiliarity, by this absence of thought toward “the worst stuff on the face of the planet.” If it’s really that bad—and considering its effect on climate, it is—I would think we should reflect on it often, consider what its rise and fall reveal to us, and understand how it’s altered our world. I wonder, too, how much of the current climate crisis is fueled by our inability to see artificial cooling—not to mention all the other processes that have changed the climate—as anything other than inevitable techno-progress, despite the growing evidence to the contrary. With each new wave of chemicals, we’ve shifted refrigerants without shifting anything about our infrastructure, habits, or thoughts. It’s less the refrigerant itself than what the refrigerant encourages that disturbs me: an unthinking acceptance of comfort has pushed the world closer toward discomfort. Wealthier Americans have bought short-term comfort at the expense of the long-term comfort of the rest of the world, at the expense of the species, at the expense of other-than-human life.
That we’re turning toward more ecologically responsible refrigerants or more energy-efficient technologies hardly comforts me. Our destructive unthinking persists in the pervasiveness of cooling, in the intensity of energy we continue to consume. We still fail to consider the stakes of our personal comfort, how and why we arrived here, and how our thinking might lead us into further danger. I was there with Sam, in part, because I was wrestling with these ideas and with the illusions of safety and independence that follow from a fixed idea of comfort, for which the tanks of refrigerant had become shorthand. What is comfort, and who can achieve it? How does the history of refrigerant parallel the rise of comfort in modern America? What follows after we assume comfort as a right? Is air-conditioning a privilege or a growing necessity? How has the pursuit of comfort in this country shaped the world, and how, if at all, might our attentiveness to refrigerant help us face the climate crisis? For that matter, what if we did begin to notice air-conditioning?
Then what? Awareness of a problem doesn’t guarantee the problem’s solution. And yet it’s unlikely that the problem will be solved without proper attention to it.
Before talking with Sam, I’d wondered whether cap and trade could help us out of our climate madness, but the more we talked, the more skeptical I grew. Why profit from the planet’s pollution? I became even more critical the more I read. At its best, cap and trade has rarely proven to be effective at addressing the root causes of environmental destruction. At its worst, it actively encourages emissions, since generating pollution generates money and permits the biggest corporations to continue with business as usual.
And still I wondered: On his regular excursions to buy used Freon from strangers, what did Sam see?
Back on the bluff, in that uncomfortable silence held so long between Sam and Razorback, each staring at the scale’s stable digits that claimed a weight, I thought we’d reached a stalemate. Razorback looked as though he might pack up the tank and take off, but Sam stood there smiling—a real smile, not forced. He was happy to be doing business with Razorback. Then, gently, Razorback looked Sam in the face, shrugged, and said, “Okay, I’m gonna trust you.”
He took off his cap and set it higher on his head so we could see his face properly. He had a few days’ growth of beard but no more than my own. His shoulders slumped, and he shoved his hands into the pockets of his loose jeans. Now he looked less like a middle-aged man than an awkward kid. It was hardly the fight I’d expected. Something had made him trust, and I suspect it had to do with Sam.
Sam made him an offer for the actual weight. Razorback agreed. Sam handed him a wad of cash. He didn’t bother to count it and turned toward the truck. “Hold on, bud!” he shouted, and I noticed only then a toddler crying in the back seat. Razorback pulled open the cab door and tried to straighten the boy’s seat belt. “Hold on, Papa’s getting us out of here, away from these crazy people”—he looked directly at me—“from Ohio, or wherever.”
Though I’ve lived “wherever” for a while, I spent my first eighteen years in Memphis and must have lost whatever mannerisms—accent? look? sensibility?—register as authentic down here. Sam, on the other hand, really was from Ohio—Shaker Heights. He laughed along with Razorback, as if in on the joke of his own insanity, and handed him a clipboard with a form affirming that the CFC-12 was “from the United States, not from China or Mexico.” He said the last part with particular expressiveness, and Razorback nodded. This is a regulation enforced by California’s cap-and-trade program, but some other, unspoken under- standing passed between the men—or seemed to, though I suspect they may have been thinking past each other.
While scribbling onto the form, Razorback told us how he’d come into the CFC-12 in the first place. His wife’s uncle had worked on airplanes his whole life until he retired, after which he’d plunged into a full-time hobby of fixing up old American cars. Every vehicle he’d ever owned sat in the backyard. A sixties Chevy, in great condition, and a fifties classic with a tree growing right through it. Razorback was working on one himself, a Mustang. Not for him but for his wife. He winced. He hated Fords. He was a Chevy guy.
“Camaros?” Sam asked.
“Nah,” he said, “Corvettes.” They smiled at each other, old friends. Sam told Razorback we were driving down to New Orleans for the New Year. Razorback told us he loved that place, and he started to dig into what sounded like a raunchy story but was interrupted by crying, the boy in the back of his Chevy.
You see, he told us, unprompted and without effort, this wasn’t his son but his daughter’s son. He was taking care of him because she’d become a heroin addict. He’d bailed her out of jail, and then with her mother, Razorback’s first wife, she’d moved to a remote island village in Canada accessible only by boat or small plane. She’d still managed to find it up there, he said, meaning heroin. It had destroyed her life. “If they want it, they’ll find it.”
He stopped for a moment. “It doesn’t matter where you go,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s everywhere, you can’t escape it.”
Surprised by his intimacy, I thought, for a second, that he meant Freon.
Neither of us—Sam nor I—said anything. The boy continued to cry. Razorback looked off toward the river just as an old-fashioned steamboat was passing, silently.
Razorback sighed, signed, and signaled to Sam that he’d finished the form.
“I just don’t understand these kids,” he said. He’d worked his ass off for the next generation, for his daughter to have a good life, and it seemed, he said, for nothing. He looked tired. He’d driven an hour, maybe more, to sell a small tank of CFC-12 to a couple of strangers for cash.
Sam and he exchanged cards. Razorback refused a receipt twice. As Sam was packing up his scale, the familiar distance intruded. “So,” said Razorback, “ya’ll just buy this stuff up”—again, a declaration, not a question. He tossed out each of the seven syllables as if throwing food to a stray, wondering if it would turn, suddenly, to bite him.
During refrigerant deals, Sam avoids telling his whole story because he suspects that his politics will clash with his clients’. He nodded.
Razorback shook his head and abandoned the mistrust as quickly as he’d picked it back up. “Man, I need a job like this,” he said. His body shook with boyish restlessness, a kind of childlike hope. Whereas before, Sam’s reluctance to spread the whole story before him had seemed to make Razorback suspicious—wary that we were taking advantage of him—the reverse was now at work, Sam’s reserved remarks signaling something else, something opportunistic, like a legal loophole to exploit. I think he thought we were somehow cheating the federal government.
Razorback looked at me. “And what are you?” he asked.
I had no idea how to answer.
He clarified: “Just running him around Memphis?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to affect the drawl I’d lost since I’d moved away, years ago.
“Well,” he said. “Ain’t that a bitch.”
The closest we’ve come to the destruction of all life on Earth is not by nuclear holocaust. It’s not by bombing. It’s not by deliberate explosion, not by intention at all. It’s not by natural forces, either, not by plague, not by famine, not by earthquake, eruption, or erosion—certainly not by meteorite, which long ago ended the nonavian dinosaurs.
The closest we’ve come to destruction is far more mundane. It’s when we wanted to feel a bit cooler on a hot day. It’s when we sprayed our arms so that they wouldn’t smell, when we sprayed our hair so that it wouldn’t move, when we drove our cars and cranked the air instead of rolling down the windows so that we wouldn’t sweat, so that we wouldn’t muss the hair so carefully sprayed. It’s when we stuffed a box with Styrofoam to pad the glass inside. It’s when we bought foam cups for a picnic so that we could trash them after. It’s when we took a sweater to the play in June, when we caught a movie to escape the heat in July, when we stopped by the supermarket in August to buy ice cream from a freezer only slightly colder than the air in the aisle.
Through our use of CFC refrigerants, which first made each of these personal comforts possible for Americans, we unknowingly engaged in the cataclysmic destruction of all life on Earth. The rampant release of these chemicals throughout the twentieth century blew a hole larger than North America in the ozone layer, without which life, human or otherwise, would not be possible. We managed to end the production of CFCs before the damage was irreversible—a fairly simple solution for such a grave problem—but a hole still appears over Antarctica every October, larger than it was when we first discovered it, an annual reminder of just how tenuous life on this planet is. It reminds us that what we put into the world has lasting effects on others, whether we know it or intend it or acknowledge it or not. CFCs invited all manner of comforts into this world, and at the same time, their proliferation nearly played us out.
I don’t mean to pit world crises against one another in some kind of competition for the worst. I mean only to draw attention to the curious way that the severity of a calamity so recently encountered can be forgotten beyond the three-word phrase “the ozone crisis.” From where I’m standing in history, the near destruction was far less troubling than the swift return to business as usual without structural change—a collective forgetting of why and how we had entered the crisis in the first place, a forgetting to such an intense degree that today we often discuss climate change as a problem without precedent. Has humanity, we ask, ever faced such a planetary crisis? Though some historians will balk at my answer, I think that, yes, it has. While the ozone crisis was far simpler than the complexities of climate change, the two planetary emergencies are not unrelated. I’m not thinking specifically of their physical effects but of their effects on ourselves, on our sense of collectivity on this planet. Isn’t that what we mean when we ask whether “humanity” has ever faced such a crisis?
And yet that question, framed in those terms, is “hideously loaded” (as James Baldwin might have put it). Kathryn Yusoff, a professor of “inhuman geography” at Queen Mary University of London, brilliantly points out that this question makes sense only from a certain perspective. The sudden awareness of global destruction comes “in the wake of histories in which [environmental] harms have been knowingly exported to Black and brown communities under the rubric of civilization, progress, modernization, and capitalism.” Pressing further, Yusoff notes that while the climate emergency “might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, . . . imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence.” For the Leni Lenape peoples, on whose historic land I’m now writing, the world ended centuries ago, with forced migrations and the splintering of populations, even as they continue to live in this century, survivors of apocalypse many times over. In other words, “unprecedented” for whom?
Still, compared to the ozone hole, climate change is a far more intricate and complex problem not because it’s entirely separate but because it’s broader, a generalization that includes stratospheric ozone depletion, which is simply the latest manifestation of the ongoing pro- cess of Western capitalist industrial violence. Other forms of environmental devastation (toxic spills, deforestations, urban sprawls) tend to be local—or “local-ish,” since no ecosystem is enclosed but rather spills beyond the bounds we imagine around it. With its tendency to float unfettered through the atmosphere we all share, the gaseous nature of refrigerant lets us consider the porousness of relations, of our world.
Even so, the shorter history of refrigerant offers us a rare moment to witness the story of Americans facing the possibility of their own end, an existential crisis uncommon for a wide swath of the US public—even the most powerful, who tend to be insulated from such things. Refrigerant punctures the narrative we Americans tell ourselves, the myth of the closed system—that we can live isolated from others, that we can promise a world of safety, that our actions in pursuit of a certain idea of comfort have no effect outside our borders, and that we are not so vulnerable to each other or reliant on one another.
The bad news is that while the ozone crisis presented the United States with an opportunity to confront its limits, the country failed to recognize its mortality. Here’s the good news: that other global environmental crisis, the one that nearly ended all life on Earth, was averted. We’re still here. Which means that we still have an opportunity to confront those limits once again.
It takes up to a hundred years for the most prevalent CFCs to break down in the atmosphere—a very long time just beyond the timescale of most of our lives but not long enough to be inconceivable, like the life span of plastic. Though the problem is solved, the effects are with us still. The environmental historian J. R. McNeill has named this period when CFCs remain in the earth’s stratosphere the “ultraviolet century,” the years spanning 1970 to 2070, from the start of ozone depletion to its projected end. Though these dates aren’t exact, of course, I nonetheless find the category useful for reminding us what happened and what we now face. The art of history is best that way, when it organizes the chaos of the past in order to illuminate the present so that we can act for the future.
The world has never been as safe as US political leaders have tried to claim. Our belief that we can live in a world that is totally comfortable has, in many ways, made the world less comfortable and more dangerous for those both inside and outside US borders. I’m neither able nor qualified to offer a set of concrete actions to solve our current climate crisis. Rather, I want, as Hannah Arendt wrote in her introduction to The Human Condition, “to think what we are doing.” For a culture hellbent on defining the pursuit of all manner of comfort as a worthy end in itself, what the American ecologist Aldo Leopold called “the modern dogma . . . [of ] comfort at any cost,” to think what we are doing seems like a radical first step.
As I watched Razorback peel out of the parking lot, I hauled our new tank of CFC-12 into the back of the minivan. Sam checked the cap on the tank. It was loose. He exhaled slowly—a deliberation—flicking his fingers around to tighten the cap “so that it won’t leak,” he said, verbally checking something off a list. He shut the trunk.
I dropped Sam off at his hotel where Rebecca was waiting. Early the next morning, I’d return in a taxi with the Freon, and together we’d drive a (more fuel-efficient) rental south, making a few more pickups in Mississippi and Louisiana. We’d reach New Orleans by sunset. Later, Sam would ship the tanks off to be destroyed.
We parted for the day. With Freon in tow, I drove slowly east toward the suburbs, afraid of what might happen if the police stopped me, as if the trunk were loaded with 14 kilos not of refrigerant but of cocaine. (And I would soon find out how apt that comparison was.) I drove through the industrial sprawl of this city I’d grown up in, a city I once thought impossible to endure without air-conditioning. I drove past the 135 acres of Carrier Air Conditioning Company’s manufacturing plant, which, in 1989, had become so toxic that the EPA made it a Superfund site. In making its AC units, Carrier released a toxin into the city’s groundwater called trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen. As recently as 2019, Carrier requested to deliberately dump its toxic wastewater into the Memphis Sand aquifer, the source of the city’s pristine drinking water—a proposal that, thankfully, the Shelby County Health Department denied.
The next morning, I called a taxi to the rent-a-car. I wrapped the rusted white tank of CFC-12 in a black garbage bag and, when the taxi came, climbed into the passenger side and held the refrigerant between my knees. Each time we hit a bump, the bag slipped, revealing part of the tank. The taxi driver glanced over, once at the bag, then at me, until, finally, as we took the ramp up to the interstate and waited to join the stream of giant SUVs hurtling past, she pointed at my feet and asked repeatedly—and with increasing concern, as if I hadn’t answered each time—“But what is that?”
I wondered myself.
Adapted from AFTER COOLING: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson. Copyright © 2021 by Eric Dean Wilson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Eric Dean Wilson
Eric Dean Wilson’s essays, poems, and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Tin House; a graduate of The New School’s creative writing MFA program, Wilson is currently pursuing a PhD at CUNY, where his work focuses on American studies, environmental humanities, and the Black radical tradition.
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