Personal Comfort, Planetary Costs

When an increasingly uncomfortable climate forces more of life indoors, who might be forced to bear the costs?

Consider the hot-yoga studio. Exercising in such a place seems as far as possible from the uncomfortable realities of a warming planet. And yet, the studio’s intense artificial heat, expanses of vinyl flooring, ever-present spandex, and PVC mats are all derived from the fossil fuels that accelerate climate change. Consider the office building, storefront, or shopping mall. Here too—in the rigorous air conditioning, the ever-present lights, the countless electronics—energy and materials are extracted from the planet, for the comfort of the few.

What if yoga studios and office buildings, heat lamps and air conditioners, were seen not as necessary amenities, but, instead, as identical in extractive character to an oil pipeline or fracking well? What price, then, would we be willing to pay for comfort? And when an increasingly uncomfortable climate forces more of life indoors, who might be forced to bear the costs?

Such questions, unfortunately, are not relevant only to those looking to feel guilty about their current lifestyle. The issue is that, if such questions are ignored, the planet will accelerate toward a future where comfort for some ends up trumping survival for all. To see the costs of comfort—to see how the world’s buildings, its gadgets, its practices, and even its thinking conceal a global system of extraction—is thus a necessary step for building a different future. Yet it is only a first step.

Three recent works examine our pursuit of comfort in light of this extractive violence at planetary scale. To begin, Daniel A. Barber’s Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning reveals how our modern expectations of indoor comfort are relatively new, a product of midcentury architectural practices that sought to adopt both nonmechanical and increasingly mechanical means of controlling interior climate. In structures like hotels, office complexes, and apartment buildings, expectations for comfort became increasingly removed from the particular climate at a building’s location. Such structures, then, acclimated us to a planetary sense of what interior space should feel like, a feeling that is only made possible by fossil fuels. In order to reorient society away from its comfort-at-all-costs mentality, Barber suggests designing against the design practices that conditioned our expectations for comfort in the first place.

Likewise, in Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy, Bob Johnson surveys key developments in 20th-century American energy culture, tracking the more subtle ways in which fossil fuels form the backgrounds and foregrounds of contemporary life. Focusing on what he deems “our erotic attachments to fossil energy,” Johnson suggests that “in the hot yoga studio, as in modernity’s many other material rituals, the body is acclimated” to the sensations provided by coal, oil, and natural gas. By offering techniques that lay bare our unconscious attachment to fossil energy’s modern comforts, Johnson prepares readers to adapt their most basic daily rituals to life on an increasingly hot planet.

However, as Martín Arboleda argues in Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism, it is simply not enough to feel guilty for desiring comfort. Reaching for the thermostat instead of an extra sweater may bring a sense of shame, but self-reproach contributes little to vibrant cultures of resistance located wherever workers resist extractive capitalism. Our central task, then, Arboleda suggests, is to build transnational networks of solidarity that are capable of connecting the low-wage office, the service industry, and other exploited workers to the communities of farmers, miners, and migrants forced to power the machinery of extraction in order to feed their families. Only this planetary-scale collective agent, Arboleda suggests, can offer a counterpart to comfort that is capable of disrupting the “planetary mine.”


Seeing Comfort’s Cost

Comfort, as we know, comes with planetary costs. The human and nonhuman lives lost during the long history of resource colonialism are incalculable. And yet, such losses are likely familiar to most climate-conscious energy consumers, even if we are only acutely aware of these losses during spectacular disasters that seize the world’s attention (such as the mine explosion that trapped 33 Chilean miners underground for two months in the fall of 2010). We may feel a pang of guilt during events such as these. Still, too often guilt directs our attention to the past, making the present appear as a fait accompli.

If the present feels comfortable, it is easy to look away from these uncomfortable facts. This is especially true when we are confronted with our continued failure to envision meaningful change.

Seeing and knowing the world, after all, is not the same as transforming it. This central tension—which humanists have grappled with since Marx’s challenge to change the world, rather than only know it—has led to a wave of scholarship attuned to the limitations of visibility and representation as a goal in itself.1

when an increasingly uncomfortable climate forces more of life indoors, who might be forced to bear the costs?

If journalism, documentary film, and other creative forms of expression have thus far failed to slow the warming of our planet, then what other modes of apprehending the world might be developed to put us on a different path? In other words, can an intellectual awareness of comfort’s costs become the starting point for building collective agency between the mine worker and the hot-yoga enthusiast?

The figure of the “planetary mine” provides one possible way of envisioning world-historical social change. Introduced by geographer Mazen Labban and expanded upon by Arboleda, the planetary mine suggests that we can only understand the total system of fossil-fueled capitalism when observed at a global scale. The planetary mine connects discrete locations, where resources are extracted, to the capitalist world system; it does so by incorporating the “logistical infrastructures, transoceanic corridors, networks of financial intermediation, and geographies of labor” that facilitate the international exchange of extracted resources and manufactured products.

This global exchange of resources is unified in its extractive character. And it is that unified exchange that provides us with the comforts we take for granted—individually, isolated in our homes—each day.


Modernity’s Facades

One way to reimagine comfort, writes Barber in Modern Architecture and Climate, is to see that, for decades, a worldwide construction project has been underway: the “fashioning of a planetary interior.” Constructing this interior required the mechanical conditioning of interior climates, through the formation of increasingly larger networks of “small blocks of air” that are “connected by systems, conditioned by fuel.”

At first, we might imagine this interior network of “small blocks of air” in something like a building’s HVAC system, with its noisy motor running outside and comforting air circulating through a maze of ducts. But the planetary interior does not end at a building’s front door. Instead, it extends from our homes and automobiles to offices, airports, and sports stadiums, complete with retractable roofs.

The planetary mine asks us to see extraction in terms of global supply chains. Similarly, the “planetary interior” sets our expectations for comfort: it does so by providing the consistent climate in the background of our lives, as we move from place to place throughout our day.


Swimming in the Anthropocene

By Steve Mentz

Barber considers the physical facade of a building as a “cultural technique” that materially and symbolically mediates between “the atmospheric system” and “the thermal interior.” A facade mediates, according to Barber, by adapting our lives to accommodate the weather on any given day. He extensively demonstrates how the facade originally led midcentury figures like Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, and Josep Lluís Sert to envision new ways of interacting with the climate.

Later, as Barber shows, such new thinking became secondary to the universal expectation of comfortable, climate-controlled thermal interiors. Over time, designing facades became another step in the process of calculating the most efficient way to maintain a universal standard of comfort.2

In light of this history of conditioning the planetary interior, Barber suggests we might find ways to redirect our collective attention away from comforts that accelerate our warming planet.3 Architecture provides one path for doing so. For example, in a single interior space, we can find ways to reset our expectations of comfort in light of planetary emergency. These spaces might even encourage the emergence of “new cultural desires.” If our planetary house is on fire, after all, it makes the most sense to assess the conditions in the rooms where we currently stand.


The Ambiance of Extractive Capitalism

We inhabit several rooms throughout the day, however. We try to tune out an awareness of how our carbon footprints change as we move between the various buildings and modes of transportation that carry us through the working day. Lacking the quiet of the climate-controlling facades that might have been—had modern architecture not placed so much importance on consistently comfortable temperatures—we spend our summers tuning out the constant metallic whir of air-conditioning motors. Objects like AC units lend a certain ambiance to modernity: a background noise reminding us of the comforts provided by fossil fuels.

In Mineral Rites, literary and cultural critic Bob Johnson provides a language with which to make sense of these complex, embodied, everyday experiences of extracted energy. Johnson’s “energy heuristic” sheds light on how we might register the different dimensions of these experiences: ambient energy is the habitus of light, heat, and AC; congealed energy is the physical presence of housing and infrastructure; polymerized energy refers to the textures of plastic; embodied energy provides food; and, finally, propulsive energy signifies mechanized work.

Being attuned to these ideas enables us to take stock of the carbon energy that surrounds us. And, taken together, these concepts provide critics with a new method of making sense of the many unconscious ways in which we experience the products of extractive capitalism.

These embodied experiences of carbon energy, Johnson suggests, condition our social attachments to carbon energy through habits and practices repeated daily. Yet our habits and practices, over time, deepen our dependency on extraction.

As a result, even if one were to make the planetary mine visible, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a future that does not depend on its continued existence. After considering all of this, comfort, for some, might be worth the cost.


Mediating the Mine

Consider, now, not the yoga studio or the air-conditioned building, but the smartphone. The smartphone is a product of global supply chains that move between mine sites, manufacturing hubs, and data centers that are ultimately untraceable. Yet listing the many conflict minerals that go into making a smartphone is a recipe for guilt, not planetary change.

Rather than as a product—even one for which we can feel guilt—sociologist Martín Arboleda suggests that we ought to consider the smartphone as a device that actively intensifies extraction. The networked complexity of production at a planetary scale has collapsed most useful distinctions between products that result from extraction, like the smartphone, and the literal machinery that mines our planet to make them.4

This planetary crisis, Arboleda suggests (drawing from political economy, geography, and world-systems theory, along with a “form-analysis Marxism” presently emerging from critical theory circles in Latin America), requires approaches designed to build a unifying political force. And such a force, he explains, must be fashioned “on the basis of total struggle against capital” (emphasis in original).

A collective experience of discomfort is nothing to fear when planetary survival is at stake.

Such a political response, for Arboleda, is the only option for addressing the crisis. Approaches grounded in how our experience of climate is socially conditioned—like those introduced by Barber and Johnson—fall short of accounting for historical contingency or class struggle. In other words, Barber and Johnson may help us see the extent to which extraction shapes daily life. But, according to Arboleda, they can only gesture toward collective subjectivities, which might emerge, with transformative potential, in the future.

To push beyond this limitation, Arboleda connects mines to the ports, logistics hubs, and other infrastructures that facilitate extraction as a system that is planetary in scale. Still, his primary focus is directed toward the resistant social movements in Latin America that make up his case studies.

Encompassing late capitalism in its totality, the planetary mine encourages us to think in terms of collectivities that are capable of reasserting humanity’s agency over global capital. However, the question of how to figure these kinds of new collectivities, for Arboleda, can ultimately only be answered through “total struggle.”

The first stage in this struggle, he concludes, is not theory or criticism. Instead, the first step is to recognize that the planetary mine’s force comes from maintaining “the fragmentation of class relations,” which pits “tenants, peasants, citizens, debtors, or students”—kept isolated from one another—against the unified force of the planetary mine.


Plants and Other Science Fictions

By Veronica Hollinger

Considered together, Barber’s, Johnson’s, and Arboleda’s books ask readers to witness the impacts, both good and bad, of planetary extraction in its full, networked complexity. Yet, as all three authors show, seeing this networked complexity does not change it. For this reason, these books encourage us to understand comfort as something we are conditioned to expect, rather than the result of choices we consciously make.

The challenge, then, is finding ways of inhabiting space that condition new attachments and experiences. We will all have to reacclimate our bodies to new ways of inhabiting space. And that might feel uncomfortable more often than not.

Still, a collective experience of discomfort is nothing to fear when planetary survival is at stake.


This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke. icon

  1. See, e.g., Jennifer Wenzel, The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature (Fordham University Press, 2019), pp. 12, 14; see also Imre Szeman and Jennifer Wenzel, “What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Extractivism?” Textual Practice (2021).
  2. The postwar “American Acceleration,” Barber notes, set these expectations of comfort around “a global condition of relative consistency of interior experience.”
  3. For Barber, the isolation afforded by particular interiors creates sites of possibility, where social conditioning can be contested alongside climate conditioning.
  4. This is why, according to Arboleda, too much of modern environmental criticism seeking to do political work is “politically counterproductive.” Such criticism “pits the workers and communities of ‘resource-rich’ countries against those of the manufacturing centers” when, in fact, the “new geography of late industrialization,” along with the “fourth machine age,” materially and symbolically shattered this distinction.
Featured-image photograph by Chromatograph / Unsplash