After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort
(Simon & Schuster, 2021)
This “ambitious [and] delightful” (New York Times) work of literary nonfiction interweaves the science and history of the powerful refrigerant (and dangerous greenhouse gas) Freon with a haunting meditation on how to live meaningfully and morally in a rapidly heating world.
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The closest we’ve come to the destruction of all life on earth isn’t by nuclear holocaust. It’s not by bombing; it’s not by intention at all. It’s not by natural forces, either, not by plague, or famine, or earthquake, or volcano. No, 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 brought a sweater to the play in June, when we caught a movie 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. The thing that’s come closest to killing us is the chemical that first made these comforts possible.
Through our use of CFC refrigerants—also known by the brand name Freon—we unknowingly ripped a hole the size of the continental United States in the ozone layer of our atmosphere. We managed to end production of CFCs before the damage was irreversible, but a hole still appears over Antarctica every October, about as large, now, as it was when we first discovered it, an annual reminder of just how tenuous life is on this planet. 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.
In After Cooling, Eric Dean Wilson braids together air-conditioning history, climate science, road trips, and philosophy to tell the story of the birth, life, and afterlife of Freon, the refrigerant that ripped a hole larger than the continental United States in the ozone layer. As he traces the refrigerant’s life span from its invention in the 1920s—when it was hailed as a miracle of scientific progress—to efforts in the 1980s to ban the chemical (and the resulting political backlash), Wilson finds himself on a journey through the American heartland, trailing a man who buys up old tanks of Freon stockpiled in attics and basements to destroy what remains of the chemical before it can do further harm.
Wilson is at heart an essayist, looking far and wide to tease out what particular forces in American culture—in capitalism, in systemic racism, in our values—combined to lead us into the Freon crisis and then out. “Meticulously researched and engagingly written” (Amitav Ghosh), this “knockout debut” (New York Journal of Books) offers a rare glimpse of environmental hope, suggesting that maybe the vast and terrifying problem of global warming is not beyond our grasp to face.
Praise for After Cooling
“Ambitious. Powerful. Delightful.”
— Hope Jahren, The New York Times
“Meticulously researched and engagingly written, After Cooling is essential reading for the planetary crisis.”
— Amitav Ghosh, bestselling author of The Great Derangement
“After Cooling is a deeply discomforting book – and that’s the point. Eric Dean Wilson’s message, which could not be more timely, is that we need to rethink how we live and what we want.”
— Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Under a White Sky
“A spectacularly interesting read! After Cooling offers a lively history of air-conditioning and explores all the complexities of the fight over Freon.”
— Eula Biss, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of On Immunity
“A knockout debut by a gifted writer.”
— New York Journal of Books
“As entertaining as it is edifying. You’ll learn what put a ‘hole’ in the ozone layer, how the Rivoli movie theatre in New York inaugurated our present ice age, who in this country is still hoarding Freon, how air conditioning is exacerbating heat waves – and lots of other ecological horrors. This is a brilliantly researched book.”
— Edmund White, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of City Boy
“As much sociopolitical commentary as history of science… Wilson digs deeply into the linkages between Western desire for material comfort and racial oppression, including critiques of capitalism and profit-seeking industry.”
“Thoughtful, rigorous, and rich with lessons for our warming world.’”
— Robert Moor, bestselling author of On Trails
“A masterful piece of creative nonfiction… A must read.”
— The Raven Bookstore (Lawrence, Kansas)
Reviews & Press
UpFront (KPFA 94.1, Berkeley Radio)