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  March/April 2006
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A Real Refuge
Our Visit to Babyfoot Lake
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Quiz: Survive This!
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's March 1, 2006, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail mr.green@sierraclub.org.

Still Steamed About Cool Air

Hey Mr. Green,
I have long wanted to respond to your comments about the American addiction to air-conditioning but decided to let my anger subside first. While huge corporate buildings cool their numerous floors, I'm supposed to sit at home sweating it out?

We know that green vegetation cools our cities, yet most skyscrapers have black rooftops, making things even hotter. I feel like we're attacking an anthill one ant at a time. Yes, encourage people to turn out the lights, close vents in rooms that aren't being used, and turn off the AC when they go out, but please don't make us don sack cloths while our corporate friends wear silk! --Mary in Silver Springs, Maryland

Hey Mary,
The ziggurats of international capital (and the managers of these edifices) certainly shouldn't be absolved. There just wasn't room in my column for the sort of delightful invective you've unleashed. Most buildings would be perfectly comfortable if we let the inside temperature rise to 78 degrees or so, and businesses as well as households would then save billions of dollars while conserving vast amounts of energy.

Of course, cutting air-conditioning is but one part of a whole ensemble of commonsense measures that could save up to half the energy now wasted. Just imagine how much we could cut consumption if the Bush administration deployed as much cash and propaganda for energy conservation as it does for energy war. We seem to have lost the all-American spirit of thrift and intrepid tinkering that inspired the likes of Ben Franklin to invent his stove (never mind that it didn't achieve all that much efficiency until improved by Rittenhouse).

So maybe we need to try a different strategy. Perhaps we should chill all executive suites by one degree for every $100,000 of overcompensation CEOs rake in and see if the subzero temperatures convince them to turn down the AC. They'd soon be clamoring to share snug jail cells or minimum-security dorms with our favorite corporate criminals. Imagine how they'd fight for the privilege of bunking right next to Kenneth Lay. Meanwhile, those who work in such buildings can, one hopes, lobby for a more reasonable climate.

I'm planning to apply for a grant to study the effects of air-conditioning on the tavern industry. Overcooling seems to reach the heights of absurdity in U.S. bars, for cultural reasons that our research team intends to investigate. We will also attempt to quantify the increased operating costs imposed by AC and explore the possible health hazards to customers smothered by overwhelming heat when they emerge from having a cold one.

It's clear that the "need" for air-conditioning is largely a culturally conditioned phenomenon. (Call it the Big Mindless Chill.) I'm old enough to have grown up in the Midwest when there were no air conditioners. We had a dozen or so days each summer when people would bitch about the weather, itself a nearly lost art form. Then we would proceed to find various pleasurable ways of beating the heat, like taking siestas, making Kool-Aid, and lounging under shade trees.

At night, we relished the excuse to lie out on the lawn while peering into the depths of the galaxy or discussing the meaning of the universe--or at least the location of constellations and the distance to an airplane blinking on the horizon. Watching meteors was a welcome part of the ritual too. Folks who had flat roofs could sleep on them; the really lucky ones had those old-fashioned sleeping porches. (There's little room for such amenities now that space is squandered on multi-car garages and other follies of modern domestic architecture.)

Then, thanks to the blessings of postwar consumerism, a few of the wealthier folks acquired air conditioners, around the same time they started snapping up TVs. More and more time was spent sitting inside, listening to a mechanical hum instead of meadowlarks by day and whip-poor-wills by night. (In the beginning was the Word. In the end was Television.) As the technology became more affordable, just about everybody acquired air-conditioning.

Then the only thing left to prove was that yours was better than the other guy's. Thus began the era of hyper-cooling, wherein a superfluous creature comfort morphed into something downright uncomfortable. Across the United States, there are millions of living rooms where you have to wear a sweater in the middle of a heat wave.

But there might be more to this than mere status-seeking. Many a dwelling that is overcooled in the summer becomes suffocatingly overheated in the winter. The warmer it gets outside, the colder we make it inside, and vice versa. Instead of getting used to the seasonal changes (an idea as quaint these days as the folk wisdom of letting the blood thin out in summer and thicken in winter), it's as if we're one-upping nature itself, cranking up the air conditioner or furnace just to show the weather that, by God, we're the ones in control.

As a culture, we seem to aspire to the fetal condition, the nirvana of mindless comfort. No wonder we are politically obsessed with the rights of the fetus, when fetuses are us in the land of zygotica. And yet, fiddling with the climate-control buttons in our living rooms, we delegate to others the rigors of real climate. Men and women in the desert, fighting for Dick Cheney's energy-industry cronies in 120-degree heat.

Drillers setting up rigs in the tundra, where it's 50 below, to suck up oil for more chilling or heating. Maybe this all has something to do with preparing us for space travel by eliminating the whims of nature to the greatest degree possible--one corporation has actually received more than 30,000 down payments, at $200,000 a pop, for space vacations--but what's the rush? Even if you don't believe in evolution, there's no need to hurry it along, as Yogi Berra might have said if he didn't actually say it.

Environmentally,
Mr. Green

Small Is Beautiful

Hey Mr. Green,
Your response to Becky in Minneapolis failed to address her actual concern about getting new plastic name badges at every meeting. We can't simply dismiss others' ideas because they don't seem as far-reaching as we think they should be. After all, every concern or suggestion can lead to another--perhaps one with a monumental impact we didn't even see before.

Yes, indeed, minimizing travel to and from meetings is valuable, but if there are other ways to save resources, we should pursue them as well. Some of the meetings and conferences I've attended had boxes labeled "badges" at each exit, so people could just drop them off when they left. They're usually grateful to not have to search for a trash can. It's an easy way to help the environment--even by just a bit. --Pat in Woodinville, Washington

Hey Pat,
Well, I can't argue with that. I'm actually saving the last badge holder I was privileged to wear, from the Sierra Summit held last September. Now if only somebody would invite me to another conference, I could regain the moral high ground by proudly wearing that badge as a heraldic insignia for simple living.

Want Mr. Green to show up at your gathering and harp about the environment? Let me know and I'll do it--even if I have to drag my badge-bearing, overbearing self out of the deep ecological footprint created by getting there.

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
 

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.


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