Jamey Smith,  “Open the Windows And Let Summer In”
in My Turn
August 3, 2003

If you're like me, you can go for days without ever breaking a sweat or even taking a breath of fresh air.

EACH YEAR, AS SPRING ROLLS into summer, I close every open window and crank up the air conditioner. Even if it's not yet hot outside, I want that AC humming. This year my tussle with the mini-blinds was interrupted by a thought: exactly when did we become a nation of shut-ins?

When I moved into my partner's 1950s era house four years ago, I discovered that all but a couple of the windows had been painted shut, thus rendering them useless in letting in anything but light. Many of our friends live in a similar setting, and several commute to a work environment that is just as sealed off from the natural world.

Each morning, they hop into their air-conditioned cars and drive to their air conditioned offices without breathing so much as a breath of fresh air. If they work in a building that was put up in the last 30 years or so, they can forget about opening a window.

Is this hermetic existence a bad thing? Not necessarily. There's no denying that air conditioning has enabled millions of people like me to make comfortable homes in regions once hospitable only to snakes and tumbleweeds. Willis Carrier's 1902 invention has been a blessing for the weak, the infirm and people who just don't like to sweat. Even my cat seems to prefer a sunbeam on the rug to a patch of the real thing outside.

Still, I find I'm nostalgic for a time that I never knew. Were my parents better off without air conditioning? The incredulous look on their faces at the mere suggestion says no, but I can't help but wonder if I'm missing out.

My work often takes me to libraries of local colleges, and the feeling you get when gazing down on the quad through an open window just isn't there when you're sitting in the airtight boxes that typify contemporary campus architecture. just as the Internet has deprived younger generations of the sensory pleasure of reading musty old books, air conditioners have deprived us of a certain sense of community. That is not to say I long to eavesdrop on my neighbors' conversations or overhear any private moments. But it seems we're lacking a camaraderie that existed in the days when folks of every socioeconomic stripe left the windows open or sat out on their screened porch, and in the process got to know each other a little better.

We no longer experience the momentary awareness of mortality that comes with the wail of an ambulance. We don't hear the windborne roar from the neighborhood high-school stadium that tells us the home team is ahead, or even the clatter of the diesel engine on the next block that lets us know we have about four minutes to haul the garbage to the curb.

Unfortunately, the loss of a way of life is the least of our worries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, levels of indoor air pollution-from sources including everyday products like cleaning supplies and air fresheners-are often two to five times higher than outdoor levels and can cause serious health problems like asthma. One major contributing factor? Lack of proper ventilation. In a nation that uses one sixth of its electricity for air conditioning, and in which most people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, some of us may be cooling ourselves sick.

It used to be that we could look to Europeans for inspiration. After all, they mostly went without air conditioning, and not, it seemed, because window units looked tacky jutting up against Old World stonework. No, it appeared that our Eurocousins knew something we had forgotten: to let the breeze in is to welcome life itself.

In the last several weeks a major heat wave has hit the Continent, and now even Europeans are succumbing to temptation. In Italy, citizens have so taxed dwindling electricity supplies with air conditioners and fans that the national power grid ordered power cuts for the first time in 20 years. Here in the United States, where we face a depleted supply of natural gas, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has warned that overuse of air conditioners this summer will only drive up the cost of heating our homes next winter.

And so I issue a challenge to my fellow citizens. Let us forgo the almighty AC-certainly in the spring and fall, but also on those glorious, cool summer evenings and declare our semi-independence from a luxury that most of the world manages to do without. We'll save some energy, we'll air out the house and who knows? We may even get to know our neighbors.