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Granni Sunshine
Painting by Ola Schary. “It’s a copy of a postcard my grandmother painted for me when I was a child. She was a great lover of fresh air, a gentle and beautiful soul.”

Krista's interview with Bill McKibben inspired me to write this, so I thought it would be fitting to post it on this blog.

Last spring, the Obamas planted a White House vegetable garden. This year, why not follow up by cutting the air conditioning and opening the windows? They might also set a temperature range for the White House within which neither artificial heating nor cooling is used — recognizing that for much of the spring and fall what nature provides simply cannot be improved.

I'm no fan of indoor refrigeration even in summer. I realize I'm in the minority. Nevertheless, year-round climate control is surely not what most people want. During these glorious weeks, I cannot believe the office and retail workers who crowd every outdoor café and park bench at lunchtime appreciate returning to their airtight posts. I cannot believe the guests of most major hotels prefer stale recycled air over an April breeze. I cannot believe the bedridden sick and elderly prefer the drone of forced air to the calls of nesting birds. Novelist Henry Miller called the United States the "air-conditioned nightmare." He had a point.

The ubiquity of windows that do not open may cause some not to notice what they are missing. Sealed spaces divide, they alienate, they blind us to what is happening beyond our threshold. They rob us of the goose bumps you feel as the sun sets at the end of a balmy day, of the sounds of crickets and children, of the smell of freshly mown grass, honeysuckle, earth. A different kind of comfort emerges when we tune in rather than anesthetizing ourselves to our given reality, and with this comfort comes a different kind of compassion for ourselves and our surroundings.

In the end, of course, this isn’t only about us. Americans make up 4% of the world’s population and we produce a quarter of its carbon dioxide pollution. I don’t know where you draw the line between personal comfort and responsibility, but treating our air 12 months a year, 24/7 is on the wrong side of it. This isn’t comfort, it’s gratuitous waste.

Who stands to lose from an open-window revolution? The multibillion dollar HVAC industry. I’m okay with that.

It’s been a long winter — let the sun shine in.


Shari MotroMs. Motro teaches law at the University of Richmond in Virginia. This essay was first published in The Wall Street Journal on April 10, 2010 and reprinted with permission of the author.

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7 Comments

As I've grown older (I'm in my early 40s), I've come to really treasure having the windows open and not having the heat or cooling turned on. Autumn, then spring, are definitely my favorite times of year; all the joys of nature without the extremes.

But I couldn't live without AC. When it's 93 degrees outside and the humidity is over 80%, even with the windows open, a house can become an oven. Apartment living makes it worse, as many apartments don't have windows in walls that allow for cross breezes. And unless I'm playing a game or exercising, I don't particularly enjoy sweating profusely. :-) August in the American Midwest - not to mention the South - pretty much demands AC if you're going to be functional.

My body reacts quite negatively to the stress that AC and recycled air puts on my body. Such a drastic change in temperature several times a day, I often become sick from it. Even in the tropics (95-100), I personally, am more comfortable in the shade with open windows (or walls) and a fan, than in a boxed in room with the AC on and there is no shock to the system when I 'go outside'. Of course it takes awhile to become acclimatized to a warm climate but this will never happen living with AC. I am thankful that my windows here in the South are not painted shut although I do wish they were insulated better. Thank you for sharing this piece.

"But I couldn't live without AC. When it's 93 degrees outside and the humidity is over 80%."

The thing is, you could live. People believing that they really couldn't live without AC or many of the other "conveniences" that really aren't that convenient (consider how many extra hours you have to work to pay the electric bill, and all of the other 'costs' on a global scale to living this way). I'm not trying to pick on you Michael, it breaks my heart to hear people say things like "I couldn't loose my job, my kids would starve." Give yourself some credit people, we humans are resilient being, we can overcome really great challenges. We can problem solve, we can do amazing things, especially in the case of survival. If you live in fear that your 'living' is dependant on something like AC or a specific job, maybe you really could use some more fresh air, and some inspiration that might come from living a little uncomfortably for a bit.

With respect, b.

I loved your essay. After a five day stay in a hospital, I came home to a wonderful husband who had washed all the clothes and hung them outside to dry...talk about a healing moment...there isn't anything more refreshing than sun dried laundry! Refreshing!

Has the sun baked your brain? A lot of people stand to lose from an "open-window revolution." I've read that half a century ago, less than a third of Americans lived in the South; now it's more than half. The South is productive and economically viable, and that is not because of lawyers; it's because of air conditioning.

Not to mention the people who die from the heat every summer!

All those office workers sitting outside are taking a break from work--not working in the sun. It's April 13 and 88 degrees in Memphis, with high pollen and high humidity. I am thankful to be able to turn on my a/c, stay cool, think clearly and breathe easier (and not worry about someone coming in a window tonight).

If you don't like a/c turn yours off. While you're at it, turn off your computer, lights, fridge, coffeemaker, washer, security system, radio... Are you ok with that?

Brett, perhaps you could do some problem-solving and figure out how to cool buildings using less energy. That would truly be inspiring.

your grandmother's pictured caught my heart, and then your words resonated with my own feelings--we always have our windows open and no drapes to speak of, so light and skies are there to please the spirit. just cotton voile ion the first floor and i do adjust the blinds when backlit at night upstairs. mornings we open front and back doors to let fresh air breeze thru-even when cold, just for a few minutes.
when walking in our neghborhoods i always marvel that people are hidden cavelike in their homes, even in the safest of neighborhoods. i watercolor-i would love to see more of your granddmother's work! it's like a sunny infant of van gogh. i could go on but the sunshine today is calling me...out to plant my annuals and veggies.

This is an interesting subject for me because I have always loved fresh air. When I lived in New England, even in winter, I would have the bedroom window opened a little so I could have cool air. When I moved to Florida 16 years ago because I wanted to be warm, I was startled at how cold restaurants, movie theatres, etc. were kept. Unless I wore a sweater, I almost froze! Despite my advanced age (60 at the time!), I insisted on buying a two story home so I could open my windows during the cooler winter months, particularly at night for sleeping, without concerns for security. I was cautioned that when I was old, I wouldn't want stairs. My response: maybe with the extra exercies of stairs I would last longer! I've been astonished at how most people here in Florida live all year in closed up houses with air conditioning going all the time. You never see people in my neighborhood outdoors; you never see children playing outdoors. I moved to Florida so I could be outdoors more than in New England in the winter and yet I see so many people here who have lost all contact with the outside world around them. It seems strange to me. I must add that I don't have allergies or breathing problems which some people seem to have. At this moment, I am staying in my son's small home in Panama. The windows and doors are all open, the birds are whistling and singing, as people walk by their voices are heard, children call to one another. I enjoy the sound of life around me. I have even learned to tune out the dog barking and the rooster crowing, or, at least, it's just part of the background. My son is a surfer and a snowboarder. He is a great lover of the outdoors. I have always been a person who preferred doing almost anything as long as it's outdoors. Here in Panama, while I use the a/c at night for sleeping, I sweat during out tropical days and it seems to be doing me no harm. All the Panamanians seem not to perspire even while working hard, and there is no body odor with anyone. I am told that this is because they are acclimated to these tropical temperatures, and that if I went without a/c for six months I would be acclimated too. I do use fans in the rooms when I am in them, shutting it off when I'm not. Because of the heat, I find I will take an afternoon siesta, if I'm lying down reading; otherwise I just keep going. And we're not talking just a little perspiration here, but rivers of sweat! My skin is great, and I've lost 5 pounds because of it. I've come to believe that the more we lose touch with the outside world, the more we lose touch with ourselves.

Hurrah, Ms. Motro! Your writing was a breath of fresh air. April has always been exquisite and delicate, even though a little unpredictable here in Michigan. Spring and fall are perfect for open windows here and even much of the summer in a well ventilated home. You make points both practical and aesthetic. The natural world is a daily gift that some reject and in doing so, lose large parts of who they are.

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