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Cold Comfort
Saletan On AC and global warming:

The hotter it gets, the more energy we burn. In 1981, only one in three American households with central air used it all summer long. By 1997, more than half did. Countries once cooled by outdoor air now cool themselves. In Britain, 75 percent of new cars have air conditioning. In Canada, energy consumption for residential cooling has doubled in 10 years, and half the homes now have central or window units. Kuujjuaq, an Eskimo village 1,000 miles north of Montreal, just bought 10 air conditioners. According to the mayor, it's been getting hot lately.

Instead of fixing the outdoors, we're trying to escape it. On every street in my neighborhood, people have torn down ordinary homes and put up giant air-conditioned boxes that extend as far as possible toward the property line. They've lost yards and windows, but that's the whole idea. Outdoor space is too hard to control, so we're replacing it with indoor space. From 1991 to 2005, the median lot size of single-family homes sold in the United States shrank by 9 percent, but the median indoor square footage increased by 18 percent. If you can't stand the heat, go hide in your kitchen.

Seven years ago, when my wife and I moved into our house, we built a garden and patio in the back yard. Now, overcome by heat and mosquitoes, we're thinking of replacing them with something a bit more climate-controlled. We still want to look at nature. We just don't want to feel it. And for better or worse, we'll probably succeed. Two months ago, we saw Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Walking out of the air-conditioned theater, we agonized over what we could do to fight global warming. The conversation ended when we realized that our most useful contribution would be to cancel the renovation. Wrapping ourselves in a climate-controlled bubble can't make global warming less true. But in the short run, it can make it a lot less inconvenient.

That's the problem in Washington today. Policymakers aren't facing global warming, because they aren't feeling it. They gave themselves air conditioning in the 1920s and '30s, long before the public got it. White House meetings and congressional hearings on climate change are doomed hours beforehand, when the thermostats are set. One minute, you're watching video of people sweltering in New Orleans. The next minute, you're watching senators dispute the significance of greenhouse gases. Don't ask whether these people are living on the same planet. In effect, they aren't.

When outdoor heat leaks into the Washington bubble, like crime into a white neighborhood, officials treat it as a faux pas. Three weeks ago, House Majority Leader John Boehner told reporters in a Capitol press gallery, "It'd be nice if they could get you a little more air conditioning up here." This week, President Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, assured White House correspondents that their briefing room would soon be renovated. "Gathering from the temperature in this room at this moment, I think everybody agrees that it's probably about time to have a new and updated air conditioning and heating system," he joked. But maybe the air conditioning system we need to fix is the one outdoors. And maybe we won't face that truth till it becomes more inconvenient.

How big a house do you really need? I live and work in a one-bedroom Craftsman bungalow with a sectioned off area where I have my small office (cut out of the living/dining room by a previous tenant) with a desk and two big bookshelves; one side, one behind, and a tall filing cabinet. My assistant sits just across at what is supposed to be my dining room table but is partially piled high with books and papers.

I could use a little more space -- so I could have a big dining room table devoted to actual dining, and room for books. At the moment, I'm storing the literary runoff on a bookshelf in my kitchen. Still, if I weren't a writer with a research bent and a druggie-like book habit, the small space I have woud be pretty much fine.

Even if I start making big bucks, I can't see living much differently. Is there something terribly wrong with me? Why do so many other people seem to neeeeed these vast, multi-thousand-foot homes?

Posted by aalkon at August 8, 2006 7:49 AM

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Comments

I've lived in plenty of studios without much problem. I have room for my bookshelves, desks, etc. I'd have liked a bigger place, but it is enough for me. However, different people have different wants and needs.

Don't make the projection of your wants and needs to other people. Some people like living in a rural area with peace and quiet (not me), some like the hustle and bustle of the city. Some people (like us) are fine in a cozy dwelling, some people need room to roam. That's the great thing about humanity, not just a diversity of beliefs, cultures and ideas, but the diversity of wants, dreams and needs.

Posted by: Mo at August 8, 2006 12:49 AM

But do you have air conditioning?

I not only don't, I'm forbidden from getting it on my own dime. And my place is hotter inside than the weather outside.

I'm all for conserving energy. But what I wouldn't give to be able to use just a li'l A/C during some of these dog days (and nights)

Posted by: LYT at August 8, 2006 3:11 AM

You have no kids. If you had kids, you'd subscribe to every fear marketers can shove down your throat, move out to the suburbs and raise them in a suffocating manner, because it's the only way.

Maybe not you. Enough people.

Posted by: Smrak at August 8, 2006 4:55 AM

I don't have A.C., but I live at the beach. Part of the reason I live here -- and in California -- is for the weather.

But I totally understand others' need for A.C. And how can your landlord legally prevent you from getting A.C.? It's a health issue for many people.

I'd check out whether that's legal if I were you.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 8, 2006 4:58 AM

Not me, Smark. And not my neighbors (who share the lot with me) who have two kids or my close friends/almost family in New York City. Growing up in the suburbs was suffocating for me.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 8, 2006 5:07 AM

i agree with your theory Amy,
Living on my own in a 700 sq ft apartment in Florida. i really don't need any more space....nor do i really want anymore space. i DO have central A/C however, i keep it on 80 degrees during the summer. i'm also very conscious of turning lights off, PC, TV ect. when not in use. My nieghbors often complain of $100 electric bills during the summer. After just now opening my latest electric bill, i'm happy to say that it's only $58.00 in the hottest month of the year so far.

There are a lot of little, stupid things that folks can do to lessen the impact of themselves with this global warming thing. Most folks just can't be arsed....

Posted by: Rob at August 8, 2006 5:47 AM

When I own a place, I'll get solar panels. I do travel by plane (I have yet to grow wings), but I do my best to minimize my "footprint" without stopping myself from living. Even bringing your own bags to the grocery store (reusablebags.com) and being conscious of not running the washing machine on empty loads makes a difference.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 8, 2006 6:15 AM

I hope none of you guys break your arms patting yourselves on the back.

Posted by: Rodger at August 8, 2006 8:30 AM

Huh? People are just questioning living in mega-mansions when a smaller house would do. Hit a little too close to home? Nobody's completely eco. I, for example, go to Paris twice a year. I'd go more if the euro weren't more comparable to the 50-cent piece than the dollar. Flying there burns a lot of fuel and pollutes. Not good. I'm not going to stop going to Paris, and I don't suggest people start living in wigwams or jogging everywhere, but I do try to conserve wherever I can and I wish more people would, too.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 8, 2006 9:04 AM

I certainly agree, Amy. And along the same lines--have you ever checked out the great "Not So Big House" series of books, by architect Sarah Susanka? They're wonderful.

Posted by: Norm at August 8, 2006 10:18 AM

> a smaller house would do

Amy, so less colorful clothes. So would Folgers instead of Starbucks. So would living in the valley instead of the coast. So would vacations in Arizona instead of France. In a free economy, the size of one's house (and life) is a matter of taste, not decency.

Posted by: Crid at August 8, 2006 10:49 AM

Nice strawman there, Crid. I think you're intelligent enough to understand that some choices DO impact others around us. Not every choice is the moral equivalent of red sweater vs. gray sweater.

And I second Norm's recommendation for Susanka's book. None of the homes profiled are what I'd call "small" but they do demonstrate excellent uses of space and beautiful design.

Posted by: deja pseu at August 8, 2006 11:29 AM

> excellent uses of space
> and beautiful design.

The dream of the bourgeois since the word was coined: 'My taste in carved napkin rings will shelter my moral judgment!'

Posted by: Crid at August 8, 2006 12:04 PM

Remember "negative externality" from Econ, Crid?

Posted by: Lena at August 8, 2006 5:15 PM

I don't drink Starbucks, except when I'm out. I highly recommend http://ristrettoroasters.com/ -- artisanally roasted coffee by Din Johnson, available by mail order. I get Sumatra Mandheling, fine-ground for espresso. As I've said before, "It's like drinking velvet." Best coffee I've ever had -- anywhere.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 8, 2006 5:20 PM

The dream of the bourgeois since the word was coined: 'My taste in carved napkin rings will shelter my moral judgment!'

And then there are those of us who just like looking at pretty things.

Our house is probably about 1500 sq. feet, plenty of room for two adults, one child and two dogs. Who'd want to have to clean anything bigger???

Posted by: deja pseu at August 8, 2006 6:15 PM

Angel, I live in what bachelors call "filth" and couldn't be happier. Zillow.com says this is 1301sf, which is a lot when you're trying to vacuum.

IJS, every person who ever lived draws a different line between comfortable flop space and inexcusable extravagence. And you will never, ever be able to draw a meaningful metric between the two.

And if you do, I bet you never, ever cut into your own space. Iddin 'nat sumpin?

Posted by: Crid at August 8, 2006 7:03 PM

Cridster -- You seem stuck on the notion that this is solely about preferences. Amy reminded you that "some choices DO impact others around us." Can you address that? Market transactions often impose costs on third parties who are not directly involved in any aspect of the exchange. Sometimes that's a good thing (my favorite positive externality is hearing children's laughter as I walk by a playground). But when other people's transactions make your water less drinkable or your streets less safe at night, you might want to start arguing with their tastes.

Posted by: Lena Cuisina, Lover of Markets (in spite of herself) at August 8, 2006 8:37 PM

My favorite indulgence story of the day: an article I read somewhere I can't remember with the image of Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw entering a Prius on, I think, Martha's Vineyard, after exiting their private helicopter. A spokesman defended their transportation mode by saying they had to get there somehow. Never mind the size of their houses.

Posted by: Elementary at August 8, 2006 8:44 PM

And how can your landlord legally prevent you from getting A.C.? It's a health issue for many people.

I'd check out whether that's legal if I were you.

Before I had a chance, he served me with papers threatening me with eviction unless I took it out within three days.

His argument changed -- first it was that the wiring in the building couldn't handle it, though two apartments here have A/C. but they got it prior to the current management.

Argument 2 was that it violated the part of my rental agreement about "alterations." I tried to get him to explain how putting something on the windowsill qualified as such, and he wouldn't.

He suggested I leave the apartment during the day. Yet I work at home.

Posted by: LYT at August 9, 2006 12:33 AM

> Lover of Markets (in spite of herself)

How did capitalism get such a bad name? It's inexplicable. This is the second fight I've gotten in about it this week, and it's only Tuesday night. Friends, capitalism is the only system the ever gave the little guy half a chance!

> stuck on the notion that
> this is solely about
> preferences.

Well, that's what people are discussing! Square footage of houses? C'mon, guys! Frog or Deja or someone was talking about how they have 1500sf or whatever, as if a family with 1550sf would *clearly* be crossing the line...

Elementary's story is great because it shows the stupidity of this. Rich Americans have lives of wealth because tremendous resources are used to prepare and deliver everything in their lives. The food, the clothing, the furnishings, everything. The helicopter-to-Prius transfer shows how hollow their environmentalism is, even as a gesture.

But almost everything in our lives is like that, even for poor folks! The whole economy is a tight weave, and you can't pull one thread and call it indulgent. Food is grown overseas. All those goods we buy at Ross or Jons or wherever are cheap, but the whole damn thing runs on cheap energy. To complain that this-or-that person's car or house is the one that finally pollutes the water is ludicrous. That's not environmentalism, that's *gossip*, and all of us can be faulted. If anyone ever held Amy to her rhetoric of "conserving wherever I can", she'd be one miserable advice columnist.

PS- This place isn't really filthy, it's just not attractively decorated. Comfortable, tasteful furnishings would be a senseless waste of our precious natural resources. Isn't that noble? No need to thank me, though... Just doing my part.

PPS- Capshaw's a stone fox anyway

Posted by: Crid at August 9, 2006 1:29 AM

Before I had a chance, he served me with papers threatening me with eviction unless I took it out within three days.

His argument changed -- first it was that the wiring in the building couldn't handle it, though two apartments here have A/C. but they got it prior to the current management.

Argument 2 was that it violated the part of my rental agreement about "alterations." I tried to get him to explain how putting something on the windowsill qualified as such, and he wouldn't.

He suggested I leave the apartment during the day. Yet I work at home

Well, the part of this I'd be careful of is the part about working at home. But, if I were you, I'd go to the Legal Grind about this or see if there are landlord/tenant services. The fact that there are other people in your building doing this, and the fact that it seems to violate the "warrant of habitability" (I believe that's what it's called) in terms of the heat in your area of town, seems to make a case for this. It's reasonable to have an air conditioner. If the wiring is old, isn't that his job to maintain?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 9, 2006 2:42 AM

But when other people's transactions make your water less drinkable or your streets less safe at night, you might want to start arguing with their tastes.

And that's why I argue with both the unnecessary driving of gigundo SUVs and use of private jets. I'm not suggesting we all stop living, but what gives people the right to cavalierly pollute the world for the rest of us? If our leadership had actually led in the past century, especially after the oil crisis in the 70s, we'd have energy-efficient, non-polluting fuel now. In the meantime, there was an article about biodesel cars in the LATimes on Saturday...including a mention on how they have to be more polluting to get through EPA approval.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 9, 2006 2:53 AM

It's amazing how an 800-square-foot (or less) home was just fine for your average three-person household in the 1950s, yet nowadays many people DEMAND close to 3000 square feet. It probably has at least something to do with status. Many nice 1960s-era ranches down here (FL), especially near water, are being razed and replaced with McMonstrosities. Also, it seems people have lost touch with old-school technology, such as using whole-house fans and planting deciduous shade trees on the south and west parts of a lot. These trees shield a house from the sun in the summer and attract heat (when they are bare) in the winter.

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