NEWS2U Health & Wellness
Living Healthy in an Unhealthy World

Friday, October 13, 2006

"The Air-Conditioned Nightmare“ Revisited -
and A Few Questions

by Brigitte Schön

When Henry Miller wrote the book of the same name, only a fraction of America's homes and offices actually had air conditioning. Still, his observations generally, written in the early forties when he returned to America after a long stay in Europe and published in 1945, came across as eerily topical when I read them only a few years ago.

Let me ask a few questions which keep bewildering me every time I – for private reasons, but fairly frequently – spend time in the American Midwest. I know that the situation is a bit different on the coasts and I know that there are notable exceptions to the rule, but my general impression gives rise to the following queries:

What is wrong about natural air in a home?

What strikes every European in a mostly negative way is the constant and ubiquitous use of air conditioning in America. The outside temperature has become completely irrelevant for the use of AC, it seems. It is simply used ALL THE TIME. If the outside temperature happens to actually coincide with the air-conditioned temperature inside a home or office, the AC is either turned up or turned down but it must never, absolutely never be switched off. There is somehow a pretense that it is necessary to permanently use AC.

This leads to highly irritating situations. I have to take along a jacket or a sweater when going to restaurants or the movies in places where the outside temperature is 100° and more in order to avoid a cold. On wonderfully balmy summer evenings, I find myself in bars where everybody is dressed up as if it was winter. When packing for a trip to the US in summer, anxious friends in Europe warn each other not to forget winter clothes in case one ever should want to dine out while in America during a heat wave in Arizona, for example. I'm sorry: This is sick.

And since America accounts for a major part of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, it's criminally negligent.

What's wrong about being in touch with nature?

America has a spectacular nature, and lots of it, since it is – by the standards of the rest of the world – sparsely populated, with the exception of the coasts. It is sad to watch how little Americans seem to want to have any interaction with this great wealth.

Although I know a few Americans who like to hike, it's definitely nothing you catch the average American doing. There are surprisingly few hiking trails most places (and, contrary to what I am used to, people in America are entitled to actually fence off entire forests as private property, i.e. no wild strolls are possible), since there probably is little demand for roaming in the woods. As a result, I guess, wild mushrooms, a great delicacy we love to hunt for in the woods over here, are ALL considered "poisonous" by most Americans I ever talked to!

What the English call a garden is quite rightly called a yard in America (which in British English implies that it is concreted over), since it's normally a boring expanse of pesticized lawn, i.e. a knd of green concrete, so to say. I hardly ever catch anybody spending any time in their yards either. They aren't air-conditioned, after all.

Maybe these yards sport a tree or two, but preferably they are just supposed to be low-maintenance – and the latter is often taken care of by people one hires to do so, on top of it. Flowers? Rarely. Probably too much trouble. And anyway, it would entail touching soil. Vegetables? Rarely. Would entail working outside. Being outside is uncool, it seems.

One of the greatest ways to spend a hot summer day is to swim in wild water, we find over here. Not so in America. The lakes I visited were always quite deserted, despite being next to big cities. Motorboats on weekends, yes. Actually touching water with one's body, no.

Chlorinated swimming-pools are popular, though. Avoiding anything that hasn't been processed or altered or designed by humans seems to be the deal.

And if one keeps pets in America, one makes sure to trim them to suit the American lifestyle. Many people buy "toy“(!!!!) dogs or else......many American actually declaw cats (I had never heard of that before I came to America), which is cruel and ought to be banned – I am surprised that it isn't, actually. This means one manages to de-nature cats, because these cats can no longer function in keeping with the special traits of their species. (Like their masters?)

What's wrong about public transport?

Looking at sprawling cities and huge empty spaces in America, the European eye recognizes mouth-watering chances for fast and efficient high-tech public transport - which is invariably far more cumbersome to realize in Europe because of its overpopulation.

There is so much space that every medium-sized city in America could have a state-of-the-art metro system at very low cost (because of the low density of buildings, no need to dig costly undergrounds). Every time I am there, I am mapping it out in my head, daydreaming about how efficient they could make it, it would be so easy.

And quite frankly, America is the country one would have expected to invent high speed trains, not France. Particularly in the Plains and what with the travails of air travel these days, I can vividly imagine how attractive a 250 mile-per-hour train would be from North to South, for example. Faster and less boring than these endeless interstates at 70mph. And it would save gas.

Americans are actually paying exactly half of what Europeans pay for gas right now when it's deplored as being very „expensive“, but apart from the money argument: Climate change will affect coastal regions (hello!!), will cause more hurricanes (hello!!!), more tornadoes (hello!!!), cause even more droughts (hello!!!), so I am quite surprised that a place which has a little energy crisis and, on top of that, is a frontline state when it comes to who really has to fear a lot of damage from climate change, does not embrace all these many easy and often even relatively cheap (compared to defense spending, for example) solutions available.

These were my questions. There are other issues I find bewildering, but let's leave it at that. The conclusion the interested outsider tends to come to is that Americans, while living amid so much wonderful nature, have to a large extent divorced themselves from it, give it a really wide berth whenever possible and do so at great expense. They seem to prefer to live in controlled artificial bubbles, they seem to prefer fake environments to real environments – all of which costs an enormous amount of energy and money while it actually looks like a lower-quality lifestyle to me .

I wish I knew why they opted for that.

Brigitte Schön ( is an Austrian conference interpreter, occasional writer and political activist. She lives in Vienna.