October 31, 2008

For Philly Types
This post is for World Champions only (you know who you are). Here's an upcoming sustainability event being hosted by my host - Weavers Way Co-op. Mark your calendars.
Weavers Way Co-op Sponsors an Evening with Philadelphia Director of Sustainability, Mark Alan Hughes, Sunday, November 9

PHILADELPHIA -- October 29, 2007 -- On Sunday, Nov. 9, Weavers Way Co-op welcomes special guest Dr. Mark Alan Hughes, Director of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, to North by Northwest, 7165 Germantown Ave., for a discussion of sustainability issues facing the city. Following his presentation, Dr., Hughes will answer questions. The event takes place from 6-8:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served and a cash bar will be available.

Since his appointment this past spring by Mayor Nutter, Hughes has served as a Senior Advisor to the Mayor and has been working closely with the Managing Director, Deputy Mayors and other heads of Departments to coordinate sustainability policies across government. Hughes' priorities have included:
  • Creating and leading a Sustainability Cabinet comprised of department heads and senior administration officials
  • Coordinating the sustainability efforts of City agencies and departments and working with a wide range of partners through a Sustainability Advisory Group
  • Expanding green building initiatives and the creation of green collar jobs
  • Developing a comprehensive plan for auditing and reducing energy use in city owned buildings
"Local governments are on the front lines when it comes to dealing with climate change and environmental issues," Hughes said after his appointment. "Our goal, here in Philadelphia, is to move the sustainability agenda further and faster than in any city in the United States." Prior to his appointment, Hughes had served since 1999 as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Fox Leadership Program.

"The appointment of Mark Alan Hughes is a major coup for Mayor Nutter and his team," said Bruce Katz, Vice President of the Brookings Institution and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program. "Mark is one of the most creative urban thinkers in the U.S. today and focusing his attention on sustainability matches the right person to the right challenge."

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann said, "Mark is brilliant and indefatigable, and will bring tremendous vision and energy to this critically important new role."

At a press conference to announce his pick, Mayor Nutter urged all organizations and sectors in Philadelphia to lead by example in their sustainability efforts. "If we are going to become the greenest city in the United States," said Mayor Nutter. "Then all of us in Philadelphia need to be working towards that common goal Whether city government, private industry, non-profit organizations, or private citizens, we all need to make every effort to conserve resources, to reduce waste, and to promote sustainable methods of living and doing business."

As Director of Sustainability, Hughes is situated in the Mayor's Office and is responsible for developing, implementing and overseeing the City's environmental policies and initiatives.

Patrick Starr, Vice President of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, welcomed the appointment, saying, "Sustainability is as much about supporting families with good jobs, quality homes, and clean transportation alternatives as it is traditional environmental issues. Mark's policy background and practical experience in these fields will enable him to blend land use planning, housing and green-collar job opportunities into a compelling sustainability agenda for a competitive Philadelphia."

The occasion of this event is Weavers Way's Fall General Membership Meeting, but the agenda consists almost entirely of Dr. Hughes' appearance, and the general public is most welcome. For more information about this event, or about membership in Weavers Way Co-op, visit or call Robin Cannicle at 215-843-6552.
Now back to the parade.

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Remember Peak Oil?
Just a brief post as I'm about to go out canvassing for That One. And so should you.

Anyway, it's easy to forget about Peak Oil (the point at which worldwide oil production begins to drop regardless of how much drilling we do) with gas prices around $2.60 a gallon - in Philly at least - and falling.

But the Peak Oil folks really want to remind you. According to a new UK study, it could be less than five years away. Which is why now would be a good time to implement cap-and-trade. For all the green hand-wringing about the drop in gas prices putting people back in their cars and forgetting about alternative energy, I look at low gas prices as an opportunity more than anything else. I guarantee it will be easier to muscle cap-and-trade through at $2 a gallon than $4. It's a tax after all.

Anyway, just a thought.

[Updated 4:30pm] Although perhaps the current slide is just part of the biannual Big Oil pre-election price drop strategery. StumbleUpon Reddit newsvine newsvine


October 30, 2008

Look! Up in the Air! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's... Regulation!!

There's been a small tizzy in the alt. energy world over the consequences of Boeing's recent announcement that it could certify biofuel for use in its planes within three years. As Treehugger pointed out, this is not the same thing as actually fueling planes with the stuff, since there's hardly any of it around. And while, surprisingly, this commitment from Boeing seems genuine (you know it is when a Boeing engineer knocks corn ethanol as being a subsidy regime and not a fuel option), it did not sprout full-formed from Boeing management's collective forehead.

It happened because Europe said so. Europe, much to the consternation of the airlines, has included airplane emissions in its newly launched cap-and-trade system. While most airlines (especially US carriers) are screaming about the resulting increase in transatlantic ticket prices (by up to $50!! Horrors!!) along with the end of the world as we know it - which will occur in 2012 when the cap actually goes into effect - some airlines like Virgin Atlantic (along with manufacturers like Boeing) are actually doing something. Funny how that works. The government makes a law that forces you to cut emissions by a date certain and so you go ahead and start figuring out how to cut emissions. How radical.

At the same time, this all shows just what a pickle we're in. On the one hand, airplane emissions are some of the most damaging to the environment (lots of carbon burned at high altitude is like lots and lots and lots of carbon burned at ground level). On the other hand, we're not about to ground the entire airline industry forever. On the OTHER hand, there's no zero emissions solution for airplanes - running jet engines on batteries won't work and nuclear powered jets of the future aren't going to happen (this is where Mr. Fusion would come in handy, by the way).
As I lack a fourth hand, that leaves biofuel as the only real solution.

Except to make biofuel an option, we'd have to commit a huge percentage of the world's crop-land to growing the soy or grass to make it (that's assuming we work the kinks out of cellulosic ethanol soon). That's why I've got my hopes all tied up in pond scum algae. Algae can actually make diesel fuel today. Unfortunately, you can only do it about a beakerful at a time, which won't really make a dent in the 19 billion gallons of kerosene you'd need annually to power the world's aircraft. One of the biggest problems algae biofuel development faces is that when grown at commercial scale in huge fields or in enormous vats the organisms start to crowd each other out and die for lack of sunlight. Which is why the group successfully growing algae in the dark might hold the key (their algae also produces excellent cooking oil, but that's the subject for another post).

Anyway, the point of all this is that 1) cap-and-trade sure gets the attention of senior management and 2) even the "obvious" solutions to cutting emissions require massive investment and new infrastructure. But you probably knew that already.

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October 28, 2008

This is not about cheese (although Beyond Cheese would be a great name for a blog). But the chart that illustrates the wedges I'm talking about is not quite so yummy. I'm thinking about wedges today after reading this piece by Bryan Walsh on Apparently, even MIT grad students aren't clear on the climate challenge before us:
In a paper that came out Oct. 23 in Science, John Sterman -- a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Sloan School of Management -- wrote about asking 212 MIT grad students to give a rough idea of how much governments need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by to eventually stop the increase in the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. These students had training in science, technology, mathematics and economics at one of the best schools in the world -- they are probably a lot smarter than you or me. Yet 84% of Sterman's subjects got the question wrong, greatly underestimating the degree to which greenhouse gas emissions need to fall.
It's no wonder then that Walsh reports that 54% of Americans want to adopt a "wait-and-see" approach to climate change. The problem is that there's no "visible" crisis on the one hand and on the other it's had to conceive of the scale of the challenge. Of course, if we wait until the real catastrophes start happening, it will be too late.

Walker has a nice summation of the problem:
Before the industrial age, the concentration was about 280 parts per million (p.p.m.) of carbon in the atmosphere. After a few centuries of burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels, we've raised that concentration to 387 p.p.m., and it continues to rise by about 2 p.p.m. every year. Many scientists believe that we need to at least stabilize carbon concentrations at 450 p.p.m. to ensure that global temperatures don't increase more than about 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. To do that, we need to reduce global carbon emissions (which hit about 10 billion tons last year) until they are equal to or less than the amount of carbon sequestered by the oceans and plant life (which removed about 4.8 billion tons of carbon last year). It's just like water in a bathtub -- unless more water is draining out than flowing in from the tap, eventually the bathtub will overflow.
And it gets worse. Recent research suggests that positive feedback loops in the carbon cycle will act like a tripwire. If we get much above 550ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, we will then jump up to 800 or 1000ppm in a short period of time regardless of how much we cut our emissions. CAP's Joe Romm explains why this is doubleplus ungood:

At 800 to 1000 ppm, the world faces multiple miseries, including:

  1. Sea level rise of 80 feet to 250 feet at a rate of 6 inches a decade (or more).
  2. Desertification of one third the planet and drought over half the planet, plus the loss of all inland glaciers.
  3. More than 70% of all species going extinct, plus extreme ocean acidification.
That's plenty scary. But honestly all those ppms make my head hurt. And what's billions of tons of carbon anyway? How on earth do we figure out what we actually have to do!!

Well, I'm glad I asked that question. Romm and others have picked up on work done by two Princeton University professors, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow. These two scientists started with the graph below of the increase in carbon over time and overlaid a baseline at which the climate was stable (and now you'll realize why I started with cheese).
From there, they took that yellow area and split it into sections, which they dubbed "stabilization wedges" and it looks like this:
The idea is that each wedge represents what carbon concentration growth would look like if you took 1 billion tons of carbon (aka a gigaton of carbon or GtC) out of the atmosphere over the period from 2004 to 2050 - by which time our goose will have been collectively cooked. So, 7 wedges to salvation. That's 7 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere between "now" and 2050. Check.

Still with me? Well, there's a problem. This work was originally done back in 2004 and things have changed. Estimates now are that we need 14 wedges (i.e. to start on a path to remove 14 billion tons of carbon by 2050), not the 7 Pacala and Socolow suggested we'd need, to keep a stable climate, i.e. double the reduction over a little less time.

But we're still at a level of abstraction that's not really going to help anyone. What's a wedge in real terms? After all, this is supposed to help us grasp the scale of the problem. Well, once again, we turn to Joe Romm and his "14 wedge solution"
  • 1 wedge of vehicle efficiency -- all cars 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
  • 1 of wind for power -- one million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines
  • 1 of wind for vehicles --another 2000 GW wind. Most cars must be plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles.
  • 3 of concentrated solar thermal -- ~5000 GW peak.
  • 3 of efficiency -- one each for buildings, industry, and cogeneration/heat-recovery for a total of 15 to 20 million GW-hrs.
  • 1 of coal with carbon capture and storage -- 800 GW of coal with CCS
  • 1 of nuclear power -- 700 GW plus 10 Yucca mountains for storage
  • 1 of solar photovoltaics -- 2000 GW peak [or less PV and some geothermal, tidal, and ocean thermal]
  • 1 of cellulosic biofuels -- using one-sixth of the world's cropland [or less land if yields significantly increase or algae-to-biofuels proves commercial at large scale].
  • 2 of forestry -- End all tropical deforestation. Plant new trees over an area the size of the continental U.S.
  • 1 of soils -- Apply no-till farming to all existing croplands.
So that's one theory of what it would take to "solve" climate change. And here's the kicker. If we don't start by 2012 it will be too late. Are you laughing or crying? I can't tell. The point of this post was not, I'm afraid, to make anyone happy. Because it turns out the problem is bigger and scarier than anyone but the climate scientists seem to understand. Which is why I needed to scare you. Perhaps you're ready for that cheese now?

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October 27, 2008

The Diaper Bank
Diapers Ahoy!

Let's switch from input to output, shall we? That's right, we're back to diapers. A recent article by Colleen Shaddox in Miller-McCune (a fascinating magazine that "harnesses current academic research with real-time reporting to address pressing social concerns") talks about New Haven resident Joanne Goldblum's work in creating The Diaper Bank for low-income families. It turns out that hygiene becomes optional when you don't have enough to eat. The consequences are depressing and shocking. They include emptying and reusing disposable diapers, using a communal towel for unaffordable toilet paper, going without clean clothes for a lack of detergent, and children with "Monday morning diaper rash" at Head Start day-care facilities due to weekends without enough diaper changes. Ah, America.

Having seen this phenomenon firsthand, Goldblum, a former social worker for the Yale Child Study, set out to do something about it. Though her efforts were variously ridiculed, belittled and dismissed at first, she has since managed to distribute 150,000 disposable diapers per month to needy Connecticut residents. This is no small accomplishment given how little interest there is in addressing this particular need - neither Food Stamps or WIC payments allow for the purchase of diapers (or laundry detergent for that matter). Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but according to the federal government, it's also not covered.

As for Philadelphia, there is no equivalent to the Diaper Bank. In fact, the only group that seems to accept diaper donations at all times (rather than during periodic diaper drives) is the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Unfortunately, no warehouses full of diapers around here.

But there's another angle here - one that is more directly in the purview of this blog. The destitute and the working poor are a population for whom "sustainability" is as unaffordable as those diapers. Says Shaddox:

The most frequent criticism [of the Diaper bank] is that disposable diapers are bad for the environment. [Goldblum's] response to the criticism comes as a description of the lives of low-income families: Almost none own washing machines. Laundromats do not permit cloth diapers in their machines. Even if Laundromats were an option, Goldblum continues, it takes a lot of detergent to keep a child in cloth diapers. Do the critics know how much detergent costs and how few poor people can afford it?

Hmmm. Nothing like a little perspective to make you feel horribly bourgeois. This one little corner of the battle against the degradations of poverty highlights the huge gulf that exists between us Prius-buying, CFL-using, BPA-free Locavores and those living without means. How we handle this aspect of addressing climate change may be our greatest legacy. There's ample evidence that climate change will overwhelmingly hurt the poor in developing countries. If we don't provide adequate protections to our own poor populations, the same will be true here in the US.

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October 24, 2008

Someone Gets It
Closing the loop on this food policy thread is none other than - as I like to say around the house - the Next President of the United States: Barack Obama!!

The inestimable Ezra Klein found a truly astonishing quote by the candidate from the recent Joe Klein (no relation but you were right to ask) interview of Obama.
I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.
Like, wow. But the important part is neither 1) that we will have a president have a presidential candidate who actually READS the NYT Magazine nor 2) that he's quoting Michael Pollan, but rather that Obama gets the framing of food policy.

In possibly his best post in recent memory, Ezra thinks Pollan muddies the water too much in his prescriptions for reform and that the fundamental element of any reform is addressing the subsidy issue.
The discussions of subsidies -- the key issue in food policy -- is subsumed within section one's discussion of polycultures. They exist in the piece, but not clearly, and not with sufficient force[...] We need to dismantle the subsidies before we can really talk about incentivizing different agricultural behavior.
This is inarguable. Meanwhile others are suggesting that Pollan's policy focus on reregionalization is misguided at best. But the two concepts - elimination of subsidies and the reregionalizing of food production are linked. Subsidies led to CAFOs and monoculture. Neither can survive without the subsidies. So if you eliminate subsidies what exactly are you left with? What will the food system look like? Pollan is, I think, trying to point the way. If we don't have a vision for where we're going, we'll likely never to get started.

After all, we've been down this road many times. Farm subsidy reform when attempted head on is hard, if not impossible (the reasons for which Ezra discusses at length). Bush, having raised subsidies against his will during his first term, could barely make a dent in subsidies during his second - and that was with his party in control of Congress.

Clearly mindful of past failures of reform, Pollan is putting the subsidy battle into a much larger context. In that effort I think he succeeded. You only have to read Obama's encapsulation of the issue to see how much more powerful it becomes when you don't use the S-word (by the way, having fallen in love with that formulation, i.e. a letter followed by the construction "-word", I am officially foreswearing it). And realizing that this issue could be top-of-mind for a President Obama is, for many of us, truly awesome.

With oil in free-fall and commodity prices well off their summer highs, the purely financial argument for subsidy reform may in fact weaken (though the UN promises prices won't stay low for long thanks to biofuels). The institutional impediments to reform in this country are enormous (and this applies to all areas that require attention - climate change, health care, taxes, etc.) and the road to any real reform runs through - and often ends at - the relevant Senate committee. But when you have a frame for attacking subsidies that posits it as part of a structural reform of food production and as a public health issue, it may be easier to find a path around the stacked deck of the Senate Agriculture Committee and past the 60 vote threshold. On the other hand, $4 a gallon gas doesn't hurt reform's chances either.

And it's important that we get this right. The evil-twin to the NYT's Food Issue is the Wired Magazine Future of Food Issue. In a series of striking charts and maps, Wired illustrates the food production chain to demonstrate our reliance on fuel and chemicals. It then purports to trace a science-based future for increasing yields in order to meet rising demand at a time when the hydrocarbon-based system is falling apart. But it doesn't deliver. It's just better living through different chemistry. The key to the future according to them is held in biotech and genetics. That does not strike me as good news at all. And it's why Pollan's alternative vision is so crucial. My guess is that opponents of Pollan-style reform will indeed embrace technology. GMOs will be to the food crisis what nuclear power is to the climate crisis - an easy "sacrifice-free" solution. Which is why I'm glad our next Farmer-in-Chief reads the Sunday Magazine.

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October 23, 2008

Don't Blame the Locavores
Locavores aren't really the problem. It's true that they come from California and that - hoo, boy - is it a pleasure eating all year round there. But even Michael Pollan emphasizes seasonality as a major component of eating locally - he doesn't expect everyone to stop eating fruits and vegetables in the dead of winter. And let's give him a break - he did live (and garden) for many years outside of New Haven, so he knows of Northeastern winters.

But Ezra is right that Locavorism, for all its many and varied benefits, isn't the basis for a national food policy (it simply doesn't scale) and isn't by itself a cure for the massive carbon footprint of the food industry. Which is why Pollan never mentions the L-word in his NYT manifesto (in fact, as he himself points out in a Q&A on the NYT website, Pollan barely uses the word "organic"). At least in this case, Pollan is not trying to find a way to get everyone to eat food produced within 100 miles of their home year round. He is indeed trying to eliminate the industry's dependence on fossil fuel - which he says right up front by observing that "when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases."

That's why he talks at length about "resolarizing" agriculture, i.e. "we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine." Most of his manifesto describes how agriculture can be reformed to reduce the use of petrochemical-based pesticides as well as the overuse of heavy machinery on the farm. Now, he also refers to reregionalization, which I suppose is a backdoor attempt to let the camel's nose under the tent (mixing metaphors is fun!) But his main point on encouraging local food production is really about decentralizing the food production system. He advocates eliminating the enormous centralized food processing centers that dot the country and not just the cross-country transportation of the end product. Does it mean allowing New Jersey to be more competitive with California as a supplier to New York? Yes. Does it also mean banning California produce from New York supermarkets? I think not.

And while we're on the subject of the Pollan Plan - let's talk about subsidies. Polllan (and many others) want to dismantle the monoculture subsidy system where corn, soy and wheat are kings and fruits and vegetables are "specialty crops". But I think we can all agree that farm subsidies are and will continue to be crucial - it's a matter of reprioritizing. Which is what Pollan argues for as well.

The greatest danger to reforming food policy is that the whole enterprise will be dismissed as being run by extremists from California (or, even worse, Vermont). Which is why it's so important that a guy like Michael Pollan was allowed to take over the New York Times Magazine for a week. And why it's so important to distinguish the Locavore ideal (which most Americans can only assymptotically approach) from the practical implications of eliminating big agriculture's addiction to oil (which we as a country have to do).

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October 22, 2008


One of the many things that Michael Pollan's food policy manifesto brought into focus (possibly for the first time for many readers) was the massive impact of CAFOs - Confined Animal Feeding Operations - both on the environment and on the food system. Ezra Klein has a good post where he pulls out a relevant quote from Pollan's piece, identifies the climate impact (just confirmed by some new data) and speculates on the tricky implications of fixing this policy disaster, i.e. more expensive meat.

But it's worth reminding ourselves of a couple things. The existence of cheap meat produced on vast, inhuman, toxic cities of cattle, poultry and pigs was not the result of some unfortunate but "innocent" market efficiency. This was not the Invisible Hand revealing the inevitable efficiency of this particular style of raising livestock. CAFOs exist because of massive taxpayer subsidies and wholesale regulatory negligence. Meat is cheap by historical standards only if you limit your gaze to the price on the supermarket label.

The Union of Concerned Scientists tried to put a price tag on CAFOs in a study released in April. The figures are eye-popping. The study "found that from 1997 to 2005 taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved CAFOs nearly $35 billion in animal feed" while since 2002 "CAFOs have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments." Wow. The study concludes that CAFOs would not be competitive without these props.

And then there are the indirect benefits. Gristmill identified a GAO study released in September that looked at the regulatory side of the "subsidy." The EPA and not the USDA is charged with regulating CAFOs. They save the taxpayers billions by... doing nothing. As the GAO puts it in their summary, "the EPA does not have comprehensive, accurate information on the number of permitted CAFOs nationwide. As a result, EPA does not have the information it needs to effectively regulate these CAFOs." That's a shame since, as the GAO observes, "Some large farms that raise animals can generate more raw waste than the populations of some U.S. cities produce annually."

You can see the direct effects of the literal vast sea of manure in this Gristmill post about North Carolina's hog farm "problem" - a problem that everyone involved agrees has no real solution short of shutting down the farms and redistributing the pigs to smaller producers. And the surprising effect of the rise of CAFOs isn't just the devastating environmental impact, but the enormous negative economic impact - first CAFOs put small farmers out of business and then they hire them at "an average of $7-$8 an hour with no benefits." Charming.

Pollan sums all this up on just the right note:

As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution - animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete - and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.

While you may have lost your appetite while reading this, it's not true that the only solution is to go vegetarian (not that there's anything wrong with that). But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that meat can and should become a luxury again.

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October 21, 2008

Road Tripping
A contributor to the Ethicurean recently went on a months-long nationwide road trip wherein she determined to eat organically and sustainably the whole time. This led her on a tour of farmers' markets and food co-ops throughout the country. Though she did not appear to have visited Pennsylvania, she does mention several outstanding Midwestern and New England co-ops. Her experiences encouraged her to ruminate on what qualities made her faves successful. Given that Beyond Green cohabitates with a food co-op, I figured this subject was, well, relevant. The whole post is worth a read, but here are her four features of a great co-op presented for your edification:
  1. The people that worked there were excited about and valued good food; they were not just employees.
  2. The co-op had some kind of gathering place.
  3. The store was stocked differently from a conventional grocery store, but was just as well organized.
  4. The produce section of the co-op was well-stocked and well-labeled, and the items were not pre-bagged “for convenience” in a plastic bag.
There's no question that Weavers Way qualifies. If you're not already shopping at a food co-op, I imagine you're thinking, "Gee, that not how it is at the Pathmark!" Now perhaps you have a sense of what you're missing.

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October 20, 2008

The Great Diaper Debate Resolved?
I suppose this subject isn't necessarily of great moment, but I couldn't resist. As a father whose youngest child is on the threshold of going diaperless 24/7, I still find that the Great Diaper Debate holds some interest for me, if only for the sake of nostalgia. At any rate, the Times of London is reporting on a study completed by the British government which seems to confirm that reusable diapers have a larger carbon footprint than disposable diapers. While it's possible to keep the difference to a minimum if you "take an extreme approach to laundering them," i.e. line-drying year round, washing in only hottish water and using them even on young children (presumably instead of pull-ups), it's hard to imagine the typical parent doing that. Here are the hard numbers:
The report found that while disposable nappies used over 2 1/2 years would have a global warming impact of 550kg [1,212lbs] of CO2 reusable nappies produced 570kg [1,257lbs] of CO2 on average. But if parents used tumble dryers and washed the reusable nappies at 90C [190F], the impact could spiral to 993kg [2,189lbs] of CO2. A [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] spokesman said the government was shelving plans for future research on nappies.
I love that last line. In fact, the fun part of this story involves a cover-up of the original report. Apparently, the government has been telling Britons for years that reusable diapers are better for the environment. Oopsie.

All that said, this study did not appear to address the carbon footprint of reusables if handled by a diaper service, though most services probably don't skimp on the hot water, the tumble drying or the bleach, for that matter. And of course, you still have to deal with the environmental impact of the chemicals that go into disposables (like that yucky but effective gel and all that chlorine) so I suppose it's still not a slam-dunk. However, it does suggest eco-diapers like 7th Generation's (sold at Weavers Way, of course) are a pretty good way to go. StumbleUpon Reddit newsvine newsvine


October 17, 2008

Worldwide Recessions are Bad
Just in case anyone was wondering, there is no climate-related silver lining to a worldwide recession. There's been some talk among climate scientists that the current economic crisis may have some benefits to the climate in the form of lower emissions growth. Former Clinton cabinet official and current fellow at the Center for American Progress Joe Romm says, and I'm paraphrasing, "Sadly, no."

Some of this confusion stems from mistaking slowing of emissions growth for an actual reduction. As Romm puts it:
If carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing forever, concentrations would still keep rising forever, and the climate would be destroyed. In fact, the recent rate of growth of emissions has been faster than even the most pessimistic IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] model had projected. If that rate of growth were cut in half, we would still have our foot on the accelerator headed toward the cliff.
It's similar to thinking that when inflation drops, so do prices. Rather, even with decreasing inflation, prices still rise, only more slowly.

But what the recession will do, apparently, is increase calls for weakening or abandoning what little political momentum there is for emissions controls. Plus, Romm points out that the European example shows us as cap-and-trade systems get off the ground, energy companies will be demanding gigantic bribes discounts on their carbon allowances to make up for the allegedly onerous "compliance costs." But that wouldn't really happen here in America. We're not socialists. Are we?

Romm comes up with a nice laundry list of what exactly we need to do to ensure political momentum on emissions control legislation in the current (pardon the pun) climate.
  1. It must be accompanied (or preceded) by a very strong clean energy recovery/investment bill.
  2. Some of the allowances are going to have to be given to companies to help them deal with the economic impacts, at least at the beginning.
  3. Most of the revenues from the auction are going to have to go back to the public, to make the higher energy costs tolerable from both a practical and political perspective.
  4. There isn't going to be a lot of money left over, especially in the early years. The push for clean tech will have to come from the recovery/investment bill or regulations like fuel economy and appliance standards, building codes, and alternative fuel mandates.
  5. We are going to have to get real commitments from China pretty quickly after we pass any domestic climate bill or the whole thing is likely to fall apart at the first recession or first major energy price spike.
This all comes as regional carbon markets are finally getting underway in the Northeast and the West and will be coming soon to the Midwest. Once again the states are leading the way for a recalcitrant and paralyzed federal government, which is all to the good. But for all the talk about the importance of a cap and trade system, it's also becoming clear that it's no magic bullet. Increasing the price of carbon without spending billions on alternatives will just force people to spend more doing the things they need to do. So not only, as Romm points out above, do we have to worry about weak-kneed politicians wimping out on cap-and-trade, they may not be there to authorize the massive alternative energy and efficiency programs we'll need to really get ourselves out from under the carbon economy. How nice. Are you listening, President Obama?

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October 16, 2008

Not the Kangaroos!!

Okay, now things are getting serious. The Daily Green just reported on a study out of Australia that says even a measly 2 degree increase in global temperatures will all but wipe out the kangaroos. The kangaroos!! What makes this really bad is that most of the best-case warming scenarios (i.e. after we've made significant worldwide emissions cuts) have at least that amount of warming already baked in. Did I mention that climate change really sucks?

Photo by Tasumi1968 used under CC license

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October 15, 2008

Trouble at Niman Ranch

So old Bill Niman finally got the boot. As a former Californian, I was well aware of Niman Ranch's long-standing reputation for high-quality, all-natural beef and pork. Little did I know that Niman himself was forced out last year in a management struggle over a loosening of his rigorous standards of meat production. The NYT has the skinny in today's Dining section.

Though a true pioneer, Niman was apparently never much of a businessman and, according to Jeff Swain - the current CEO of Niman Ranch, his beef business never made money. As a result, they had to dispense with some of the marginal central elements of Niman's production technique. Yes, that's right. They had to destroy Niman's principles in order to save them. Oh the irony!

What that means for you and me, of course, is that (assuming you haven't already) you should stop buying that Niman Ranch bacon from Trader Joe's. Alice Waters, ahead of the curve as usual, stopped carrying his products back in 2002 when (with Bill still at the company) they continued to grain finish their beef rather than go 100% pasture fed. But Niman Ranch the corporate product is now the poster child for what happens when big[ger] business collides with small-scale agricultural practices. Turns out that it's hard to scale up small-scale. How surprising.

Those of us who shop at Weavers Way, of course, don't have to worry quite so much about mass-market meat, having several local, organic and/or all-natural producers to choose from such as Natural Acres for beef and Meadow Run for beef and pork, though it would be nice to have a local, small-scale lamb producer stocked as well (there was one at the farmers market held in front of Weavers Way just last week so I know they exist!)

Anyway, as for old Bill, he seems to have landed on his feet. He went back to his 1,000 acres in Bolinas, CA (on the Pacific about an hour north of San Francisco) and turned his attention to goats. That's right. Goats. It's the next big meat. According to a tasting conducted for the Times article:

...Mr. Niman's young goat was compared to pan-seared and roasted loin and shoulder cuts from both a small Vermont grower and what the chef Dan Barber called "commodity goat."

The commodity goat was slightly musty and chewy. The Vermont goat was as tender and mild as lamb. The Niman goat was like lamb, too, but a lamb with a big personality. The meat was sweet and vegetal. The fat, what little of it there was, tasted rich but felt lighter than olive oil.
No gym socks aftertaste here! Plus, goat has half the fat content of chicken, so says the Department of Agriculture. Count me in!

Photo by Noah Berger for The New York Times

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October 13, 2008

The Food Issue

The New York Times just sent the food movement to the moon. With a massive, encyclopedic Michael Pollan manifesto anchoring an entire Sunday Magazine issue dedicated to "food politics not food porn taste," as Bonnie P puts it in her summary at the Ethicurean, the NYT has blasted issues that have been on the periphery of the national consciousness directly to the center. And if you're wondering why your copy of the magazine didn't have corn getting blown to bits, it's because they produced a series of covers for this issue, each with a different detonating piece of produce - corn, apples, pumpkins, etc.

The whole issue is a must read but the Pollan piece lays out the context and the challenges of our multivalent food crisis as well as many possible ways forward. There is too much in here for me to summarize, but given my varied sustainability interests, here's an eyebrow-raising money quote:
After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy - 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do - as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis - a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.
And it's more than just Pollan. There's Mark Bittman, a photo spread of the "food fighters" themselves, a great catfish story, an article on how Bill Gates is trying to save African agriculture and even a fascinating article on a new Kosher movement that ties together the traditional laws of kashrut with a modern commitment to sustainability. All in all, Sunday was a good day to be a foodie.

Photo credit: Martin Klimas for The New York Times

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October 10, 2008

By the Sea

What with recent studies indicating that seafreight is one of the least carbon-intensive modes of transport it's important to keep in mind that carbon emissions aren't the only measure of environmental impact. Freighters burn what's called bunker fuel, also known as Residual Fuel Oil, which should tell you something about what's in it. It's practically a distillate byproduct of gasoline production and has high levels of sulphur dioxide, among other nasty pollutants. No wonder the ginormous Port of Long Beach in Southern California is nicknamed the "Diesel Death Zone."

Now, given my post of yesterday, the cynics out there might assume I'm all in favor of burning bunker fuel to help cool the planet. But they would be wrong. So it's a good thing that we're one step closer to cleaner maritime fuel. The International Maritime Organization just announced stringent new limits on pollution from freighters. And though some writers have speculated that we'd be better off buying products shipped by sea rather than flown by air, it's also true that the international merchant fleet already accounts for 4.5% of worldwide carbon emissions - twice as much as airfreight according to a UN study. That's a lot of carbon.

While we're on the subject of big boats and the damage they wreak, there was another bit of somewhat positive news. The NYT reported yesterday that the National Marine Fisheries Service has finally set speed limits in certain areas off the coast of the northeastern US in order to prevent collisions between ships and the endangered right whale (all 400 of them). Fun fact - it's called the right whale because it was the "right whale" to hunt back in the day given its enormous size and slow speed. Nice, huh? Anyway, the restrictions will expire in 5 years assuming President Obama doesn't extend them.

Photo by jmmcdgll used under CC license

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October 9, 2008

Every Little Bit Helps
Smoke One

You know what I've always loved about aerosol pollution? Its cooling effect! I know, I know - but I'm not the only one who feels this way. And we're going to start really missing it soon, according to a new study out of Germany. In fact, all these worldwide efforts to clean the air will start to warm us even faster if we don't simultaneously [all together now] massively cut carbon emissions. Turns out particulate pollution of all kinds (even sulfur oxides, which cause acid rain) provides a cooling effect. We all remember that cold winter back in 1992 thanks to Mount Pinatubo? In the spirit of Yom Kippur, I think there's only one thing to say: Oy vey!

Photo by ojbyrne used under CC license

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October 8, 2008

A Clean Break
Philadelphia is home to green, well, homes. At least for a two weeks in October and thanks to a project called A Clean Break. According to the exhibit website:
From October 17 to 30, a temporary prefab "neighborhood" in Philadelphia will offer an optimistic view of what a revitalized city might look like in the near future. A Clean Break, curated by Minima Gallery, will be a central event of DesignPhiladelphia, an annual series of lectures, studio tours, and exhibitions organized by the Design Center at Philadelphia University. Part of Minima's show will take place in a vacant lot on South Broad Street, just down the street from Philadelphia City Hall
A central tenet of the show is to "highlight the importance of sustainable design in an urban environment" and the prefab homes are meant to embody that principle. One of the featured homes is the aptly named Wee House which arrived in our fair city last week.

This is but one of many structures featured in the exhibit, a full line-up of which can be seen here. Philly's own Interface Studio Architects will present their prefab work (pictured below) as well.

Sounds like we should all hop on our bikes the weekend after next and check it out.

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October 7, 2008

Organic Ouch!
Commodities Index Prices

image courtesy

Well, the sky may be falling, but at least commodities prices are, too. Granted it's because we're spiraling into a worldwide recession, but a guy can look on the bright side, can't he? Unfortunately, according to the UN, we're still going to see systemically high food prices for the foreseeable future thanks to competition for arable land between biofuels and food crops. I'll be talking about biofuels more soon, but at the moment what has my attention is one of the many unintended consequences of the "miracle" of ethanol - organic dairy, meat and poultry prices are through the roof. The NYT had a rundown on the problem back in the spring. Here's the essence:

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research organization, said conventional dairy and grain prices were so high that they were nearly rivaling prices that organic farmers receive. Organic farmers normally earn a hefty premium for raising livestock and crops without chemical fertilizer, pesticides or antibiotics.

"We may be seeing over the next few years a turnaround, where organic agriculture contracts in this country," he said. The price of organic grain has also jumped because hundreds of dairy farmers rushed to complete their transition to organic production last year, before more stringent government regulations took effect. The influx created a temporary glut of organic milk, which suppressed prices last year, but also added to the demand - and the price - for organic animal feed. In addition, a drought last year in the Upper Midwest caused relatively poor yields for some organic crops.

And so, once again, the magical Invisible Hand of capitalism gives us the Invisible Finger. Basically, the attempt to "rationalize" organic meat and dairy production is breaking down in the face of high commodities prices, probably an inevitable consequence of creating the USDA Organic certification. By encouraging large-scale farms to go organic without some attempt to ensure an adequate supply of organic grain (presumably the Invisible Hand was asleep at the Invisible Switch), we've managed to send supply and demand totally out of whack. And with the organic price premium gone, farmers have lost the incentive to make the costly, difficult and time-consuming switch to organic grain production.

Grain supply has always been the Achilles Heel of organic meat and poultry. There has never been much of it around - I remember talking to a poultry supplier from Lancaster County (who sells the best local PA chicken I've run across). He was organic until the USDA certification came along - he felt it was too onerous on grain producers and made it too hard for him to get adequate supplies of grain. He became "all-natural" (which in his case means organic practices except without a guarantee of 100% organic feed) purely because he didn't think he could find enough organic grain to keep his prices reasonable. This was back in 2002.

In fact, I find myself torn as far as meat, poultry and milk goes. I have been buying mostly "all-natural" meat, milk and poultry for the last few years. The meat is local and grass-fed (maybe some grain finishing but not in huge feedlots) and the poultry is Bell & Evans (which is local for us, but I'd prefer something smaller-scale). As for milk, I buy from another local non-organic but all-natural producer, Merrymead Farms. Their BST and antibiotic-free milk is considered some of the highest quality milk in the country.

Of course, none of this doesn't really addresses the issue of organic fruits and vegetables. My experience this season has been that trying to buy organic out of season has been very expensive - $3/lb for organic cucumbers and $7/lb for peppers earlier this year and the California organic cherries first came in this spring at $8/lb. And as a result I did find myself buying more conventional produce this winter and spring. But once summer rolled around, my source of produce switched almost exclusively to local farms - more and more the Weavers Way Farm, which is located about 2 miles from my house. It's not certified, but it's organically grown.

On all fronts, it certainly seems like we're closing in on prices that even an upscale market won't bear (perhaps that's why Whole Foods' stock price is down 68% in the last year). At some point you have to believe that organic food will become price competitive again given the reliance of convention food production on petroleum products (although collapsing oil prices probably won't help any). But either way, I sure wish the Invisible Hand would stop twiddling its Invisible Thumb...

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October 6, 2008

And Now - Some Good News
As I listen to the giant sucking sound that is the mass destruction of capital (aka The Day the Market Ate My Retirement), I thought I'd pass on some good news. I admit that I had to do some digging to find something. Honestly, there wasn't much. So, here goes.

According to the WSJ, we Americans really can put a dent in carbon emissions by changing our behavior. Cool, huh? It's because the American consumer is responsible for 65% of US carbon emissions (by contrast, US industry only contributes 23%). Hmm - that statistic verges on being not good news so let's not dwell on the implications. The Daily Green has a good summary and HuffPo has a nice set of easy green tips.

In sum, the market may be in the toilet and we'll all have to retire at 75, but that's no excuse to start using plastic bags again and leaving the lights on.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled meltdown.

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October 3, 2008

Saving the Planet is Tricky!
One of the obvious challenges we all face is deciding how exactly to change our behavior and reduce our carbon footprints. Muddy are the waters of a low-carbon life. Whether it's the golden-oldie question "Paper or Plastic" or the relative importance of "food miles," it's simply not at all clear how to navigate the low-carbon lifestyle (short of chucking it all in and living the pastoralist off-the-grid fantasy).

As it happens there has been a lot of talk about food miles lately. At first blush food miles are an excellent shorthand for calculating a food product's carbon footprint. Then along comes a somewhat controversial article in the February 2008 New Yorker by Michael Specter that was recently seconded by Slate Magazine (also see my recent article in The Shuttle - PDF download). Turns out that lots of assumptions we make about food miles as a proxy for carbon footprints are wrong. If you run the numbers, it turns out that the mode of transport is just as important as the distance traveled (airfreight is worst, then refrigerated diesel trucks, then seafreight and so on). As Specter puts it:
[T]he relationship between food miles and their carbon footprint is not nearly as clear as it might seem. That is often true even when the environmental impact of shipping goods by air is taken into consideration. "People should stop talking about food miles," Adrian Williams told me. "It's a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic." Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. "The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby - well, it's just idiotic," he said. "It doesn't take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August." Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. "This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product," he said. "There is no one number that works."
Oh well.

No wonder a new study out of the UK shows that most people who believe themselves to be living green actually have large carbon footprints (it's all that air travel). This stuff is hard to figure out.

Just take a look at a June issue of Wired magazine that featured a big "Face on you" (as we used to say circa 1979) to the environmental movement. According to Wired, you should love your ten-year-old Tercel and your local nuclear power plant and hate your Prius, organic food, the spotted owl and every other favored symbol of the green movement.

It's a bit, um, overstated, but their main point is that saving the planet is all about reducing carbon full stop so forget everything else. As over the top as the story is, they're probably more right than wrong. Nationally and globally, it WILL become all about carbon reduction as far as the environment is concerned. Everything else WILL fall to the wayside. It's not like the spotted owl has been the historic driver of the national environmental debate.

A political scientist of my acquaintance opined recently that if you take the politics of carbon reduction into account, then it's clear that nuclear power is going to come back in a big big way. It will be the new ethanol (which in the end didn't really work out so well but that's another story), i.e. nuclear power will become every politician's favorite answer to the carbon problem. Just ask John McCain. After all, it's not like we're going to reduce ENERGY use 90%. We need to run our plasma tvs, air conditioners and plug-in hybrids on something...

Anyway, there are definitely some good bits in the Wired issue. It points out the problematic aspect to hybrids - producing their nickel-based batteries is about as dirty and carbon intensive a process as there is. According to Wired, every new Prius comes with a significant fuel "debt" to be paid down. It's a bit of a tricky calculation since ALL cars come with a debt - it takes carbon to make any car - and it's unclear what standard they're using to measure it. But the point that hybrids aren't as clean as they seem is valid.

Also, they talk about how air conditioning isn't really as bad as you might think, at least compared to heating a house through a Northeastern winter. Again, their numbers are eye-opening. It does assuage the guilt a bit to know that cooling a house in summer takes 1/8 the energy of heating it in winter. But what Wired doesn't mention is that the refrigerant used in US air conditioners is 1700 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. And all that refrigerant has to be disposed of somehow. There's always something...

And even if you agree that A/C has its positives, that doesn't excuse the businesses all over the country that keep their thermostats at 68 degrees in the summer. That's just wrong and crazy and why doesn't anyone STOP THEM!!

Where was I? Oh, yes. Saving the planet is a tricky business. The law of untended consequences seems to be only one in force as far as carbon goes. But then, "unintended consequences" is what global warming is all about, isn't it? Suffice it to say, I haven't figured out the secrets to a low-carbon lifestyle just yet (short of that cave in Canada I have a downpayment on). But as I come up with them, I'll surely list them here. So come back soon.

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October 2, 2008

Whither Pennsylvania?
Right on cue, the Union of Concerned Scientists backs me up. Just yesterday, they released a report on the effects of climate change on Pennsylvania. And, my fellow Pennsylvanians, the news is not good. End of the century highlights if no emissions cuts are made: every summer day above 90, no snow in winters, no colorful fall foliage, massive disruption to agriculture. But even with cuts, things are going to get steamy. Here's a summary of the findings:

Climate: By mid-century, most of south central Pennsylvania is expected to experience between 40 to 70 summer days with temperatures higher than 90 degrees if emissions continue unabated. By late this century, the mercury could top 90 degrees nearly every summer day. Summer would feel more like those today in southern Georgia. Under a lower-emissions scenario, warming would be curtailed, and summers would be more like those today in Virginia.

Health: Pennsylvania could experience a dramatic increase in the number of dangerous heat days under a business-as-usual, higher-emissions scenario. By late century, for example, Harrisburg is projected to face 26 days with temperatures higher than 100 degrees. Under the lower-emissions path, Harrisburg would experience approximately seven days per year of such temperatures.

Agriculture: Scientists expect the yield and quality of key crops, including sweet corn, Concord grapes and apples, to decline if emissions continue to grow. Cutting emissions would give farmers more time adapt, including switching to different varieties and other crops. Cutting emissions also would help the dairy industry. Under the higher-emissions scenario, milk production is projected to decline 15 to 20 percent due to heat stress on cows. Under the lower-emissions scenario, production would drop 10 percent at most.

Forests: If emissions are not significantly curbed, scientists expect the state to become unsuitable for the economically valuable black cherry tree by late century, and for the maple, beech and birch forests that produce the state's brilliant fall foliage.

Fish: As water temperatures warm, some streams and rivers may become inhospitable for two of the state's premier sport fish: trout and smallmouth bass.

Snow: Because of global warming emissions already in the atmosphere, the state's traditional white winters are expected to all but disappear by mid-century. Sometime in the next several decades, ski resorts in eastern Pennsylvania will no longer be able to count on being open 100 days per year, including the week between Christmas and New Year's day, to ensure solvency.
Pennsylvania has an extra challenge in terms of cutting emissions since we live on top of some of the most productive coal fields in the country (fun real estate fact - Pennsylvania homeowners by law do not own mineral rights to their properties, which can lead problems like this). It's hard to wean yourself off coal when they're the rocks under your feet.

Ultimately, this report is all about managing the warming and preparing for the worst case scenario while hoping for the best case. On the plus side, given how hard it is to communicate the effects of climate change on our daily lives, this report provides a good way to avoid the "Brooklyn is NOT expanding" syndrome. Apparently, it is.

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