Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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The Lone Leaf

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A lone leaf lingers on the lilac tree, rustling in the autumn breeze, oblivious to the demands of the outside world, the pressures that compelled its fellows to succumb: the dimming sun, the cooling nights, the hard rains and gusty winds.

It holds a vigil for its lost companions, a ceremony unaccompanied by others, witnessed only by a curious man’s eyes. With the passage of each day, its desperate struggle to remain attached to its foundation brings a sense of wonder to the curious man who cannot but check every few hours to see if it has lost the war yet.

But there it is, still fighting, gripping tightly to the bough that connects it to the roots, that connect it to the earth from whence it came. It looks defeated, yellow and splotchy brown, curling up on itself a little, and the curious man knows it cannot maintain its hold forever. Soon it must fall.


Yet not today. It has courage, this small leaf. Or does fear keep it attached to the summer it will never see again, to the friendships formed in springtime as its compatriots formed around it, sheltering it as it sheltered them, waving hello and finally, as light retreated into November gloom, goodbye?

Perhaps it clings to the branch for biological reasons, outside any sensate notions it might possess: an overly thick stem that will not surrender to winter but will only depart once the rising vernal sun brings a replacement, a tender shoot to keep a watch on the world, a sentry to record the movements of the squirrels and birds and the curious man who cannot look away for long.

Or perhaps some prankster crept along in the night and fused the leaf to the tree with Crazy Glue or some such adhesive, though why anyone would do such a thing is a mystery to the curious man.

No, some things cannot be understood; they remain unsolvable without Herculean effort. Besides, the reason for the leaf’s tenacity doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact of it, the motivation that can be derived from the lone fighter who bucks the system, who continues on beyond all reason or hope, knowing he is doomed to fail but nevertheless fighting.

This little leaf, this paragon of fortitude.

One morning, the curious man knows, he will wake to find the leaf finally gone, caught up in a particularly heavy gust or a driving rain, some unstoppable force that even its greatest effort could not repel. It will have flown horizontally, twisting and turning on its way to the ground, or dropped under the weight of water to the carpet of grass and clover, long after its fallen comrades have been raked away.

There, it will stand sentinel until the snow has melted and the sun has moved higher in the sky and the universe has given its blessing for the leaf to finally let go, relinquish its hold, to rest, to crumble, disintegrating into the dirt that birthed it once upon a time.

And the curious man will weep at the loss and the regeneration, and wish he had the courage and will of the lone leaf.


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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Now that the election is over, people say we need to come together and heal, unite behind our new president and move forward, but that just isn’t possible – and here’s why:

Roughly half of our voting population wants a strong military. Another roughly half thinks our military is already far too large.

Roughly half of us want to be part of the global community. The other half wants to isolate ourselves from the world.

Roughly half of us want to help our fellow citizens with generous social programs while the other half think too many of us are idling about and using up our precious resources without contributing to our economy.

Roughly half of us wanted a criminal (who violated national security laws) to be our president while the other half wanted a different criminal (who is also an admitted sexual predator).

A large minority of us think abortion is murder while a majority of us want safe and rare abortions.

Roughly half of us think tax cuts will bring us prosperity while the other half think we need to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for the infrastructure improvements we mostly agree we need.

Roughly half of us wanted a president who would at least pay lip service to climate change while the other half wanted a president who thinks global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Half of us are conservative; half of us are liberal.

Let’s concede for the moment that we all want America to be great. Fine. Now what?

Half of us are on the north side of the Grand Canyon treading a path we believe is the only one to greatness. The other half of us are on the south side, convinced that our path is the only way to achieving the success we all want.

How do we bridge that?

By compromise, of course.

And who is willing to do that?

Almost none of us. We all say, “Come over to our side on this issue. And on the next one. And maybe the one after that.”

“We won,” say the losers who won due to the Electoral College system. “Not really,” say the winners who lost for the same reason.

And where is the compromise anyway when the two views are that far apart? The point is that we can’t unite as a nation until we agree on what kind of country we want to be. And we can’t agree on that while we’re so diametrically opposed on so many issues.

No, I’m afraid we’re doomed to struggle against ourselves for quite some time yet. We will only be able to come together once a large enough crisis forces us to take some collective action – I don’t think we’re there yet.


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The Problem with Cats

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Cats. Many people love them – and why not? They can be enormously affectionate. In America, they are more popular pets than dogs. They enjoy playing with toys, particularly those that resemble prey. Is there anything cuter than cat videos? Not much.

And yet, cats are a huge problem. The biggest problem is feral cats, those that have escaped or been released into the wild. They prey on smaller animals and particularly birds, killing billions every year.

This might be okay if they killed birds and rodents we don’t like, but cats also kill bluebirds and rabbits and other small creatures. They don’t limit their destruction to species we find unappealing.

But there’s another largely unknown problem with cats as well – toxoplasma gondii – a parasite that lives in cat excrement. These parasites can only reproduce in the bodies of domestic cats. When the cats defecate, the eggs of the parasite can get passed on to other creatures, even humans.

That’s why pregnant women are warned to stay away from stray kittens and not to change kitty litter or cat bedding. Toxoplasmosis can lead to fetal abnormalities. In people who are infected with the disease, researchers have noticed behavioral differences. Men are more prone to road rage. Women are more likely to engage in promiscuous behavior. Both are more susceptible to traffic accidents, either because of impulsivity or decreased reaction time.

And it’s not just people who are at risk. Mice and rats infected with the parasite will approach cats as if aroused by them, greatly increasing their chances of being killed so that the parasite can continue to spread, infecting others. A recent study even showed that toxoplasma gondii is responsible for the deaths of a number of monk seals in Hawaii.

The good news is that toxoplasma gondii is treatable with antibiotics. The bad news is that it can be hard to detect because its symptoms are not very noticeable. And how do you get antibiotics to an endangered seal in the wild anyway?

Toxoplasma gondii is on the rise because of global warming, which allows the parasite to survive the warmer wetter winters we are increasingly experiencing. So what’s the solution? It’s quite simple. Feral cats should be killed – humanely. People who own cats as pets should never let them outside without a leash. They should never be allowed to roam free and hunt.

If people take responsibility for their cats, this is one problem we can easily solve.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Election Season

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The election is almost upon us, and I have to say I don’t know for certain which candidate would best serve our country in the long run. One supports the status quo, the continuation of the policies of the past several decades, which have led us to this particular point in time.

The other is a bizarre outsider who talks about making America great again but offers essentially zero in the way of specifics. He might do anything once elected. He is a self-absorbed, bullying misogynist.

Logic would dictate that I should vote for the status quo because the outsider might do something crazy (probably will do something crazy) that will have horrendous consequences for the country and possibly the world.

Those who are doing well (and even some who are not) insist we need to vote for the status quo, especially since she’s also the first woman to head a major party. They believe she will keep us on the right path to success – and they’re correct. She’ll keep us on the path that allowed those very successful people to be successful, continuing the policies that benefit them.

We might benefit tangentially, but I’m not certain we will be the people she’s primarily concerned with helping.

On the other hand, many of those who are struggling, who remember the past fondly, even if it wasn’t as good as their memories would have them believe, think that if we vote for the new guy, he’ll somehow bring us back to the days when we were the undisputed heavyweight champions of the world.

They look at the status quo and see a rigged game designed to help the few at the expense of the many. Yes, we’re generally all doing better than we were fifty years ago, but a select few of us are doing way, way, way better while the rest of us are doing only slightly better.

Of course, the reality is that the outsider is a blusterer who likely can’t deliver anything he promises. But is that a bad thing? Maybe what we need long-term is total dysfunction, a complete breakdown like a great depression to prod us to action.

The great recession didn’t do it. The Occupy Wall Street protests died. The Black Lives Matter movement may have staying power but we don’t know. It seems to have reached its peak and begun to decline. And its message, while powerful, does not yet speak directly to issues of economic inequality.

So perhaps things need to get worse before they can get better. I’m not advocating that. I’m just wondering if we can lift ourselves up without first reaching rock bottom. Our collective human history suggests that we do better when the adversity is greater – and perhaps the adversity we face isn’t great enough yet.

But one thing is certain. Regardless of who wins, the status quo isn’t going to cut it much longer. People are getting fed up with the way the oligarchs who run this country have sabotaged the ladder of upward mobility, reaping for themselves the fruits of our labor, patting themselves on the back for thinking up new ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Some day, a revolution is gonna come. And it’s gonna be ugly.


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What does it mean to be human?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We like to think we’re special, we’re different than the rest of the animal kingdom. We can reason and communicate and imagine and empathize and manipulate our world in a way no other creature can. We have consciousness, self-awareness. All these attributes allegedly make us human.

But what does that mean?

Other animals, like dolphins and elephants, are self-aware. They communicate and reason and empathize and even occasionally manipulate their habitat. Do they imagine? Probably. So what makes us special?

The truth is: We make us special. We’re special because we say we’re special, not because of any inherent quality or virtue we possess. We observe the world around us and note that no other species does quite what we do, even though many species do similar things.

And up until relatively recently, we didn’t even appreciate the similarities that other creatures have to us. We thought: Isn’t it cute that the crow over there is playing with a coin? or Look at my cat toying with that mouse.

But the more we’ve studied the animal kingdom, the more we’ve come to appreciate how little difference there is between humans and many animals. We have an evolutionary advantage in that we developed all these wonderful abilities at a high level whereas most animals can claim only one or two of these attributes.

Dogs, for example, can communicate, empathize and reason, but not to the same level and not in the same way we do. At least, that’s what we think. But we might be wrong.

Dogs can communicate by sense of smell in addition to vocally but we didn’t understand that until recently. For instance, dogs can tell time by using their noses. They know that when the number of “owner” molecules in the air decrease to a certain level, their owner is going to return. That’s why they’re often waiting by the door when we come home from work.

Monkeys have a sense of justice and will scream in outrage if they’re treated unfairly. No different than us. Deer and cows can sense magnetic north; dolphins and bats use sonar; people can’t do either of those things.

So why do we think we’re better than them? Mostly, because we have power over them. It’s not that different than white privilege or Nazi superiority. If you look at the historical record, you see that the people claiming whites were somehow better than blacks were white people. The blacks didn’t think of themselves as inferior. It was the people who had the power who made that determination.

The same thing is happening still, with the folks in power (humans) claiming that they’re superior to the folks not in power (plants and animals). Yes, humans are different than zebras, but zebras are different than ostriches, and ostriches are different than halibut. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s just that our strengths tend to be stronger than the rest of the world’s creatures and our weaknesses tend to be fewer.

So it’s okay to think of yourself as human. It’s okay to see yourself as a member of the dominant species on the planet. But I’m not certain it’s okay to think of ourselves as inherently superior to the creatures around us. We’re different, that’s all.

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Another Reason the Rich Get Richer

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The problem with global trade agreements that few know about or understand is the strength of the ISDS court system. Full disclosure: much of the information in this essay comes from this Huffington Post piece:

But here’s my take on it: First, ISDS stands for Investor-State Dispute Settlement and it is found in many international investment agreements and trade treaties. It was created to help companies that wanted to invest abroad but which were afraid a nation might nationalize their business or seize their property such that the companies would be left without recourse.

Fair enough. No one wants to invest in a facility in Venezuela, say, if the country is going to come along and take it away without paying for it.

But ISDS is so much more than that now. Like many instrumentalities created for one purpose, this court system has transformed into something else – a means for the extremely wealthy to get even richer. How?

By using these secretive courts to get payments they don’t deserve from countries that are just trying to do the right thing economically. Investors sometimes buy shares in companies that have been hampered by a country’s regulations and then sue the country in the ISDS courts to be compensated for the lost profits.

It gets worse. Investors also can buy companies or facilities or bonds that have been subjected to regulation and then sue for the lost profits they hoped to get if only the regulations hadn’t existed before they bought the companies or facilities or bonds they knew were subject to those regulations. Sound farfetched? It happened in Spain over a 2-year period ending in 2013.

Investment funds bought solar-thermal power plants that no longer got generous subsidies because of the great recession affecting Europe and America. Even though the subsidies had been rolled back for 3 years prior to the funds buying the plants, the funds sued Spain in the ISDS courts, claiming they expected the subsidies to continue despite the fact that they had been declining.

Shouldn’t a real court throw out a lawsuit like that? Of course. But these aren’t real courts. They’re tribunals composed of three corporate lawyers. They do their work in secret and they’re beholden to the massive companies that engage in this kind of dirty commerce.

Plus, the system only works one way. Investors can sue a country in the ISDS courts, but a country cannot sue investors under the ISDS system. They have to use their own domestic courts.

This is complicated stuff, which is why these super wealthy investors can get away with it. They ask for outrageous sums to make up for some shortcoming they knew existed before they bought in to the company or facility or bonds or whatever. They knew exactly what they were getting. That’s why they bought in. Not because they expected a profit, but because they expected a loss.

Then they sued in ISDS to recover for the loss they knew was coming, hoping the secret tribunal would award them a huge amount from the country being sued, putting the burden on the country’s citizens and not on some other company.

And here’s why it’s a bigger problem today than yesterday: the TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) would greatly expand the ISDS system, allowing more wealthy investors to buy into known bad investments solely to bring lawsuits under the ISDS system in order to reap insane profits from a secret court that has no incentive to rein in costs.

The rich get richer. The rest of us foot the bill.


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The Benefits of Doubt

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I don’t know if it’s better to be a vegan or an omnivore. I don’t know if it’s better to believe in God or not. I don’t know if small government is better than large government or if one ought to vote for a Democrat or a Republican or a third-party candidate for any particular office.

It seems to me that one can derive benefits from any of those positions. I have my own inklings, of course, my own opinions evolved from study of those topics, but I don’t know with certitude which position on which issue is the correct one – if there even is such a thing.

What I do know is that there are a lot of people who are absolutely convinced that they know the truth about politics or religion or diet or exercise or any other subject one cares to discuss.

For example, some religious folks have said to me: Have you read the Bible? Perhaps you should pray about your doubt. If you just open yourself to God, you will see the truth. Satan is testing you.

All of these comments presuppose that there is a greater truth, that the speakers know that greater truth, and that I will come to understand that greater truth in time if only I accept what they have to say. What they do not admit is the possibility that they might be wrong in their belief. They refuse to accept that I might like doubt. Perhaps I like not knowing if there is a God.

If I don’t know, then I don’t have to live my life according to the dictates of any particular religion. I don’t have to make the determination that Religion A is better than Religion B and that Religion C is so bizarre in its beliefs that it can’t possibly be the correct one.

I can instead live a life that accepts the possibility of all or none or some combination within those two extremes, that tries not to judge one or the other as the only proper truth. I can follow the rules of civilized society without resorting to the commands of a deity that might not even exist.

The same holds true for any number of topics that are incapable of producing certitude. Politics, economics, diet, exercise: there are truths within these subjects but there are also areas of doubt. We know some exercise is good (even necessary) but how much is ideal? Should we work our bodies to exhaustion or save some energy to preserve our joints? And if there is an ideal amount/intensity for one person, is that the ideal for the next individual?

Those who say they know the truth are either liars or fools.

And the reality is that there will never be consensus on any issue. For every position I assert as truth, people who for the most part are rational will choose the opposing side.

Take slavery, for example. The vast majority of us would assert that it is not only wrong, but evil. Yet there are still many who claim it’s the way God intended the world. Parts of Asia, Africa and yes, even America, have people bound in servitude by folks who think they’re complying with God’s dictates.

This ought to be a no-brainer and yet it’s not. It will take years of education to get to where everyone believes this is bad. We may never get there. Why? Because we are a stubborn species. We find something we like, something that works for us, and immediately assume it to be Truth.

So metaphysical certitude causes problems.

And yet doubt is not always good. Those who doubt climate change, for example, or doubt that it is caused by human activity, act as a counter to our movement to slow the warming of the planet.

They like the world the way it is. They despair of change and sacrifice so they latch onto slanted studies and “Sky is Falling” warnings that haven’t yet come to pass in order to maintain their position that it’s all a big conspiracy intended to push a radical agenda.

What does this mean for humanity?

Perhaps we are doomed to travel the path of the dinosaurs. Perhaps the time of humans has reached its zenith and we are now heading down the slope toward extinction. Or perhaps I’m wrong and we’re still climbing, still capable of solving all the problems that confront us. I don’t know the truth. But I fear those who claim they do.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Connected World

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When you finish reading this, go outside, preferably to a park or an undeveloped area away from the embellishments of humanity as much as you are able.

Inhale the aroma of pines and firs. Put your nose to a flower – any flower – and sniff. If there are no flowers, absorb the aromatic scent of a leaf, a mold, a fungus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply of the molecules of life.

Feel the wind brush your skin. Palm the grass. Touch a branch, the bark of a tree. Caress the bulges and valleys as you move your fingertips along the wood. Multiply the sensation by a billion, a trillion, more.

Open your eyes and study the sky, the clouds, stars or moon. Linger there for minutes as you discern the shapes, the edges, the contrasts between light and dark, the gradations of black or blue or white.

Dig in the soil with your hands – not deep – just enough to connect you to the earth. Scrape the clay or sand into your fingernails. Smell it. You belong to that place. You have become it as surely as it has built you.

Recline upon the ground like a statue. Close your eyes. Listen to the planet speak. Immerse yourself in the soughing breeze, in the chirps of chipmunks or crickets or tree frogs. Shift position. Hear your own movement intruding on the external.

You are more than a device attached to your phone, computer, tablet. You are not an app. You have transcended the technology that brought you to this moment. You are a god and a devil. You have the power for good and evil.

Like the bear, the lion, the shark. The ant, the fly, the bumblebee. The sparrow, the crow, the squirrel.

You need to be connected to the world electronically. That will not change soon. But you needn’t be connected solely through your screens. There are other ways to experience the multitude and magnitude of life surrounding us.

Remember, you are part of a greater whole. You are insignificant and completely necessary, a tiny fragment that when vanished, will never return, a piece of a puzzle we may never fully understand, but a thing of beauty nonetheless.


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Our National Debt

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We hear lots of talk about our national debt at various points, usually around election time, so I thought I would examine the issue to see how bad it is. First of all, an explanation: national debt is what our government owes to people and countries who invest in Treasury bills or lend us money.

As I write this, our national debt stands at around $19 trillion. It generally has risen with every presidency except for the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Generally, the way we reduce our national debt is by growing our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) rather than running a budget surplus – which has only happened four times in the past 40 years [from 1998-2001].

Why is our increasing national debt a problem? Can’t we just print more money to pay off our creditors? Of course we can. However, that would devalue our monetary system and cause massive inflation – imagine a loaf of bread that costs $100 or more.

We could also just tear up the notes and tell our creditors, “We ain’t paying. Get over it.” But that would lead to another set of problems – people and countries refusing to invest in the United States.

So the problem is that we’re spending an increasing amount of our money on paying back those people/countries who lent us money, which means we’ve got less money to spend on things like roads and the power grid and water mains, not to mention government programs like Social Security, Medicare, defense and education.

We haven’t reached a crisis point yet and some, mostly on the left, will say we needn’t worry about the national debt because of that. There’s plenty of time, they say, to fix the debt problem once we’ve fully recovered from the great recession – put people back to work in good jobs with decent wages.

Others, mostly on the right, say we’re close to an apocalypse of sorts. They say if we don’t act now, lenders and investors will demand much higher interest rates and we’ll spend even more on our debt than we currently do, leaving us that much closer to the raggedy edge of bankruptcy.

Many folks think our debt to GDP ratio should be less than 60%. Currently it sits at perhaps 100% or more. Some believe we shouldn’t even be talking about our debt in such a simplistic way because there are many complex ways of looking at the issue. However, what is clear is that we’re on an unsustainable path.

One way to reduce our debt is to cut our ridiculous military expenditures. For example, we have approximately 600 military bases in 40 countries around the world at an annual cost of perhaps $100 billion. About 250 of those bases are in Germany and Japan – remnants of WWII. Why? Mostly to benefit military contractors.

Another way is to stop our subsidies to the wealthy, offering loopholes that allow millionaires to deduct the cost of their private jets, for example.

But these adjustments aren’t enough, in total, to solve the problem. What is required is national sacrifice. Everyone has to suffer a little pain: the wealthy, the middle class and the poor. We need to tweak Social Security (raising the age of entitlement, perhaps, to around 70). We need to replace the current tax code with something that doesn’t contain thousands of exemptions and credits that sophisticated (rich) folks can exploit.

Everyone must pay. The more one makes, the more one should pay. But everyone should pay because we all use the system. We all reap the benefits. Unfortunately, that kind of approach won’t sell until we reach our moment of crisis – until we’re so far in debt that jobs are scarce and the economy is in tatters.

Any politician who advocates this kind of approach will lose the next election because we don’t want to pay until we’re forced to do so. Even then we won’t want to, though we might concede it’s necessary. I wish I had better news. I wish there was an easier way, but I just don’t see us saving ourselves until we’re forced to do it.


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Do We Really Want Clean Air?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I like to breathe. It makes me feel alive. I like my air to be clean too, without the infiltration of chemicals and pollutants. Most people agree. We want air that doesn’t have lots of additives.

But …

You probably knew that was coming.

But … we don’t want it enough. We’re willing to have our air be dirty because we don’t want to pay for clean air. At least, most of us don’t – because clean air costs a lot. Much of our electricity comes from coal-fired or their slightly less dirty cousins, natural gas power plants.

We have lots of coal and natural gas, so when we burn it, we don’t have to pay a lot to recharge our Ipods and Ipads and PCs and run our lights and water heaters and air conditioners.

What we end up with is what economists call high external costs – costs to society that don’t get factored in to the costs we pay. Things like increased instances of asthma and lung cancer and learning disabilities caused by pollutants like lead and mercury.

We refuse to consider nuclear power because we believe it would cost too much to create safe power plants and we don’t have a good system for storing nuclear waste. So instead, we absorb the costs of inefficient power sources and pretend those hidden costs don’t exist.

Plus, our dirty coal – the coal we refuse to burn in this country because it’s not clean – we ship to Asia so they can burn it there, depositing huge amounts of toxins into the atmosphere, where they drift east on the air currents, making their way over the United States, albeit in a somewhat diluted form.

Many of us don’t think we have a problem with dirty air. The pollutants are usually not at what we consider an unsafe level. Our air contains about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, almost 1% argon and about 0.4% carbon dioxide.

That means the amount of pollutants in it must be infinitesimal – parts per million of various contaminants. True, but it doesn’t take much to have a few particles stick to your lungs and trigger an immune response.

Beijing, now they have a problem with dirty air. You can see the smog; you can cut it with a knife. But we don’t have that problem here. Our air is relatively clean.

Except …

Except it isn’t. Not really. In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died (1 in 8 of total global deaths) from exposure to air pollution. Obviously it’s difficult to be precise with a measurement like this, but it’s safe to say that our air could be a lot cleaner.

How? There are lots of ways. Cutting back on trips by car, switching to a cleaner vehicle or lawn mower or cutting the grass less often. Turning the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter. Turning off lights when you leave a room. Buying fewer products in general since it costs energy to make and transport those products. Flying less often or not at all (if feasible).

There are many other ways to cut back, to clean up our air a little more. Not everyone can use a reel push lawnmower, for example – myself included – though I cut the grass much less often now that I use a power mower.

These are just a few suggestions and they do nothing to address the problem of industrial pollution. But they’re a start. And I like breathing clean air.


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