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In the opening entry in this series, Solarchy: Our Sun-Worshipping PV Future, I laid out some of the likely utopian consequences of photovoltaic solar power over the long-term.  However, in the interests of a positive tone, I kind of glossed over some of the transitional steps between here and there - an interim that, in grimmer scenarios, could involve near-total short-term collapse of the global water, food, and political infrastructure before new equilibrium is achieved.  But rather than wallow in apocalypticism, which I loathe, I will instead illustrate the pitfalls and what steps would avoid them.

Smiley Sun and Monster Oil

First of all, humanity will not go extinct.  Ever.  You need to accept this.  It is conceptually more difficult, and personally very humbling, to open your mind to the fact that we are individually just links in an infinite chain going both backward and forward into deeper time than we can imagine.  Even if you reject the anthropic philosophy that consciousness is self-selecting on an ongoing, moment-to-moment basis, it would be far too easy to underestimate the survival advantages of technological intelligence.  There is a lot of fragility in current technology because it has not really been tested under pressure, but don't be deluded by surfaces - humanity is the single most robust organism on Earth, and grows more so over time.

We will not go away.  Ever.  Technological intelligence is a form of meta-evolution that both reflects and transcends the underlying imperatives of living organisms, abstracting them into an information ecosystem that can survive (or even benefit from) extreme population bottlenecks.  The events that sent the dinosaurs into extinction would not have had the same effect on us.  Even in an apocalypse so scrupulous that everything down to the core philosophic principles of the Enlightenment and the practical forms of the scientific method are eliminated, human DNA would still contain the same long-term collective potential, and the physical geography would still carry the same inescapable lessons leading to convergent social evolution (albeit from an alternate direction).

Some people may actually find this fact appalling, for various reasons: For one thing, it means the decisions people make have real and unbounded consequences - it's not all going to be wiped away in a convenient slate-cleaning.  Certainly, most of what we do does not change the overall trajectory of events, and simply blends into the background noise of time, but the choice is always there to do something Significant - and that choice is often bothersome if we would rather be egocentric and pretend our problems are insurmountable, and that future generations must be intellectually and morally beneath us.

Now, this is not to say that a given civilization will not end - that kind of extinction is unfortunately a direct consequence of our social intelligence, as it is always shifting and forming new alignments.  So it is a possibility - albeit the most extreme one - that civilization as we know it could end relatively abruptly and give us a poverty-stricken, desperate, violent interregnum before new liveliness overcame the downward cascade.  All it took to spark the end of the European Dark Ages was the reintroduction of a tiny fraction of the literature and philosophy of antiquity to a handful of cities on the Adriatic, so I wouldn't be worried that concepts like democracy, steam engines, solar power, and the transistor would be irrevocably lost even in the worst plausible scenario.  But a Dark Age is a Dark Age, and looks like an infinite abyss to the people who live in it, so let's talk about avoiding it.

I.  Priority 1: Make the supply chain for renewable energy systems self-sustaining.

In other words, the first step is to make renewable energy actually renewable.  Right now it isn't, and isn't yet at a point where it can be: The mining equipment that extracts and processes the metals used in solar panels, electronic circuitry, mirrors, and both steam and wind turbines is overwhelmingly still powered by fossil fuels.  Ditto the vehicles that transport the feedstocks to the factories, the production machinery itself, the physical buildings that house the machinery, and the transports that move the output to consumers and utilities.  

This presents a keen danger in the short-term if fossil fuels become radically scarce in a short period of time, because they would then have to be reserved for food and water systems while the transition to renewability would be de-prioritized: An unavoidable move that would all but guarantee a Dark Age of indeterminate length.  With fossil fuels nearly all directed to meeting immediate needs, their depletion and its destructive effects on civilization would accelerate while less and less surplus energy is available to build a sustainable system.  Even the existing renewable infrastructure would fail after a few years because its operation, maintenance, and replacement would still depend on mostly non-renewable systems.  

In the worst scenario - one that I don't consider very probable, mind you - the supply chain would completely unravel to the point where even highly localized renewable manufacturing would become untenable.  This would require pretty much every decision made between here and there by every potentially self-sufficient economy to be the wrong one - there could be no pockets of regional stability for such a scenario to occur, because any such economic islands would be rapidly catalytic to the rest of the world (much like the role played by US manufacturing in the aftermath of WW2).  

All that would be needed to stop a cascading collapse would be a single economy - large enough to defend itself from the military predations of more desperate neighbors - making an intelligent decision to stay focused on renewability despite short-term hardships.  If the availability of fossil fuels dropped through the floor tomorrow, there would still probably be several such economies.  Nevertheless, the human toll of even a mild collapse would be extreme: Mass migrations would depopulate the global megacities, totally annihilate some national borders (and even destroy some nation-states altogether), and cause general chaos in psychological terms even where the economics are relatively tolerable.

So the first step in avoiding that is to make mining equipment directly used in extracting renewable feedstocks (e.g., silicon, gallium, indium, etc.) itself renewably-powered, and from there move up the supply chain as well as horizontally to parallel industries.  The further one extends the renewability of the supply chain, the shallower a collapse would be.  Once you get to the point where a complete, operational renewable-energy module can be produced at volume using only that type of energy production, a collapse would probably not occur: It would simply be a very deep global Depression with resources being radically reinvested into extending the production capacity of renewables.  

Now, it doesn't have to be PV solar that we're talking about - you could do the same thing if the entire supply chain that supports a solar thermal (ST) plant or wind farm were itself renewably powered - but as you may guess, not all supply chains are created equal.  It would take a depth of quantitative analysis beyond my capability to argue this point conclusively, but we can say that PV is an information-intensive technology based more on subtle electronic knowledge than on large quantities of material input, and would intuitively seem to require much lower material throughput (i.e., lower marginal input energy) to sustain than ST or wind.  Granted, I'm thinking about PV as it would be once it's already operating with significant economies of scale, so I wouldn't hazard to guess what the case may be while it's still sucking up the bulk of its investment just figuring out how to scale up.

A rewewable renewable energy infrastructure is the kernel that makes all subsequent progress possible, so hopefully - and I realize such rationality is perhaps too much to ask of business in general, let alone a fragile young industry that's still finding its footing - companies involved in renewable energy are forward-thinking enough to be putting their own product to use in their production lines, if not subsidizing their use upstream in their own supply chains.  Vertical integration is probably a good idea, although there is always that compromise between present efficiency and future innovation.

II.  Priority 2: Make water infrastructure renewably-powered.

Once you've secured the ability to sustainably make renewable energy capacity, the next logical step is to begin securing the most immediate necessity, water.  You may argue this should be priority 1, but again, if you can't maintain the energy infrastructure that supports the renewable extraction/capture, desalination, treatment, pumping, and reclamation of water, you're going to run out of it anyway.  Although the priorities would have to be served simultaneously, the renewability of the energy-generation systems must be a higher priority than anything the energy is used for or else you're subject to the kind of cascading economic collapses mentioned earlier.

As it is, water is the second-most-immediate economic need, the most immediate individual need, and a very energy-intensive system because (among other processes) it moves large masses significant distances and removes metals and salts from a powerful solvent.  The absolute amount of energy used by water systems is only going to increase over time as economies shift to seawater and more rigorous recycling systems, so it becomes even more critical that those energy needs be met renewably to avoid a sudden fossil fuel collapse being translated into potentially lethal regional water shortages or, in milder cases, the widespread destruction of agriculture from lack of irrigation leading to dangerous spikes in food prices.

If Priority 1 is fulfilled but Priority 2 neglected, whole nations could disappear from the face of the Earth while the water system is reorganized - entire regions turned into large, generalized failed states with only nominal governance and uniform desperation across multiple ethnic boundaries causing endless, pointless strife.  Parts of Africa may already be characterized in these terms, but the economics of that issue have more to do with politics than with energy.  

Water crisis would not, however, lead directly to depopulation of global urban centers - they are overwhelmingly already located next to significant bodies of water, and crash programs operated on a military footing could build the infrastructure needed to serve their metropolitan regions.  The immediate disaster in this case would occur everywhere other than the megacities and coasts, turning inland regions into impoverished, lawless, Dust Bowl environments that would drive people toward the cities and cause destabilization by virtue of increased density rather than diffusion.  That could secondarily cause ethnic tensions, ghettoization, food riots (as the agricultural input from the countryside wanes), refugee crises, and political crises potentially resulting in wars and massacres to stop people from flooding across borders from one city into another, or from rural regions in one country into another country's cities.

The nightmare scenarios from neglect of Priority 2 would be more like Soylent Green than Mad Max - urban, crowded, requiring people to sacrifice, scrimp, and cooperate in the most petty and soul-crushing ways to maintain access to resources.  Mild scenarios, however, would simply feature an acceleration of what we already see: The decline of suburbia, greater urban densities, desertification of the countryside, etc.

III.  Priority 3: Make farm equipment, railways, trucks, and cargo ships renewably-powered, in that order.

This step progressively secures the chain of food supply, first securing the equipment directly involved in farming, then the backbone food-transportation systems, and finally the global trade systems that provide backup food supplies in case of regional devastation.  Short of this point, there is still a great deal of vulnerability, although the probability of global castastrophe is significantly smaller.

Even if you have a substantially renewable supply chain for renewable energy and sustainable, renewably-powered water infrastructure, the sudden collapse of fossil fuel availability could still cause massive upheaval if farm and bulk transportation systems still largely depend on them.  If a significant proportion of farm equipment and the transportation used to bring food to market becomes uneconomical more quickly than it can be replaced, the result is in many ways the same as a water shortage: Fields laying fallow while people go hungry, turning the countryside into impoverished dust bowls and causing huge price spikes in cities.  

However, unlike a water collapse, an exclusively food-related crisis would have a diffusing effect on population because the economics would favor relocation closer to wherever the food is still being produced, and those areas would not be impoverishd: They would have plenty of water, and decentralized renewable energy - although there would still be problems with a relatively sudden population influx.  

Cities would not be depopulated, mind you - they would still have huge energy and water infrastructure that would be of mutual benefit to the farming regions, but we could expect them to be grimmer, poorer, and lacking in vital energy as long as the crisis lasted.  In milder cases, you wouldn't see much migration, but food would be much more localized, leading people to eat more seasonally and regionally-available staples rather than as wide-open consumers buying packaged foods from agribusiness.  Net-food-importer countries would bear the worst of the damage, and the poorest of the poor could face large-scale deaths and regional instability.

IV.  Priority IV: Create strategic reserves of emergency inputs

First among these, create a strategic electricity reserve: I.e., a reserve of already-generated electrical energy, rather than merely an energy reserve that would then have to be translated into useable form.  An electricity reserve could take the form of whole mountains full of long-life batteries, ultracapacitors, a variety of liquid or solid fuels (reasonably stable, of course), or other approaches, and they could be as geographically distributed as you need to ensure their safety and the access of regional populations in the event of a crisis.  If people haven't made enough progress on Priorities I-III by the time a crisis hits, the strategic electricity reserves would give them leeway to make that progress and begin moving forward.  The Strategic Petroleum Reserve would also help, but may in some ways end up being used counterproductively - e.g., "Holy shit, we're running out of oil!  Quick, let's gas up our Abrams tanks and go take other people's oil have before it's too late!"

In addition, of course, you'll want a couple of common-sense reserves: Strategic water reserve, and food reserves (currently our food reserves are just what other countries export, but in the event that it became uneconomical to haul food in bulk globally, we would need a local reserve).  That can be done in any number of trivially imaginable ways, but once you've actually gotten to that point, you're really starting to build an economy robust against a potentially rocky transition to renewable energy.

Of course, there is also the possibility - one I don't discount at all - that the transition may be more or less smooth sailing even without these special precautions: There may be periodic spikes in prices here and there accompanied by new investment in renewables, and then the whole thing slowly cycles toward an equilibrium point exactly like what I've mentioned with a robust system.  Brief shortages will be caused by market speculation, but that can only sort itself out.  Now, this optimistic scenario is if fossil fuels ramp down at a manageable rate, rather than just going kaput, and I think there is reasonable basis for expecting that.  Either way, it's good to think ahead.  We'll be in a much better position after the transition if we've planned ahead for it, and won't have to wait as long to see some of the utopian possibilities of solarchy realized.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

    The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

    by Troubadour on Mon Jun 20, 2011 at 08:34:58 PM PDT

  •  From your lips to everyone's ears. (4+ / 0-)

    I am more pessimistic. Given the way we make decisions that affect the general populace today, I don't see a possibility for the kind of unified response required to do what you suggest. Logic is in short supply with our policy makers, I fear.

    A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. -Greek proverb

    by marleycat on Mon Jun 20, 2011 at 08:42:42 PM PDT

    •  In what way are you more pessimistic? (0+ / 0-)

      A trend is not a destination.

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 03:59:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, when you put it that way....I see the trend. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        And what you propose makes incredibly good sense. I think I am just too jaded right now by all the roadblocks this country seems to be throwing up against getting anything significant done.

        A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. -Greek proverb

        by marleycat on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 05:54:28 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I've learned to stop thinking in terms of (0+ / 0-)

          everything we're not doing that we could be doing - there's no time in history when the future would have looked positive with that kind of standard.  Through the Industrial Revolution, cities were hellish, soot-covered shitholes and it looked like the story of humanity was basically over in favor of a soulless, all-powerful Machine.   In the 20th century, we had Fascism, totalitarian Communism, and enough nuclear firepower on hair-trigger alert to sterilize most of the planet.   Today we're transitioning to sustainable energy and dealing with climate change.  Tomorrow (however far away that is), it'll be something else.  

          The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

          by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 06:35:25 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  My (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour, Larsstephens

    life is awesome, and a positive experience.

    It's getting better every moment :-)

    Love, love, love lol

    Peace Shopper- Saving more than pennies :-)

    by Maori on Mon Jun 20, 2011 at 08:45:53 PM PDT

  •  I'm intrigued with your notion... (6+ / 0-)

    ... that vast amounts of current desert (i.e. Australian outback, Saudi Arabia) can utilize solar powered desalinization plants to produce agriculture.

    I'm especially interested in using agriculture and reforestation as engineered carbon sinks.  I read somewhere that 1 hectare of hemp will sequester 22 tons of carbon dioxide in a single growing season.  If the hemp fiber were to be sequestered in concrete rather than burned, then the benefits could be enormous.  Google up "hempcrete" to read about projects in Australia and UK utilizing this hemp in construction.

    •  The way I figure it (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      these artificially-reclaimed, high-maintenance agricultural environments would start to have output competitive with naturally-occurring farmland when desalinated water reaches economies of scale competitive with (eventually, likely exceeding due to sheer volume) fresh water aquifers and glacial-runoff aqueducts.  But even before that point they would flourish regionally due to internal demand - where fresh water is already scarce - and political policy.

      You raise a fascinating possibility re: forest carbon sinks.  As global warming releases greenhouse gases from the frozen bogs of Siberia, we may achieve a counter-balance in the re-greening of continental deserts.

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 04:09:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Re: Priority 3 -- farm equipment (4+ / 0-)

    Stranded Wind, who posts here, had an interesting series of diaries about utilizing wind power in areas quite distant from existing high voltage power lines.  Instead of shipping out the electricity, he instead suggests using it to manufacture hydrogen gas (through electrolysis) and then into ammonia (through the Haber-Bosch process).  This ammonia could be used for fertilizer and could also be used to run farm equipment.  Stranded wind had one diary where he described how easy it is to retrofit certain types of tractors to run on ammonia fuel.

    This would free up more natural gas to be used for heating and electric generation.  Currently a good proportion of natural gas is converted to anhydrous ammonia for fertilizer.  This fertilizer is in turn used to grow corn which is converted into ethanol fuel.  At some point, it seems like we are just chasing our tails in circles converting food to fuel to food to fuel again.

    •  Stranded Wind has looked closer than I have. (0+ / 0-)

      Chemical fuels are, as you say, potentially a circular process with negative net economics, but I agree there are pathways that provide convenient shortcuts in the short-term.  Not sure about hydrogen, given the onerous storage requirements - unless you have a process where it's manufactured and used in marginal quantitaties in close succession directly by the engine it's powering, but then you're getting close to the subject of artificial photosynthesis: A baroque process whose development path and timeline is very uncertain.  

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 04:16:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Although the improvements in PV tech (0+ / 0-)

    have been substantial in recent years, in case you haven't noticed, the patents, companies and infrastructure for it have largely been bought out by mega corporations, especially fossil fuel industries, which will make everything you've proposed a hopeless dream. Germany may survive, Japan will almost certainly survive, but the rest of us may be headed for that dark age, courtesy of the likes of the Koch brothers, etc.

    May you live in interesting times--Chinese curse

    by oldcrow on Mon Jun 20, 2011 at 10:58:04 PM PDT

    •  No. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      First of all, how long exactly do you think patents last?  They're not copyrights.  Secondly, where are you getting the idea that there's been large-scale consolidation?  There remain a multitude of independent startups being channeled out of the world's tech universities, and they just keep coming.  The fact that fossil fuel companies are investing in the industry is not the same thing as claiming they have a controlling interest, and in point of fact it's more likely over time that solar companies would be the ones buying out the bigger energy giants.  

      "Germany may survive" ROFL - why, because it has like three years' head start despite having trivial amounts of solar-optimum land compared to America's deserts and a cloudy climate?  You really don't get how this works.  It's a volume business.  

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 04:22:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for all the work that you have done (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lawrence, Troubadour

        Troubador, you present a well thought out path to the future.  

         I hope the plan is read as much as it deserves.

    Bush hijacked the US with lies about 9/11 and crashed it into Iraq, killing over 500,000 human beings. So far, he's avoided arrest and prosecution.

    by Zydekos on Mon Jun 20, 2011 at 11:01:49 PM PDT

    •  I've just mused on it, really. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The well-thought-out paths to the future are in scientific journals and policy papers, although I like to think there is some idea-generating value in brainstorming.

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 04:24:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Such an important diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I love solution-based and reality-based diaries.  You put a lot of work into this.  I need to read it a few times to determine priority 1 from 2, but I'll get it.  Thanks so much for this.

  •  I really like this series, but can't agree with (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    two premises here.

    #1 Saying that we can't go extinct, ever.  I really just don't think that this is true until we reach type 1 cvilization status(at the very minimum) or type 2 civilization status(inter-solar).  A major asteroid could, after all, make us very extinct at this time.

    #2 - Although I think that your thoughts on the supply chain are good, I really don't think it matters all that much where the energy savings come in right now, as renewables production in any area of the economic chain frees up fossil resources in other areas.

    Looking forward to part 3.

    "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle" - Mohammed Nabbous, R.I.P.

    by Lawrence on Mon Jun 20, 2011 at 11:49:41 PM PDT

    •  Asteroid impacts (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      are diabolus ex machina scenarios, and ultimately moot, but I think you may be underestimating our ability to survive such impacts.  As I said in the diary, I don't think an event like KT-Boundary would make us extinct or even necessarily end civilization - it would more likely create a bottleneck with a Dark Age, and I don't think that Dark Age would last as long as you might think.

      That isn't to say there is no possible impact that could annihilate us - of course there is.  There is also the possibility that a neutron star could be tilted off-axis by gravitational interaction with another object and have its jet plume pointed directly at the solar system, bathing us in sterilizing radiation for millions of years.  Hell, there is the possibility of genocide by an alien species.  But we're talking about such trivial probabilities compared to the timelines needed for humanity to exceed their grasp that it's not worth articulating.

      It's like qualifying the high life expetancy rate of Norwegians by noting that they can still fall into sinkholes - it doesn't mean anything.

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 04:33:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I dunno... I still have to disagree with that. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Because of Murphy's Law.

        We, as a species, seem to have had some harrowing close encounters with extinction before due to bottlenecks.  I think it could happen again.

        A nuclear winter would be one such bottleneck.

        But once we get to truly type 1 civilization status, I'll tend to agree with you.  :)

        "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle" - Mohammed Nabbous, R.I.P.

        by Lawrence on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 07:19:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  There hasn't been a single instance (0+ / 0-)

          of coming close to extinction due to a population bottleneck since human beings started building fires, wearing clothes, and making their own shelter.  The last time was 70,000 years ago, before the advent of language.  We might say the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened such a bottleneck, but since nothing came of it, I think we can say Murphy favors annoyances over genuine catastrophes.

          But yes, we'll be much safer once we're Type I - at least from naturally-occurring catastrophes.  Nothing precludes self-inflicted bottlenecks even when the entire solar system is swarming with humans.  Nevertheless, actual extinction would require a level of hostility from the universe far beyond Murphy - it would have to involve a very long series of perfectly-timed and inconveniently located catastrophes practically calculated to prevent the recoherence of technological civilization.  And while nothing inherently precludes the possibility, the idea is diabolus ex machina - as silly in its way as Kurzweil-style Singularity.

          One of the consequences of globalized technology is that it becomes increasingly difficult to stamp it out without uniform destruction.  If it's preserved anywhere, it is soon reintroduced to wherever it was lost and starts growing again.  It's virulent.  Obviously I would rather not have this theory tested, but I'm not worried for the species overall.  

          The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

          by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 08:31:30 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  With respect to point 2 (0+ / 0-)

      while it is correct that efficiency anywhere has systemwide benefits, the importance of concentrating them upstream is in creating robustness in the system against cascading economic collapse.  Diffuse efficiencies do not create such robustness, and would be costly and time-consuming to reorganize upstream in the middle of a collapse.

      The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

      by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 04:37:43 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That would be most preferable, but the fact is (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        that the quickest implementations are not always upstream, and general speed of implementation across the board is likely more important than anything else.

        Upstream water production should be among the first things done, though... that I can definitely agree with.

        "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle" - Mohammed Nabbous, R.I.P.

        by Lawrence on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 07:22:19 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's certainly a strong argument. (0+ / 0-)

          After all, with speedier general implementation, it might be that the upstream applications would be approached more quickly.

          The conundrum of stable democracy: Reform requires the consent of the corrupt.

          by Troubadour on Tue Jun 21, 2011 at 08:34:27 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  You are quite mistaken regarding (0+ / 0-)

    energy return on energy invested (EROEI). Wind is the Hans down winner with a ratio in the 30s. PV is right around 10 if I recall correctly.

    Causation was, is, and ever shall be a slippery bitch, so we're best sticking with noting the facts

    by jam on Thu Jun 23, 2011 at 11:23:36 AM PDT

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