The ongoing theme in this thread involves “hastening the inevitable.” That is, speeding the transition from the very noisy, extremely polluting two-stroke gasoline engines that have been outlawed in most uses except leafblowers and other lawn equipment, to the rapidly improving, much quieter, dramatically less polluting electric models. For past discussion see this (about the new models) and this (about why Jakarta, Manila, Phnom Penh, etc are outlawing, as too dirty, engines still used in the U.S.)
Now the city of Los Angeles has decided to hasten the inevitable, with a trade-in program from the leading Stihl company, of old blowers for new ones. Here’s the announcement from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office:
Last week the local NPR station, WAMU, ran an interesting report by Matthew Schwartz about the ongoing effort to outlaw leafblowers that use (noisy, hyper-polluting, obsolescent) two-stroke gasoline engines. The man you see above is the subject of the report. He is Haskell (Hal) Small, an internationally known composer and pianist who was behind the 1990s campaign to set legal limits on sound emissions from lawn equipment in D.C.
As described in previous reports collected in this Thread, that previous effort was a legislative success but a practical failure. In theory, it set a legal noise limit of 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet; in reality, the noise from lawn crews is routinely several orders of magnitude louder. (And, yes, I mean 10 to 100 times more.) It was when my wife Deb and I learned what he and others were doing that we decided to get involved, as mentioned here.
This radio report conveys the piquancy of Haskell Small’s situation. He is a fourth- generation Washingtonian who doesn’t want to move out of the city, as he tells Matthew Schwartz—but some of his best-known compositions are “studies in silence,” built around contrasts between loud and very quiet passages. The report conveys the result when one of his compositions runs into a local leaf blower — as you’ll hear for yourself.
The WAMU story includes some other arguments, pro and con, about the legislation that D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced to speed the inevitable transition away from two-stroke gas blowers. (Inevitable? Yes: capital cities of nations like Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia are already phasing out these engines as unacceptably polluting. Sooner or later America’s capital will catch up. Also, the government-mandated use of ethanol in fuel, which is crazy from a public-policy perspective, has the additional effect of being very hard on two-stroke engines and makes them increasingly impractical.)
The weakest “con” argument in the report, for what it’s worth, is the claim by some lawn companies that if they can’t use two-stroke gas engines, they’ll stop doing business in D.C. There are already companies here using cleaner, dramatically quieter electric equipment. I’m sure they’d be happy with more business; and while people debate whether Say’s Law is true (“supply creates its own demand”), almost everyone agrees that demand creates supply. But listen to the report and see what you think.
Meanwhile, as a prelude to our upcoming American Futures report on the Maker Movement, and as yet another illustration of the Atlantic’s commitment to serving our readers, here’s a constructive seasonal suggestion about leafblower use. It explains how you can turn yours into a “snowball machine gun”:
Two updates on local coverage of the initiative I’ve been describing in the past few months: the D.C. effort to speed the transition from gas-powered leafblowers using dirty, noisy two-stroke engines to a range of alternatives, including the emerging generation of much quieter, dramatically less-polluting electric models.
In case you’re wondering, why does this deserve notice as a problem?, here’s a recap. The obvious issue is the noise, but the real reasons for attention, in my view, are pollution, environmental justice, and public health:
Two-stroke gas-powered engines are so exceptionally polluting that they have been banned in almost all applications except lawn equipment. Simplest benchmark: running a leafblower for 30 minutes creates more emissions than driving a F-150 pickup truck 3800 miles. About one-third of the gasoline that goes into this sort of engine is spewed out, unburned, in an aerosol mixed with oil in the exhaust. Cities like Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila are eliminating two-stroke engines as part of their environmental push.
Emissions from the engines, combined with the dust, mold, and other fine particulates created by the high-velocity (up to 200 mph) wind from the blowers, create public-health problems for a community. In a famous letter in 2010, the pediatric medical staff of Mt. Sinai hospital supported leafblower restrictions because of the damage done to children’s lungs. The American Lung Association has spoken up to similar effect.
But the greatest risks, of course, are to the workers who use these machines for many hours per day — and who, in big cities like D.C., are typically low-wage, non-English-speaking immigrants. That’s why I think people who say, “Oh, this is a fancy-pants first-world problem” have it exactly wrong. In effect they’re saying: Don’t bother me with details about what I’m asking these workers to do to themselves, and what lung or hearing problems they might have several years from now, when they’ve gone somewhere else and I don’t have to think about them any more. Right now my lawn looks nice! (See also: don’t bother me with details of what’s happening in those garment factories in Bangladesh. I love the prices at H&M!)
The alternative technology of battery-powered equipment is evolving fast enough to make this a plausible option for the commercial landscaping companies that would laugh away the idea of using rakes. I mentioned one of the low-emissions, low-noise models here. Like everything in the world of modern battery-tech, these devices are expensive now but will move quickly down the cost curve as volume moves up. How can I say this? Because half the investment bets being made in Silicon Valley — on energy systems, electric-powered transportation, mobile devices, space equipment — are based on the assumption of rapidly falling battery prices, and are also meant to accelerate that process.
Now, the new developments: One is the latest story from a publication that has consistently done a good job of covering the merits, the economics, the scientific arguments, and the politics of the issue: the local Current newspapers in D.C. The front-page story by Brady Holt in the latest issue, which you can see in a PDF here. It’s about the next steps the City Council may consider, and the forces pro and con.
The other is a story by Perry Stein in the Washington Post, which ran online last week and in the Sunday print paper yesterday. As Chris Bodenner summed up in a Note when the online version appeared, this article frames the leafblower issue as a personality story, in which the personality happens to be me. That wasn’t what I expected the story to be about when talking with the reporter, to put it mildly, but this is life in the realm of Civic Engagement! The story does set out how and why my wife and I happened to become involved in an effort that a number of other people here locally had begun.
I’ve been away from the online world for quite a while, on a big push for a cover story in the March issue of the magazine. More about that anon, and on other topics starting later today. Thanks to those writing to ask whether I’d left to join the circus, keeled over, become a lama or a freight pilot, etc.
As a reminder, the updates in this thread are part of an unfolding real-time chronicle of community efforts in D.C. to deal with an environmental, public-health, and civic-life anomaly. That anomaly is the use of two-stroke gasoline-powered engines, which are so polluting that they have been banned in most other applications, for leaf-blowing equipment and other lawn machinery. You can read more of the background in this note and this one, plus this one about the good news of cleaner-tech, much quieter alternatives.
Our goal locally is to hasten along the inevitable: the shift to equipment that is much less dangerous to its operators (who in D.C. as in most big cities are mainly hired members of lawn crews, mainly low wage, largely non-English speaking) and imposes much less of a public-health and noise-print burden on the community.
The latest news on this front comes from D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who has been active on these issues before. Yesterday she introduced legislation proposing that D.C. phase out these hyper-polluting gas engines over the next six years. (Useful fact #1: Running a leafblower with a two-stroke engine for just 30 minutes creates as much air pollution as driving a Ford pickup truck nearly 4,000 miles. Useful fact #2: Cities in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines have been banning two-stroke engines as being too dirty and polluting. Yet via lawn equipment these engines are still in use in the U.S.)
You can read the background to Mary Cheh’s move, plus see the draft legislation itself, in this piece by Rachel Kurzius in DCist. There is also coverage in The Daily Caller and in The Hatchet from George Washington University, where Cheh teaches law.
Also in recent press coverage is a letter in the latest issue of the Current newspapers (page 8 of the PDF here). It is from D.C. resident Joey Spatafora and addresses a local political figure who said he opposed any change in leafblower rules:
Multiple apartment complexes and an assisted-living facility nearby all employ landscaping contractors who use gasoline-powered leaf blowers for “general upkeep” of the grounds, in which they rarely — if ever — actually pick up anything. The leaf blowers are being used as a sort of gasoline- powered broom to “sweep” lawns, sidewalks, driveways — any surface that they want to “manicure.”
Nothing pierces the constant din of Connecticut Avenue traffic, trucks, ambulances, fire engines and accidents like a gasoline-powered leaf blower…. This is not the same quality of noise produced by lawn mowers, weed wackers, et cetera. This is a different spectrum and decibel level of sound. I do not believe that homeowners — or, more importantly, apartment complexes and landscaping companies that do business in D.C. — have the right to inject high-frequency, high-decibel noise into my apartment almost daily at such a level that I cannot even conduct a simple business phone call or concentrate on work.
There are reasonable, effective, community-friendly alternatives. Please talk to the maintenance staff at the Ponce de Leon and Parker House buildings on upper Connecticut Avenue, my heroes. The grounds manager there will talk to you about the benefits of low-noise electric leaf blowers — no spark plugs, gasoline, backpack or earplugs to hassle with, and just $70 at Lowe’s.
As mentioned throughout these reports, I originally was sensitized to leafblowers because of the noise, which like Spatafora I find uniquely disconcerting. But I decided it was worth trying to do something only when I learned about the public-health issues — and, crucially, the emergence of new, cleaner, quieter alternatives. We’ll let you know what comes next.
I’ll begin my emergence from a long bout of print-magazine writing by mentioning an article by Lawrence Richards, in The Guardian, on the changing nature of the leafblower debate around the world. Very much worth reading.
Brief update on what has gone before: after writing about citizens across the country who had invested time, inconvenience, effort, and disregard of “not my problem” inertia to bring changes large or small to their communities, my wife Deb and I decided to join one such effort in our own community of Washington D.C.
The point of this effort is to hasten an inevitable change: the shift away from gas-powered leafblowers (mainly the cheaper, super-polluting, uniquely noisy models that use primitive “two-stroke” engines) to newer-tech alternatives. While the most easily noticeable problem with these machines is the noise they create, the most serious objection is the public-health menace (mainly to crews using them) from two-stroke engines so hyper-polluting that they have been regulated out of existence in most other uses in the developed world, and for transport in countries like Thailand and Indonesia. You can read the details in the other posts collected on this page. Handy fact to bear in mind: one of these two-stroke leafblowers emits as many pollutants in 30 minutes as a Ford F-150 truck does driving coast to coast and halfway back again.
If I had been able to copy-edit my own comments, in real time, while talking by phone with the Guardian writer, I would have made them more coherent-sounding. But I think the story explains very well why this stage of the effort differs from some other very fractious civic showdowns. Also worth reading: the accompanying “Ask the Gardener” piece by Alys Fowler.
In this space I’ve been reporting developments in local D.C. citizen-action efforts to phase out the super-polluting, uniquely noisy leaf blowers that use old-tech two-stroke gasoline engines. These are the same kinds of engines that once powered smoky tuk-tuks through streets of Bangkok or Jakarta but have mainly been outlawed there. They’ve also largely disappeared from boating and motorcycle or scooter use in the United States, and survive here mainly in lawn equipment.
For news on the D.C. front since the previous update, please check out this front-page story by Brady Holt two weeks ago in the local Northwest Current (link goes to a PDF), and a followup Current editorial last week (page 8 of this PDF). Both stress the new pollution-related and public-health findings about problems caused by two-stroke engines, mainly for the lawn-crew workers who use them.
There’s one other new aspect of this debate, which should make its discussion different from fractious neighbor-vs-neighbor disputes through the years. It’s a change I knew about, but couldn’t quite believe, until I saw it in person yesterday. This is the emergence of battery-powered leaf blowers like the one you see in action in the photo at the top of this page, which take us much closer toward the Holy Grail of equipment that is both (1) powerful and (2) quiet.
No one will ever accuse me of being a shill for the lawn-equipment industry (and if someone does, pieces like this or this will be my defense). So I’ll come right out and say, I hope every lawn-owner in America will get a Stihl BGA 100 battery-powered blower for Christmas. Better yet, I hope you’ll buy one this weekend. Here is what the company says about its new product:
Believe it or not on the “seen but not heard” front, they are right. By (rarely enforced) Washington D.C. law, noise from leaf blowers cannot be more than 70 decibels, at a distance of 50 feet. Routinely with gas-powered blowers, the noise is five times louder than that, from five times farther away. (How do I know? We’ve measured.)
But yesterday a crew using two new BGA 100 blowers created noise only in the mid-50s decibel range, from a distance of 25 feet. Because the decibel scale, like the Richter scale, works logarithmically, this means that the noise was dramatically lower than conventional gas-powered blowers. (Technically it means that the “sound pressure level” was less than one-tenth as great). Over the years, from a writing office inside our house, I have been aware the instant leaf blowers start up in the surrounding blocks. Today I asked my wife Deb when the crew was going to turn their machines on — only to learn that they had been running in our front yard for the previous 20 minutes. I had not heard them start.
By safety regulations the crew members were required to wear protective glasses and to have their battery packs properly strapped on, which they did — but not required to wear ear protection, because it wasn’t needed. And of course there were no gas-engine fumes or emissions.
A D.C.-area lawn-care firm called A.I.R. had just bought a new set of the Stihl BGA 100 blowers and used them at our house. (It also is putting solar panels on the roof of its equipment truck, to re-charge the batteries.) Could these quiet blowers possibly be up to the job? We had a yardful of heavy, sodden leaves, and they got easily whooshed around like so:
Thank you, Stihl company! (This is not a sentence I had ever imagined myself writing.) And there’s even more good news from the industry. According to a trade publication, GreenIndustryPros, Stihl says that the battery-innovation age is upon us. The article reported that the BGA 100 “is the lightest handheld blower, at 5.5 pounds, and is the quietest in the Stihl line at 56 [decibels].” It then quoted a Stihl senior product manager named Kent Hall:
“I think that you’re going to see more and more, industry wide, battery products being introduced into the market. It’s almost, as some people refer to it, a battery frenzy. Manufacturers have suddenly gotten caught up in this battery tsunami focus,” says Hall. “So I think you’re just going to see more and more existing companies expand their battery range, like Stihl has.”
Thank you, battery-technology innovators! Thank you A.I.R.! Yes, once more, thank you Stihl!! The arc of lawn care is long, but it bends away from two-stroke engines.
On Wednesday night, as reported here, our local Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington voted 8-1 to support a shift from (noisy and dirty) gas-powered leafblowers to the rapidly improving electric models, like the one shown here. This weekend several members of our community group met with our D.C. City Council representative to talk about the next steps.
One of them is collecting as much nationwide data as possible about how other communities have addressed this issue, and with what results. Some of the experiences are well-documented: for instance this, from Santa Monica, California, about the legislation they have applied since the early 1990s and ways they have updated and adjusted it.
In an effort to be as comprehensive as possible, we would be grateful for reports from communities on:
Legislation your community has considered, or enacted, dealing with leafblowers.
What lessons you have drawn from the enforcement experience — effective and ineffective steps, changes your community has considered or made.
What the observed economic effect has been, if any — changes in the number of landscaping crews or in the rates they charge.
Two very different accounts of the neighborhood dynamics of modern community living, related to the community campaign being chronicled in this thread.
First, from Mike Lofgren, multi-decade veteran of national-level politics, about the suburbs of Washington D.C.:
Yes, two-stroke engines are very polluting (I can smell them when walking in my neighborhood). But they are also much noisier than 4-stroke engines and (obviously) electrics. That brings up my main point: they are the major, but far from the only, culprit destroying the tranquility in residential neighborhoods during recent decades.
It was not until I retired that I became aware of how noisy supposedly tranquil suburban communities are. Consider the following:
1. The almost universal use of commercial lawn services. All the commercial-grade gear (blowers, weed whackers, riding mowers) is without exception much louder than the consumer equivalent. In Virginia, the racket goes on from early April until the final leaves fall a couple of weeks before Christmas. Does no one ever mow their own lawn anymore, as they did a couple of decades ago? Are people now too rich/busy/lazy/self-important to do it themselves?
And the services are very inefficient: they mow on a rigid schedule, meaning they mow right after a rain (rutting the ground and tearing the grass), or, as during this past August/September when there were 5 weeks straight with no rain: the grass had gone dormant and didn’t need mowing. They still mowed lawns every week, generating noise that would wake the dead for no good reason.
To interrupt Mike Lofgren’s account for a moment: this is a transition I’ve often reflected on too. When I was a kid, either I mowed the family lawn, or my brother did. OK, that was a long time ago, and in a small town. But when our two sons were young, in early and mid-1990s, they mowed our lawn — and made money mowing the neighbors’ lawns as well. That was right in Washington D.C., and it was within more-or-less the modern era. We even had a neighbor (who moved out long ago) known as Lawnmower Man, because he would lovingly trim his lawn every few days.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a local teenager or householder mowing lawns or doing yardwork in the vicinity. Again, this is a controlled-by-location, variable-by-time observation: same part of Washington, different eras, within living memory mainly done by householders, now virtually all work done commercial landscaping crews. Just reinforcing Mike Lofgren’s observation.
2. You mentioned that the absence of regulation means low-wage immigrant laborers are exposed to pollution. Has it ever occurred to suburban Republicans who hate immigrants worse than strychnine poisoning that there is a thing called supply and demand?
How many of them hire lawn services, which are probably the biggest single source of employment for Latin American male immigrants? In a decade or so, many of them will be filing for SSI disability payments based on occupational hearing loss (hearing protection is often nonexistent). And having a madly vibrating backpack blower strapped to one’s body several hours a day, day after day, will certainly cause neuromuscular disorders over time.
3. Whether commercial or do-it-yourself, does no one know how to operate the marvelous contrivance called a leaf rake anymore? It’s good exercise, and I find it is more efficient for gathering up leaves.
4. In the age of Amazon, the number of loud, diesel-powered delivery vans coursing through residential areas seems to have increased by an order of magnitude. A large van would seem to have ample space for an abundant battery pack. There is no reason why vans on a fixed itinerary could not be battery-electric powered.
5. The DOT-mandated back-up beepers of the commercial vehicles and construction vehicles (like Bobcats and backhoes) that have proliferated in suburbia are, in some instances, piercingly loud. I recall one case of a beeper that could be heard a half mile away. Back-up cameras and/or pedestrian avoidance systems could in some cases alleviate the noise problem. [JF note: ah, back-up beeps…..]
To test my hypothesis, I went on a two-mile walk this afternoon. It was impossible to be out of earshot of the racket generated by commercial landscaping services. These operations are creating externalities that we will pay for later, quite apart from their damage to tranquility and privacy.
For a different perspective, a reader who used to live outside Boston and now lives in further-north New England. She writes:
First, whether fall leaves will disintegrate over the winter and fertilize your lawn depends entirely on what kind of tree we're talking about, and maybe how cold your climate is. Maple and even more so oak leaves are remarkably resistant to decomposition. Leave a large quantity of either on your lawn and you'll have a matted mess in the spring and patches of no grass at all. Even putting them in the compost is problematic. And they can cause rot of the crowns of perennials if they're not pulled back early in spring.
Shredded, either by the lawnmower or a shredder that's at least as noisy as a blower, they're great stuff for mulch and compost, but by themselves, they're murder (at least in northern areas with real winters and snow cover and stuff). So just leaving them be isn't as easy an option as it sounds in many cases.
Secondly, I'm guessing this won't be as much of a problem in your neighborhood, but in my old home town, an inner suburb of Boston , the attempt by some residents to get some simple regulation on hours of use blew up into a full-scale civil war in the town that raged for a couple of years between the long-time "townies" and the more recent, more "professional class" arrivals.
The townies took the side of the little landscaper outfits, who understandably wanted to be able to do their work in town at their convenience…. There had been, as in many gradually gentrifying suburban communities, simmering resentments between the two sides for many years, but this leaf-blower thing blew it wide open.
I understand the neighborhood-cleavage potential. In our area, the natural axis would not be newcomer/previous resident but rather one based on working patterns. People who are at downtown offices all day, or often away on weekends, would be on one side. On the other, people at home with children, or working at home, or working nights, or retired, or disabled, or for other reasons present during the day.
This potential for ill-will is why I’ve stayed out of this issue until very recently. (While personally not liking the omnipresent noise, and not working at home any more because of it. I wrote a book in 1993 and another in 1996 mainly at my home office in Washington. The ones since then I’ve mainly written elsewhere.)
What’s changed recently, for me, is the evidence that these two-stroke gas-powered noisy leafblower engines really are an anomaly. Because of their inefficiency and hyper-polluting nature (30 minutes of leafblower use creates pollutants comparable to driving a pickup truck 3800 miles), they’ve been banned or phased out in most other uses. For more than a decade the EPA has been prohibiting them as boat motors. Motorcycle and scooter makers make very few any more. Countries like Thailand and Indonesia are trying to clean their air in part by getting rid of two-stroke engines (as explained here). They anachronistically persist in widespread first-world use mainly on lawn crews, which is bad for public health in general but most of all for the lawn-crew members themselves.
At the same time as legal and environmental momentum has increased against the dirty two-stroke engines, the electric alternatives have been becoming more plausible, thanks to improvements in battery technology and other innovations. The switch will come sooner or later, and in my view it is worth trying to nudge it along.
This is part of the ongoing chronicle of a minor-seeming but conceptually significant effort in local community action. The conceptual significance, as set out mainly in this note, is that the lawn-machinery industry is an outlier in the past generation’s trend toward in tighter environmental standards and more awareness of worker-safety issues.
You can read all about that in the rest of this thread. Today, sharply diverging views on the right way to handle the seasonal bounty of leaves from the trees.
From the National Wildlife Federation: Leave ‘em be! [Hardee har!] The full argument is here. This screenshot will give you the idea:
From a reader in Minnesota: Yeah, just leave ‘em there! The reader writes:
Leaf blowers are an admirable opponent. But I would appreciate it even more if you could point out to folks the glories of leaves laying around fertilizing the lawn (naturally) and encouraging all kinds of wonderful life.
I know it seems like too much to ask—to get people stop polluting the air with noise and dust—and then pressing them into loving a yard covered with beautiful leaves. And it is probably a step too far.
Maybe they could think about gathering up the leaves and composting them? Imagine that sweet black earth next spring.
Hell no! Blow ‘em away! From a reader who lives in the countryside outside Washington DC, who begs to differ:
I wish you well: bravo! My advisor used to get worked up into a fury over how much oil two-stoke jet-skis drop. But I think your claim about the relative (functional—not environmental) merits of electric leaf blowers is way off, too.
I have an acre of land. Half of it is forested—I will shoot you some AMAZING red and gray fox photos which have been my obsession for years—and the other, grassy half we live on, but it has a score of old, mature trees on it; I typically take a week off work in November to rake. It doesn’t help that the land slopes drastically and has a lot of erosion problems—water has worn deep furrows in a few places and every year I landscape just a bit more to try to control it.
When we moved in, though, I resolved to use nothing but hand powered tools. Mostly that's ended up being a pride thing—it's nice to look at your full, green grass and know the force of your arm cut every single blade—but it was motivated by the idea that if I were going to live in the trees, I would like to be able to hear birds while I'm outside.
I was also curious about how folks used to do this stuff. I like hand tools. I like the mechanism that couples the wheel of a reel mower to the blades. And I hate this time of year when all the leafblowers are going all the time outside, and I can't hear birds—for that matter peoples' lawnmowers wreck my precious weekend afternoons too.
But after a couple years I made one concession, and bought a plug-in Toro leaf blower/vac. As far as I can tell it was—and might still be—the most powerful thing you can get that's corded, and it's way, way more powerful than the 40V battery set-ups. I rarely use it on the lawn—the leaves are so plentiful and the geography so bizarre that it doesn't save you that much time—but the gulleys—man, those suck. You have to do them by hand, and it takes hours and hours and hours as you squat or lie on your stomach, and if you say “the hell with it” and don't do it then when the next big rain comes it etches a lot out of your yard.
The blower makes those possible, at least within the cord range (and, 100 feet of 12-gauge cord is expensive) so I use it. And I don't merit anybody's sympathy: I mean, I chose to live in the trees, I knew it'd be work. I think if you have the opportunity to hear a wood thrush or to surprise a big ol' prehistoric-looking pileated woodpecker while you work and you give that up to fire up a lawnmower, then maybe you should give up your house to somebody who appreciates the thrush, and move to a nice condo in the city.
But, man, my retired neighbor has this gas-powered backpack blower. It is un-fricking-believable. I mean, you need hearing protection if he's using it nearby but he clears out his whole yard in like a half an hour.
Then he asks if he can do mine. I usually say no—I need the exercise —but once or twice it's felt rude, and I've let him do it, and—man, oh, man. He's like some kind of wizened old autumnal god. I'm half his age and twice his size and he can do in an hour what would take me two or three days.
So I feel pretty sure that while people should be willing, if they want to live in trees, to use more environmentally friendly tools—let’s not put out the fiction that those tools are comparable. They aren't. Gas tools are, as the kids say, the shiznit. People just gotta accept that you get all this nature but it costs you something in effort and time. Ain’t nothing free.
It’s a big complicated country. With intriguing differences between wizened old autumnal gods working their own country fields and the professional lawncare establishment. Thanks to all, more to come.
This evening the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission for our part of D.C. voted 8-1 to endorse the proposals from our community group, as described in previous items in this thread, to move the District of Columbia away from use of (grossly polluting, very noisy, hazardous to lawn crews) gas-powered leafblowers. They even amended our proposed resolution to make it stronger, in ways I’ll describe when I can check the official text tomorrow.
There are many steps ahead, but this is an important and very welcome one. Sincere thanks for their time, attention, questions, suggestions, and support to Chairman Smith and Commissioners Spencer, Gates, Gold, Gardner, Wells, Lucero, and Ross, and to the members of our community group. Further reports as the process goes on.
In response to the item immediately below, which kicked off this Thread, I’ve gotten reports from different corners of the country. My intention with the thread-organization here is to have a running chronicle, or billboard, of news and developments pro and con.
This item is about two-stroke engines, which North Americans and Europeans now encounter with gas-powered leafblowers (and some other lawn equipment) but otherwise aren’t in widespread use in developed countries any more. If you’ve spent time in Southeast Asia, India, much of Africa, or other parts of the developing world, you know these engines as the put-putting source that powers scooters, some jeepneys, the motorized tricycles known as tuk-tuks, etc.
You find two-stroke engines in poorer countries because they’re cheap. You don’t find them in richer countries because they’re so dirty and polluting. An NIH study in 2004 estimated that two-stroke engines were, by themselves, a major source of air pollution and pollution-related health problems, throughout Asia. Without getting into details, the main reason for the difference is that two-stroke engines are much less efficient in combustion than four-stroke engines (which are standard in cars); they burn a mix of oil and gasoline; and they emit a lot of this combustion mixture directly into the atmosphere, unburned.
For this reason, the EPA and other state and federal agencies have put increasing pressure on the boating industry to phase out, ban, or (in some cases) dramatically clean up two-stroke boat engines. Here is a sample directive from the National Park Service, about why they can’t be used for some kinds of watercraft in Lake Mead and Lake Mohave:
And here is a chart from the Oregon State Marine Board about the way the ban cut the proportion of two-stroke outboard engines on the state’s waters from 70% to 51% in the first three years. I haven’t yet seen later charts, but presumably the trend goes on. Similar trends apply to motorcycles in rich countries, which used to have a lot of two-stroke models and now have very few.
In the decades since the dawning of the world environmental movement in the early 1970s, rich and poor countries alike have steadily increased efforts to make car engines, truck engines, aircraft engines, railroad systems, heating and cooling systems, power generation, and most other forms of combustion energy cleaner year by year. A sign that a country is rich is that it has done more in this direction. One more burden of being poor is skies that are dark and unhealthy.
The main, anomalous remnants of poor-country pollution standards in the developed world are the two-stroke engines we encounter more often on leafblowers than anywhere else. (Also some noisy two-stroke generators.) We don’t use them in cars; we rarely use them in motorcycles; we’re moving away from them in boats. But their use is increasing in our neighborhoods.
Cruelly, in the richest neighborhoods of rich countries, it is often immigrants from poorer countries, on landscaping crews, who are carrying this equipment and spending the day in its fumes.
What about the place where our children were born and where they finished high school, where we own a house and have lived for more years than anyplace else: Washington D.C.? Don’t we have an obligation to keep pitching in too? The District is the site of national / international struggles but also of intense local involvement. Over the years, our local involvement has been mainly with our immediate neighborhood and with youth sports leagues and the public schools, when our children were there.
Recently we have become part of a new group involved in a small-seeming but significant aspect of D.C. neighborhood reality: the relatively recent omnipresence of gas-powered leafblowers as the raucous background sound of daily life.
For me, at least, this is an old complaint. What’s new, I have learned, is both a negative and a positive development.
The negative one is increasing evidence about the public health and environmental damage that the two-stroke engines used in these devices can do. According to an automotive-analyst study, running a gas-powered two-stroke leafblower for 30 minutes creates pollutants equivalent to driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck for more than 3800 miles. (How can this be? Normal car and truck engines, gasoline-powered or diesel, have been heavily regulated and dramatically cleaned up. Dirty old two-stroke engines are the outlier.) According to other studies this past summer, the extremely high-velocity (200 mph+) winds out of a leafblower disperse toxins, mold, fungi, particles of animal feces, and other pollutants into a dust that hurts the blower-operators most of all but affects the whole neighborhood. The intense winds can also destroy topsoil. An EPA report this past summer discussed the toxins and potential carcinogens to which the blower-users themselves are exposed. The research literature on this theme is vast. For the moment, our neighborhood flyer is here; a pioneering report from the California Air Resources Board is here; a searchable index to EPA reports on leaf blowers is here; and a letter from pediatricians at Mt. Sinai Hospital urging restrictions on gas-powered blowers on public-health grounds is here.
The positive development is the rapid progress in electric leaf blowers, both corded and battery-powered. The electric models are quieter, because there’s no combustion noise; and they are dramatically less polluting, because their power is from the steadily-more-regulated electric grid rather than these godawful two-stroke motors. Recent breakthroughs in battery life, like those I wrote about here, have made them more practical as alternatives.
So we’re going to start at the closest-to-the-neighborhood level of local government, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, to ask for a consideration of: the new and mounting evidence of health effects, especially on lawn-crew workers; the feasibility of at least enforcing existing noise ordinances (routinely exceeded by a factor of 10); and the possibility of joining other cities in a shift to allowing electric leafblowers only, rather than the noisy and super-polluting two-stroke gas models.
To my mind, shifting toward a different leafblower regime is like requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets. It would be easier for the owners if they didn’t have to do so, but that is not fair to everyone else.
It’s also like asking people who buy clothes made in Haiti or electronics made in China to pay attention to the conditions in which those goods are made, rather than just pushing for the cheapest price. Or asking people who buy grapefruit from Florida and vegetables from the California Central Valley to think about the pesticides and toxins to which farm workers are exposed. The mindset I’m most determined to turn around is the idea that concern on this front is a “first world problem.” The real first-world attitude is: Hey, it’s fine for these (low-paid, and in our area generally non-English-speaking) lawn guys to hear this noise and breathe these fumes, while we’re downtown at the office or away for the weekend. The lawn looks great when we come back!
We’ll see, and report, where this goes. The hearing at the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in our part of D.C. is tonight.
Changing voters’ minds is famously difficult, but a recent progressive effort found real success.
No state has haunted the Democratic Party’s imagination for the past four years like Wisconsin. While it was not the only state that killed Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes in 2016, it was the one where the knife plunged deepest. Clinton was so confident about Wisconsin that she never even campaigned there. This year, it is one of the most fiercely contested states. The Democrats planned to hold their convention in Milwaukee, before the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation. Donald Trump is also making a strong play for Wisconsin.
Trump’s weaknesses with the electorate are familiar: Voters find him coarse, and they deplore his handling of race, the coronavirus, and protests. One recent YouGov poll found that just 42 percent of Americans approved of his performance as president, while 54 percent disapproved. But when the pollsters asked about Trump’s handling of the economy, those attitudes reversed: 48 percent approved and 44 percent disapproved, despite the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.
The coming months of the pandemic could be catastrophic. The U.S. still has ways to prepare.
On April 13, Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appeared on the Today show and assured viewers that the worst was nearly behind us. It had been a month since the last gathering of fans in an NBA arena; a month since the fateful week when Americans began panic-buying bottled water and canned beans. The segment’s host, Savannah Guthrie, was broadcasting from home in upstate New York. With the light of a makeshift camera reflecting in her glasses, she asked Redfield to address reports that we could be facing another three weeks of social distancing. “We are nearing the peak right now,” Redfield told her. “Clearly we are stabilizing in terms of the state of this outbreak.”
Climate change is killing Americans and destroying the country’s physical infrastructure.
The federal government spends roughly $700 billion a year on the military. It spends perhaps $15 billion a year trying to understand and stop climate change.
I thought about those numbers a lot last week, as I tried to stop my toddler from playing in ash, tried to calm down my dogs as they paced and panted in mid-morning dusk light, tried to figure out whether my air purifier was actually protecting my lungs, tried to understand why the sky was pumpkin-colored, and tried not to think about the carcinogen risk of breathing in wildfire smoke, week after week.
The government has committed to defending us and our allies against foreign enemies. Yet when it comes to the single biggest existential threat we collectively face—the one that threatens to make much of the planet uninhabitable, starve millions, and incite violent conflicts around the world—it has chosen to do near-nothing. Worse than that, the federal government continues to subsidize and promote fossil fuels, and with them the destruction of our planetary home. Climate hell is here. We cannot stand it. And we cannot afford it either.
Some of the year’s best new movies are about American soul-searching.
David Byrne has long been a master of perfectly designed worlds. The 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, with his band Talking Heads, captured how carefully he stages his shows, bringing in band members one by one to emphasize how each contributes to the harmonies of a song. Byrne’s latest tour, “American Utopia,” was documented by Spike Lee in a film of the same name, due out October 17 on HBO. In it, Byrne again tries to construct a new musical universe, making jolly music and dancing in lockstep with shoeless artists in natty gray suits. But as the film’s title suggests, he wants to create a better world beyond the concert venue too.
American Utopia was the opening-night feature at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off the fall movie season every year with big premieres and awards-friendly projects. Thanks to the coronavirus and the general hibernation of the industry, TIFF screened just 50 new films this year (compared with more than 300 in 2019). But even in its compact form, the festival offered a preview of what moviegoers can expect in the next few months as Hollywood navigates the pandemic. Given that the United States is in the midst of a fraught election season, it’s unsurprising that some of the most compelling new films confront the idealistic notion of America—and how promises of progress and justice are so often blunted by the grim realities of racism, poverty, and polarization.
Millions of coronavirus tests may be happening without their results being made public.
President Donald Trump has never hidden his ambivalence about testing for the coronavirus. In June, when he told an arena of supporters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that he had instructed “his people” to “‘slow the testing down, please,’” the disclosure prompted one of the more dire news cycles of the pandemic. The president said repeatedly that he wanted the United States to reduce its testing. But in the weeks that followed, testing increased.
Not so now. In the past month, the number of tests conducted in the United States has actually drifted down—and that may be partly because of Trump-administration policy.
The United States now reports about 100,000 fewer daily tests than it did in late July, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Some of this decline is due to reduced demand: The surge of infections across the South and West has subsided, and when fewer people are sick, fewer people seek out tests. Yet this cannot explain all of it. In the Midwest, the number of confirmed cases is growing faster than the number of tests, which has been a sign of a growing outbreak throughout the pandemic.
The press hasn’t broken its most destructive habits when it comes to covering Donald Trump.
We’re seeing a huge error, and a potential tragedy, unfold in real time.
That’s a sentence that could apply to countless aspects of economic, medical, governmental, and environmental life at the moment. What I have in mind, though, is the almost unbelievable failure of much of the press to respond to the realities of the Trump age.
Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.
In some important ways, media outlets are repeating the mistake made by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In his book about the Mueller investigation, True Crimes and Misdemeanors (and in a New Yorker article), Jeffrey Toobin argues that Mueller’s tragic flaw was a kind of anachronistic idealism—which had the same effect as naivete. Mueller knew the ethical standards he would maintain for himself and insist on from his team. He didn’t understand that the people he was dealing with thought standards were for chumps. Mueller didn’t imagine that a sitting attorney general would intentionally misrepresent his report, which is of course what Bill Barr did. Mueller wanted to avoid an unseemly showdown, or the appearance of a “fishing expedition” inquiry, that would come from seeking a grand-jury subpoena for Donald Trump’s testimony, so he never spoke with Trump under oath, or at all. Trump, Barr, and their team viewed this decorousness as a sign of weakness, which they could exploit.
All summer, I tried to buy things, and mostly I failed. I signed up for two separate wait lists for out-of-stock black spandex bike shorts, which I needed for the Peloton I had bought, itself back-ordered for two months. I also added my email address to a wait list for curtain rods, remembering how the shifting fall sun broils the kitchen table that’s now my office. When word from Bed Bath & Beyond came weeks later to let me know they were back on sale, I was too slow on the draw—they sold out about as swiftly as hand sanitizer did in March. Over the weekend, I believed I had acquired replacements for my worn-out bed linens, but my email receipt contained a confession: The sheets would arrive, at best, around Halloween.
A few glimpses of the landscape of Washington, and some of the animals and people calling it home
Washington State is home to more than 7.6 million residents, most living on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. I originally published these photos of Washington last year, dedicating them to my mother and father, who loved their home state, and who had passed away the month before. The warm reactions to that photo story were what inspired me to undertake this larger project, “Fifty,” presenting wide-ranging collections of images of each state in the U.S. I’m happy to now add this collection to the project, and hope you enjoy these glimpses of the landscape of Washington and some of the wildlife and people calling it home.
This photo story is part of “Fifty,” a collection of images from each state of the United States.
Reports of a vote-by-mail apocalypse are greatly exaggerated.
President Donald Trump stood on a North Carolina tarmac earlier this month, Air Force One idling behind him, and urged his supporters to commit a crime. He said they should cast the ballots they received in the mail—just as he has done many times in the past—and then they should go to their polling place on Election Day and test the system by trying to vote again. “Let them send it in, and let them go vote,” Trump said. “If their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote.”
Officials in North Carolina were aghast. The executive director of the state’s board of elections, Karen Brinson Bell, issued a statement the next day explicitly warning North Carolinians not to follow the president’s advice. “It is illegal to vote twice in an election,” she said. “Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.”
Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.
In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust.