Yes, there is such a thing. And I don’t just mean that with today’s Washington D.C. primaries, we’ve officially reached the end of the presidential primary season.
For reasons introduced by but not limited to the themes in this section, over the past year my wife Deb and I have been much more actively engaged in local D.C. politics than before. I was wearing an “I voted!” sticker in this afternoon’s Facebook conversation with Yoni Appelbaum and Molly Ball; and the vote I really cared about casting was in the race for an at-large seat on the D.C. City Council.
Vincent Orange—multi-era incumbent, runaway leader in name recognition, presumed winner, and a man known by supporters and critics alike for a “transactional” pay-to-play style of politics (you help me, I help you)—was the person whose name I assumed I would see at the top of the heap tonight.
Instead, Robert White pulled it out! White, who grew up in the District and based his campaign on bridging the Gilded Age divides that affect this city as they do so many others, ran a flat-out good-government campaign. I won’t bother you with the details, which you can read about on his site. But here is a bit from an interview with Greater Greater Washington this spring:
"[My father] stretched every dollar to send me to a Catholic school to give me opportunities that he didn't have but, as DC got more and more expensive, he couldn't afford to hang in there," says White. "Now my father, who is the proudest Washingtonian you would ever meet, looks at DC from his balcony in Prince George's County."
The city is clearly thriving, but it is not difficult to see that there are a lot of people who are not thriving….
This city is still racially stratified, with Wards 5, 7 and 8 in particular, are still predominantly black, and many parts of the city, like Wards 2 and 3, are predominately white. And most other wards fall somewhere on that spectrum. So there are two DCs. There are people who are not seeing or feeling the emergent economy here, and frankly, that’s not necessary. It won’t happen accidentally. You won’t ever accidentally protect people.
I saw White at several small-scale neighborhood meetings in recent weeks, including one just ten days ago, when he and his near-full-term pregnant wife Christy, a SEC lawyer, spent a Friday evening talking with a dozen local voters (including me). After these sessions I thought: this is a guy I’d love to see in government. And: he probably doesn’t have a chance.
Even this afternoon, the Washington City Paper was was reporting that White faced tough odds. About the same time, I spoke with a senior city official who supported White but said, “I just don’t see how he can win.” So I cast my vote for him thinking: well, a higher losing total will still be a moral victory.
Yet when just now I got back into news-realm after an evening event, I see … that Robert White won! Narrowly to be sure, but a win is a win.
Technically it’s just the Democratic primary, but this is DC. And the city has big problems—as White said after the results came in, Now the hard part begins. But tonight’s results are a welcome surprise. Congratulations to Robert White and his team.
(Also, Hillary Clinton closed out the primary season with a very big win here.)
I’ve been lying low in public on this front, while a lot of activity has been going on backstage.
Summary version: a bill to accelerate the transition away from super-polluting, noisy, leaf blowers powered by dirty two-stroke gas engines, and toward much cleaner electric models was introduced by a D.C. City Council member early this year. According to its sponsors, it has enough support to pass if it comes up for a full council vote. But before the whole council can consider it, it must be scheduled for hearings and a vote in a committee chaired by Council member Vincent Orange — who is up for re-election right now. That committee is where the action is for the moment. Stay tuned.
I’ll take the occasion to add two updates. One is a column yesterday by Paul Mulshine on NJ.com, making the libertarian case in favor of controls on dirty, noisy equipment. Sample:
The defenders of the leaf blowers tend to speak of a "right" to use them and argue that any denial of that "right" is evidence of the nanny state in action.
Nonsense. A nanny state is a state that prevents you from doing harm to yourself, not to others. The best way to understand that is by comparing this grass to that other grass, the kind people smoke.
If somebody wants to smoke pot in his own house, then he can do so to his heart's content as far as I'm concerned. He can even listen to the Grateful Dead - though only if he keeps that sound on his own property as well.
But if he wants to project 90 decibels of sound onto my property, then let us imagine my possible response in a land of true liberty, free of all regulation.
Which leads to the second update: a fact sheet on which some of the DC-area efforts are based. You can read the full thing here, but for a sample:
Toxic pollution - Two-stroke engines, unlike increasingly cleaner car engines, burn an oil-gas mixture that generates high levels of ozone-forming chemicals. These engines also disperse fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”). These chemicals and PM2.5s are inhaled by equipment operators and passers-by. An authoritative, independent laboratory study showed that using a two-stoke gas-powered leaf blower for 30 minutes produces pollutants equal to those generated by driving a Ford F-150 truck 3,900 miles, or as far as from Texas to Alaska.
Harmful health impacts - Ozone and PM2.5s are well known causes of, or contributors to, early death, cardiovascular disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, premature births, and other serious health conditions. Even short-term exposure can be harmful…
Damaging noise - According to reports from federal agencies, noise from leaf blowers ranges from 102−115 decibels (“dBs”) at the ear of the operator. These same federal agencies have declared noise levels above 85 dBs to be harmful…. Health effects from noise alone can include heart disease. A recent study estimates that more than 100 million Americans are at risk for noise-related health problems, with over 145 million at potential risk of hypertension due to noise, and even more at an increased risk of heart attack.
More as election news, council news, and advancing-technology news develop.
A principal argument against any restrictions on powered landscape equipment, including the hyper-polluting, noisy leafblowers powered by two-stroke gas engines, is that they’re simply necessary for the hard work of coping with leaves and debris. Why would anyone want to make life more difficult for already hard-pressed people on the lawn crews?
The most obvious counter-argument on this social-justice front is that the cost of pristine-looking lawns is comparable to the cost of perfect-looking grapes or apples or tomatoes, back in the days before pesticide and herbicide regulations for farm workers. In each case, a vulnerable population was/is expected to work in dangerous circumstances for generally wealthier customers — until the rules began changing for farm workers, and should for landscape crews as well.
But there’s another counter to the “how could we possibly get the job done otherwise?” argument, which becomes more evident with each passing year. It is that a larger and larger share of the use of this equipment has become ritualized, even sumptuary and “conspicuous” (in the Thorstein Veblen sense), and has less and less to do with the basic task of removing heavy leaves.
The pattern that’s emerging is:
To have a “nice” yard or office complex, you need a landscaping crew or contract with a landscaping company;
To be a “serious” landscaping crew or company, you need modern equipment, and a regular weekly schedule of visits;
So as part of the mark of seriousness and professionalism, the equipment gets put to work, needed or not. Thus what was an autumn-season only activity ten years ago is a round-the-year part of “professional” lawn care.
The two pictures on this page, both taken in this past early-springtime week, illustrate what I’m talking about. Springtime is the season of new growth, and bright budding leaves — not desicated old brown leaves tumbling from the trees. In the photo at the top, taken last week in an East Coast city (OK, Washington) you will not see even one leaf to be tidied up. Yet the crew member spent thirty minutes on the patch of lawn and flowers you see in this view. In those thirty minutes, as discussed before, he exposed himself to emissions the blower’s two-stroke engine comparable to a pickup truck driving 3,800 miles
The photo below, taken yesterday in a Southwestern city (OK, Dallas), shows something similar. Here too there were no leaves or debris to be moved, but two blower-operators, plus a supervisor, were on the job at this property for 20 minutes.
Some problems really are zero-sum, winner-vs.-loser struggles that leave some parties worse off. Fortunately this is not one of them, because of fast-developing technological alternatives, as we’ll describe in more detail soon.
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.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
“We are on an absolutely catastrophic path,” said a COVID-19 doctor at America’s best-prepared hospital.
Perhaps no hospital in the United States was better prepared for a pandemic than the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
After the SARS outbreak of 2003, its staff began specifically preparing for emerging infections. The center has the nation’s only federal quarantine facility and its largest biocontainment unit, which cared for airlifted Ebola patients in 2014. The people on staff had detailed pandemic plans. They ran drills. Ron Klain, who was President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar” and will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, once told me that UNMC is “arguably the best in the country” at handling dangerous and unusual diseases. There’s a reason many of the Americans who were airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February were sent to UNMC.
Fox News acknowledged Trump’s loss. Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election lies. But true believers can get their misinformation elsewhere.
When Fox News called Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden shortly after the polls closed there on Election Night, right-wing social media erupted in fury. Fox is the most conservative of the nation’s major news outlets, and its aggressive Arizona call—which most other national outlets did not follow for days—left true believers on the right feeling betrayed. On the social-media app Parler, which has been gaining popularity among supporters of President Donald Trump, posts alleging electoral irregularities mixed with assorted hashtags decrying Fox itself: #BOYCOTTFOXNEWS, #DUMPFOXNEWS, #FAKEFOXNEWS, #FOXNEWSISDEAD, and #FOXNEWSSUCKS. Throughout Election Day, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been cracking down on a flurry of allegations about voter fraud in Arizona; the platforms quickly applied warning labels to new posts containing false or disputed information and reduced the distribution of groups spreading them. In response, pro-Trump influencers exhorted their followers to congregate on Parler, which tells users to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”
The U.S. could have hundreds of thousands of fewer births next year than it would have in the absence of a pandemic.
By now, the pandemic has disrupted Americans’ daily lives for nearly as long as a baby typically spends in the womb. This means that many children conceived in mid-March are weeks away from joining us in this disorienting new world, but just as notable are the children who won’t be joining us—the babies who would have been born were it not for the ongoing economic and public-health crises. These missing births, which could end up numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., will make up what’s been called the “COVIDbabybust.”
One would think that a baby bust would take at least nine months to reveal itself, but traces of one seem to have already appeared. As Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has noted, births started to decline in California and Florida during the summer. That’d be too soon, though, to reflect a drop in conceptions during the pandemic, or a rise in abortions or miscarriages (which tend to happenearlier on in pregnancy). Three possible explanations, Cohen told me, are errors or lags in states’ data on births, large numbers of pregnant people moving during the pandemic and giving birth in another state, or a large, unexpected drop-off in births that was already going to happen regardless of the pandemic.
The question shouldn’t be whether the president can pardon himself but whether he can grant himself a pardon—and those are not the same thing.
As Donald Trump’s tenure in office comes in for its landing, a major question is whether the president—facing questions about liability for offenses including bank and tax fraud—can pardon himself.
This might seem like the right operational question, but it is imprecise as a constitutional one. Article II of the Constitution says that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Did you catch that? The president has the power not to pardon people, but “to grant … Pardons” (emphasis added). So the question is not whether Trump can pardon himself. It’s whether he can grant himself a pardon.
Growing up in fear of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
The president convinced many voters that his response to the pandemic was not a disaster. The psychology of medical fraud is simple, timeless, and tragic.
At some basic level, Americans do seem to agree that the coronavirus is a major threat. Despite attempts to politicize and divide us on the pandemic, we are at least united in anxiety. In September, a survey of almost 4,000 Americans found that only 12 percent disagreed with requiring masks in public. Fully 70 percent wanted the government to do more to protect people, and only 8 percent wanted it to do less.
Since then, though, the government under President Donald Trump has done less. The U.S. has suffered the most documented coronavirus deaths in the world, by far. The Trump administration has continued to downplay and ignore the virus as its spread has accelerated in almost every region of the country. On Wednesday, the U.S. shattered the world record for daily coronavirus cases by topping 100,000 for the first time—only to break the record again each subsequent day until a Saturday high of 128,000. Field hospitals and makeshift morgues are appearing around the country. Daily death counts have risen to more than 1,000.
In delaying the transition, the General Services Administration chief is acting like an ideologue.
I don’t know for certain that Emily Murphy gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says to herself, “You are a good person.” But I am willing to bet that she does. Most people in her position—most people who are undermining the rules of their group, destroying their institution, harming their society—are doing so because they have become convinced that they are good people, virtuous people, brave people, dedicated people. Nothing suggests that Murphy is an exception.
Murphy is the head of the General Services Administration, the unglamorous bit of the federal government that actually runs the federal government. Part of her job—a part that no one has ever before considered controversial or even noteworthy—is to “ascertain” who has won the U.S. presidential election, and then to release the congressionally mandated funds that allow the winner to begin his transition. Usually, that process also unlocks cooperation between incoming and outgoing officials. Before leaving office in 2017, aides to Barack Obama had prepared elaborate explanations of the state of the world, including a 69-page playbook for how to manage a pandemic. They handed the documents over to Donald Trump’s transition team, which ignored them.
Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t. This is just the beginning.
Photographs by Julia Sellmann
Every few weeks or so, Grete Fält-Hansen gets a call from a stranger asking a question for the first time: What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?
Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement. Once, Fält-Hansen remembers, it was a couple who had waited for their prenatal screening to come back normal before announcing the pregnancy to friends and family. “We wanted to wait,” they’d told their loved ones, “because if it had Down syndrome, we would have had an abortion.” They called Fält-Hansen after their daughter was born—with slanted eyes, a flattened nose, and, most unmistakable, the extra copy of chromosome 21 that defines Down syndrome. They were afraid their friends and family would now think they didn’t love their daughter—so heavy are the moral judgments that accompany wanting or not wanting to bring a child with a disability into the world.
Stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions.
Over the summer, parts of the United States seemed to have a grip on the pandemic. New York and much of the Northeast, for instance, recorded relatively few new infections. The pandemic gloom was taking a less heavy toll than it had in its first months, partly because warm weather made restrictions on indoor activity more bearable.
That sense of control was illusory. As the seasons have changed, the virus has resumed its exponential spread. The public’s willingness to follow health guidelines also feels more tenuous. After months of sacrifice, many people seem simply to lack the will to keep up their social-distancing efforts.
Many factors help explain America’s abject failure to contain the pandemic. A good number of them can be traced back to Donald Trump. But many democracies with able leaders, such as Germany and Canada, are also struggling to contain the virus, so pointing to the president’s lies and incompetence isn’t sufficient.