Why blog?

Good old WordPress – their annual stats have handily revealed that this blog gets about the same number of visitors whether I post to it or not! The Cheery Pessimist started in May 2010 as a blog about the energy crisis but is really just a place to dump my thoughts and practice writing. I posted 11 times in 2010 but don’t have figures for how many people viewed the site, though I know it wasn’t many and comments were mostly from people I knew. Not really the point of blogging! In 2011, I managed 8 posts and got a pleasing 1,500 viewings, while 2012 saw a paltry 3 posts but 1,400 viewings. So while I do feel a little bad at neglecting my blog, and remain perpetually in awe of those who write for a living (or even regularly), I know that I need a better reason to write than feeling that I should.

Social Reporters
If given a deadline, I usually stick to it. I like deadlines, I need deadlines, but they work better for me if they are someone else’s. During 2012, I also posted 8 blogs on the Transition Network’s Social Reporters site. A Chance is Enough, an interview with the inspirational Eva Schonveld, is the only blog I’ve also put on this site. That post gave a wee summary of my three previous posts but since then I’ve written about the Transition Research Network, Reforesting Scotland, my adventures with setting up a local Community Trust and looked into another aspect of supermarkets: The Gruen Transfer.

So I am still blogging, nearly three years later, just not here. And as for why I do it, I’m not sure. I guess I like the fact that you can take time to mould your thoughts into something, hopefully, understandable. In conversation, my single mouth fails to cope with the multiple thoughts which inevitably thunder into my mind, before most of them thunder off again. Giving lectures is better – you’ve prepared your words and there are pictures too.

Knowing there is an audience, a potentially critical audience, certainly helps me to think hard about what I’m saying. I shudder to think how many hours I’ve spent composing text which ultimately succumbs to the delete button, especially on email lists where geoengineering is hailed as the solution we’re all too dumb to appreciate! I’ve been slacking off on such exchanges, partly to find time to blog and partly because it has become so obvious to me that we are never going to voluntarily choose to become sustainable – fracking has proven that to me. This is what I believe; others don’t. That’s fine – it was ever thus. But we still need to have conversations about the issues no one wants to face, including me. We’re at the peak, we’re hitting barriers – what should we do about that? That’s one reason to blog.

What do the next five years hold here where I live, or there where you live? Does the phrase ‘triple dip recession’ make you shout at the radio? Will the Tories’ Bedroom Tax be a step too far in taking from those who already have so little, while the rich get richer? What do you think?

Posted in Writing | 7 Comments

Tales untold

I don’t know how many column inches have been given over to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) disaster but not many told the stories of ordinary people. While the environmental impact is often prominent in oil spill reporting, initially at least, the people affected rarely feature. Seeing Look Left Look Right’s production of NOLA at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last Wednesday (15 April 2012) was the next best thing to interviewing these people yourself.

NOLA, a local acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana, is a verbatim play based on interviews carried out since December 2010 with various people affected by DWH. And it was brilliant! Four actors played various characters including rig workers who managed to escape, people who fished for a living, those who helped clean oiled birds and those who lost loved ones.

One character, a local doctor, opined “you can find out all about how pelicans and shrimp and fish and whales were affected but not about the people”. It’s true. In many disasters, from earthquakes to war, it is only the impact on people we hear about while associated environmental damage goes unreported. Yet we don’t we hear about the impacts of DWH on people’s livelihoods and their health, even although they continue today.

Another character said that if the spill had been off the coast of Angola, it would have been “a one-day wonder” as far as media coverage goes. This character was anonymous, the only one to feature in the play without a name and occupation ascribed, making an old cynic like me suspect they were from BP, or at least from the industry. Let’s replace ‘Angola’ with ‘Russia’ for a moment and see if I am being cynical.

At 4.9 million barrels, the DWH explosion is often described as the “largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry”, beaten only by the deliberate release of around 6 million barrels by Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991. So what about the 30 million barrels of oil spilled on land each year by the Russian oil industry? This oil, which amounts to several DWH disasters, hasn’t even made it to “one-day wonder” status. Greenpeace has investigated and documented the ongoing disaster, revealing how the oil seeps into rivers and farmland, suffocating plants and animals, and forcing people to abandon the area as food and water supplies are poisoned. Perhaps the DWH spill was merely in the right part of the world to be noticed.

Back at the post-play debate, my co-debater was Rob Edwards, an environmental journalist who writes for the Sunday Herald. The first question from the audience was whether the impact of 4.9 million barrels of oil was worse than the gradual pollution which would have been caused if that oil had made it to market. A good question which I answered by extolling the virtues of  the notion to ‘leave it in the ground’, not that we are likely to do that any time soon.

The discussion moved on to the role of the arts in getting social and environmental messages out there. Yes, of course a play like NOLA will reach new audiences with rarely heard voices but is it really information we lack? Is there really a story, once told, which will wake us up to the havoc we are wreaking on the Earth?

And, inevitably, there was a ‘what we can do?’ question. I wish I knew. We talk about tackling climate change and weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels but there’s nothing quite like oil. The popular solutions tend to be those that allow us to go on living as we do now. In addition, everything we hold dear requires the economy to grow, which requires more energy to process more natural resources to sell to us, the ‘consumers’, to keep the economic merry-go-round turning. So one thing we can do is to stop buying new stuff! But that’s a drop in the ocean. A look at the oil industry sees us pushing the limits to record-breaking depths and in increasingly hostile locations, where the potential for future disasters can only rise. How will the Arctic fare when that pesky ice melts and drilling for oil and gas escalates off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and elsewhere in Arctic Russia – and will those tales be told?

You can join Greenpeace and ‘Save the Arctic’ here. This post was written for Greenpeace Edinburgh’s blog. Tonight, I’m off to see Donovan Hohn and Kate Rawles speak at the Book Festival. Donovan wrote Moby-Duck after hearing about 28,902 bath toys which spilled into the Pacific en route to the US from China and have been washing up along beaches throughout the world (or have they?). Kate’s book, The Carbon Cycle, tells of her 4,553 mile cycle ride from Texas to Alaska, encountering bears, wolves and a lynx. Should be good & I’ll endeavour to report back on my Book Festival exploits…

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A chance is enough

Well, 2 March was a while ago and life hasn’t stopped interveneing so here are links to some other articles I’ve written for the Social Reporters‘ since then.

After my first social report on Energy, discussions came round to the fact that I work part time in a supermarket – so that became an article. Then there was a session on ‘transitioners without initiative‘, of which I’m one so an easy prompt to get me writing. Maybe I should explain that the term refers to those involved with Transition to some extent but not actually part of a local Transition group. Although if it meant someone shit-scared of the future but lacking the attributes to really make a difference, that fits too!

And finally, posted today, is my interview with the wonderful Eva Schonveld (from where the title of this post comes). Eva is the leading light behind Transition in Scotland and interviewing her was fascinating. I had been interviewed a few times before, but conducting an interview was a new experience for me. In addition, it was all typically rushed so I was amazed how well it went given how little thought went into the questions. Maybe this blog will see more interviews in future? Do let me know if you have any ideas for inspirational people to interview, ideally located near Edinburgh!

Posted in Transition | 2 Comments


It is truly shocking that I haven’t posted since last year! I want to link to my good pal’s excellent blog on his life in transition in northern Portugal and also a link to an article, called Seven years on the plateau, which I wrote recently for the Transition Network’s Social Reporters site. I will write again, as soon as life stops intervening!

Posted in Transition | 4 Comments

Am I going crazy, or is it the world around me?

Back in July, I worte an article for the Scientists for Global Responsibility newsletter, which was published recently. It was yet another attempt to put into words why the focus on reducing carbon (not that we’re actually doing that!) is not the right one. Since then, I’ve read volume 1 of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. You may remember I mentioned Derrick in a post back in September 2010. I got so much more from the book than from the clips on the internet.

Given that the book runs to 451 pages (and that’s just volume 1!), I have neither the time nor the mental resources to summarise it but suffice to say, industrial civilisation cannot, and has never been, sustainable. I think I’ve known that for some time but had never put it as such. Like most other environmentalists, I hoped that there was a way to have one’s cake and eat it too. Granted, I never really understood the term ‘sustainable development’ (‘sustainable growth’ is just bollocks!) but I really did believe that if only people understood energy better, then we’d all wake up and get ourselves on the right track. Wrong!

Now I know there will be some of you who just stop reading there. That’s cool, you’re not alone. But Derrick asks this, “Do you believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” Note the word ‘voluntary’. We’re not talking about people choosing a different car or to reuse carrier bags here. We’re talking about western culture choosing to stop exploiting natural resources at an unsustainable rate. We’re talking about oil and mining company executives saying, “OK guys, we’ve had it good but the party’s over. We’re going to stop wasting money exploring for more oil because it’s time to wake up to its finite nature and the falling energy returns. We’re going to leave it in the ground and look at how to feed 7 billion people without fossil fuels”. And the corporate bankers are going to choose to hang up their Armani suits, donate their obscene bonuses to the Transition Towns movement, put on a pair of overalls and start planting allotments on all their private grounds. You get my point. This will not happen.

Note also the words ‘our culture’. I’ve also been reading indigenous writings and a bit of anthropology. The problems we are creating are not a function of humans. Homo sapiens is quite able to live sustainably – indeed we did for hundreds of thousands of years but then something happened. Not settling down and planting a few crops to supplement the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but owning land. Owning land for the first time usually involves killing, enslaving or ousting those who lived there before you arrived. If no people lived there, then you’re free to do what you want with all the other species who lived there – eat them, burn them, build houses out of them, or just get rid of them because you can’t eat, burn or build houses out of them. Western culture dominates the world and while it sounds paradoxical, western culture is global. It’s the culture which dominates industry and trade. No longer does it matter whether you are in Asia, America, Europe or Africa, the chances are you are dominated by western culture. You might be one of the few who does not live by it, but if you are living on resources required by western culture you’ll soon know all about it.

If you’ve got this far, well done. I’m not asking you to agree with me, just to think about these issues. Some might be saying, “well, I knew Meikle would lose the plot eventually”. Maybe I have. Maybe I’ve gone insane. But if sanity is to accept the culture imposed on me without question, to believe that the global industrial complex will choose to stop destroying the environment, that technology will save the day then all I can say is ‘wibble‘.

PS The Transition Initiative website has a series called ‘Stories from our social reporters’ and a good friend of mine wrote an excellent article there recently on this very topic of sanity.

Posted in Civilisation, Growth | 21 Comments

What would the slogan be?

So, the world is protesting against increasing social and economic injustice – about time! But what are we protesting for? I visited the Occupy Edinburgh site at St Andrew’s Square on Thursday (20 Oct) – there are some good photos here. If anyone reading this finds themselves in Edinburgh, do go along and say hello – 2 minutes from bus station and 4 minutes from Waverley. While handing out leaflets, I was impressed by how many passers-by were supportive – they wouldn’t have crossed the threshold to the camp but were happy to talk and the phrase “it’s great what you are doing” was heard more than once.

While having a chat about anarcho-primitivism (as you do!) I noticed a guy walk past and look at the wee marquee where free food and hot drinks were on display. He walked on but then came back and said to me, “I’m homeless”. He said it in such a way that I thought he was asking if it was OK to come in. I welcomed him in for a cup of tea and said, “you don’t need to have a house to be welcome here”. I then heard someone say that the Mosque kitchen was providing free food that night. A woman called Hannah from Friends of the Earth Scotland came over and said they had international activists over for a conference or some such and how could they help. Oh, the coming together of people – it makes me want to greet just typing this! People of all faiths and none. People homeless and dispossessed. Students and workers. People talking about history, politics and energy (OK, the latter was me!) We really are the 99% – possibly 99.9% – certainly the vast majority.

However, I have mixed feelings about this year of protest. From Tunisia and Egypt to New York and London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and 900 sites around the world, people know that something’s seriously wrong with the system we live in. But if everyone who is concerned about the social, economic and environmental injustices being carried out in the name of progress, civilisation, development (call it what you will) got together, what would the slogan be? The problem is that most people simply don’t have the capacity (time &/or will) to analyse how we came to this situation where a mere 0.5% of the world’s adult population are millionaires (i.e. their net assets exceed $1 million), while billions live in poverty. They know the cost of living is rising, while house prices and wages (if they still have a job) are falling. But it’s hard to get people to engage with the idea of radical change because we’ve been sold the myth that capitalism is the only way. It isn’t. It was imposed by those who thought capitalism was a good way to seem to spread the wealth amongst everyone while it actually accumulated in the assets and bank accounts of the few – the old trickle-down bullshit! That said, some certainly did have the interests of the masses at heart, such as John Stuart Mill, who I’ve written about previously.

But you only have to look around to see that the gap between rich and poor is wider now than ever. Almost half the world live on less than $2.50 a day if this report is correct. Since 2008, half the world live in cities http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm, having been forced by war or economics to leave their land. We have indigenous peoples being displaced as we harvest their forests and mine their ores. We have our insatiable appetite for fossil fuel energy seeing us switch to tar sands and other non-conventional fossil fuels (with their lower energy returns) while CO2 levels rise year on year. I could go on but will spare you – even I can’t find a humorous side to this.

It’s taken me nigh on 20 years to understand that the problem is civilisation itself and I really don’t know what to do with this belief (other than adopting my default setting of hoping I’m wrong!). We take resources from around the world, forcing people off of their land, forcing them to live how we think they should (“Here, buy this.” “No, you can’t do that.” “If you don’t believe this, you’ll be eternally damned.”) to feed the desires of those who can afford to buy. The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland continues to this day. Over half of the global population now live in cities, yet I just don’t see how cities can feed themselves from their own land – that is, without importing resources from other people’s land, not to mention the wildlife which once lived there before the monocultures came. That said, I do believe we should try and the Transition movement is key to this aspiration. But we also need to get real about the limits to growth and consumption. And equality – where’s the Make Millionaires History campaign?

We have to see ourselves as part of nature rather than thinking we can control it and this is hardest message of all because it only features in the world-view of indigenous people – those who understand that their survival depends on protecting those resources, not exploiting them in the name of progress. This kind of talk then leads those who disagree to complain that we want to ‘go back to the Stone Age’ or live in caves. But perhaps the Stone Age was the last time humans lived sustainably? I struggle to grow a bit of veg and do not know how such a transition could happen. But I do believe that we are right up against the limits to growth and that we must not be afraid to talk about such issues.

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Limits to Growth, which argued that unchecked consumption and economic growth on our finite planet would lead to disaster. Put simply – we’re using too much stuff and it has to stop or there will be trouble. But that’s not a message anyone wants to hear – we’ve been sold the myth that the future will always provide more than the past; so long as we work and spend, our kids will do better than we did if we just trust the system. Now that myth is wearing thin and what replaces it is up to us – our collective actions will determine the future. The streets are full of protest but I’m not sure what we want.

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A mountain of gold

Nearly four months, eh? I don’t know why I find it so hard to write but I had time and inclination today, and surprised myself by bashing an article out on West Papua. I’ve been meaning to write something on West Papua for weeks as it’s been on my mind a lot lately and yesterday I discovered Bella Caledonia. Bella is a new Scottish blog, named after Bella Baxter, a character in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992), should you wonder. They seem an eclectic bunch looking for new contributors, so I took the plunge and rather hurriedly submitted the article below (which they kindly posted) but I had to share it here too. So it begins…

Have you seen Avatar? I was a bit reluctant, mostly thanks to the hype. Hype’s never good. I remember seeing the Age of Stupid at a Climate Camp and was so disappointed. Not sure why and I enjoyed it more the second time I saw it. I guess I’m not your average audience. So, back to Avatar. I eventually saw it on DVD and enjoyed it but when it finished, I started to rant to my poor, long suffering husband about indigenous peoples. “You don’t need a bunch of blue animated beings fighting mining companies for this story – it’s happening across the world” and so on. Then, to my husband’s smug delight, we looked at the extras, which included a documentary by James Cameron, writer and director of Avatar, on the plight of indigenous people. That should have been compulsory viewing at the cinema, in my view. It turns out that James Cameron is committed to helping indigenous peoples around the world who, like the fictitious Na’vi in his film, are “caught at the tectonic interface between the expansion of our technical civilization into the few remaining preserves of this planet.”

And so to West Papua. I vaguely remember hearing about West Papua in the dim and distant, probably when I could afford to subscribe to excellent magazines like New Internationalist. Then, a few months ago, I was reminded again when I read a book called Wild, by Jay Griffiths, in which she recounts her travels amongst various indigenous tribes. Yes, that does seem to be a popular thing to do these days but I liked Jay’s perspective: justified anger, a bit of anarchism and a good dollop of missionary-bashing. I should add that she writes like a dream! Anyway, one chapter was about West Papua, the western half of the world’s second largest island, New Guinea, north of Australia and this time I paid attention. I even went to an event in Hampshire to try to meet Jay, but that’s for later.

I found a blog called Freelander which gave a good summary of the history. Prior to 1961, West Papua was a Dutch colony, but in 1952 the Netherlands recognised the West Papuans’ right to self-determination in accordance with Article 73 of the United Nations Charter. Indonesia felt differently and claimed the territory for itself. However, it declined the Netherlands’ invitation to stake its claim before the International Court of Law. A West Papuan government was set up in May 1961, tasked with the preparation of the country for full independence in 1971. Seventeen days later, Indonesia launched a small paratroop invasion. The invaders were arrested by the West Papuans. In January 1962, Indonesia provoked a small naval battle, but again the fledgling West Papuan state survived. Unfortunately for the West Papuans, however, Indonesia had some powerful friends.

In the ‘New York Agreement‘ of 1962, the US forced the Netherlands to surrender West Papua to Indonesia and the Australians to reverse their policy of supporting West Papuan independence. The Agreement, conducted without the presence of a West Papuan representative, effectively transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. Indonesia assumed control of West Papua in 1963. The New York Agreement stipulated that an act of self-determination, involving all adult West Papuan men and women, would be held to determine the final status of West Papua. Indonesia finally got round to organising the referendum in 1969. Its policies in the intervening years were described in 1968 by a US Consular official, who said, “The Indonesians have tried everything from bombing them [the West Papuans] with B-26s, to shelling and mortaring them, but a continuous state of semi-rebellion persists. Brutalities are undoubtedly perpetrated from time to time in a fruitless attempt at repression.” Civilisation – don’t you love it?

A mountain of gold
The referendum was held in 1969 and it was a total sham. Called the “Act of Free Choice”, the UN sanctioned this ‘vote’, which was made by 1,025 handpicked electors who had been coerced into unanimously choosing to “remain with Indonesia”. I know it was 1969 (oh, that would never happen now) but how did they get away with that? The UN Representative sent to observe the election process produced a report which outlined various and serious violations, which were “duly noted”. There were also testimonials from the press, the opposition of fifteen countries and the cries for help and justice from the Papuans themselves, yet West Papua was handed over to Indonesia in November 1969. The inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, across the border, achieved full independence in 1975, while in 1973 West Papua was re-named Irian Jaya, “Victorious Irian”, by the Indonesian President, General Suharto.

Just a minute, let’s back up there a bit. What did the US have to do with this? Well, it’s complicated (if you read this and this you’ll know more than I do) but basically in the 1960s, the US did some bad things to keep on side with anyone who might team up with the Russians. The US was worried that Indonesia might align itself with the Communist bloc (it had just a few years earlier assisted General Suharto in massacring up to a million suspected Communists), and in any case it didn’t want to jeopardise the exclusive 30-year mining license (extended by another 30 years in 1991) that Indonesia had sold to US company Freeport-McMoRan to extract West Papua’s valuable natural resources just a few years earlier in 1967. Yes people, there’s resources to be had. But Papua New Guinea has resources – according to the US Department of State, minerals and oil make up 82 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s GDP and it has gold, copper ore, crude oil, natural gas, timber, fish, oil palm, tea, rubber, all of which will be duly plundered unless we stop using other people’s resources. But does it have a mountain of gold – I mean a real mountain of it?

John Pilger writes, “The silence of the “international community” is explained by the fabulous wealth of West Papua. In November 1967, soon after Suharto had consolidated his seizure of power, the Time-Life Corporation sponsored an extraordinary conference in Geneva. The participants included the most powerful capitalists in the world, led by the banker David Rockefeller. Sitting opposite them were Suharto’s men, known as the “Berkeley mafia”, as several had enjoyed US government scholarships to the University of California at Berkeley. Over three days, the Indonesian economy was carved up, sector by sector. An American and European consortium was handed West Papua’s nickel; American, Japanese and French companies got its forests. However, the prize – the world’s largest gold reserve and third-largest copper deposit, literally a mountain of copper and gold – went to the US mining giant Freeport-McMoran. On the board is Henry Kissinger, who, as US secretary of state, gave the “green light” to Suharto to invade East Timor, says the Dutch report”. You see? Avatar in the here and now, only without the Hollywood happy ending where most of them survive.

The issue of West Papua is creeping up the international agenda, as campaign groups, Papuan leaders-in-exile and concerned people all over the world alert their leaders to the injustice that is happening there. But the inertia is unbearable and any support we are giving now does not alter the fact that since 1973, Freeport-McMoran has operated the world’s largest gold mine in West Papua. Not just located there, destroying forests, polluting watercourses and spewing out filth, but actually mining the ‘head’ of the West Papuans’ sacred mother mountain – the place where they go to visit the “dream shrines”, where they ask the ancestors for a dream to guide them on their path in life. That might sound a bit out there to some but despite being a committed atheist, I have no problem in accepting indigenous belief systems which are linked to the land and nature. After all, they often make way more sense to me that the crap many of us so-called civilised types believe – from the religion of God to the religion of consumption. If you’re going to worship something, the sun’s as good as anything!

Benny Wenda
So, I went to Hampshire, to the Dark Mountain Festival (that’s for another post) and while I failed miserably to meet Jay Griffiths, it was not a disappointment. I was only going to say something banal like how much I enjoyed her book. I did make it to the point of hovering around her as she handed out Free West Papua leaflets, waiting for my moment, when a guy came up and introduced himself saying, “I’m going to West Papua to make a film…” At that I wandered off. Then, later that day, I had the good fortune to meet Benny Wenda, a West Papuan tribal leader and an international lobbyist for the independence of West Papua from Indonesia. He was a speaker at the Festival, along with Jay, but I couldn’t see where he went after his talk. So it was amazing to meet him at a train station, along with a fellow exile. In 2002, Benny was granted political asylum by the British Government following his escape from custody while on trial in West Papua for the heinous crime of demanding freedom for his people, for demanding that women and children live free from rape, for demanding the right to fly their flag. Benny is a leading figure on the international scene for the independence movement of West Papua and has been a special representative of his people in the British Parliament and United Nations. His biography is harrowing – but that does not mean you shouldn’t read it.

Benny Wenda is a founding member of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP). This cross-parliamentary group was launched at the Houses of Parliament in London in October 2008, and was attended by British parliamentarians as well as politicians from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Vanuatu. The group is actively developing support from politicians around the world, and its overall aim is to assert enough political pressure on the United Nations to implement a re-run of the “Act of Free Choice”. If the West Papuans ever do get freedom from Indonesia, I hope they don’t fall for the neoliberal bullshit which has smothered so many other bids for freedom.

As well as the UK launch, IPWP also had launch events in the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and in Papua New Guinea. Since meeting Benny, I have been in touch with my MSP and would like to think the Scottish Parliament could do more to help. I’d hate to think that the Scottish Parliament was just making a hollow gesture by hosting the IPWP event. You’ve had your event, now what? If I hear, I’ll let you know.

I don’t know what we can do to help, but being aware must be the first step. If you can, support the Free West Papua Campaign, set up by Benny Wenda. If you have money, send them some. If you have time, get involved with some letter writing or watch some videos with friends – Forgotten bird of paradise and The secret war in Asia are a good place to start and you can watch both in less than an hour.

That’s it – that’s the article. As I said at the start, it was a bit hurried but it’s the story of West Papua that’s important. So as a reward for getting this far (even if you skipped to the end, you still got here), I’m also going to share 15 minutes of wonderful humour courtesy of David Sedaris. Hope you like sardony, if that’s even a word.

Posted in Democracy, Growth | 2 Comments