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3 February 2017

'Packaging is evil' and other eco-myths


A tweet appeared on my twitter feed yesterday urging people to buy loose fruit and veg to avoid packaging waste. However loose veg leads to 20% higher wastage than packaged veg, so while you might save on a plastic bag (you're going to need a container to get them home anyway, even a paper bag has an impact), you're going to be responsible for 20% more land-use, 20% more irrigation and fertilisation, 20% more washing and processing, 20% more transport and 20% more waste. I haven't done the sums, but I'm guessing the packaged fruit comes out on top by a country mile. Excess packaging is wrong of course, but we package goods for a very good reason.

You get similar simplistic thinking about bottled water. Now I try to remember to take tap water out with us on family trips (Mrs K is much better at this than me), but if I don't have any and I have to buy a drink from a shop, which is more eco-friendly – bottled water or a soft drink (= bottled water + sugar + chemicals)? I've seen people buy a coke rather than water on this basis - madness.

This simplistic good/evil demarcation in the environmental world is potentially damaging. The anti-nuclear move in Germany has propped up the coal-fired power sector. As Mark Lynas points out, the vilification of carbon offsetting by green commentators has almost certainly had a negative impact by cutting off a flow of finance into green projects.

These issues aren't particularly complicated but the dogmatic mantras of some campaigners can do more harm than good. Let's think before acting.



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31 October 2016

My Top Ten Sustainability Horrors

screamYup, it's Hallowe'en, so here's the top ten sustainability related things that make me scream:

  1. Pictures of hands cupping saplings to illustrate 'responsibility' – I really, really hate them!
  2. The word 'recycling' being used in the media to describe a celebrity wearing the same dress twice.
  3. "For sustainability, we need a whole new economic model." – effectively just an excuse to do nothing.
  4. Sustainability commentators being regarded as more influential and/or more virtuous than sustainability doers.
  5. Corporations using twitter to lecture us on what we should be doing to be green rather than explaining what they are doing.
  6. 'Don't print this e-mail' lines in e-mail signature block - passive aggressive virtue signalling of the worst kind.
  7. Those for whom no practical sustainability solution is ever good enough.
  8. People who say cyclists should pay (non-existent) road tax. Get. a. life.
  9. "Green" products which are shoddy, ugly and expensive.
  10. Those who conflate environmentalism with hippy nonsense such as (and particularly) homeopathy.

Any more for any more?




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21 October 2016

Are wind turbines green? Do bears...

viz-turbinesCame across this clipping from the satirical Viz magazine that made me chuckle, but it isn't a million miles from some of the nonsense I've seen printed in the supposedly serious media over the last few decades. My own esteemed engineering institute's journal printed a letter about a decade ago postulating that climate change was actually being caused by wind turbines slowing air movements around the world. Of course the letter cited no actual evidence, it was purely opinion.

What gets me about all this anti-green stuff, whether from those who hate cyclists or full on climate change deniers, is the assumption that 'experts' are idiots and can't see what's in front of their nose (Viz nailed that in the 'letter'). Boris Johnson's "I can see snow in the garden, therefore the world can't be warming" is one of the most unintentionally funny examples.

I never take anything on blind faith, but if I want to know about my health I'll talk to a doctor, about my car or bicycle, I'll talk to a mechanic and on climate I'll listen to a climatologist. If I'm not convinced about what they tell me, I'll dive deeper. But I never listen to armchair philosophers with extraordinarily high confidence in their own opinion.


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14 October 2016

Hey! It's World Standards Day!!!

CalendarHold onto your hats folks, it's finally that one day of the year that we can celebrate the most unlikely of causes, the humble ISO standard. But, hold on, should we not document how we should celebrate before we celebrate?

Now, sarcasm aside, environmental standards do help on the move to Sustainability by raising the game of the poorest performers. But, in the same way you could get an ISO9000 quality standard for a concrete lifejacket (as long as it meets its specification), ISO14001, as one wag put it, lets us destroy the planet in a well-documented manner. Management standards are about process, not results.

It bothers me that they give businesses a false sense of security. This morning I clicked on the 'Sustainability' tab of a local manufacturer and found endless references to ISO14001. That's all well and good, I thought, but where are the results? When I dug around, they had done some interesting stuff, so why not promote that? Why not set out some ambitious Sustainability goals? Or put some product stories first?

Most people take ISO14001 as read in a modern forward-looking company. It's what you do above and beyond that which will make you stand out from the crowd.


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5 October 2016

Sustainability: do the same old, get the same old...


This week I read an article on employee engagement for Sustainability on a well-known eco-business website (I won't bother linking to protect the guilty), wondering if it had a new angle, a nice case study or a clever technique I hadn't come across before. Unfortunately the piece could have been written 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – we had 'switch it off' stickers and posters on the walls when I started in the Civil Service in 1993.

Here's a thing – if it hasn't worked in the last 23 years, why would it start working now?

This approach is so old hat, I parodied it in an animation 3 and a half years ago. We have so much more sophisticated approaches including gamification, 'nudge' techniques and my own Green Jujitsu (translating Sustainability for the worldview of each audience) that you would have thought that a half-competent environmental consultancy may have come across (hint: try Google). But apparently not.

To deliver Sustainability, we need new thinking across the board. Whether that is managing distributed energy, developing new business models or effective employee engagement; blindly trying the same old technique whether or not it works is the epitome of stupidity. One of the joys of working in Sustainability is learning something new every day – revel in it!



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19 September 2016

Blinkered views block the road to Sustainability


George Osborne may have been unceremoniously booted out of the UK Treasury by incoming PM Theresa May, but one of his legacies will live with us for decades as May rubber-stamped his deal with the Chinese Government to finance new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point. For a man who denigrated renewables on value for money grounds, Osborne's parsimony deserted him on Hinkley, with even nuclear's biggest proponents wincing at the cost of the new facility.

Unrelated, but related, The Independent's Sean O'Grady launched an anti-cyclist tirade at the news that West Midlands Police are fining drivers who skim rider's elbows. He completely omits to mention that the crackdown was in response to the Police's own evidence that only 2% of serious collisions involving cyclists were the cyclist's fault.

Both can only be explained by ingrained mindsets. Osborne clearly buys the old "renewables too expensive, nuclear too cheap to meter" myth and O'Grady plays the old "cyclists aren't real road users, so should simply keep out of the way" saw. Neither men are stupid, but they manage to argue stupid things because humans tend to see the world through a rather fixed worldview.

I cleave to the belief that the biggest barrier to sustainability is just six inches wide, the space between our ears. For sustainability to become the norm, we've got to change these, and many other, worldviews. Rants, like mine above, won't work to change those minds – we've got to find ways of finding the common ground and moving on from there. What I call Green Jujitsu.


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10 June 2016

The perversity of low mileage...


Gnnyuh. I'm just off the phone to our garage. Our car battery has run flat a couple of times in the last few months, but the mechanics can't find a drain. They've concluded that because we drive so little, the battery isn't getting enough charging time between start up and shut down sequences. Yes, our mileage is 'too low' and they're recommending we work some longer journeys into our routine.

This is what we call a perverse incentive. It encourages 'bad' behaviour and penalises 'good'. You will find many examples in your organisation, too. The best way to winkle them out is get a group of colleagues together and let them grumble!

It's also a poor example of design. Our need for an urban bus that will take 3 or 4 child seats (ruling out car clubs on practical grounds) several times a week with the occasional family trip, but not for regular commuting, can't be unique.

The new Tesla Model X is a 7 seater, and if they'd like to send one on permanent trial...


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6 June 2016

The Day After World Environment Day

wed2012_final_en-01Yesterday was World Environment Day.

Did you do anything special for it?

And more importantly, if you did, will you do it again today?

Did you reach out to other people?

If so, what do you think they'll do differently today? And tomorrow?

Doing something environmentally friendly for one day is pointless – just a drop in the ocean to make us feel good. That's why I think all these multifarious green weeks, days and hours do more harm than good. We think we are 'raising awareness', we think we are achieving something, we feel good about it, but how much effort does it use up? How much of it speaks to those outside the green movement? How much difference does it make long term?

For sustainability, every day has to be World Environment Day, and not just consciously, but subconsciously too.


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27 November 2015

Sustainable Stupidity


I sometimes read stuff on-line that makes me go all "why oh why oh why?"

This week it was yet another article from an employee engagement for sustainability 'expert' who suggested that you should try talking to employees about recycling/switching stuff off at home in order to get them better engaged in sustainability at work.

But why?

If I want to learn a tune on the piano, why would I pick up my guitar?

If I wanted to do a half marathon, why would I train on a bicycle?

If I want to visit Canada, why would I buy a USA guidebook?

Yes, in each case there is a degree of overlap, but tenuous at best. Why not aim at the bullseye rather than hoping for a lucky ricochet? If you want to get your colleagues to behave in a more sustainable way at work, then talk to them about how their work relates to sustainability. Is that not obvious?

Better still, ask them how they think their job relates to sustainability and how they would change things. It may be worth watching The Art of Green Jujitsu again to see why this works...

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13 November 2015

The climate doesn't care if you're left or right

world brainIn the Telegraph this week, some sad sack 'controversialist' did a hatchet job on the talented comedian David Mitchell for being a "uniform Lefty bore". Amongst the evidence for this conclusion was Mitchell's 'belief' in man-made climate change. This was probably the most egregious piece of many I've seen recently which perceives climate change purely through the lens of the left-right political spectrum.

You know the kind of thing. Left wingers see climate change as evidence that capitalism is evil, and right wingers think the science has been fabricated purely to allow lefties to argue that.

But climate change is not about politics. It's about the laws of physics – simple thermodynamics applied to a complex system of feedbacks.

On top of that, I think the whole left/right/climate argument is flawed. Socialism/communism has proved just as effective at destroying the planet as neoliberalism. I was inspired to dedicate my life to sustainability by seeing the destructive legacy of the Soviet Union, China is hardly an eco-paradise and the Venezuelan economy is based on oil, to name but three. There is no evidence that a swing to the left will, in itself, lead to sustainability, whatever Naomi Klein tells us. In my opinion, the only thing hard left greens achieve is to give the right an excuse not to act.

My whole green jujitsu approach to engagement is to translate sustainability into the language of your target audience. For this reason, I find a good right-of-centre argument for tackling climate change much more exciting than than a left wing one as it is the right who we have to bring on board. There is little point in preaching to the choir.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave a quite brilliant right-of-centre speech on climate change this week. He evoked the leadership given by Margaret Thatcher on climate change in the late 1980s, and Ronald Reagan's action on the hole in the ozone layer before her. By co-opting the memory of the twin gods of neoliberalism to the climate cause, he pressed the buttons of every right winger. He then proceeded to make the economic case for tackling climate change, driving home the message.

The proof of course will be in the pudding. The one person that Hammond needs to bring on board is the UK Chancellor George Osborne who is busy switching subsidies for clean fuels to fossil fuels (despite the latter already enjoying a 4:1 advantage of Government largesse) and blowing public money on an over-priced nuclear reactor. If he can bring Osborne on board, Hammond will make himself a real climate hero.


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1 July 2015

Are millennials really that green?


I was very struck by the above photo showing the aftermath of the Glastonbury festival. Every year we hear how Glastonbury is more than just a big series of concerts, that it has a spiritual dimension, has a strong environmental message, is the crux of 'the new politics' etc, etc. But the picture suggests if you want a symbol of our consumerist, wasteful, throwaway society, you couldn't go to a better place.

Then I came across a stat on this morning that over-55s are much better at recycling than 18-25 year olds. This flies in the face of the assumption that the millennial generation is inherently green and 'gets it'.

The intention might be there – this is the age group most likely to vote Green – but when it comes to practice, it seems the younger generation isn't quite where they think they are. I wonder if that couple in the picture is saying a fond farewell or shedding a tear for the future.

I am turning into a grumpy old man!


Picture © EPA used under fair use.

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17 June 2015

If you can't trust a charity...

Giving to charityA couple of months ago, I was leaving the swimming pool with the older two boys and I was stopped by a nice man selling lottery tickets for a local hospice. I've long been of the opinion that larger charities have become too much like self-serving businesses, but this was a good local cause, so I bought a tenner's worth of tickets. I went happily on my way, a spring in my step.

Since then, I have been contacted several times by phone or mailshot to tell me my lottery has expired and asking would I like to make it a regular donation. Which begs the question, how much of my donation ended up in the hospice's running costs? It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that my original tenner must have atrophied to almost nothing through the costs of chasing me for more money. Was the original transaction effectively a con to get my details?

I know I shouldn't let it get to me, but it does. I have been bitten this way too many times over the years and now I am cynical. In the past I have found that any donation just leads to more emotionally manipulative letters through the door – "Imagine waking up to feel hunger gnawing at your stomach." And my experience fades into nothing compared to those kind souls such as the late Olive Cooke who was getting 260 letters a month asking her for more.

But from the charity sector's point of view, are they not biting the hand that feeds? The response from the charity sector sounded like any other bog standard corporate excuse with Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising telling the Daily Mail:

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our Code of Fundraising Practice achieves the right balance in setting robust and clear standards which enable fundraisers to ask for money in a safe and legitimate way while at the same time respecting and protecting the rights of individuals.

We welcome the opportunity to talk with the Minister for Civil Society to update him on the plans that we have in place to review our Code and make sure that we act on any learning that arises from the FRSB’s investigation into the tragic death of Olive Cooke."

It's not about rights, it's about trust. Trust is the glue that holds society together. And if we can't trust charities who can we trust?



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20 May 2015

Who's to blame for climate change?

This tweet flashed across my feed on Monday – retweeted by the Guardian Environment no less – and it immediately made me bridle.

For a start, it smacks of a straw man argument. Who is 'blaming' individuals solely for climate change? Who isn't 'blaming' companies at all for climate change? I have never heard either view expressed by any sensible commentator.

Secondly, I don't like anybody absolving or blaming anyone else 100% for climate change (or obesity for that matter). Our consumer society is a cycle between production and consumption – you can't have one without the other.

I can choose to cycle to the shops or work rather than drive. I can decide to spend money insulating my loft. I can buy fresh food rather than processed food. I can buy healthy food or fat/sugar/salt infused crap. I can decide where I go on holiday. I can choose when to upgrade my phone. I have choice over a huge chunk of my carbon footprint. I take the idea that I am a hapless cog in a machine built by evil capitalists as a personal insult.

We also need business and Governments to step up and provide sustainable products and services. After all, the scope of my freedoms above are determined by the choice on offer – and my ability to choose is limited by the visibility I have of the cradle-to-grave impacts of those choices. They have a moral obligation to sort out as many of these problems as they can. We need a virtuous cycle of consumer/voter choices and sustainable options to choose from.

Thirdly, the tweet is dangerous as it encourages people to point the finger and do nothing. As Ross Perot put it "The activist is not the person who says the river is dirty. The activist is the guy who cleans up the river."

So let's stop this kind of silliness and get on with the job in hand.


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24 April 2015

Apocalypse When?

the end is nigh

It was EarthDay on Wednesday – I'm not going to start another of my rants about the pointlessness of awareness hours/days/weeks, but how did it go for you?

One Earth Day headline that caught my eye was the BBC's report that the Paris climate change talks in December were "THE LAST CHANCE" to save the planet from catastrophe, according to the Earth League. Now, I know why it's tempting to hype up such a gathering in order to try and put pressure on politicians to make an historic deal, but there's a huge chance of this tactic back-firing.

There was similar hype around Copenhagen 6 years ago but only incremental progress was made on a deal. Guess what? The world didn't end there and then. Individual countries and organisations kept beavering away and last year the rise in carbon emissions stalled, while investment in green technology soared.

A comprehensive international deal would undoubtedly help, but I think NGOs and green leaning journos put too much faith on it (and my friend the green journalist Fiona Harvey blamed the Copenhagen failure squarely on NGOs for asking for the impossible). Action is what is required rather than pieces of paper. The paper may lead to action, or it may not, or the action may continue regardless - the two aren't inextricably linked as we have seen.

My wider point is that predictions of doom are counterproductive. The green movement has been predicting catastrophe for decades – mostly correctly, but sometimes hyperbole gets the better of them. If doom switches people off, then inaccurate predictions of doom destroys any trust people have in what they have been told. And if the Paris talks fail, are we simply to give up and burn that fossil fuel while we still can?

Let's present the world with a scintillating image of a low carbon future – and deliver on it!


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23 February 2015

The Circular Economy is Circular, Stupid!

journal circular economy
I saw this explanation of the circular economy in the business section of our local rag last week and it made me grind my teeth.

It was trying to distinguish between a linear economy and a circular economy by adding the '3 Rs' to the linear economy. It's not the first time I've seen the circular economy drawn as a straight line – and it's a really stupid way of illustrating the difference for a number of reasons:

1. It still looks like the linear economy at first glance;

2. Figure 2 is actually the way our economy is at the minute – linear + 3Rs – so no-one would notice the difference between that diagram and the status quo;

3. Psychologically, it doesn't get across the most important difference between the two. In a circular economy, pre-used material is more desirable than virgin material.

If you draw the circular economy as a circle - see below -  it changes the whole way we look at materials. In particular we see the loop as producing quality raw materials at a competitive price, not as a form of waste diversion (3Rs). Yes, you could add in other loops and some minor leakage/input, but the core circle is a very powerful metaphor in our minds and we need to emphasise it.

circular circular economy

So let's draw the circular economy as a circle. The clue is in the name.



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12 January 2015

Why I won't be applying to be a Chartered Environmentalist

green superhero

The IMechE is 'relaunching' (always a worrying phrase) their CEnv, or Chartered Environmentalist, qualification this week in response to "spectacular growth" in clean tech, renewable energy and sustainability reports BusinessGreen this morning.

I won't be applying for it.

Why not?

My whole ethos is to make sustainability "the new normal". In this ideal scenario, every engineer will have the skills required to do their job in a sustainable economy. That job may be in renewable energy systems or electric vehicles or low carbon housing or developing the circular economy, but it will be nothing special - just what they do. In this convergence model, people like me will be redundant - that's my life's ambition!

At a time when renewable/low carbon energy is putting in a real challenge to the status quo, electric vehicle sales are growing fast and the circular economy is starting to emerge, we want to be heralding their emergence into the mainstream, not creating further ghettoisation of the sector.

CEnv just seems to me another step towards to a high priesthood of sustainability, muttering their incantations about mindfulness around the roped off altar of their own self-righteousness. We need a popular movement, snowballing rapidly, not fragmenting into cliques.

So, no offence, IMechE, but I won't be sad if the CEnv sinks below the waves immediately on its relaunch.


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7 January 2015

Cut the Green Crap!

Scissors icon glossy green round buttonThere's far too much green crap around.

I'm not talking about the clean energy subsidies that PM David Cameron was (allegedly) referring to using these words. No, I'm talking about the real green crap that actually holds sustainability back:

  • Pointless 'green' giveaways - recycled plastic pencils that break your pencil sharpener, desk thermometers that get binned, bars of fair-trade chocolate that get eaten and forgotten. What's the point?
  • Green Champions - most networks of green champions I see are dysfunctional and a huge amount of energy is being spent desperately trying to keep the network going. Give responsibility to people with authority instead - and use the time freed up to do something useful.
  • Gimmicks like putting sweets on people's computer keyboards if they switch off their computer overnight. I'm forever surprised that organisations will pay consultants good money to spout nonsense like this.
  • Supplier questionnaires - many suppliers spend so much time responding to different customer's questionnaires, they don't have time to actually improve their performance - and then find the data provided rarely has any influence in contract decisions.
  • Awareness posters - when was the last time you saw a poster and changed your life significantly? I'm guessing never.
  • Regurgitating idiotic received wisdom - if you need to buy a drink, bottled water will almost certainly have a lower ecological footprint than all of the alternatives except thirst. Not all biodiesels are evil. Carbon offsetting is not immoral - no-one dies.
  • Talking woo-hoo eco-bollocks like 'eco-centric world views', 'endosymbiotic thrivability' or 'spiritual animistic reverence'. Just don't. No-one will listen anyway.
  • Hitching sustainability to the latest fad. "You can't have sustainability without mindfulness" someone told me recently. You know what? You can.

If you make one sustainability resolution this year, how about to cut the green crap?


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1 October 2014

California is banning plastic bags. Big Deal.

shopping plastic bag

Have you read the headlines in the press that the State of California is going to ban single use plastic bags in large supermarkets?

Well, sound the trumpets.

Why my cynicism? Well, taking the average UK citizen  - plastic bags represent about 0.1% of our individual carbon footprint, whereas, by comparison, heating our homes represents 10% (I don't have the equivalent Californian data to hand, but I suspect it is similar but with cooling rather than heating). You don't have to a mathematical genius to realise that a very modest improvement in home insulation regulations would easily outstrip a complete removal of single use plastic bags from the economy.

Let's focus on what matters, shall we?


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5 September 2014

Why you need to be a pain in the ass to deliver sustainability

rantAn offhand tweet yesterday got me embroiled in a debate about the efficacy of environmental awareness weeks. This spilled onto the ZeroWasteWeek Facebook page where most participants politely tried to argue for awareness weeks (largely that this one had worked for them), but there were a couple of more tetchy contributions:

"Some people will do anything to try and create an argument."

"If he doesnt doesn't care for it, why bother tweeting?!"

Maybe I am just a bit of a pain in the backside, but, on the other hand, as the legendary software pioneer Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is quoted as saying:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is: "We've always done it this way."

When we are trying to facilitate massive change, we need to challenge everything - both in the system we are trying to change and the methods we use to change it. Circling the wagons around our comfort zone stifles progress.

My Green Jujitsu technique was a reaction against standard practice in employee engagement for sustainability - and the wider approach to change management. I could see that standard practice - all those drippy posters and jute bags - wasn't working. So, I stopped and thought it through. I came up with an idea that made sense, tried it, refined it, tried it again, refined it some more et voilà!

Same with organisational systems - the most powerful weapon in your armoury is the Toddler Test - keep asking 'why?' until the person can't answer.

So don't be afraid to be a pain in the ass - a nice, polite one, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.


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11 July 2014

We need MORE pedantry in sustainability

pedantryMy name is Gareth and I'm a pedant.

There. Said it.

It really annoys me when a word or phrase with a particular meaning gets so diluted by use that it becomes meaningless. Take 'staycation' - it was originally coined to mean holidaying at home - as in in your house - but now seems to mean holidaying in your own country. Of course this is what many if not most people do anyway, so the phrase becomes meaningless.

So I got a bit het up when I saw this report on 'the circular economy'. It includes the 'sharing economy' and extended life cycles as elements of the circular economy. The problem is they're not related - eg you can have a sharing economy that's not circular and vice versa, and of course you can have both, or neither.

So what?

The circular economy is an aim in itself with very particular requirements. If you start bolting every other sustainability idea onto the side of it, you start to muddy the waters and make it harder to implement. The phrase becomes meaningless and the goal fades from view.

So let's say what we mean - and mean what we say!


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