The Solution is the Problem

A response to the UK Prime Minister’s plan to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Prime minister Boris Johnson this week announced a ‘10-point plan’ for a ‘green industrial revolution’, intended to create jobs and make ‘strides towards net zero by 2050’.

Decarbonising road transport features heavily, with measures to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Plus around £2.4 billion of new funding for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, uptake and battery development.

Although at first glance the announcement may sound welcome, in reality it is a delaying tactic. Irrespective of the praise heaped on the ‘plan’, climate change requires immediate action, not a promise for action in ten years’ time.

Business as usual

Waiting until 2030 will lock in emissions from personal transport for two more decades. It also risks locking out low-carbon alternatives to the private car that might otherwise have delivered on the UK’s Paris Agreement derived carbon budget.

The plan passes the buck of mitigating climate change to another future government, several electoral cycles down the line.

More importantly, it obliges our children to remove colossal quantities of (our) carbon directly from the atmosphere or attempt to live with the consequences of dangerous climate change.

The 10-point plans sits alongside the announcement in August 2020 of over £27 billion investment in road projects.

Far from being a ‘green revolution’, this is simply business as usual, where the predict-and-provide paradigm of car ownership and road-building go hand-in-hand.

Too little

In a carbon budget context, a policy pledge to end sales of internal combustion vehicles in ten years’ time categorically fails to address the urgency of the issue. The deadline of 2030 is too late as the entire Paris-compliant carbon budget for the car sector is used up before the policies even kick in.

We’ve written elsewhere about why we must be clear on the difference between ‘net zero’ and real zero. In short, ‘net zero’ assumes the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere at unprecedented scale, allowing emissions from fossil fuels to continue well into the second half of the century.

Should we choose not to gamble, and hand to the next generation the burden of developing and rolling out as-yet-unproven (at scale) negative emissions technologies, then we are forced to accept the hard logic of real zero.

In a world constrained by carbon budgets derived from the Paris Agreement, real zero invites a very different policy response to ‘net zero’. The PM’s latest announcement is a case in point.

While a clear market signal to remove petrol and diesel cars is absolutely necessary, the timescale and ambition of the current plan are completely at odds with the immediacy of the climate emergency.

For a fair chance of staying below 2°C, developed countries including the UK must bring about immediate and deep cuts in emissions from all sectors. That is to say, cuts of 10 to 15 percent year on year and with immediate effect.

To reiterate … starting now. Not ten years from now.


Cars are typically used for about thirteen years between initial purchase to finally being scrapped. This time-lag means that waiting until 2030 to remove petrol and diesel cars locks in emissions for another two decades.

Given that almost two-thirds of the distance driven on UK roads is by cars under nine years old, new cars bought late in this decade will still be used and emitting carbon well into the next.

Therefore, in the absence of immediate and effective policies to cut emissions, the car sector can be expected to continue to emit at its present rate for the rest of the 2020s and into the 2030s.

It has even been speculated that the signalled moratorium may trigger a short-term ‘dash for gasoline’, increasing emissions as manufacturers push their more polluting, higher profit cars, while consumers enjoy a ‘last fling’ with petrol cars.

Also problematic is the ‘hybrid loophole’ in the PM’s plan, whereby new hybrid electric vehicles remain available until 2035.

Although hybrids can be driven in electric mode, in reality 63–80 percent of the miles driven in modern plug-in hybrids are in internal combustion mode – i.e. using petrol or diesel. Again, this locks in continued emissions well into the 2040s for new hybrids bought in the mid-2030s.


Electric vehicles have long been the darlings of technocratic governments, who see EVs as a magic-bullet for decarbonising our society. But favouring EVs as a mitigation mainstay comes with a significant opportunity cost.

Many other key sectors also urgently need a ready supply of zero-carbon electricity. Housing, industry and public services, not to mention freight transport and non-car passenger transport, all need to be rapidly decarbonised through electrification.

Even with a major shift to renewables, zero-carbon energy will remain a scarce resource for years to come. Therefore, a ‘triage’ approach is necessary; the most urgent, non-negotiable cases go to the front of the queue for zero-carbon electricity.

As such, it is neither a wise nor progressive policy to use such a scarce resource to transport a 70kg driver in a 1.5 tonne car a few kilometres to an out-of-town supermarket or to make the school run.

Locking out

Promoting private car ownership, whether conventional or electric, works against efforts to stimulate other forms of mobility and access to transport, effectively ‘locking out’ other options.

First, there’s the simple opportunity cost of continuing to back private cars. Every pound spent on charging infrastructure or road widening cannot be spent on active or public modes of transport.

Second, the cost of car ownership already excludes a significant proportion of society. This social exclusion may be exacerbated by the difficulty of home EV-charging in densely populated areas.

Moreover, the costly and disruptive roll-out of EV charging infrastructure, in already space-constrained urban settings – with thousands of miles of cables and excavations – may hinder active modes like walking if charging points encroach onto footpaths and cycleways.

Same but different

Betting everything on EVs merely ‘kicks the can down the road’ with respect to a host of other environmental and social issues.

It does nothing to address car congestion in our towns and cities. It merely swaps one resource-intensive traffic jam – petrol and diesel cars – for another – EVs.

Car infrastructure – such as roads, parking, fuelling stations, garages – takes up huge swathes of valuable real estate in our urban areas; space which is effectively denied to other users.

To this charge-sheet we must add the pollution and safety burden of widespread car use, in the forms of noise and particulate pollution from tyres, road accidents, and poor health from inactive lifestyles.

A bolder vision

Taking account of all these points, we can start to envision a much more environmentally and socially sustainable model of personal mobility. A better option would be to shift away from cars, including EVs, as the default mode for moving around within our towns and cities.

To deliver immediate cuts in emissions consistent with a 2°C-derived budget, the UK Government could set a maximum emission standard of 90gCO2/km for all new cars from 2022.

This is a level already widely available for all necessary car categories from supermini to family estate – but notably excluding heavier executive and SUV categories.

Tightening the standard by 10-15 percent each year would send a clear, but non-technology-prescriptive, signal to manufacturers. In all likelihood, electrification will be required for new cars from the mid-2020s onwards as the standard drops below 50gCO2/km.

However, in addition to tighter regulation on car emissions we should rethink the model of individual car ownership. Instead of extensively rolling out charging points and maintaining car-congested towns and cities, the development of urban and intercity public transport must be prioritised, along with the re-allocation of road-space to active modes.

Connecting with the public transport network, rental hubs could be established on the outskirts of cities where EVs can be picked up for longer journeys. Hence, we might replace streets jammed with multiple cars per household with liveable, car-free cities.

Reducing the number of cars in circulation in this way would work to reduce both total energy and resource use. It would also facilitate a faster turnover of cars within the fleet, as individual cars are utilised more effectively, hastening the throughput of efficiency improvements.

Back to the present

It is now late 2020. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we’ve had three decades of talk and empty promises on climate change. All the while, total emissions have continued to rise with a potentially devastating amount of warming already dialled in.

We now face a climate emergency.

What we do in the next few years, the next few months, is critical. We are the last generation that might still conceivably prevent environmental catastrophe. Bold leadership and decisive action are urgently needed.

Sadly, set against the scale and urgency of the challenge, this week’s announcement is not a plan fit for purpose – it is dangerous prevarication.



Copyright according to Creative Commons 4.0 terms. See
This article was first published in The Ecologist.

Comments (29)

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  1. Muiris says:

    Thought provoking stuff, that makes a lot of sense. Shared on Twitter

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    Ooh, good to see Kevin Anderson commenting again.

    The maths is quite simple. You can have EVs, but you can’t replace the world’s 1.4 billion cars one for one with them. Similarly, you can have solar panels and wind farms but you can’t replace fossil fuels one-for-one with them. You could even have 100% electrical energy produced by solar and wind worldwide, but this only accounts for 20% of total energy use. The fossil fuels burned to even attempt 100% renewable energies or renewable powered transport exceeds those already burnt, never mind the minerals required. The so-called Green New Deals around the world are just licenses for fossil fuel companies to print yet more money.

    Privately owned cars are the most inefficient transport system ever. Even a horse is more efficient, because at least when it’s not working it is producing poop for later gardening use. Cars spend most of their life sat in garages, driveways, kerbsides and traffic jams. We could reduce the total number of cars by 90% and still move everybody around. We just have to stop the silly notion that everyone must get to work at 9am and finish at 5pm, or whatever.

    But bigger still, is reducing the incentive to travel full stop. The idea of commuting say from Bristol to London to work is utterly stupid. Even back in 1995 commuting was costing the economy £4 billion a year. You could have simple incentives such as say a £3000 extra tax code allowance if you live within 2km of work, standard postcpode matching software could work that out for HMRC. If you don’t own a car, another £3K tax allowance. If you pave over your front garden to park your third car on, get charged 50% more poll tax.

    Flying on jets should just be abolished. Kevin Anderson himself worked out that every passenger jet flight has the same emissions as 9000 African farmers for a year.
    The result of which are all to clear to see in the Arctic, Siberia, Australia and the US coastlines.
    If you want to visit your self-exiled relatives in an ex-colony or EU enclave, get a sail boat with some oars. There is no law saying that everything has to be done yesterday.

    We are going to have to get used to the idea that the ability to just drive or fly anywhere is an absolute luxury, one most of the world do not have, and we need to repurpose our whole economies with that in mind.

    You can’t solve the problems of today with the thinking of yesterday, to misquote Einstein. The article’s header is very correct, the solution(s) proposed are the problem.

    1. Agree with you 100% Mark.

      “We are going to have to get used to the idea that the ability to just drive or fly anywhere is an absolute luxury, one most of the world do not have, and we need to repurpose our whole economies with that in mind.”

      But this needs massive political leadership from below to make it happen.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        ‘…massive political leadership from below…’

        That will be the invisible hand of the market, then. Travel will become once again a luxury commodity when and only when it once again becomes prohibitively expensive to the hoi polloi; that is, when (if Mark is correct) its mass consumption becomes technologically feasible no more.

        What I’d like to know – the real burning issue down my way – is why all these foreigners or ‘townies’ who come to live in our backwoods feel the need to drive fuel-guzzling trucks that are too wide (and heavy) for our backroads. With roo bars. Where do they think they are – Alice Springs? A wee second-hand Fiesta’s more than sufficient for 364 days of the year; the lambs just bounce off it, leaving barely a scratch. And on the day when it snaws, ye can ayweys wauk nor get a fermer ti pou ye oot the sheuch an back ontil the main drag again wi he’s tractor.

        And why do they keep gundogs and retrievers? What’s that about? A wee Jack Russell to control the vermin – that’s all you need.

        1. No it is not the Invisible Hand at all, I was referring to activists and campaigners leading where our politicians have failed to.

          The neat idea that “woe is us” we can’t fly anywhere for £30 how terrible” as a democratic outrage isnt backed up by the facts. A recent study showed that just 1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions:

          A study by Linnaeus University in Sweden found that frequent-flyers who represent just 1% of the world’s population caused 50% of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018. They also said that only 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018; of those only 4% flew abroad rather than within their own country. The carbon emissions of US air passengers are bigger than those of the next 10 countries combined, including the UK, Japan, Germany and Australia. The lead author of the study, Stefan Gössling, said: “If you want to resolve climate change and we need to redesign [aviation], then we should start at the top, where a few ‘super emitters’ contribute massively to global warming.” Aviation in 2019 emitted around 1 billion tonnes of CO2 and benefited from a $100bn (£75bn) subsidy by not paying for the climate damage they cause, with most not paying fuel duty, or VAT in Europe. In a typical year, like 2018, 48% of people in the UK did not fly at all; the figure was 53% in the US; and 65% in Germany. Other data shows in the UK that about 70% of flights are taken by 15% of the people. Also just 1% of English residents are responsible for nearly 20% of all flights abroad; and the 10% most frequent flyers in England took more than 50% of all international flights in 2018.

          In reality:

          About 1% of the English population are responsible for about 20% of flights abroad. (2018)
          About 10% of the English population are responsible for about 50% of flights abroad (2018 data)
          About 15% of UK population took 70% of flights (2014)

          The idea that we can continue living without any limits to anything we do is fanciful and morally unsustainable.

          1. angry bee says:

            I note the data you cite is two years old.

            Frequent flyers (define frequent please) tend to be business people and it is likely they will reduce their flight profile post pandemic as their managers will look at the savings from using Zoom – Travel across timezones may have benefits that make flying economically worthwhile.

            I have not seen what percentage of global carbon emissions is caused by aircraft ( including military A fighter jet is probably worse than a commercial airliner). The last figure I heard was 3% In the recent lockdown planes flew empty to preserve airlines parking spots. Pollution plunged.

            Anyone who drives a car but wants to restrict private individuals from flying is a hypocrite.

            The establishment have always been anti-mobility, scared that workers see they can get more elsewhere. An old post on Shout99 noted that one of the poster’s ancestors worked as a bricklayer in Northern England. His Sister worked as a maid down south and got more than he did. The establishment has always been scared people will travel abroad and demand improvements as a result of seeing how Johny Foreigner does things.

            I would not want to see the climate crisis used as an excuse to introduce an internal passport of the sort used in Imperial Russia, scrapped after the revolution and then reimposed in the Soviet Union.

            The study you quoted said
            “If you want to resolve climate change and we need to redesign [aviation], then we should start at the top, where a few ‘super emitters’ contribute massively to global warming.” ”

            Start with the super emitters.

          2. Yes indeed start with the super emitters – but the idea that we dont have a dire need for collective effort is fanciful

          3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            But consumers are the most effective activists and campaigners there are. They effect more material change through the real-life choices they make than any amount of flag-waving or protest-marching has ever done.

            That’s the power of the general will of the people, the invisible hand of democracy. That’s what was missing from Rousseau: the materialism of Adam Smith.

            But, of course, if the general will is not to be trusted…

          4. “But consumers are the most effective activists and campaigners there are” – is not true if consumerism is the problem. The crisis of climate is about productivism and consumerism. Our ‘unprecedented times’ pre-date coronavirus and business as usual is not viable. Market solutions have failed. I presume you are rationally aware of all of this at some level.

          5. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Consumerism isn’t the problem; unsustainable consumption is. And because it’s unsustainable it will be selected against economically; that is, by the real-life choices consumers make, in accordance with the laws of supply and demand.

            If, as you say, business-as-usual is no longer viable, then all well and good; being unviable, it will die out quasi-naturally as our behaviours evolve in response to the market forces (consumer choices) that determine really whether those behaviours are sustainable or not.

            The great insight of Adam Smith was that things like ‘unsustainability’ and ‘viability’ aren’t determined abstractly, but materially by the real-life choices that consumers make and which collectively comprise the general will.

            Have a wee bit of faith in the demos! Liberate the markets from corporate interference and our ecology/economy will take care of itself.

            We need more democracy, not less, in response to the existential challenge of climate change.

          6. “If, as you say, business-as-usual is no longer viable, then all well and good; being unviable, it will die out quasi-naturally as our behaviours evolve”.
            No it won’t because the market is not free and there is no sign at all that behaviour change will happen at any rate remotely in time with the speed of recovery and dramatic change required.

          7. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            And so, presumably, right-thinking people must somehow capture and use the power of the state to compel the stupid or ignorant into making the right choices.

            It all sounds depressingly familiar… I don’t buy it.

    2. Blair says:

      Our governments could do a lot more through tax allowances, concentrating on removing fossil fuelled cars shouldn’t be the priority for solving global warming.

    3. angry bee says:

      “Flying on jets should just be abolished.”

      I have family in Asia. They want me to visit them, every year. I do not so so because I cannot afford it each year. I would like to visit them. How would I do that? Do you want me to be banished from seeing my family? You want to imprison me in this country?

      Now If we had a large UBI then I could take a cruise (but that would mean more emissions). So the logic of your statement is that all travel beyond a few miles should be banned.

      This sounds fascist to me. Electric planes are already being developed. Long haul planes will.

      As I understand it planes produce far less emissions than cars trains and planes, let alone tankers and cruise ships. In the recent lockdown pollution plunged but airlines flew empty flights in order to keep their airport slots.

      Incidentally, I think anyone who wants flying abolished but still drives a car is a hypocrite. And do not give me nonsense about needing a car for work. Move closer to work or change your job to one nearer home.

  3. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Urging haste is commendable but until theres an electric charging infrastructure which is well maintained it’s not feasible. We’re ready to but electric – happily- but it’s too much of a risk until that’s in place.

  4. Paul Convery says:

    The many issues over energy and resource use are discussed in more detail on the website ‘Consciousness of Sheep’. It is well worth a look.

  5. Dougie Harrison says:

    Kevin and Dan, this is excellent… but you omit to mention one matter, which means that electric vehicles are unsustainable on current technology.

    Lithium is currently an essential component of vehicle batteries. Lithium is a rare mineral, which is why the founder/owner of Tesla tried very hard to own the mines producing it in South America. As EV use soars, so will demand for lithium… of which world supplies are finite. So its price will soar, creating lovely profits for the mine owners. And eventually there will be no more lithium to mine.

    So EVs cannot be part of the solution to tackling climate change longterm. Only mass transfer from privately-owned vehicles to public transport and sustainable individual transport will really help.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Dougie Harrison, the BBC reported that Cornish lithium looks viable.
      I think BBC Click suggested it could provide around a third of UK battery demand, although I’m not sure how they worked that out.

      Apparently China controls most of the global capacity for the technology metals needed for the green revolution, partly it seems because many of the refineries need to be on a huge scale (with current technology). Recycling levels are still very poor (I heard a figure of less than 1%), although perhaps this is starting to improve.

  6. george pattison says:

    Those that aspire to the electric car or even the electric bicycle cannot conceive a future without them .The book Bicycle Science published by MIT. outlined the capability of the bicycle in terms of transport. With modern gears, all ages can ride them anywhere and easily for a journey of 10 miles. They are the most efficient means of transmitting human power into forward motion… ever. However they have an image problem in Scotland. They are seen as playthings for children , the domain of the Tour de France, the intrepid mountain biker or for the old farm worker to wind his weary way home.
    Denmark and the Netherlands support active travel on the bicycle. It is a technology that has been around for more than 100 years.
    We probably need a sustained campaign from all level of Government to promote them before we have change.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      To be fair, cars are tech-toys for a lot of adults. Batteries seem to be the things to drool over now.

      I have to admit that I don’t have a bike. But I do have a bus-pass and a Shank’s pownie, and these are sufficient to get me to anywhere I want to go, even out here in the sticks.

  7. Brian says:

    I can’t help but think that the underlying message from the powers that be is to promote “changes” that mean we don’t actually really have to change anything.

    Renewables and EVs and “new technologies” (not yet invented) will mean we don’t actually have to address our unsustainable consumption based lifestyle in which we are completely divorced from the biological processes that support life on this planet.

    Buy our way out of the environmental crisis.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Well, we have to consume to live and produce what we consume. The claim is that our current consumption behaviours are unsustainable insofar as the cost of the production behaviours that enables them are becoming unsustainable. In other words, our current lifestyles are, basically speaking, becoming increasingly expensive and unaffordable, especially as incomes fall.

      My contention is that, in a free market, the very fact that our behaviours have become unsustainable would disadvantage them economically and advantage more affordable ones.

      However, the market is not free; it is regulated by the strategic/instrumental rationality of powerful political and commercial corporate interests, which regulation disrupts its communicative competence and thereby distorts the general will that our material commerce naturally produces. Again, basically speaking: corporate regulation so skews the market with its consumer subsidies and producer protectionism that the unsustainability of our current behaviours – their true cost – is ‘masked’.

      My contention is further that a free (unregulated) market – a market in which we act individually as equal, informed, and autonomous producer/consumers – would realise the true cost of our economic behaviours in the prices we have to pay for the resources we use, leading to those that are unsustainable being selected against in the competition among producers for commercial survival.

      What I’m saying, basically, is that, in addressing the problems of climate change, we should be targeting the anti-competitive practices of both ‘private’ and ‘public’ corporations rather than individual consumer choices, making our material commerce more free rather than less free.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Anndrais mac Chaluim so, your free, unregulated market: nostalgic for the days of racialised chattel slavery and child prostitution? Hankering to build up a private arsenal and replace all your tiger-skin rugs? Hoping to bribe some jurors and buy some elections? Chafing against all that health-and-safety/environmentalist red tape and tiresome requirements for accurate product descriptions? Frustrated by considerations for future generations and people in far-off countries? Why, you auld snake oil salesperson you.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          Nope, we still have all those distortions; so, there’s no need for nostalgia.

          What I hanker after is Adam Smith’s ultra-democratic régime of interpersonal relationships, in which all the power inequalities that produce such distortions as those you mention are excluded and our exchanges are free and equal; a régime that produces instead the material condition of truth, justice, and (as I touched on above) government by the general will rather than that of ‘the majority’ or some other such self-appointed elite, that condition being what Marxists like Habermas call ‘communicative competence’ in the social sphere.

          I don’t know what you imagine.

          The question is: How do we exclude power inequalities from our material exchanges? How do we free the market?

          And the answer is: By designing the media through which our exchanges take place – the market – so as to preclude the appropriation and accumulation of power in civil society – that is, of ‘capital’ as Smith called it – and maintaining its dispersal throughout the commonality.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, I have no interest in pursuing your free-market magical thinking and your bizarre framing of my examples of outlawed trade as ‘distortions’. But for clarity’s sake, to take one such example, are you saying you oppose CITES on the grounds that it is a regulatory imposition limiting the freedom of trade?
            “CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention) is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals.”
            Which is, after all, intended to temper the exploitation of other animals and plants (a million species currently endangered, according to the United Nations) by the self-appointed elite of humans.

          2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            That’s right: the Washington Convention is the regulatory imposition of a set of values on society as a whole and, in particular, on those ‘others’ in society who don’t share those values, rather than an expression of the general will, which emerges democratically as the sum of our free and equal transactions.

            What gives one moral community the right to impose its values on another, other than the unwarranted claim that its values are ‘True’ or otherwise superior to other’s values? This imposition is what J.S. Mill called ‘tyranny’.

            The Washington Convention, and the enforcement thereof, is nothing but a naked exercise of power; an instance of the sort of ‘tyranny’ that distorts our communicative competence (as referred to above.

            Join the dots and you’ll see what I mean.).

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, but who appointed the human species as moral arbiters over Planet Earth? Surely the human species are the tyrants, exercising naked power, a distortion of planetary general will and good?

          4. Axel P Kulit says:

            The human species are the ones with power. Therefore we have the power to be moral arbiters (what ever that means) and, if we are moral ourselves, the responsibility to use this power properly.

            I am not at all sure the concept of morality is applicable to non human species, and trying to be ” moral arbiters ” over the planet is a bit like the Society for Prevention of Naked Animals ( or what ever it was called).

          5. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Nothing appointed us as nature’s moral arbiter: God is dead; consequently, we can no longer speak with authority on matters of value. As you know, I’ve little time for the idea of morality, the death of God having reduced it to a nonsense.

            It’s doubly nonsensical to ascribe moral agency to natural phenomena. Is it somehow ‘wrong’ for an earthquake to reduce a village to rubble? Is a harvest due some sort of moral approbation for being bountiful? I don’t know… What do you think?

            I’m also highly dubious of the dichotomy you pose between the human and the natural. Elsewhere (‘historical materialism in a nutshell’ – remember?), the auld Marxist in me alluded to the historical nature of this dichotomy and how it will be abolished in communism, under whose relations of production the human will be fully naturalised and nature will be fully humanised in a realisation of the totality of Being as the ‘end’ or final cause of history.

            And the auld Heideggerian in me will now allude to deep ecology as the ‘end’ of history, whereby the human will, through also ‘dwelling poetically’ in nature and not just instrumentally against it, become nature’s expression rather than its exploiter, again abolishing the alienation of ‘man’ and ‘nature’ in a realisation of Being as a totality.

            Of course, the auld anarchist in me deplores both these totalitarianisms. But such is the dynamic that animates my thinking and keeps it limber.

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