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Fri Feb 22, 2013, 12:41 PM

Why we will finish eating the planet

Last edited Fri Feb 22, 2013, 01:50 PM - Edit history (4)

In 1975 the American ecologist Howard T. Odum presented a natural principle that he called the Maximum Power Principle (MPP), that governs the structure and development of all open, self-organizing systems. In his book Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy he showed how this principle governs the development of thunderstorms and the structures of river systems, as well as the shape of human societies.

For living systems, including human ones, everything begins with the energy-seeking behavior that's essential to all life. The MPP governs the nature of that behavior (given the environment and the energy sources of the organism) and feeds the fitness criteria so that natural selection determines the evolutionary outcome. In bald terms, organisms that use the most energy most effectively prevail over those that do less well.

Through natural selection the MPP gets encoded at the base of the genome, but it's really more of a structural principle than a genetic driver per se. As the organism evolves, the expression of its energy-seeking patterns evolve as well, to ensure the optimum efficiency at producing power. This has natural consequences, such as the development of hierarchies (which are not simple human failings, pace anarchists).

Our evolutionary development of conscious awareness, abstract thought and strong problem-solving ability was done in the context of these structural principles of energy-seeking and power maximization. As a result, our cultures also developed within this framework, which operates throughout the human experience at a level we can barely perceive.

This is why it took a genius like anthropologist Marvin Harris to correctly recognize that human culture is primarily driven from the bottom up rather than the top down. The environment and the technology that directly implements energy-seeking and the MPP forms the basis for our culture. Most of our social structures, thoughts, values and beliefs are formed in response to that basic physical level. They either support it, as in our economic, political, and educational systems, or they rationalize it through our values and beliefs. Our thoughts arise in the context of the energy and resource pathways that are available, and are largely directed toward promoting supportive beliefs, values and practices. (This is a very hard thing for those steeped in the traditions of humanism to accept.)

Natural selection operates at the cultural level as well as the level of the organism. This is why, for instance, capitalism won out over communism - not because it is a more humane system, but because it represents a more efficient approach to maximizing power. It's why agriculture superseded hunting and foraging. It's also why we have constantly increasing levels of hierarchy. Hierarchic systems are more effective than egalitarian systems at controlling the increasingly complex processes that are required to transform large amounts of energy into work.

And it's why we have climate change deniers and no progress on CO2 reduction. It's not because people are evil, it's because addressing climate change would require us to immediately reduce our use of fossil fuels. Such a reduction represents an energy devolution that is antithetical to the principle at very foundations of the human organism, and as a result to our culture that evolved from the same principle.

It also explains why we drive towards energy efficiency the way we do. Efficiency improvement represents an improvement in the amount of work that can be done in a unit of time with a unit of energy - i.e. power. The MPP drives us always toward maximizing our production of power (hence its name). It also explains why efficiency improvements never cut our energy consumption - life always strives to use more energy more effectively in order to ensure its survival.

The MPP plays an essential role in every self-organizing system, whether human or not. That's why I use the analogy between the MPP and gravity. The MPP is a fundamental force on the same level as gravity, and with the same pervasive influence on how things develop.

And in the end it means we will not be able to avoid eating the rest of the planet. The desires of environmentalists like Amory Lovins and Lester Brown, the resistance of deep green activists like Derrick Jensen and Edward Abbey, or the walking-away of the "new story" advocates like Daniel Quinn and Paul Kingsnorth - they amount to farting in a hurricane. Not even an encounter with physical limits will stop us from fulfilling this thermodynamic destiny. The Maximum Power Principle will keep working even in the presence of rising pollution, unfolding climate change, and growing food and resource shortages - just like gravity.

Best wishes for an aware future,
GliderGuider

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Arrow 32 replies Author Time Post
Reply Why we will finish eating the planet (Original post)
GliderGuider Feb 2013 OP
NYC_SKP Feb 2013 #1
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #4
dixiegrrrrl Feb 2013 #2
immoderate Feb 2013 #3
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #5
immoderate Feb 2013 #6
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #7
immoderate Feb 2013 #8
immoderate Feb 2013 #9
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #10
immoderate Feb 2013 #11
AverageJoe90 Feb 2013 #17
PETRUS Feb 2013 #25
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #26
PETRUS Feb 2013 #31
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #32
fasttense Feb 2013 #12
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #13
fasttense Feb 2013 #24
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #27
AverageJoe90 Feb 2013 #16
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #18
AverageJoe90 Feb 2013 #19
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #20
AverageJoe90 Feb 2013 #21
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #22
AverageJoe90 Feb 2013 #23
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #28
AverageJoe90 Feb 2013 #29
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #30
firenewt Feb 2013 #14
GliderGuider Feb 2013 #15

Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 12:46 PM

1. In my heart of hearts, I have to agree. But it doesn't prevent me from trying.

I feel that an eventual natural disaster or through our own hands our numbers will be decimated.

Survivors, if there are any, will rebuild.

My profession involves education and the environment, I don't feel it's a waste of time even though all indications are that the principles you describe are likely to be too powerful to overcome.

Cheers.

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Response to NYC_SKP (Reply #1)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 12:59 PM

4. The part that this post doesn't address is how we might respond to unfolding events

Responses run the gamut from the ones I mentioned in the post, to political activity of every stripe, to simply getting on with our lives in our own ways. I don't intend this as any kind of a recipe for trying to fix the unfixable (which we can't), or for giving up (which we equally can't). I just like knowing what's really going on, and it occurred to me that there may be others who share that desire.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 12:52 PM

2. Hmmmm..interesting

happy to rec.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 12:58 PM

3. This sounds right. Sorry about that.

I have maintained that life exists because it is a shortcut to entropy. This stuff reinforces that.

--imm

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Response to immoderate (Reply #3)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 01:01 PM

5. Yes. The Maximum Power Principle is the inverse of the Maximum Entropy Principle.

From a thermodynamic point of view, human beings are just very effective entropy-maximizing engines.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #5)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 01:28 PM

6. I carry on a "debate" with a friend who is a libertarian, free-market, climate denier.

I sent him a link to this excellent post. I wonder if he can understand it.

--imm

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Response to immoderate (Reply #6)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 01:31 PM

7. Please let me know what he says.

I'm in the process of turning this into a book, which is one of the reasons I posted this precis. I want to find out how different people react to the idea, to decide what issues I should address up front in the book.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #7)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 01:59 PM

8. Be aware he is not typical. He is a resourceful denier though.

We have been discussing the recent (since 1850) increase of CO2, from 280 ppm to 390 ppm. He insists there is no evidence it is anthropogenic. So I ask where's it from? He responded with this.
http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/12/26/co2-ice-cores-vs-plant-stomata/

I have answered that stomata data is subject to noise, and that CO2 persistence is not accounted for. But he is a dedicated denier so we'll see what happens.

--imm

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #7)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 02:57 PM

9. I have his response.

Not sure what your view is on this, but I largely agree with him. Also, did you see this quote?
"They either support it, as in our economic, political, and educational systems, or they rationalize it through our values and beliefs. Our thoughts arise in the context of the energy and resource pathways that are available, and are largely directed toward promoting supportive beliefs, values and practices. (This is a very hard thing for those steeped in the traditions of humanism to accept.)"



Seems like humanists, i.e. YOU, have a hard time conceptualizing this notion and would prefer to try and change the natural order of human nature. Good luck with that.


Seems he accepts the premise. He just seems to think that the predictions are somehow wrong.

--imm

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Response to immoderate (Reply #9)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 03:09 PM

10. Fascinating.

You both seem to accept the same premise, but he feels that his world-view is more in tune with it.

People have so many layers of attachment to their beliefs and values that simple truths get reframed on the way in, in order to match our expectations.

Thanks for letting me know!

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #10)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 03:53 PM

11. I'm not sure he truly follows the implications of the MPP

His view of global warming is that it emanates from socialists who want to take over the economy. (Yes all climate scientists are primarily socialists, involved in a hoax.) So somehow he rationalizes the predictions of doom. He is up on all the ways to cast uncertainty.

And to him, avoiding our nature is futile, and he might be right there.

--imm

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Response to immoderate (Reply #11)


Response to GliderGuider (Reply #7)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 09:05 AM

25. What sort of reactions have you cataloged so far?

(I ask this assuming you've floated the idea off of DU and/or in threads I haven't seen.)

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Response to PETRUS (Reply #25)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 02:08 PM

26. Very good question.

You're right, I'm sending up trial balloons in a few places. The reactions so far seem to fall into a few distinct categories.

1. Yep, I get it, this agrees with what I see happening too. This one seems to come most often from people who have some exposure to systems science, ecology, and energy principles in general. These seem to be people who have a science background and tend to be objective about the world around them. Autodidacts (the self-taught) seem to get it faster than most too, maybe because they tend to be more cross-disciplinary in their thinking.

2. You're out of your fucking mind. This comes from people who have built up a very subjective view of the world, based on personal opinions and feelings rather than facts. Beyond this I can't go, as it's really foreign territory for me.

3. Everything you say is already well explained by other theories. People who have spent a lot of effort and care building an objective world-view based on single fields of social study like demographics, history or anthropology tend to hold this one. If I had to venture a guess I'd say it's due to having a single-discipline focus rather than a multidisciplinary perspective.

4. It's too deterministic. This comes from a fair number of classical progressives who are allergic to the sense of determinism that runs through the idea. The notion that our behavior is shaped by our physical circumstances and how we relate to the natural world through our technology is new to most people, and utterly foreign to most people who have been raised with a classical humanist belief system. To them it makes the universe seem like a colder, less human place.

5. It's fatalistic and defeatist. Similar to #4, but more vehement. Because I argue that we have far less control over our energy-using, society-building impulses than we thought we did, some people see this idea as an attempt to justify sitting back and letting the world roll on as it will.

6. It leaves no room for the human spirit. These objections are similar to points 4&5, but come from people who feel that the universe has a fundamental spiritual dimension that I'm ignoring. It seems to come most often from transcendentalists of one sort or another. New-agers are especially prone to this reaction.

7. It smells like social Darwinism. Here we come to those who feel that the world's fate is in the hands of evil men who wish to shape the rest of humanity into a compliant workforce, and suppress any dissent over the fulfillment of their greedy ambitions.

8. You're a right-wing rat bastard who is in league with the evil men in boardrooms. You're just trying to get us all to stop fighting your masters. Screw you.

That's what I've seen so far. Needless to say, it's too complex an idea to present in full through a few internet postings. It took both Odum and Harris a book each and a whole clutch of scientific papers to get their parts of it across. I'll be trying to address a number of these concerns as I write it up for publication, but in the end I can't convince everyone.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #26)

Sun Feb 24, 2013, 01:19 PM

31. My thoughts.

You are bumping into people's (sometimes unconsidered) beliefs about progress and individualism. Maybe those are the topics to address explicitly up front?

----

More questions, if you don't mind: It looks to me as though your thesis leaves room for a range of possible futures (with respect to the details) that could be judged as better or worse from some point of view. What is the best possible future? Do consciousness and agency play a role in its determination?

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Response to PETRUS (Reply #31)

Sun Feb 24, 2013, 02:46 PM

32. Yes, this thesis challenges a lot of core beliefs.

Last edited Sun Feb 24, 2013, 06:11 PM - Edit history (1)

It questions the fundamental building blocks of our relationship to the world: our beliefs in progress, in the nature and purpose of culture, the goals and values of civilization, the role of consciousness in the operation of life, the existence of free will and autonomy, the nature of choice and apparent human agency, the very idea that we control events.

If there is a fundamental principle like this that shapes so many of our actions outside of our awareness, independent of our thoughts and desires, then everything human beings do (and think, feel and believe) is called into question and requires reassessment.

I used to be big on making predictions about the apocalyptic collapse of civilization, but this framework makes it clear that there is no way we can figure out what's going to happen in any great detail. Human beings are incredibly adaptable to both improving and deteriorating conditions though, and we are extremely innovative. So much of what unfolds in the next 100 years will depend on the interactions of our technology with our resource base, and how much of an existential threat climate change really poses.

This is as far as I'll go any more: it looks very probable that this cycle of civilization is drawing to a close because of our encounter with physical and structural limits to our continued growth. What form that closing will take in different places around the globe is a completely open question, though. It's pretty much guaranteed that the next cycle of civilization(s) will take a very different form than this one did, because of our exhaustion of the world's non-renewable resources and the degree to which we have changed its geochemistry.

The vision of a "best possible future" depends on whose definition of "best" we use. It's probably going to look quite different to a CEO or a politician than it would to a peasant farmer or a factory worker, different to a new parent than to a childless retiree - in fact it's going to look different to each of the seven billion of us. Perhaps the best possible world is one in which people have opportunities to break free of the groupthink process of civilization. It appears that there is more potential for autonomy and free agency at the individual level, and that may hold some promise. The issue though is that we are by nature social creatures. As soon as an individual joins any group their free agency is supplanted to some degree by groupthink.

I don't know any more how events even might develop. The more I discover about the way things really seem to work, the less certain I become about how events might develop. Something I've discovered through personal experience is that this level of uncertainty has an enormous potential to destabilize us emotionally. In order to stay functional, one of the highest priorities is to develop ways of coping with that instability. Personally, I think this is why "philosophies of impermanence" like Buddhism have gained such traction in the ecological community.

I sure don't expect that this "radical principle" will become a very popular idea...

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 04:54 PM

12. I don't buy it.

It sounds very similar to social Darwinism. That is a biological principal is applied to human social interaction. I don't buy it. For example this statement: "Hierarchic systems are more effective than egalitarian systems at controlling the increasingly complex processes that are required to transform large amounts of energy into work."

Prove it. Show me a society that does better with totalitarian hierarchic system. Ever notice the movement of herds? That is an egalitarian movement. The herd leader does NOT decide to move on to better pastures. The herd does. When over 50% of the herd turns, then the rest of the herd turns too. On the surface it looks like the leader decided to turn. But the leader is merely reflecting the herd's decision.

Many a person has looked at nature and reads what they want to read in it.







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Response to fasttense (Reply #12)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 05:45 PM

13. I'm not saying "societies do better with hierarchic systems"

Last edited Fri Feb 22, 2013, 09:30 PM - Edit history (1)

At least not on the way I suspect you mean. I'm saying that hierarchical systems of all kind (including societies) are better at turning energy into work than single-level systems. The example is agrarian (hierarchical) vs. hunger-gatherer (egalitarian) societies. We may not like the social outcome, but I'm talking about the nature of self-organizing systems, not peoples' preferences. The system doesn't exist to make people feel good, it has its own imperatives.

By the way, I neither used nor implied the word "totalitarian". That is purely your own insertion. Totalitarian systems are not effective self-organizers. The main reason why capitalism out-powered communism was that totalitarianism lacks the system flexibility to re-configure itself. In fact, the term "totalitarian self-organizing system" is a complete oxymoron.

The probable reason capitalism has been so successful around the world seems to be that it strikes an effective balance between hierarchic control and system flexibility in the service of transforming energy into work. Note that I did not say it's a "good" system. I said it's "successful". One is an observation, while the other is a value judgement. I'm trying to make observations, rather than judgments here.

The way hierarchies develop naturally in self-organizing systems is laid out by Odum in Chapter 4 of the book I referenced. It shows up in river systems with streams feeding small tributaries that in turn feed a large river. We see it in trees, with their energy processing hierarchy of leaves, branches and trunks.

Hierarchical organization occurs whenever there is multi-level processing (successive levels of transformation) that needs to be done in order to turn raw energy into its final, useful form. The specialization necessary for that processing, along with the control and feedback mechanisms required, automatically produces a hierarchy corresponding to the degree of energy concentration at each level. That generalized structure carries over into our social system - there are people doing those tasks at each level, so the hierarchy they work in appears in the overlaid social system.

You can see the beginnings of it in the "big man" system that develops universally in early agrarian societies. It's more efficient to have one person direct the work and redistribute the product.

I get that you don't like it and can't see it, and I sympathize. It took me 60 years to grasp this stuff, but when I did it was like a flash bulb going off. The world suddenly popped into sharp focus.

I've never seen such a parsimonious and elegant description of why things are as they are. I will be forever indebted to the people who introduced me to the ideas of Odum and Harris.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #13)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 07:45 AM

24. There are assumptions you make when referring to societies.

First you use the word hierarchical to describe overlaying jobs that must be accomplished in order to complete a project. Then you turn around and use the same word to describe one person telling everyone else what to do. As you describe it, the ultimate from of a social hierarchal system is a totalitarian dictatorship. That is what corporations are and most businesses are. But NOT ALL successful businesses are like that nor do they need to be like that.

Second you claim agrarian societies are/were totalitarian or to use your word hierarchical. Just because a certain job must be done before another job and another job does NOT mean one person controlling it all is the best, most efficient way of doing it. Many agrarian societies were NOT controlled by one person. The agrarian societies you see today usually form themselves like that but there have been many that did not and they were successful.

I put forth to you that many agrarian societies today and previously formed themselves like that for protection against other tribes, and outsiders not because the tasks required it. In battle, having a leader and chain of command is necessary for quick action. The most successful military leaders in history have mostly been crazy sociopaths.

Take the lion pack for example, it is NOT controlled by the male lion leader. His job is to keep other male lions away from the females so they can raise their cubs, hunt and patrol their territory. Yet for years we have been told the male lion is the king of the pride. But he is not in control of anything except who he has sex with and who he fights off.

In distributing tasks and jobs in every day life, one person control is not the most efficient. One person can never see all the intricate problems and layers involved in each task. They make mistakes, huge mistakes. But groups of people involved closely with the tasks can refine the jobs, make them more interconnected. If these groups of people who are intimately involved in these tasks get together and make decisions, the processes run smoother.

Capitalism is simply someone with lots of money investing his capital, his money, in a business. It has nothing to do with free enterprise or how the work of the business is distributed and controlled. Capitalism works in Communist China, a totalitarian government. It does NOT seem to work well in democracies because it tends to allow only one or a few elites to take control of everything. Just the opposite of what democracy is all about.

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Response to fasttense (Reply #24)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 02:11 PM

27. Thanks for your input.

I probably won't be able to convince you of the value or correctness of this idea, but I will take your objections into consideration in my future attempts to explain it.

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Response to fasttense (Reply #12)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 01:03 AM

16. Exactly so. And 9 Recs? Gimme a break!

Honestly, fasttense, this piece was almost as bad as the crap I read from climate deniers like Tony Watts, Chris Monckton, et al., who tell us that there's nothing to worry about, that we don't need to reduce fossil fuel usage, etc.

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Response to AverageJoe90 (Reply #16)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 01:23 AM

18. You don't like it?

My heart's bwoken.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #18)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 01:41 AM

19. Lulz. n/t

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Response to AverageJoe90 (Reply #19)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 01:59 AM

20. To make up for the distress this has caused you, what would you say to...

...an autographed copy of the book when it comes out? Just to show there are no hard feelings.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #20)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 02:28 AM

21. Not so much distress as annoyance.

I'll pass on the offer, btw, thanks.

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Response to AverageJoe90 (Reply #21)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 02:32 AM

22. My mission in life is to comfort the afflicted

...and afflict the comfortable. I expect this idea has some miles in it, then.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #22)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 05:20 AM

23. You may want to rethink your strategy, Paul.....n/t

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Response to AverageJoe90 (Reply #23)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 02:12 PM

28. You don't think afflicting the comfortable by presenting challenging new ideas is a good thing?

Or am I missing something?

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #28)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 06:38 PM

29. You missed something by a MILE, G.G.

Presenting this so-called "challenging", "New" idea isn't exactly working out the way you might have thought.

I'm already one of the "afflicted", Paul, and not exactly being made "comfortable". And about the only people who'd be comforted by this type of thing are those who are already comfortable with the idea of supposedly "inevitable" human extinction/collapse of global civilization/etc., what have you.....

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Response to AverageJoe90 (Reply #29)

Sat Feb 23, 2013, 08:34 PM

30. In the immortal words of Ricky Nelson,

But itís all right now,
I learned my lesson well -
You see, you canít please everyone,
So you gotta please yourself.

Thanks for your input.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 07:11 PM

14. A good friend of mine works in the fracking fields of the great white north. A number of the

 

workers wear what look like Earth First hard hats. Upon closer examination, the decal is fake.
What it actually says is "Earth First, Then the Planets". Sad

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Response to firenewt (Reply #14)

Fri Feb 22, 2013, 08:30 PM

15. Yeah, you got it. nt

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