Greenwash

This topic never fails to annoy me. But then you all knew that already, didn’t you?

greenwash.jpg

Every day now I see advertising trying to convince me to buy what is known in Swedenland as a “miljöbil” – an environmentally friendly car. These cars are almost always ethanol hybrids – that is, cars capable of running any mix of gasoline and ethanol. They are invariably advertised with green colours and happy babies and flowers that spring into life as the smelly hunk of metal and plastic zooms by, carrying its single occupant.

This is bollox, people. Ethanol is a hydrocarbon. It may come from “natural” sources but so does oil and coal. Ethanol has as much CO2 emission as gasoline, and a few extra dangerous compounds given off when the engine starts up. And a lot of evidence today points to ethanol manufacture, storage and transport leading to essentially as much net CO2 emissions as gasoline. And lets not forget the fact that ethanol also requires farming land for its manufacture – a good deal of it – while oil comes mainly from under the sea.

Making a car run on ethanol isn’t such a huge breakthrough as the car companies tell us. Cars have always been able to run on ethanol. Of course, running them just on pure ethanol will damage the engine after a while, but almost every car can run 10 or 15% ethanol added to gasoline with few ill effects. Tweaking the engine is not a “breakthrough” in any way that makes sense.

Today in Stockholm you receive a bunch of perks for switching to a miljöbil. These include a purchase grant and exemption from the city congestion charges, despite the fact that your ethanol car takes up as much space, makes as much noise and spews out as much crap as any other car. The only difference is that you get to feel smug about it. And in fact many perfectly ordinary gasoline cars are listed as “miljöbil” because they are fuel-efficient or have lower emissions than normal.

And then of course you could buy one of these cars and NEVER put any ethanol in it. And I’m sure that many people do just this. Ethanol is hard to find anyway, and if all the perks are yours regardless, why even bother to put the right fuel in? Who’s going to know?

green_car.jpgYou could just as well call a Nuclear submarine “environmentally friendly” by including a hundred sets of oars and suggesting that the crew could, if they wanted to, row the thing home. Or call an SUV “environmentally friendly” by welding on a few hooks where you could, if you wanted, attach horse tackle and have the beasts pull you along. The reasoning is exactly the same – just by adding the possibility of a thing is no guarantee that the thing will be used.

And then we need to consider that half of the CO2 emissions from most cars have already been released before you even set foot inside the thing. Building the car and making the materials used in its manufacture see to that. The actual choice of fuel makes very little difference.

Ethanol cars are complete and utter greenwash. It is simply the car companies trying to tweak your conscience in order to sell you more crap. Electric hybrids may be better, but they still have to be manufactured. The only true way to make your car environmentally friendly is to make an electrical or solar-powered car, from car parts that you already have, or just not buy the thing in the first place. How about that for a car ad:

“Save 100% of your emissions, all of your fuel costs, and never pay a parking fee or congestion charge ever again! As well as this you pocket 15 thousand Euro, tax free!”

I’ll have one of those, please!

/ paddy

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36 thoughts on “Greenwash

  1. Maybe I’m off my rocker (maybe? p’shaw!) but I really think that the only way we’re going to get passed all this faux-green propoganda is if we figure out a way to use Web 2.0 power to the people’s advantage and make “open source” cars :) Imagine the slogan: The enviro-car that’s free to download! Hehe.

  2. Lasse: Stick it to those SUVs! Nice to see somebody is doing something constructive, instead of just complaining (like me). “Green” motorists can kiss my arse!

  3. I agree. I can not understand the hype around ethanol cars. Especially that the energy needed to produce and transport the ethanol here is substancial. And that it’s sometimes produced on land that used to be natural forests (such as rain forests).
    The only “environmentally friendly” type of car that I actually BELIEVE in is the petrol/electricity hybrid.
    Anything else seems just stupid in comparison; they run quietly on electricity at low speeds = less sound pollution as well as less fumes in the cities, and the batteries are charged going downhill as well as when the engine is driving the car forward (AND backward, I guess).
    Wouldn’t ever buy any other car after riding in one a couple weeks ago (but then; a combination of gas from waste + electricity would be even better…)

  4. Ethanol powered cars are all smoke and mirrors.

    How about the Reva i, just launching in Ireland?

    http://www.revaindia.com/revaworldwide.htm

    All electric and can be charged from an ordinary household socket.
    80km range, 80km/h top speed but 8 hour full charge time.

    I may even check it out myself.

    On the radio here yesterday that Sweden is the only EU country with a worse vehicle CO2 output than Ireland. Apparently because Swedes hang on to their cars for longer, so the average age (and technology) is older.
    Not sure how valid an argument this is…

  5. Stuart: Don’t forget that the electricity that you would use to recharge your electric car has most likely been produced by burning fossil fuels, unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere where your electricity is produced at a solar, hydroelectric or wind turbine power station (or even a nuclear power plant, if you want to ignore the problems of dealing with nuclear waste).

    Yup, ethanol fuel is pants – we probably spend more energy producing it than we ultimately reap from it.

    Where the hell’s my water-powered car, eh?

  6. Karin: Yeah, hybrids seem like the best option. Although we should build them smaller and more simple, and make them plug-in so the car can be charged from the electricity supply. And maybe attach a sail…

    Stu: That one looks good. And its small too, which is a plus. And the thing with Swedish cars only looks at the emissions from fuel, not the emissions used to build the replacement car. Keeping an older car running longer is actually better considering the total CO2/waste.

  7. Ben: Well not pointless entirely. Useful for many things, but the world’s infrastructure forces us to use them far too often. And advertising convinces us the chicks will like us if we have one.

    Blackout: Indeed.

    Mr Glancetts: True, but at least emissions from a power station can be treated centrally, and big facilities are more efficient than local production. And anyway the solution to the worlds energy problems are obvious: make nuclear power stations on the moon and manufacture antimatter which is sent back to earth. Simple!

  8. PaddyK: “Ben: Well not pointless entirely. Useful for many things, but the world’s infrastructure forces us to use them far too often. And advertising convinces us the chicks will like us if we have one.”

    So true. I’m proud to say I’m carless but then again I live in a paradisic bubble of easy accessibility and I’m not into chicks, hehe ;) We have a choice to either say no to marketing propaganda or to do the status quo. We’re all grown adults here. No one’s gotta a gun to our head saying “Buy a pollution machine now!” But alas, most choose status quo because we are lemmings.

    We shouldn’t forget that those car batteries end up in the trashheap too and can cause enviro-damage, but then, I suppose it’s a trade off of gaseous pollution being replaced by non-gaseous pollution. I guess we don’t want that creepy ozone hole to get any bigger. We don’t want to be “glowing” if we should happen to stand out in the sun for an hour.

  9. I am not saying you are wrong because I don’t know much about, ethanol cars, but you have defiantly oversimplified when you say “This is bollox, people. Ethanol is a hydrocarbon. It may come from “natural” sources but so does oil and coal. Ethanol has as much CO2 emission as gasoline.”
    With coal and oil the CO2 was trapped and is now free in the atmosphere, therefore bad.
    With ethanol the CO2 WAS in the atmosphere, it is turned into sugars by the plant, is turned into ethanol by us, and then is released back into the atmosphere, no extra CO2 in the atmosphere. (of course that is simplification, there is the CO” given off in the farming process, making into ethanol, etc. but to say say ethanol is as bad as gasoline because it gives out as much CO2 is bollocks!)

  10. Glen: We should use compressed-air cars where the air is compressed by mechanical wind-turbines. I will talk more about this later…

    Gobaskof: Oooh, an argument – I do love a good argument! Well, you’re right, of course. My point was that ethanol is called a “zero emission” fuel because the carbon in it came originally from the atmosphere. However, there is no guarantee that the carbon will ever leave the atmosphere once released.

    And to process and transport ethanol requires a lot of energy and emissions, quite often supplied by fossil fuels. Look at the studies I quote – they say that the total emissions in producing and transporting the ethanol may make it as bad as gasoline in releasing fossil carbon. Seriously, read them!

    And as I say, just because you have an ethanol car is no guarantee that you will ever put any ethanol in it. And, on the street level, an ethanol car releases as much particles and nitrous compounds (air pollution) as gasoline. It is really the CARS I am attacking here, and not the ethanol as such.

  11. Wow,

    here is how i see it. First lets recognize there is a problem. If you do not acknowledge that we have a global warming issue at hand, dont read this comment any further, there is no need. While the science of global warming is not as exact as we would like, the evidence for human induced global warming is pretty compelling, here is my summary.

    So, knowing it it real we can do one of two things:
    Nothing or
    Something

    I choose something. so.. what should we do?

    There is no one thing. There is only a lot of improvements we can make. Going purely ethanol/biodiesel for our cars is one thing. Gobaskoff is right, the CO2 that get emitted by ethanol use, was already in the atmosphere, so ‘recycling’ that CO2 helps us, by reducing the amount of extra CO2 we emit by burning fossil fuels.

    Does it take energy to make and transport ethanol? Of course it does, just like it takes extra energy to make and transport normal gasoline and diesel. Further, if these trucks, pipeline pumps and other machinery that did the transporting were also using biofuels, then this would also bring down the total emmisions.

    do we still have to develop more additives to help withy particulate emmissions and other issues with ethanol (very hard to transport pure ethanol, its a great solvent)? You bet.

    Right now the production of ethanol is not as efficient as the production of gasoline and diesel. In fact, I dont think that we get as much energy out of the process as we use in the process. Should we stop? should we just say “oh forget it”.

    Of course not, we’ve had about 150 years to refine the fossil fuel processes. We just need some time and money to work out the ethanol and biodiesel processes and there are some great things on the way.

    We also need to figure out the cellulostic ethanol process better. Then there is no fuel/food compromises.

    The fact of the matter is we need a transportable fuel. Just figuring out our heating and electricity needs is not enough. Going nuclear/solar/wind/geo helps with the grid and helps to power electric vehicles, but dont really do anything for cars, trucks and planes.

    Cellulostic ethanol, and biodeisel which do indeed produce CO2 when burned, are one pretty good answer, because making them takes CO2 out of the air. Taking this along with conservation, renewable grid and heating energy, together should bring us to carbon reduction. but that can only happen by embracing these forms of energy rather than saying “Look, CO2 still comes out, its stupid”

    (btw, there are other possibilities: we could be using renewable energies to take CO2 directly out the the air to make syngas (after cracking it to make CO)… syngas can be relatively easily transformed into a variety of fuels…some folks are working on that too)

    Going all electric is great if we stop building coal burning power plants. Clean Coal isn’t clean no matter what the idiot-in-chief says. a pound of coal make two pounds of CO2. You can not get around that. The clean part only talks about other stuff, like sulfur dioxide. I didnt say “if and only if” (although I was going to) because the over all efficiency from fossil fuel to miles is better through the power plant than through a refinery. So electric cars are OK, but the would be great if we got rid of the coal plants and replaced them with solar, wind, and nuclear ones.

    Compressed air cars may be ok, for the commuter. Do you really have a link to something that shows 300 miles per tank, without refueling like we get out of a gas car? That distance is pretty important as it drives a good part of our economy. Can a wind turbine supply enough compressed air for a refueling station to supply many many cars each day? Maybe you will address that in your next post.

  12. OK, I’m not sure if this counts as disagreement, but I do have an observation that you may be able to address.

    In theory, the carbon in ethanol fuel was floating in the atmosphere pretty recently, since most ethanol is produced from crops like sugar-cane. This means that burning the ethanol is returning CO2 to the atmosphere that hasn’t been out of it very long, anyway.

    The carbon in gasoline, on the other hand, was buried in the ground for millions of years before someone pumped it out and refined it. This means that the CO2 returning to the atmosphere from burning gasoline had previously been sequestered for ages.

    This means that an ethanol burning engine isn’t making as much of a net change in atmospheric CO2; it basically replaced CO2 that was removed from the atmosphere within the last year. A gasoline engine, however, is part of a system that extracts CO2 from deep under ground and puts it into the atmosphere.

    I don’t know if increasing CO2 is actually a serious problem, but I can see where, at the point of use, burning gasoline has more effect on atmospheric CO2 content than burning ethanol.

  13. Still I would have thought that there was less net emission from ethanol, because fossil fuels also need a lot of transportation and production. But I will agree calling it zero emission is wrong.
    When you say there is no guarantee that the CO2 from the ethanol will be taken out again so even though it came from the atmosphere it may still be just as bad, I do disagree. The CO2 even if it never leaves again, was already there before so there is not a gain in CO2 when the ethanol was used as fuel (apart from transport and production), where as if fossil fuel had been used instead there would have been new CO2 added.
    Also I again agree with just because it can run on ethanol, doesn’t mean that people will run it on ethanol.
    But I still think that if we tried to move all cars gradually onto a petrol ethanol mix, then it total CO2 output would decrease. And it isn’t like we don’t have the space to grow the crops for ethanol in countries like England, where the government pays farmers not to use 10% of there land!
    So while I agree zero emission is a downright lie, I still think it is more environmentally friendly, just like gasified wood power stations are more environmentally friendly than natural gas ones.

  14. People, people! You don’t need to spend 4 paragraphs telling me how the CO2 cycle works. I bloody well know that! “Fossil CO2 used to be under the ground and now its not.” Come on!

    And basically we are not going to spend our way out this of problem. All these new cars and new solutions I have seen are built on “more more more”. More stuff, more effort, more energy. That’s not going to cut it. It’s not just CO2 that’s the problem, its massive over-consumption and waste in general. Gasoline cars would be fine if we used them only when absolutely necessary and planted some bloody trees to suck up the CO2. It’s not very hard.

  15. I think PaddyK’s idea of compressed air cars makes the most sense here. However, everyone here is still trying to justify and find ways to fuel the **ANCIENT** economy of the **1960s** that **NO LONGER NEEDS TO APPLY** in the 21st century with things called computers, the internet and intelligent urban planning.

    We all know darn well that there are many office slaves getting into the car and driving to work each and every morning for no reason. And they’re even driving miles to work… for no reason. Many of these offices are… *government* offices. Our governments on the one hand fly to Kyoto (wank, wank, wank) and then at the same time force their immense staff to go to work every single day even though much of the work can in fact be done on the computer as of 1992!

    Instead of focusing on what matters: government hypocracy and *corporate* pollution (the “mega-supersize” kind), people instead talk about reducing plebeian CO2 emissions using ineffective car design modifications so that governments can still force people to *drive* to their offices and for corporations to continue to belt out pollution while not upsetting the weak-minded consumer.

    The only salvation here is for the few individuals that actually *get* the severity of the problem to structure their lives and careers, when they can, in such a way that is the most environmentally healthy, as well as speak out about all the major things the government is doing to undermine their supposed stance on the environment (like the officeworker example). Personally, I think civilization is doomed like Wikipedia, and for the same reasons: GroupThink.

  16. Glen Gordon: You are the man. Green car = salve for guilt. Although I think that Wikipedia will actually outlast civilization. It’s just so damned handy!

  17. “It’s not very hard.”

    Actually it is. I don’t mean to offend (or frustrate you). But the energy requirements of the planet will keep on increasing. no matter what. Barring a planetwide disaster, the population will keep growing, the economies of our most populated countries will keep increasing and so forth. Planting a tree and conserving is not a realistic scenario. it will delay the final outcome, but doesn’t solve anything as long as this trend (the expansion of our species) continues. I odnt mean to imply that we shouldn’t conserve, of course we should, it gives us more time to solve the bigger problem.

    I’m pretty sure that we as a society frown upon oppression of free will, although some countries have taken to it (see: one child policy). So as long as this happens, we need to desperately figure out how to get to renewable energy so that, in essence ALL our energy consumption comes from the sun (through solar, growing crops, making ethanol, wind blowing, etc etc). Then we can worry about our energy source pfittering out in about 5 billion years. Anything that gets us towards an energy cycle like that is good for us as a species. I’m OK if they call it green.

  18. I agree we also need to cut down the number of people driving, especially people doing the school run to the school 10 minuites walk away (normally in a fucking 4×4), or driving to work when it is within walking distance, etc etc. But still people still need to get around, you try shopping at the supermarket without a car (I did today, only bought about half what I needed, and almost died on the way home), or walking 30 miles to work (some jobs can’t be done via the internet).
    We are not going to get rid of cars, so we may as well make them more efficient, and develop cleaner fuel for them as well as cutting down their use.
    Also I think one of the most important thing is that people who drive big 4×4’s (not including farmers and other people who actually NEED them) should be stopped. They pump out way more fuel than a little car that does the same job, (as well as blocking up the little English roads and writing off my sisters car!)

  19. TechSkeptic: I probably agree with you. I just like causing trouble. But don’t forget about geothermal – nuclear energy from nature! It’s a very big future source.

    Gobaskof: I agree. People should not be allowed to do whatever they want just because they can. And call me a fascist if you want – I’m used to it… ;)

  20. FASCIST! Not really, I but I don’t agree people shouldn’t be allowed (even though it probably sounded that way) just they should be strongly encouraged not to. Like putting tax on 4×4’s up to 10 times what it is now if you don’t have a legitimate reason for having one. Increasing tax on petrol, etc.
    And using this new tax money to do something productive about the problem, like developing CO2 neutral power plants.

  21. Here, for the benefit of Gosbaskof, is a list of legitimate ways of moving objects from the supermarket to your home, ordered according to the magnitudes of the weights and distances involved.

    1. Place the objects in bags with handles, and carry the bags in your hands.
    2. Place the objects in a backback of suitable size, and carry the backpack on your back.
    3. Add wheels; i.e., use a cart (don’t forget the t!) or a bicycle.
    4. Add more wheels; i.e., use a cart _and_ a bicycle, the one attached to the other.
    5. Add an engine; i.e. swap the bike for a moped.
    6. Use an automobile.

    It would be highly irritating if people’s failure to consider any of the alternatives between 1 and 6 were to lead to the extinction of humanity. Or maybe it would be a relief. It depends on your state of mind.

  22. Gobaskof: You’re dead right.

    Tor: Indeed, it would be damned irritating, and a blasted inconvenience. You forgot to add ordering the stuff over the Internet. Sure, it will be driven home, but by a guy who already has a van and is anyway delivering stuff to other people. According to Monbiot, its the best option.

  23. Monbiot is a hero. Did you see the flaming he received from Guardian readers for daring to suggest that, what with resource depletion and climate fuckup and all, maybe that dreaded recession would be preferable to continued economic growth? The comments were furious! But why? Do people seriously think that ever-larger cars and ever-smaller mobile phones are making them happier and happier? I just don’t get it.

  24. Tor: People are stupid. Plain and simple. Even Guardian readers. They never consider arguments, only attack the conclusion if it doesn’t happen to agree with what they expect to hear. If recession means less consumption, less emissions and less disposable income, then I’m all for it.

  25. paddyK: “Although I think that Wikipedia will actually outlast civilization. It’s just so damned handy!”

    Damn, I know. It’s scary when our doom is tasty like a chocolate bunny. (Personally, I like to bite the head off first.)

    paddyK: “If recession means less consumption, less emissions and less disposable income, then I’m all for it.”

    I like you because you’re deliciously bitter (aka realistic), haha. I was thinking recently about this topic while pretending to be all bourgeoisien at a café. I’m no Michael Kaku, but I’m convinced that the course of future history will be dependent on what we do about _completely_ replacing our reliance on oil (and not waiting till 2050 when people are fishing in Lake Vostok with SPF 500 sunscreen on).

    I’m thinking that if we don’t find a way of making fusion work now, we’ll run out of energy resources, capitalism will be replaced with strict dictatorship (actually sorta is now anyway in certain countries which I won’t name) and society won’t progress much further than what we have now for centuries (if not regress back into a dark age controlled by baptist ministers and healing snake-ladies).

    Everyone has written off fusion but I can’t. With a successful fusion reactor, everything else becomes so much more possible, such as space travel… and with the rise of space travel will come a sh*tload more resources and materials to make better and more efficient things. But then, on the other hand, humanity won’t learn its lesson about moderation and will continue on hogging resources like a bacteria until we have to find another galaxy to live in (but that isn’t a problem because Andromeda is hurling towards us as we speak. Why go to the mountain when the mountain comes to you, I alway say).

    So I see humanity going down two very different directions. I hate to sound like a preacher but it really does seem like a heaven-or-hell situation here. And I don’t see a realistic third possibility any more than I see a ball balancing on the head of a pin. Growing canola isn’t gonna buy us that much more time, so let’s get serious. All I know is that I don’t want to be trapped on this planet of monkeys my entire life, so I want fusion! :P

  26. I am a race car engine builder. Years ago I use to be a full time auto mechanic. Some of the most greenest people on earth are the worst, if not, most hypocritical people on the earth today. They buy or lease a brand new vehicle no matter what it would be (I am not going to be specific because they are all guilty). From the minute the own it, until the minute it is returned either with a lease or trade, absolutely nothing has been done to the vehicle. It needs everything: Tires, because of them not being rotated or balanced every 5,000 miles. Tire pressure. Don’t let anyone else tell you, it should be checked at least once a week. It takes about 5 to 10 minutes. If everyone in the world did this one every week, you could not imagine how much cleaner that this world would be. It would make you sick. Spark plugs and spark plug wires just because they are too expensive. A pcv valve. On most vehicles, this is a $7.00 item. You cannot imagine what this does to an engine if it is not replaced when it should. Dirty air filter, because of it being a hassle or just plain laziness. A fuel filter. Most people let this one go the entire vehicles life until they get stuck on the side of the road. You can’t imagine what an engines crankcase looks like after someone neglects that.

    I had the priveledge recently of doing a complete teardown of a 2006 Honda Prius engine. I did a trace back from where the Toyota dealer was located. The engine had a little over 50,000 miles on it. When I had removed the oil pan and other entries to the crankcase, the person that owned it should have been arrested. I honestly do not believe that the oil was ever changed. It did not even look like oil an longer. It looked like black lard.

    The point that I am trying to make is just because someone is driving a hybrid doesn’t excuse them for not maintaining the vehicle. They have the SAME if not MORE responsibility to do so because of the technology being so new.

    The next time you see someone who is driving a large Chevrolet dually pickup which is over 15
    YEARS old, and yes has 2 fuel tanks on it, it is because there are a lot of use left THAT DO follow the owners manual like it’s bible because it is. Most people like myself change their own oil, make their own repairs and don’t bitch because they had spent so much money sending the job to a dealership in which the job wasn’t done half as goon. This FACT. I change oil in all 4 vehicles that we own every 2,500 miles or every six months.

    The people these days that piss and moan about gas guzzlers, big trucks, big pickup trucks, big SUVs, or just big cars in general, or; even, just gasoline powered vehicles should not bitch and moan at all. They should do one or two things: When buying a new or used vehicle, make sure that the owners manual come with the vehicle and follow it, and when you do, you really are being green. Or, the easiest one of all is don’t own a vehicle at all. Walk, ride a bicycle, or take the bus instead of being hypocritical.

    Nick Taylor

  27. Nick: Fucking great comment! I am so happy to hear from somebody who knows what they are talking about because I don’t really know shit about cars. And I have seen a lot of data that agrees with you – older cars, treated well, are quite a bit better than new cars, even if they are less fuel efficient on paper.

    I don’t have a car because I live in a city where I don’t need one. If I lived somewhere else then I would probably have a car. But an old car, treated well and used only when needed, would do just fine.

  28. Honestly you are an idiot! Im a env scientist. The reason y there making so much hype about this whole green thing is that we are leading are selfs to a changed world due to global warming! In 60 to 80 years there will never be any more oil left in the world to use!!!! Its a known fact throughout the scientific world! No one uses coal to power cars so who gives a shit about coal. When we run out of oil in the ground or the ocean, there will be nothing to heat are homes, drive our cars, make plastics which use potrolium may i add. Do some research before you talk shit about a type of scientific matter such as global warming or E85 Ethanol!

  29. John:

    Oh you have walked into a brawl, my friend.

    You see, Johnny, I am also an environmental scientist, and although I am, it doesn’t necessarily make me smart. And what you have presented to us in your “discussion” is a level of environmental knowledge normally possessed by 6 year-olds.

    And excuse me, John – are you telling me that oil is running out as if it is NEWS? As if it is some privileged information available only to wise and munificent people like yourself? Have you actually READ the article at all?

    And yes you CAN power cars from coal. Coal can be converted to liquid fuel or wood gas and if you were an environmental scientist you would know this, But you’re not, are you? In fact, you’re not even a grown-up, to judge from your spelling.

    And – oh – are plastics made from petroleum? Wow, who would have guessed? Thanks for that one John. We are forever in your debt.

    So to summarise: you present a lot of very well-known facts badly, none of which have any relevance to the article, and then you tell ME to go and do some research? John, if you have a comment to make please make one connected to the article, or else to reality, and go away and do your homework, because you have obviously not been doing it up to now.

    Now it is my experience that people like you will, at this point, do one of 2 things – reply with lots of swearing and call me a cunt; or not reply at all. Which one will it be, John? Which one will it be?

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