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I have the impression that more and more colleagues disapprove of me flying for holidays. That made me ponder, but I'm not convinced that I'm making a moral mistake. I argue that my actions cannot be causally associated with harm. I am aware that rapid global warming is problematic for humans and many other species, although probably helpful for some, too. It's just that I think I don't have any measurable or even causally detectable part in any damaging event. Am I right or wrong?


An additional clarification: I believe strongly that climate change is real, human made and that flying (in total) does contribute to it (in total).

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  • When you said, "on holiday" I thought you meant flying on one particular day rather than another. You just mean, taking a trip by flying rather than some other mode of travel.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 7 at 2:20

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Your approval of the behaviour, has a global impact. It's about universalisability, the categorical imperative. See Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)

I'd say there is s good comparison between flying in this moment -when we get three storms in a week and record-breaking heatwaves every few years & the vast majority of records were set in the last decade- and the circumstances preceding the French & Russian Revolutions. We are in our own fin de siecle, and saying everyone should be able to fly is very like the apocryphal story of Marie Antoinette saying 'Let them eat brioche!' as the starving mob arrived.

The war in Syria has been linked directly to drought. The places hit hardest by climate change will be those with the least resources to adapt. There is a rapid rise in those affected by unlivable heat & humidity. The risk of conflicts will increase, mass movements of climate refugees will increase tensions, as people with nothing to lose face hostile borders. This is the real engine of climate-change instability. Thervingi and the Greuthungi tribes on the border of Rome. The Mongol tribes that faced two such bad winters on the border with Beijing they no longer had anything to lose. We are barely better at aiding refugees than those groups in the past. Walls don't work against people that are pinned between them and certain death.

In terms of personal behaviour change, committing to not flying is one of the most impactful things we can do, to reduce individual climate impact. But, the biggest impacts we have are social, for instance concrete production produces nearly twice the total impacts of all transport combined, including flying, and which will not be addressed by individual behaviour change.

Tax on car fuel is high, but for historic reasons on jet fuel it is very low. That amounts to a subsidy. We need something equivalent to the London congestion charge, directing a tax on fossil-fuel flights to subsidise trains, until green jet fuel is developed. In the meantime, committing to not flying is the single biggest impact you can have for a better future. That's a moral imperative. To do otherwise, is like feasting while you know others starve. You are actively deteriorating conditions of the vulnerable, and you should expect consequences.

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    to add on specifics: x tons of CO2 will cause approximately y extra degrees, which will have consequences on z human lives. The exact relation between x, y, and z are difficult to measure, but they exist and can be estimated. In the end, there is a causal relationship between a particular emission of a particular individual, and the consequences on a number of individuals in the future
    – njzk2
    Aug 7 at 20:34
  • @njzk2: The problem with relating it strictly to individual culpability, is that any one individual's impact is negligible. Our choices don't only affect ourselves, they impact what are approved or condemned, supported or penalised. Pure individualism is 'a war of all against all' where the game theory of individual impulse & preference is the only moral guide, which we escape through universalising accepted behaviour, & the Golden Rule. See: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/89960/…
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 8 at 8:48
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I argue that my actions cannot be causally associated with harm.

All other aspects about climate change aside, here's your error, from a philosophical point of view.

As a thought experiment, assume that from today on, everybody decides to never fly again for any reason whatsoever, and sticks to it. Then passenger planes and their impact on the climate would disappear in the long term.

Your decision to fly makes sure that planes stay in the air. Hence, you flying means that you are associated with the harm caused by passenger flight to a certain (very small but non-zero) measure. You can simply estimate the amount of CO2 created by this type of plain and divide it by the amount of passengers; that's your part in the harm if you do decide to fly.

Note that everything up to here is simply a logical/philosophical argument. You cannot draw any conclusions without knowing more, much more, about the circumstances. Obviously, not flying anymore is not enough. You also have to make sure that the alternative activities you do in your holiday are not even more harmful than your small part of flying. For example, if you instead take a 1000km road trip to your beach of choice, you might blow a lot more CO2 into the air than your share of the plane's CO2. Another example, you'd have to figure in air-mail that's routinely (presumably...) hitching a ride in not quite full bellies of passenger planes - would we need more dedicated mail planes if passengers decline massively? Who knows, but it does not change that your personal decision has some measurable impact.

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  • If I break a window while playing football, we have i) my concrete act of "kicking the football" ii) concrete damage to another's property iii) a causal chain from my act to the damage. Arguably, these three points make me responsible for the damage. I do not see in your remarks either concrete damage or causal chain from my action "take flight XY". Moreover: Why should your thought experiment have any normative power over me? Aug 5 at 16:19
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    I think, you are really on the right track here. However, I have a minor nitpick: While a plane is more fuel efficient per passenger than a single person in an SUV (why do people pay money these monstrosities?!? Never mind, I digress...), typical road distances to vacation locations are much, much shorter than typical tourist bomber distances. As such, the average flying vacationer is responsible for much more CO2 than the average person doing a road trip. Much more so if you load your entire family into your car. Aug 5 at 18:41
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    @cmaster-reinstatemonica Maybe in Europe, not so sure about the US, many do seem willing to drive 1000's of km cross country for a vacation. Aug 5 at 20:19
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    @Crazymoomin A plane does about 900km/h, a car may average 100km/h on good, unjammed roads. So a single hour of flight does the same distance as an entire day of driving. When people in my place board a plane for vacations, it's very likely a four hour flight or more. Plus the return flight. Some people fly halfway around the earth. There's no way you'd do the same distance with a car for a vacation. We are talking about tens of thousands of kilometers here! Aug 5 at 21:05
  • @cmaster-reinstatemonica Most flights are under 10,000 km. Anyone flying internally in the US or Europe could usually drive there in 2-3 days. Aug 5 at 22:39
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Lots of things that we routinely do contribute to the gradual destruction of the planet. Having children, keeping pets, eating meat, driving cars, flying on business or holiday, switching the air conditioning on. We can't say that all those things are morally bad, but we can try to do less of them.

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I argue that my actions cannot be causally associated with harm

An awful lot of our actions cause harm. Like CO2 emissions cause climate change, climate change causes harm and we are causing CO2 emissions. So we are the starting link in that chain.

Now one can argue about whether ought implies can, whether we have a chance not to and often enough it's quite difficult to avoid any and all harm especially when it's caused indirectly and not deliberately. Like idk how ironically the 1st generation of something energy efficient might be even less energy efficient than it's traditional counterparts simply due to the fact that it's custom made and not mass produced in a stream lined production cycle that is designed to be energy efficient. But if no one would start it, it would do even more harm over time.

That being said, flying seems to be one of the worst offenders in terms of emission per mile and passenger. Like even driving the distance is 1/2 of the emission of flying. I mean if we take the A380 apparently normally rides with 500 passengers and 500t maximum takeoff weight. So about 1 car worth of weight per passenger. And that car isn't just moving horizontal but also vertical. So if one can avoid doing so one probably should.

Now one can make the argument that this is probably still nothing compared with the heavy industry and bullshit concepts like private jets which have a similar output but way less people on board. But if you some up the individually negligible contributions you'll still end up with a significant number. Not to mention that a lot of that industry emission is due to consumer demand or estimations of demand.

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  • From the numbers that I find in the German Wikipedia article on the A380, I estimate a mileage of around 3l/100km per passenger (it can tank roughly 400l per passenger and can fly about 15000km with that). That's about half as much as a quite efficient car on a good road with a mileage conscious driver (real mileage, not the advertised mileage). The bigger the car, the higher this factor by which the plane wins. Aug 5 at 20:39
  • 320,000l / 15,000km / 500person = 64/15 l/100km/person = 4.27 l/100km/person I was off by only a factor of 1.5 (and I know where I made that mistake). And, since this is just a rough estimate, I purposefully ignored the slight energy contents differences between the various liquid fuels. Aug 5 at 21:19
  • After hitting up google once more: A) the A380 and other modern planes have a lower consumption than some of their earlier peers. B) Direct fuel consumption is just one issue, the condensation trails apparently also contribute to global warming due to radiative forcing and that tips the scale in favor of cars. C) Starting and Landing is the worst part of a flight so one should avoid short flies. D) you could also decrease the car emission by car pooling.
    – haxor789
    Aug 5 at 22:00
  • Point B is complicated: At night they contribute to warming, at day, they have a cooling effect. Just like other clouds. Nevertheless, contrails are a very short term effect lasting for a few hours at most. The CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. That's the problem. Everything else you said is 100% correct. My main point was to add some more precise numbers to your third paragraph :-) Aug 6 at 7:28
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Assuming the current scientific orthodoxy on global warming is correct (and this is not the place to debate that question - I'm only noting here that in science all orthodoxies must be open to sceptical challenge), there certainly is an argument that you bear something on the order of a billionth of the responsibility for the consequences. It's not zero. But matters of causality on this fine a scale are never so simple.

There is the direct effect of the emissions, there is the effect on prices, there is the effect on political opinions, there are opportunity costs and paths not followed. There are major questions of what people would do instead, if they were not working in the holiday industry. Suppose we argue that it is all the people going on holiday that spurs political action. Suppose instead of going on holiday you spend your money on other luxuries, the manufacture of which polluted more. Suppose we argue that if the people of developing nations were not being paid by tourists, they would instead have to make their livelihoods in factories that pollute more heavily. There is a vast network of causes and effects, and it is impossible to trace the cumulative net effect of any individual action. And when you are talking in billionths, such effects become significant.

There is also a range of possible solutions and trade-offs that one might support. One obvious option is for the world's energy generation to go nuclear, as France did in the 1980s. Another is to develop the economies of vulnerable nations so they have the resources to adapt to climate change. Or to offset, or distribute the costs differently, or to compensate victims for their losses, or to pay the costs later, when the world is richer. There are many possibilities besides simplistic prevention-through-austerity, and if you are a believer in one of the alternatives that doesn't require you to stop travelling by air, but solves the problem a different way, then you may argue that you see no moral duty to be part of this particular solution.

There is also a major theme of political philosophy here, which is the historical phenomenon of political movements using forecasts of imminent disaster to demand their desired political changes be rushed through without proper debate or scrutiny, because it is an emergency. As H L Mencken put it: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Thus, for every emergency situation demanding urgent political action, we need to have a rigorous process in place to determine whether this is indeed a real emergency, or just another hobgoblin. (Again, not commenting on whether it is or isn't in this case - just noting the general phenomenon.) Because you see there is a risk on the other side of the balance sheet - that if this were a false alarm like the 'Population Bomb/Limits to Growth' stories of the 1960s and 70s predicting imminent global doom ("Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine." "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000" etc.), then any actions taken to support the scare might have serious global repercussions for freedom, democracy, and economic development. Sterilisation of the poor in exchange for aid, and China's 'one child' policy followed the overpopulation scare, which were a particularly horrific moral cost of believing uncritically.

A lot of developing nations rely on Western tourism for a big part of their economy. Taking that away by shutting down air travel is a risk that should not be ignored. In deciding not to fly abroad for a holiday, you take on some billionths of the responsibility for that, too.

So another part of the moral action we all need to be responsible for is to make sure forecasts of disaster and demands for urgent political action are examined rigorously, to distinguish the many imaginary hobgoblins from the occasional real ones. Warning signs should be taken seriously - like supporting data being hidden, numbers being 'adjusted' or 'made up', sceptical challenge being suppressed, opposing arguments being silenced. Sceptics are an essential part of the process of building scientific confidence. Data transparency, quality audits, software quality, scientific replicability, multiple layers of checking and reanalysis should be the order of the day in trillion-dollar decisions. Not because we don't want to believe, or want to delay action, but to generate the quality of evidence we need to safely act when it is essential, and not waste all our resources on costly false alarms, or cause even worse moral harm needlessly.

Whether we believe the current scientific orthodoxy to be true or false, we should all agree that on end-of-the-world questions it should be proven to be of the best possible quality.

You are balancing potential harm due to climate change against potential harm to the economic development of poorer nations. There is no morally safe answer. Your individual responsibility is small but probably not-zero, so perhaps the best thing you can do, if you are worried, is encourage open debate, so that we can collectively make the best decision on the best evidence.

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    It's rather strange to open this answer with what could be interpreted as questioning the consensus on anthropogenic climate change. If someone asked a question about drunk driving, would you start with "assuming the current scientific orthodoxy on car crashes is correct"? Aug 5 at 10:34
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    @Cassiterite, when climate scientists can predict the climate over the next ten years with even a fraction of the accuracy with which statisticians can predict traffic accidents and fatalities over the next ten years, then you'll have something to talk about. Aug 5 at 11:15
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    @DavidGudeman: What makes you think the models have been inaccurate? climate.nasa.gov/news/2943/…
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 5 at 12:28
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    @DavidGudeman: You claim that climate predictions aren’t yet “even a fraction of the accuracy” of traffic accident predictions. CriglCragl has linked some good retrospective assessment of climate predictions (and it was a serious meta-analysis, not cherry-picking successes). Can you show some predictions/reviews justifying that traffic accident predictions are better (substantially, or even at all)? To start you off, here are some US traffic accident trends for recent decades: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/… Aug 5 at 14:29
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    @Valorum all models, by definition, are wrong to some degree. If they're not wrong, they're the real thing, and therefore are not models. Given multiple models, the question of these is not "Which of these, if any, is right?"; it's "Which of these is the least wrong, and can we do better?"
    – Someone
    Aug 5 at 19:00
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To offer some counterpoints, accessible international travel has arguably brought a lot of benefits to the human race from a social perspective. I'm a strong believer that xenophobia and racism correlates negatively with engaging with some level of cultural tourism (it needn't be some high minded middle class experience, having a beach holiday where you don't spend all your time inside an all inclusive hotel still counts somewhat!). Yes, cosmopolitanism and the internet has allowed people to experience other cultures more readily without hopping on a plane, but I do think such experiences are no match for going over there and being an outsider in "their" world.

There's also the argument that many isolated places have managed to significantly improve their standard of living through accessible tourism, though sometimes not without negative side effects. You can imagine without air travel, many small islands and other isolated areas will see a 90%+ reduction in tourists, wiping out the vast majority of their income and industry. For some places, a life of poverty or migration will be the only alternatives.

And of course, beyond leisure travel, there are diasporas throughout the world who would find it very difficult to stay connected to their families. Many would probably have to accept they may never see some of them physically again. Bright students would find their options for higher education severely curtailed, if they are not lucky enough to be born in a nation with the best universities in the world. High tech companies have been able to maintain a global customer base, allowing niche manufacturers to flourish without the expense of staffing and maintaining dozens of local offices in every region of the world.

So a world without air travel will be greener, but for a lot of people, poorer and more isolated, for others lonelier, less well educated, and more disconnected from family, small niche enterprises unable to attract enough customers to be profitable, and it could lead to a regression towards a more insular and less tolerant mindset among many populations. For us, we have to balance all these negatives against the threat of climate change. We haven't gone back to living in caves, so there certainly is some level of carbon emissions we are willing to accept. The question is if air travel qualifies as something that has benefits that outweigh the costs.

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  • But those islands depend on tourism because tourists started arriving. Just as they arrived at an equilibrium now (with tourism), they were at an equilibrium before (without it). I get the other points, but I'd classify they as minor. I'm convinced that the net balance of air travel is very much negative for mankind. I'm suspicious that globalization also brought more harm than benefits.
    – LoremIpsum
    Aug 7 at 18:06
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    @LoremIpsum In many places, the equilibrium before tourism was abject poverty. For example the pacific islands were not some tranquil paradise before the arrival of European explorers and later tourists. They were in a constant state of brutal warfare over extremely limited resources. Not to mention the usual high child mortality and regular mass starvations due to unstable food supplies. My limited experience traveling there tells me most people there (correctly) view globalization and tourism as a huge net positive, bringing stability and a much higher standard of living.
    – user62100
    Aug 8 at 2:28
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Some people think their choice to fly or not fly differs from their choice to drive or not drive, because that particular plane would be flying anyway and the additional fuel required by your weight is marginal. This is a mistaken view. How many flights are scheduled depends on how many people choose to fly. By not flying, you would be contributing to a reduction in flights that occur.

However. Almost everything we do causes some harm to the environment. Eating meat, taking hot showers, keeping rooms at room temperature, living in a house with a yard, regularly driving to friends' houses - all of these things cause harm. Even living a very minimal ascetic lifestyle causes some harm. For everything you do, you have to ask whether the benefit to you, plus to others who are also helped, is worth the harm to the environment. I'm not sure your colleagues can answer that for you.

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  • So I could weigh the harms my life has caused against how I have helped others. But what if their lives have caused harms? I've helped them harm, or mitigated their harms, or... What?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 7 at 2:17
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As other answers have said, there are a lot of nice arguments for asserting that you actions should be associated with the harm caused by climate change. Not because you are the sole responsible for that, but because the cause of the problem cannot be uniquely be assigned to a single actor, but is the result of a myriad of small actions and deciding to fly is one of those.

I think that is not enough to say if it is a moral mistake though. Even not taking into account the relativity of morality, one has to balance the actions taken with the alternatives, especially when taking in consideration the universalisability argument.

People could not have vacations at all, but that would have impacts both on your health, mental and physical, and on the economy of the places that highly rely on tourism. A lot of poor places have tourism as an important part of their economy, and a lot of poor people have tourist as their main source of sustenance. One could argue that the harm caused by flying for tourism due to climate change isn't greater than the benefit of economic exchange that tourism has between two economies, often a richer and a poorer one.

Alternatively, we could try and use more environmentally friendly modes of transport, but they often come at a cost of longer travel times, higher costs, or both. That makes it unattainable for lower income people, that often can't afford the longer time off work and the increased cost associated with trains. Is it morally right to shame someone because they choose to fly not because they are not sensitive about the environmental effects, but because they cannot afford any alternative?

In the end, there is always the argument that not all flying is dispensable tourism. Being able to travel long distance has opened economic possibilities for a lot of people, the chance to have a better life in a more favorable environment while keeping limited but functional family ties with their place of origin. Is it morally right to shame someone because they want to both achieve something better for themselves while not completely cutting away their own family?

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No its not wrong for you to fly nor right for you not to. It is ethically irrelevant.

The arguments and defenses around this all seem predicated on the ethical position that your current actions will or will not have an effect preventing a future condition.

For your colleagues to "disapprove" of your actions presupposes the assumption that if you don't fly you'll help prevent climate change.

I fear the reality is we are well past that point. Your personnel actions at this point will have no effect on preventing some future condition, we are already past the point where any action by any individual or group of individuals can prevent what has already happened. The climate has changed. The things we see with new record highs and record lows and weather patterns is the Changes that have already occurred manifesting a new climate in a new area. Famine is and will continue to happen, dieses, death and war are here and more is coming they can no longer be prevented all we can do at this point is try and cushion the fall not prevent it from happening. The ethical discussion would better be framed as whether your actions contribute to, detract from or are irrelevant in softening the results of what has already occurred.

It seems to me the discussion so far has been about whether its Ethical for kids to throw rocks at Chernobyl on April 27, 1986. Perhaps it might look unethical on that day but 3 weeks later its proven ethically irrelevant having changed nothing one way or the other about the outcome.

Note: the meltdown start April 26th.

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    "I fear the reality is we are well past that point." This is perfect nonsense. The current climate state is still manageable. Implying that we are past a point of no return and that everyone may do whatever the hell he wants because it won't significantly change the outcome is what I would expect from a greedy, dishonest oil mogul. See invidious.namazso.eu/watch?v=LxgMdjyw8uw
    – LoremIpsum
    Aug 7 at 18:17
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    "if you don't fly you'll help prevent climate change." precisely, though
    – njzk2
    Aug 7 at 20:38
  • @LoremIpsum If it helps you deal with the situation then saddle up your donkey and charge those windmills. That too is ethically Irrelevant at this point
    – David
    Aug 8 at 19:23
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No, it is not wrong. What I see in this situation is primarily the patronizing and judgmental attitude of your colleagues; namely, it seems they are convinced on having a moral high-ground over you just by the fact of them subscribing to the specific flavour of the global warming narration, and they are implicitly trying to assert their supposed moral superiority by pandering to the global warming scare. Also they are committing fallacious reasoning by the action of assigning the responsibility of supposed aircraft-travel-related carbon dioxide emission to you, while you are obviously not the only single actor responsible for supposed carbon dioxide emission in this instance. I am just wondering whether or not your colleagues would be so eager to put the blame of the actual party responsible -- namely, the airlines facilitating the said air travel themselves, and I highly doubt they would. If there will not be you flying in a specific plane, then, let's say, the plane would be carrying 77 instead of 78 passengers; the difference in exhaust emission will be virtaully the same, as the weight of all the passengers and their luggage combined is still just a small fraction of the aircraft's weight.

All the idealistic thought experiments about utopic occurrence where all the people instantly stop flying altogether hasn't any utility being applied to real world, because in real world the economy of supply and demand cannot be artificially controlled like that. Therefore, those experiments and their conclusions are void.

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The only absolute guaranteed way to avoid harming anyone by what you do is to first eliminate all of humanity. Then, every subsequent action you take will have zero impact on others, since no one else exists anymore. Since global warming is an existential threat to the human race, then the best move you can make to ensure no future harm is to fly for holidays as often as possible.

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    And that's the news from Lake Wobegon.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 7 at 2:07

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