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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

It’s Not “Ecofascism”—It’s Liberalism

On the newfangled term “ecofascism,” and how it lets plain old racist liberals off the hook.

In March 2019, a mass shooter in New Zealand killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques. In the 74-page manifesto containing the rationale for his murder spree, he mixed environmental concern with ethnonationalism, writing rather directly, “there is no nationalism without environmentalism.” In January, Jane Goodall went to Davos to tell a roomful of very rich people that we wouldn’t suffer from so many of the world’s environmental problems if we simply had a much smaller human population (she suggested somewhere in the 500 million-person range, about 1/15 the current population). According to many online commentators, the mosque shooter and Goodall are two examples of the same burgeoning spectre: ecofascism. 

Someone not chronically online or deep in the discourse may think it’s silly to lump a kindly old chimp whisperer who voiced a fairly obvious tautology into the same political movement as a white nationalist who murdered dozens of people. And they’d be right to think so: on the surface, that seems pretty goofy. But when we look closer at the lineage of Goodall’s worldview (or at least that of the Davos audience to whom she was pandering) and the white nationalism of the mosque shooter, we can find a shared ideological origin, though not necessarily the one that’s been generally identified. The toxic ideology that lies at the root of both claims is not some new, scary “eco” version of fascism. Instead, as is so often the case with bad ideas, it’s just boring old liberal capitalism. The label “ecofascism” may have a certain convenience, but instead of chasing a new phantom, let’s home in on the real, more dangerous and more powerful enemy. Only by understanding what we’re up against can we build a just and environmentally sound world. 

But before we get there, let’s clear up some confusion that might be muddying the conversation.

What Ecofascism is Not

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has done something activism and government action have failed to accomplish at scale: shut down lots of intensive industrial activity like fossil-fueled transportation and manufacturing. In some places, the result has been improvements in local ecologies. In Italy, for instance, Venetian canals that have been long polluted by nitrous dioxide have begun to clear up. Fish are returning and the water is clearer than it has been in sixty years, according to some locals. (Update: Turns out some of these reports have been exaggerated or are outright false. The Twitter drama around them, however, remains painfully real.) Similar results have been seen in China where air pollution has been dramatically cut as a result of the lockdown. The lower air pollution, according to one study, may save up to 77,000 lives. 

Some have responded to this phenomenon by parroting The Matrix’s Agent Smith, saying things like “we are the virus.” One tweet that says this verbatim has 213,000 likes at time of publication. But another tweet referred to that kind of message as ecofascism (594,000 likes). In fact, many online have racked up twitter points referring to such messages as “ecofascism.” 

This is strange. If we take the term “ecofascism” literally and technically—meaning an authoritarian right-wing response to an ecological crisis—then the Italian government’s authoritarian lockdown, or China’s for that matter, verges far closer to ecofascism than misanthropic online comments saying humans are a virus. Given recent evidence that the COVID-19 outbreak is indeed a result of environmental degradation, authoritarian responses to it are probably the most literal examples of ecofascism in the world today. They are far from biocentric, given that they’re meant to save human lives at the expense of the environment; China plans to relax already poor pollution rules in the wake of the virus. In fact, historical fascism was often, if not always, aggressively anthropocentric. The Italian fascists, who invented the ideology, hated nature and glorified human innovation and technology. Twitter comments that are vaguely biocentric or even misanthropic are really not ecofascism by themselves, unless they are specifically, directly calling for authoritarianism or ethnonationalism. Pointing to such discourse as examples of ecofascism does not help us better understand and combat what we face. 

Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi, “Aeroritratto di Mussolini aviatore”

Further, ecofascism is not when someone makes the very prosaic observation that:

  • some human populations (those that practice intensive agriculture) often displace nonhuman populations, which can cause severe environmental problems; 
  • many human spaces will likely have to contract in some ways to avoid global ecological collapse; 
  • having dramatically fewer human demands on the environment would probably result in fewer negative impacts on the environment. 

These are basic material facts. But let’s not take them for granted, because it’s true that such ideas can be weaponized by ethnonationalists—i.e., if we say that the size of human populations can have negative effects on the planet, some racists will cheerfully break out a list of who they think should be exterminated first. 

What we do need to be honest about is that the earth’s “carrying capacity”—a.k.a. how much biomass is capable of living in a certain place at a certain time—is finite. The actual carrying capacity of the planet is difficult to determine because it’s not static: climatic shifts, geological and astronomical factors, and human technology all can impact it. The Holocene, for example, was a major climatic, geological change that increased the planet’s biomass availability to human beings, which is why the archaeological record shows a steady increase in human population since the beginning of the Holocene about 12,000 years ago. And since then, 82 percent of wild nonhuman mammal biomass has been eradicated, which is in part due to human expansion as an invasive species into new ecosystems. Other hominids—species very much like humans—were also eradicated in this time, and also probably because of human competition over resources. 

The notion that resources can be made infinite at some point in the future is a capitalist myth, and has no basis in any accepted science. There’s some good evidence suggesting that the upper limits of the planet’s human carrying capacity is somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people in stable Holocene conditions on a purely organic basis (“organic” meaning without using fossil fuels to synthesize fertilizers and till, protect, and harvest farmlands, and to over-trawl the oceans). But that number is contested and, it should be noted, still requires using intensive and often destructive forms of agriculture which exclude biodiverse ecologies. And, further, it seems likely that the favorable, stable conditions of the Holocene are now coming to an end due to human influence on the biosphere. We just don’t know what the planet’s carrying capacity is with significant confidence. It’s currently changing and possibly reducing. 

While it’s important to acknowledge the existence of a carrying capacity, and also to not pretend, as modern capitalism assumes, that the earth is infinitely exploitable, we also need to be clear on what’s dangerous about this approach. Goodall’s comment about population was counterproductive, not because it was ipso facto ecofascist, but for three reasons. One, the statement “there are too many people” can easily have terrifying policy implications, especially when spoken in a room full of wealthy, self-satisfied psychopaths who believe they have the intelligence and authority to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the species. Second, the optics are especially poor when delivered by a Cambridge-educated white English person (and a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) who studies animals in Africa, given the history of British colonial disregard for the interests of the people there. Finally, it gets the causation backward. The thing that is destroying the planet—fossil fueled, intensive overexploitation bolstered by an extractive ideology—is a driver of exponential population growth. Human overpopulation isn’t the source of this problem, it’s just one of many results of the problem. It’s also true at the same time that there may be, ecologically speaking, too many human demands on earth for there to be abundant biodiversity, especially if we are to broaden material abundance for everyone including the currently poor. As a recent census of the Earth’s biomass published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found, “the mass of humans is an order of magnitude higher than that of all wild mammals combined.” The mass of our livestock, meanwhile, is also an order of magnitude higher than the mass of all wild mammal life. 

It’s imperative, however, to acknowledge the realities of our impact on this planet without ceding any territory to white nationalists. We do need fewer human demands on the environment. That’s an indisputable fact. But we don’t need to kill anybody to get there, and particularly not vulnerable, marginalized populations who have less of an impact to begin with. (The fact that there is no sound environmentalist reason to pursue authoritarian, racist, and eugenicist policies should lead us to wonder whether people who cite environmentalist justifications for these policies might just have had authoritarian, racist, eugenicist instincts to begin with.) One study published in PLOS found that “countries with higher total human populations and densities had greater proportional environmental impact and those with lower population growth rates had a slightly lower proportional environmental impact,” but “countries with greater total wealth had worse environmental records than poorer countries.” The problem is not too many people in poor, less developed countries. It is, however, a problem to have too much consumption and growth by rich people in rich countries! (Look at a chart of cumulative CO2 emissions by country to see just how much climate change in particular is a problem directly caused by the United States and Europe.) 

Instead of the dystopian project of trying to “reduce human populations,” which will inevitably result in horrors distributed unevenly and falling most brutally on the least powerful, we can address environmental concerns by building a postgrowth economy, and more specifically a socialist postgrowth economy that rectifies economic inequality and takes guidance from certain indigenous practices is probably the best and most moral way. Historically, many indigenous communities were well aware of carrying capacities and utilized ingenious strategies for coping with them (as well as fairly terrible ones like infanticide). Some of these strategies were extremely successful: a recent study in Nature Sustainability suggests First Nations people in the present Northeastern U.S. sustained civilizations for 14,000 years that had little, if any, adverse impact on the biodiversity of their ecosystems. 

If we want a fossil fuel-free world with abundant, equitably shared material resources, then we’ll need to ensure that human demands do not exceed biological limits. But we must not pursue this through racist or coercive means—it’s just a fact that must help guide our long-term vision for society, as it has guided many indigenous societies for millennia. The high risk that sustainability will be pursued in an unjust way is one of the many reasons socialists need to lead this transition: if they don’t, liberals or open fascists will, and their efforts are likely to be violent, unequal, and racist. The socialist approach, after all, is to ensure that all people can live equitably with material abundance. This is not possible with the kind of frenetic consumption and extraction that has characterized liberal capitalism so far, nor with state communism (or their hybridized forms), for that matter. But why call out liberal capitalism specifically? Why is it so particularly dangerous when it comes to facilitating ecological transition?

Ecofascists are Often Liberals, and Vice Versa

You might think going after liberalism is unfair: after all, aren’t racist approaches to environmental policy an issue of ethnonationalism? They are, and that’s the entire point. The white nationalism advocated by self-proclaimed ecofascists like the mosque shooter, as well as by alt-right ideologues like Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and Richard Spencer, fits comfortably within the intellectual trajectory of European liberalism. “White replacement” and “white genocide” myths aren’t new; they have a long ideological heritage in liberal capitalism. When you even briefly look into its history, this comes as no surprise: economic liberalism itself was founded on the kind of racist ecological genocide that has been recently rebranded “ecofascism.”

First, let’s clear up our terms. Economic liberalism is not quite the same thing as political liberalism—the belief in things like free speech and representative democracy, nor do these terms have anything to do with the dubious and unhelpful “conservative-liberal” political spectrum. Most Republicans are economic liberals. Economic liberalism is, confusingly, incompatible with political liberalism because capitalist economies yield antidemocratic things like wealth inequality and market consolidation that make free speech and representative democracy pragmatically impossible, even if legally permitted. Or, arguably, the freedoms promised by political liberalism were never meant to be universalized among anyone except landowning European males. Certainly, both economic and political liberalism emerged at a time in which European settlers were engaging in murderous conquest and plunder all over the world, often explicitly advocating for replacing non-European, non-Christian people with a so-called “higher race.” Colonists needed a high-minded justification for their slaughter and theft, and Enlightenment liberalism delivered.  

Let’s play a game. Try to determine which of these quotes was uttered by a Liberal Hero of Western Civilization, and which is an excerpt from the New Zealand mosque shooter’s manifesto (content warnings for extreme racism apply): 

  1. “This movement among the Jews is not new…this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society…has been steadily growing.”
  2. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror.”
  3. “I hate Indians…They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
  4. “I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia . . . by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race . . . has come in and taken its place.”
  5. “[The Indian famine] was their own fault for ‘breeding like rabbits’ [and…] the plague was ‘merrily’ culling the population.”

Uhh, wait, those are all just Winston Churchill [1), 2), 3), 4), 5)].

Let’s try this again…

  1. “[Forced sterilization] is a practical, merciful, and inevitable solution of the whole problem, and can be applied…ultimately to worthless race types.”
  2. “The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats…”
  3. “The world would have halted had it not been for the Teutonic conquests in alien lands.”
  4. “Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portion of the new world’s surface.”
  5. “I could show…natural selection having done…more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit…Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.”
  6. “The civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”
  7. “My firm conviction is that if widespread eugenic reforms are not adopted during the next hundred years or so, our Western Civilization is inevitably destined to such a slow and gradual decay as that which has been experienced in the past by every great ancient civilization.”
  8. “I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”
  9. “And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?…the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous….To save him from…utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal.”
  10. “[Indigenous peoples’] disappearance from the human family [would] be no great loss to the world.”

Oh gosh, it’s all Liberals again: 

  1. Madison Grant, a leading thinker and activist of the Progressive Era
  2. Oh that’s Grant again
  3. Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President, hero on the progressive end of liberalism
  4. That’s Teddy, too
  5. Charles Darwin, the ultimate scientist 
  6. Also Charles Darwin
  7. Leonard Darwin, Liberal Unionist politician and son of Charles
  8. Henry David Thoreau, famous hippie
  9. Andrew Jackson, selling the Trail(s) of Tears to Congress
  10. Henry Clay, U.S. Secretary of State (Democratic-Republican)

Let’s try one more time:

  1. “White men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation—until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
  2. “In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration, I stand for the national policy of exclusion. We cannot make a homogenous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race…Oriental Coolieism will give us another race problem to solve and surely we have had our lesson.”
  3. “The n*****, like the Inj*n, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not.”
  4. “Take up the White Man’s burden— / Send forth the best ye breed— / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need; / To wait in heavy harness / On fluttered folk and wild— / Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child.”
  5. “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”
  6. “Christianity spreads primarily by conversion, Islam by conversion and reproduction.”
  7. “If we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated…”
  8. “These men flocked to the plains, and were rather stimulated…by the danger of an Indian war…producing the result we enjoy today, in having…replaced the wild buffaloes by more numerous herds of tame cattle, and by substituting for the useless Indians the intelligent owners of productive farms and cattle-ranches.” 
  9. “Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
  10. “They [black children] are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators—no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.”

Any ecofascist manifestos in that one? Nope, just the liberals again:

  1. Woodrow Wilson, Democratic President and progressive liberal
  2. Wilson again
  3. Walt Whitman, celebrated radical American poet
  4. Rudyard Kipling, celebrated less radical English poet
  5. Samuel Huntington, former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs (bastion of liberalism)
  6. Huntington again
  7. Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Founding Father on Native Americans
  8. William T. Sherman, Union Army general, “first modern general,” and liberal businessman
  9. Andrew Jackson, Democratic President
  10. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State (Democrat) and liberal hero

You might say “ah well, liberalism has a long racist history, but we’re doing better now!” But genocidal white nationalism isn’t a bug of Western capitalism, it’s a feature. It was voiced openly by its proponents in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and it is being voiced only slightly less openly by its proponents today. Charles Murray currently promotes the kind of early-20th century race science that led to the eugenics movement (and inspired Hitler), and he is legitimized by “rationalists” like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris who believe in the myth of liberal capitalism’s place at the apex of history. Richard Dawkins recently said eugenics would “work in practice” (he insisted his comment didn’t imply eugenics was desirable, but it’s a bit like saying genocide would “work in practice” and then being upset when people react with horror. And it’s especially hard to be charitable toward the musings on eugenics that come from someone with a history of unapologetic bigotry.) 

You also find this kind of white nationalism voiced by people like Hillary Clinton with her “superpredators” rhetoric, her past use of forced black prison labor, and her eagerness to bomb North African and Middle Eastern countries. You see it in Liberal Dreamboat Justin Trudeau’s authoritarian, militarized attacks on indigenous peoples like the Wet’suwet’en, Inuit, and Métis, all for the sake of moving leaky petroleum around. Or in Obama’s similar treatment of First Nations people protesting the Bakken (Dakota Access) oil pipeline. You see it in U.K. prime minister and Churchill superfan Boris Johnson reciting an imperialist Kipling poem in a former British colony, or writing that “The problem [with Africa] is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” And you see it in the liberal response to COVID-19, which seems at least partially to be, “let people die to save the stock market.” And you see it being voiced by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, hero of arch-liberal publications such as the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal—investors love him!—who has continued the settler project of murdering or removing indigenous people in order to access resources for liberal markets. Bolsonaro and Trump himself are the logical, necessary extensions of an ideology whose sole axiom is the transformation of every inch of land and water into individually owned wealth. Despite the political labels of “conservative” or “right-wing,” Bolsonaro, Trump, and Boris Johnson are hardly an outrage to liberal capitalist sensibilities; instead they are its honest renderings.

The attendees at Jane Goodall’s Davos speech, too, will continue to happily preside over the eradication or exploitation of marginal populations—animal or human—as long as these tactics expand liberalized market space. You don’t need to be a mass shooter to commit or enable mass nationalist violence, or to hold implicit (or explicit) eugenicist, genocidal views. Centering ecofascists as a brand-new threat—imagined as chronically online, lone wolf, pagan-festishizing incels—lets the more banal, and arguably much more dangerous, racist liberals off the hook. In the wake of the New Zealand shooting, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway went on television and tried to distance Trump’s ideology from that of the mosque shooter, calling the latter an “eco-terrorist” and “eco-naturalist.” Meanwhile, the shooter himself had praised Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity.” Establishment politicians can claim this kind of lone-wolf violence is not the same as Trump’s crass authoritarianism or Clinton’s “muscular” foreign policy because environmentalism is something the left does. Since terrorist manifestos use explicit, vulgar language instead of loud or quiet dogwhistles, and because ecofascist shooters use their own guns instead of hiding behind military and police firearms to exercise mass murder, the New Zealand shooter must belong to the extreme environmentalists’ team, not to capital-fearing economic liberals. 

But  economic liberals don’t just use lone-wolf fascists to distance themselves from the murderous results of their own racist, social Darwinian view of progress and domination. They also use a veneer of environmental protection to justify capitalism’s violent marketization of everything. For example, you may have heard of an elite movement called “ecomodernism” (with probably the most prominent organization being The Breakthrough Institute). Ecomodernism actively perpetuates a myth that infinite growth, benevolent multinational corporations, and continued overexploitation of people and natural resources will deliver technological utopias in which life somehow becomes divorced from material realities. The Breakthrough Institute explicitly rejects the idea that capitalism even exists (see: “The Myth of the ‘Capitalist System.’”) They promote the debunked myth that economies can be decoupled from material limits. One of the most vocal ecomodernists, Ted Nordhaus, rejects the idea that carrying capacities must place limits on economic growth. In the Breakthrough Institute’s article  “Modernizing Liberalism,” the editors suggest: “The key to greater economic opportunity and social mobility for the poor is a faster rate of economic growth, not wealth redistribution.” Ecomodernism, championed by elite (and, at times, hilariously inept) economic liberals, rejects the idea that intensive human—specifically, capitalist—activities will have to scale back; they actually advocate intensifying the already frenetic extraction and consumption of modern capitalism. These are the people on the Titanic screaming to increase speed and ram through the iceberg.

The ecomodernist fantasy—essentially the logical end point of liberal capitalists’ unquestioned assumption that growth can just continue forever—will inevitably lead to human and animal population collapses and extreme conflict over dwindling resources, increased poverty among the already-impoverished, and the continued elimination of biodiversity (which is not only intrinsically valuable, but essential for human thriving). The marriage of environmentalism and colonial capitalism has a history stretching back to Theodore Roosevelt and his elite club of racist conservationists, if not earlier. But the most recent and relevant iteration was originally articulated by Environmental Defense Fund head Fred Krupp in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article. In the op-ed, Krupp advocated for what he termed “third-stage” environmentalism, calling on green groups to embrace corporatism, capitalism, and liberal management theory. In a 2018 update to the article, Krupp touted his success in helping to bring about a new “fourth-wave environmentalism,” saying, “market-based approaches and corporate partnerships are standard practice [in the environmental community] today.” He’s right, they are. And not only have these partnerships done nothing to slow or halt the rapid descent into ecological hell of the last 35 years, they have helped to accelerate the climate and ecological crises, alongside the elimination or immiseration of marginal populations.

Since the 1980s, “the environmental agenda has become heavily corporatised,” according to Sheffield University politics professor Genevieve LeBaron. As a result, the liberalized environmental movement has actively and successfully excluded many radical and indigenous voices who could implement much more impactful solutions. Climate activist and author Naomi Klein has gone as far as saying that these “big green groups” have hurt decarbonization efforts even more than right-wing climate denial groups, granting a veneer of respectability to the very corporations driving omnicidal development. The colloquial term for this, “greenwashing,” has been practiced by most megacorporations and perhaps mastered by Shell. This oil company spent a lot of money on a marketing campaign touting their investments in renewable projects, and then dramatically scaled back those investments once their advertisements had run. All over the world, greenwashing corporations or their surrogates are murdering record numbers of environmental activists who stand in their way. They’re also murdering indigenous people to take their land and opening ever more wilderness and indigenous land to corporate markets. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emission rates continue to break records and mass extinction accelerates

While we’ve seen at least two self-proclaimed ecofascist mass shooters so far (the other one in El Paso), and may see more in future, I think it’s fair to say that the most dangerous people today are the respectable, powerful establishment liberals effectively maintaining the systems driving ecological collapse while downplaying the extent of the crisis and the need to take dramatic action. We find them building what appear to be insurmountable roadblocks to even very mild compromises like a Green New Deal. Economic liberals in the United States have now united behind two people: Joe Biden, a long-established racist whose climate plan, if it can be said to be a plan, falls far short of what’s necessary to avert unprecedented suffering, and Donald Trump, who recently bailed out the U.S. oil industry and also openly believes in eugenicist race science. Both men will happily conspire to continue the project of exploiting and destroying marginalized life, human and nonhuman alike.

Liberal capitalism, whether through corporate greenwashing or hiding behind (while distancing itself from) the ugly face of ecofascism, will always privilege a certain, affluent population in conflict with a labor class. The “non-Western” countries that have adopted elements of European economic liberalism, like China and India, have also developed their own version of such population purges, whether mediated through Han supremacy or Hindu supremacy. In addition to praising Trump, the Christchurch mosque shooter also praised the way China is dealing with its ethnic minorities. Modi and Xi’s ongoing genocidal treatment of non-privileged populations is once again economic liberalism seeking to eliminate what it considers surplus labor to maximize exploitation of natural resources for private profit.

With liberalism at the helm, this extractive and murderous process will undoubtedly continue under the dire acceleration of climate change. We’re talking, after all, about the modern descendent of the same liberalism that exterminated more than 100 million Native Americans; in fact, so many people were killed in the Americas that it may have directly caused a global cooling event. This is the liberalism that exterminated 62 million Indians under British rule, the one that exterminated uncountable millions of Congolese under Belgian rule in order to access natural resources. Proponents of economic liberalism will continue exterminating non-privileged populations as ecological crises intensify, leaving elites to choose who to save and who to damn. By focusing on ecofascism as a new threat, and a separate entity, we continue to fortify the strong public inertia against anything “eco”. As we panic over a scary new monster, we’re taking the heat off the far deadlier one.

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