Environmental Justice Research

By Heike Köckler and Götz Kaufmann, March 12, 2014
The environmental justice issue isn't a new thing as such. Struggles for equal access to resources and a fair deal in baring the costs of development are ages old. In the "Theory considerations on Environmental Justice as a research frame", the point has been made that environmental justice is understood differently in the US (where the movement emerged) and in Germany for instance. This fact is accompanied by different wordings that surround the topic of equality and human rights in environmental questions. These terms range from ecological justice and environmental equality to arguments that state to find all claims and approaches of environmental justice research in the concept of sustainable development already.

As for environmental justice research, one important issue is to clearly define a paradigm for research that makes differentiation from existing approaches possible and traceable. Environmental justice understood as a grassroots' based, bottom-up concept must reflect its autonomous approach to analyse and understand social reality by critical questioning the mainstream agenda, in which the environmental question is currently placed.

Let's go beyond mainstream
Environmental justice research became a growing body of evidence and has been considered in the political debate during the last years (Bolte et al. 2012; Dieckmann 2013). Dealing with situations of societally deprived groups regarding their access to environmental resources (environmental goods), exposure to environmental factors (environmental bads), the risks of either one (environmental risks), and corresponding to political procedures and its outcomes, dominating viewpoints on how to define and research the paradigm (Elvers, 2007) have hardly been critically assessed. Calls for innovative approaches beyond mainstream in research are in place (cf. Gosine, Teelucksingh 2008; Walker 2009; Elvers 2007; Martinez-Alier 2002).

Here we aim to shed light on the way how environmental justice research is currently conducted. Additionally, we want to present a way how to move beyond proximity or what Walker (2009) calls first generation analysis. As will be shown, different rationalities use the label of environmental justice research. Still, traceable distinction is missing. Assuming environmental justice to be not just a theoretical exercise but a vision, too (Bolte et al. 2012), the paper seeks to answer questions like: What kind of research is needed? What kind of debate is needed? Who should debate? On which topics should be worked?

Basically, the paper understands environmental justice as an opposing concept to the already existing environmental research frame in Germany, and in the world. Environmental Justice must address a problem that isn't already addressed otherwise. Its characteristics are determined by bottom-up perspective instead of top-down, taking a look at causes for environmental impacts on particular societal groups such as structural patterns of discrimination (ethnicity, gender, age among others). In short, environmental justice research must be theoretically and methodologically differentiated from what already exists. Both the named differentiations and answers to the above questions will be provided in this paper.

Following Dryzek's (2008) critical approach from policy analysis a list of four tasks for critical environmental justice research is developed. The developed tasks or criteria assume to be generally relevant and to be understood as principle contribution to methodological-theoretical debates that deal with mainstream versus critical approaches (such as postcolonial theories, intersectionalism, critical gender studies among others).

Tasks for Critical Environmental Justice Analysis
Critical research as concept has emerged to oppose what is named as mainstream. The definition of both consequentially has become a turf battle between academics, particular in environmental justice research (Gosine, Teelucksingh, 2008). Mainstream is more than opinion of majority but a list of assumptions and moral standards which are shared by the most influential parts of social environments. It is universal and also represents what existing power elites want to be the established frame. In science the mainstream represents a particular belief system.

The paper defines the mainstream in science in accordance to what Irigaray (2003, 167) calls the "sociological thinking" and Sachs (2002, 33) characterises as "conventional development thinking". It is "the idea that the universal we should aim for is something we can find actualized in the world in which we already live" (Irigaray, 2003, p. vii; Khader, 2008, p. 51) "irrespective of the fact that that world is already dehumanized and dehumanizing" (Irigaray, 2003, p. 167) or something that "continues to implicitly define equity as a problem of the poor" whereas "justice is about changing the rich and not about the changing the poor." (Sachs 2002, 33). Methodologically, this determines the variables that can be used and the research questions that should be asked in any given context. The implicit universal stands for a list of moral standards and judgements to which everyone must agree and which everyone shall desire, applicable to everyone in the same manner. Regarding environmental justice research, the understanding of justice is central but manifold. Theory driven debates (Rawls, 1972; Schmidtz, 2006) accompany the above named turf battle. One prominent and illustrating example in this context is the mainstream assumption that social inequality is a necessary fact as the world is unequal. Taking this assumption for granted, social inequality can hardly be called unjust. Moreover, if the existence of social inequality is taken for granted, critiques on the world as whole where we are living in, can hardly emerge. Dryzek (2008) calls for critical analysis of the mainstream determination by criticizing its accommodative and technocratic approach. Answering his demand for critical analysis, a critical research guideline which aims to assist verstehen (Weber) the implicit sociological thinking is provided as follows.

Taking Dryzek's (2008, 200) seven tasks for critical research, this list was applied to environmental justice research. It includes both selection and combination of his tasks published, plus suggestions of how to apply these tasks. Table 1 shows Dryzek's named tasks in the first column followed by their application to environmental justice in the second. To each entity in the table is referred in separate chapters as follows.

Table 1: Tasks for carrying out critical environmental justice research
Dryzek tasks for critical policy analysis¹ How to carry out critical environmental justice research
Criticism of technocratic and accommodative analysis
  • Reveal assumptions behind technocratic description
  • Clarify your particular frame
  • Don't be a consultant!
  • Reveal the tunnel vision of research
Explication of dominant and suppressed meanings
  • Differentiate your research from dominant discourse
  • Contribute to redefinition of environmental justice
  • Collect and provide the relevant data
  • Reflect the spatial scale you are choosing
Identification of agents of impairment
  • Name relevant stakeholders
  • See stakeholders' polyrationality
  • Identify peoples tacit beliefs
Identification of communicative capacities and standards
  • Identify factors of communicative capacity
  • Identify communicative standards
¹ based on Dryzek 2008, 200

Criticism of technocratic and accommodative analysis
At first, the two mayor strategies of mainstream research are called technocratic and accommodative approach as "both assume that the key contribution of analysis to improving the condition of the world is the enlightenment of those positions of power so they can better manipulate social systems." (Dryzek 2008, 191). The technocratic approach has the intent to "identify cause and effect relationships that can be manipulated by public order" (Dryzek 2008, 190) and "assumes an omniscient and benevolent decision maker untroubled by politics" (Dryzek 2008, 191). This describes the approach to technically describe a subject without revealing what is behind. With reference to 'simple facts' or 'obvious realities', a simple image of 'the truth' is created and presented. Good examples are descriptions on policies without considering in which context and by whom they had been developed. Statistical methods often deal with 'evidence' and 'reliable evidence' when promoting mainstream viewpoints (for example Kaufmann & Hurtienne, 2011). Qualitative research sometimes takes one-sided position of the research subject. Often it deals with deprived groups, by 'only technically describing what they have seen'. This is criticized as 'overrapport' (Miller 1952, 97) and is no better than the first, from critical research viewpoint.

Reveal assumptions behind technocratic description
As said above, the assumptions are manifold. One may look at a case by analysing sickness cases. Behind the sickness cases evaluation is the assumption that sickness is the right variable and that the analysis says something about the problem. The causal link between sickness cases and environmental injustice, thus, is taken for granted whereas it may be that the chosen cases aren't the sufficient measure. Loss of community's cultural hegemony may rather be the issue of environmental injustice, but was ignored. Clearly, there is no simple, general answer, as every case is different. For judgement purposes, polyrationality (Davy, 2008; Ferreira, Sykes, & Batey, 2009) and system theory (Kaufmann [sub.], 2014; Luhmann, 1984; Bossel 2007) are of help for revealing hidden truth.

Clarify your particular frame
According to Dryzek (2008, 191) two reasons apply to technocratic analysis as an avoidance strategy to enforce mainstream research:
First (I) there is the possibility that there is more than one single locus of the problem and second (II) that the analysis as such stems from its own frame of reference embodying different values than those of the local community. This matches in particular such kind of qualitative research which is done with strong own political intent. By 'only telling what is happening', such as reporting incidents, 'just' echoing what was told by affected community members, the researcher might be seduced to tell the story she wants to hear. This is criticized as 'going native' (Grümer 1974, 64) and – despite rightful restraints by Girtler (2001, 79) – bares some truth. Although Girtler argues that also more structured analyses base on preconceptions (Girtler 2001, 79), the pure description of injustice (for instance) assumes an understanding of morality, formed into a specific understanding of justice, which is unquestioned by the researcher himself (as one example see Therborn 2006).

From history of science perspective, such an approach is driven by a physical understanding of social reality which traces back to the book Traité de l'hommes by Descartes (1969/1632). There was argued at the first time that humans must be understood (and studied) as machines. As result of a more and more mechanical understanding of our environment (Groh 1991), fostered by technocratic progress and growing spread of anthropocentrism during the industrialization and thereafter (Kaufmann 2013), was the understanding social reality as something that can and must be measurable by a nomothetic approach. As Girtler (2001, 36) adds, this tradition of thinking is, at least partly, predominant in the human sciences until now.

Obviously, the technocratic approach is not equal to quantitative methods or statistical measures, furthermore the technocratic approach uses the "unfulfilled promises of quantitative imperialism" (Brady, Collier 2010, 83-89) as well as the morality claim of qualitative research to hide a finally non-critical approach to a given research item. Many examples for this strategy with its both characteristics can be found and will be shown in the case-studies.

Closely entangled to the technocratic approach and sometimes mixed is the accommodative approach that seeks to attach itself to a specific frame of reference. This means to adopt the problem perception, the goals, and acceptable solutions from one particular perspective. Two different aspects are implicated by this avoidance strategy: (I) the willingly overtaken perspective of one (sic!) involved actor in the given problem field and (II) the disciplinary tunnel vision.

Don't be a consultant!
The first one is also introduced by Dryzek who states that "the successful policy analyst is one who adopts views about the definition of problems, goals, and acceptable solutions from his or her organizational environment." (Dryzek 2008, 191, labelling by the authors). Generally true is that the organizational environment is a predominant factor for analysis in general and for the analysis of environmental justice problems in particular. It is predominant due to a general financing structure of the current academic system, in which third party funding organizations of research predefine (more or less) what an acceptable solution can or should be. In terms of political sciences, this aspect is obvious and can be exemplified by a research assignment from the Ministry of the Environment. Any given research from this institute will be limited to find solutions within the given limits of the institutional environment itself. Research design and research focus are limited in the way that the result is of value for the institution. If the structure of the institution itself would be the reason of the problem, the research couldn't tell since its design would render these findings impossible. Even if this is not necessarily the same as advocacy since it allows the researcher "to bring some distinctive expertise to bear", as Dryzek (2008, 191) adds, similarity to work "of many analysts, and some of the activities of management consultants" is obvious. Researches that are shaped as academic research but are – at the end – nothing more than provided service on behalf of one side and thus could also easily be done by any other consulting institution, runs the risk to be accommodative.

Reveal the tunnel vision of research
The second aspect here is an ages old inherited problem and refers to the self-definition of discipline independence. It describes a particular rationality of every discipline to analyse a problem, bound to the approach to accept only this one as truth. In fact, tunnel view accusations can be made to every kind of discipline. Sociologists for instance look first and foremost at social movements, grassroots' struggles and societal relationships, while quantitative spatial scientists are limited by availability of (small scaled) data, and political scientists have a tunnel vision on policies, which frames theories, methods, and discourses (Elvers, 2007, p. 21). This tunnel view constraints in consequence methodological matters too: anthropologists, culture scientists and qualitative driven sociologists for instance speak lightly of quantitative measures (Girtler 2001) whilst psychologists and quantitative driven social scientists deny scientificity (Wissenschaftlichkeit) of the non-statistical approaches (Lieberson 1992). Qualitative researchers try to bridge to the field of quantitative measures by introducing more formality in the research (most famously King, Verba 1994, even if they don't really go beyond findings of René Descartes (2010) in 1637 cf. Kaufmann 2011). In fact, the argument here entails the disciplinary turf battle between disciplines of science which cannot be discussed here in details but will play its role in our joint conclusions and reciprocal critical review of the cases.

Explication of dominant and suppressed meanings
According to Dryzek (2008, 200), objective of critical research is to reveal explicit dominant meanings and to undercover supressed or marginalised meanings. For the purpose of the guideline, the claim has been transformed into the following four sequences:

Differentiate your research from dominant discourse
Since environmental justice research at its core deals with the link of justice and environmental resources, any environmental justice research incorporates discourses of justice and of the environment. Furthermore different people, institutions and disciplines in science and practice contribute to both discourses in different arenas. So the dominant meaning of environmental justice needs to be contextualised with regard to discourse and arena. In environmental planning science for example human beings are one subject of protection like water, air, biodiversity and others. A social differentiation of this subject of protection is not the dominant meaning of the discourse of environment in the arena of environmental planning (Köckler 2006). That means environmental planning is in the dominant discourse not on justice.

While in environmental planning the concept of natural environment subsumes only the protection of resources, sinks and biodiversity, is the meaning of environment in social and health science much broader. In public health, psychology and sociology (Bolte et al. 2012; Kaufmann 2013) for example the social and build environment are part of the concept of environment. Gosine and Teelucksingh (2008, 11) argue for an integrated perspective of different meanings of the term environment and conclude that "A consideration of justice matters demands that the environment be viewed not simply as a place of green spaces and conservation, but more broadly as a place that comprises everyday social experience."

As initially argued, the concept of environmental justice contradicts with existing conceptions of justice. Mainstream approaches regarding justice often refer to Rawls and critical assumptions on changing the poor (see above, cf. Sachs 2002). Sen (2009) argues that the identification of injustice is an important starting point to deal with injustice and Schmidtz (2006) emphasizes the relevance of four different elements of justice when criticizing Rawls. Schlosberg (2007) finally suggests an environmental justice approach based on pluralism including the four elements of distribution, recognition, centrality of participation, and the role of capabilities and functioning.

Beyond theory driven differences on justice judgements in environmental justice research, racism is often – particularly in the USA – perceived as a dominant expression of injustice (Gosine, Teelucksingh 2008; Pulido 2000). Thus, investigating institutional racism has become a key issue in North American environmental research. German history draws another picture as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) never understood and doesn't understand itself as a country of immigration. Migration took place in the 1950s when foreign Gastarbeiter have been welcomed to foster Germany's economic miracle after World War II. These (Italian, Greek, Turkish) workers have been expected to leave afterwards but they stayed, reuniting their families here. People from other countries (like Poland, Russia) came due to their German ancestors especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Other people came and are still coming as refugees asking for asylum because of war (many came from former Yugoslavia) and repression or due to liberation within the European Union. The group of people with background of migration is therefore very diverse regarding time spent in Germany, citizenship, own migration experience and level of education to name only a few factors. But several scientists call to consider this growing group of society as a subgroup due to systematically discrimination (Boos-Nünning 2013). Gosine and Teelucksingh (2008, 9) argue in the same direction: "The task of anti-racism, therefore, is to deconstruct 'race' while being fully attentive of its effects (racism)." The inability to see the racist pattern of the murder of eight men with Turkish and one with Greece roots presumably done by the neo-Nazi underground movement NSU is a humiliating example for the inability of German institutions to provide basic needs for a growing part of their society and overcome the dominant meaning of racism.

Contribute to redefinition of environmental justice
As mainstream isn't a phenomenon outside environmental justice research but a general pattern mainstream environmental justice has to be opposed by critical research with the aim of the concept's redefinition through inclusion of new aspects, theories, and methods. Thus, attempts to integrate social and environmental aspects regarding inequality and justice are crucial on equal footing. As has been discussed above, the difficulty lies in asking the right questions in order to critically address a problem set. The task of redefining the mainstream environmental justice concept assists to ensure this target is met.

If environmental justice is put on the agenda in a society, first research tries to find patterns of distributional injustice (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice 1987, for Germany see Jarre 1975; Heinrich et al. 1998). From a disciplinary perspective existing theories and models are often broadened in this phase. In public health for example, the old debate on social inequality in health was widened through the consideration of environmental/contextual factors. Another example, Elvers discussed the capability of environmental justice as a new paradigm for sociology in Germany (Elvers 2007). Such approaches might have consequences for mainstream thinking in one discipline. Nonetheless this is just a starting point and not enough for meaningful environmental justice research that requires an own interdisciplinary discourse with a specific definition. The definition of environmental justice by Schlosberg (2007) is already an outcome of an ongoing interdisciplinary debate.

Collect and provide the relevant data
Another challenge for a critical analyst is to find the relevant data that can answer the 'right question' (see above). In spatial as well as in health sience, many studies have correlated existing data in a new manner, producing new insights (Bowen 2002) in the past. Today, as Walker (2009, 615) recently stated, "simple geographies and spatial forms evident in much 'first-generation' environmental justice research are insufficient and inadequate to the tasks of both revealing inequalities and understanding the processes through which these are (re)produced." As official statistics do neither collect nor provide data to answer such questions, researchers have to carry out primary data collection or ultima-facie research considering aspects on ethnicity, racism, health, and social environment without taking the tunnel view's bait.

Reflect the spatial scale you are choosing
Scale, understood as a spatial dimension, plays an important role in environmental justice analysis. For reflecting critically on it the following notions of scale have to be distinguished: (I) exposure, (II) statistics, and (III) area of reference for justice:

(I) Exposure is at the core of distributional environmental justice analysis. It serves to identify social inequality in proximity to environmental resources and burdens pointing to the situation that an individual and a certain state of the environment are at the same time at the same place in a causal interdependency. Therefore exposure has a spatial dimension and shows that proximity still matters (Köckler, Flacke 2013, 3).

(II) Using spatial data includes many statistical challenges. Data is available in different forms (point, line, area). Therefore data might be aggregated. Due to aggregation an area might be represented as homogenic although there are small-scaled differences. This problem is known as the modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP) (in general: Openshaw 1984 referring to environmental justice Brainard et al. 2002, 713; Köckler, Flacke 2013, 3).

(III) Spatial scale is furthermore relevant as reference for proportionality in the sense of distributional justice. As environmental justice is dealing with disproportionate access to environmental resources or exposure to burdens it has to be clarified who is treated disproportionally in comparison to whom (reference group). One can find studies that use a national scale to identify disproportionality (Walker et al. 2003), but also local ones (Brainard et al. 2002; Kliemeczek 2012; Szasz, Meuser 2000). Depending on the scale of reference the result might be completely different (Bowen 2002).

Identification of agents of impairment
The identification of agents of impairment reflects Dryzek's critique (2008, 200) on the suppression of alternative meanings. Revealing the agents – as he continues – is a crucial requirement for critical research. The agents' concept was introduced by Lindblom (1990). According to him, the power of such agents is due to the understanding that "the social world depends on communication and other interchange." (Lindblom 1990, 78). As most of the "social world is too far away for anyone to observe much of it." (Lindblom 1990, 78). Woodhouse (2008, 453) sees the mayor benefit of Lindbloms approach as follows: "Among many barriers to self-guiding society, foremost is impairment, Lindblom argued: Not only corporation and government, but family, school, church, and media hamper development of capacities for probing problems and possibilities."

Name relevant stakeholder
In the beginning has been said that system theory and polyrationality can help seeing dominant meanings more clearly. On the other side, such theory driven approaches remain on the abstract level without forcing the researcher to come 'down to earth'. This sequence argues that each situation has stakeholders, institutions, classes, groups, and organizations but also real persons that represent them. As Brecht (1988, p. 173) rights in his Kriegsfibel: "Don't accuse the destiny. The dark forces that grind you have names, addresses, and faces." [translated by Kaufmann] Accordingly, underlying relations – especially disparities – of power relations among relevant stakeholders must be identified. Gosine and Teelucksingh (2008, 17) understand stakeholders as "those who see to maximize their profits by exploiting labour and the environment, including owners of polluting industrial facilities, developers, and others elite individuals and groups." In total we suggest to include as relevant stakeholders in environmental justice research at least people exposed to environmental burdens, decision makers, polluter, people benefiting from the exposure of others and land owners. Environmental justice research often focuses on the exposed population as victims, showing distributional injustice.

Indicators beyond poverty representing power, voter participation or social networks are usually not included in environmental justice analysis. The ongoing debates on NIMBY (not in my backyard), NIABY (not in anyone's backyard) or PIBBY (Put in blacks backyard) are somehow a reflection on this. (Gosine, Teelucksingh 2008; Darnovsky 1992). As those who are affected get names and faces, the research must also name those responsible for it.

See stakeholders' polyrationality
Including relevant stakeholders in the analysis cannot end up with clear groups like those of polluters, victims and decision makers. Davy suggests to face stakeholders polyrationality to understand social situations: "The theory of polyrationality – often called cultural theory or grid-group-analysis – explains social situations with the influence of four rationalities: hierarchy, individualism, community, fatalism." (Davy 2008, 308). Due to polyrationality we understand agents of impairment not as individuals or institutions that are solely supressing alternative meanings. Persons can be both 'victim' of environmental injustice and suppress marginalised meanings through racist behaviour at the same time. Davy (2008, 309) points out: "Gender planning (planning with a view to avoid sexism) or environmental justice planning (planning with a view to confront racism or classism) are also concerned with different voices, different rationalities."

Davy draws lessons from a polyrational view for institutions promoting environmental justice: "The well-being of a society depends on the availability of institutions that are suitable for processing dissimilar rationalities (...). People are not only different from each other in that they have different preferences (as many economists believe) or different rights (as many lawyers believe). Above all, people are different from each other because they read the world in entirely different ways." (Davy 1997, Preface VIII). This quote has major consequences on the understanding of who is an agent of impairment. Research should ask: Where is the rationality of the executing researcher located in this universe? Who is considered as stakeholder in the research design? Who is and who is not to blame – and why?

Identify peoples' tacit beliefs
When the rationality's frame of the relevant stakeholders is analysed, their tacit beliefs must be exposed. This links to Fischer's and Gottweis' (2012, 5) findings who see one reason for environmental injustices "in widely held tacit beliefs about poverty and race". Revealing the tacit beliefs exposes not persons but the shape or strategy of dominant meanings to influence the environmental justice regime (Foucault). The analysis of particular tacit beliefs completes a picture of numerous belief systems, in which a specific situation is located. Therefore, it backs not only announced criticism of the mainstream but also provides detailed information about the situation at local. Consideration of this task shall ensure not only to show who rules but how power is exercised.

Identification of communicative capacities and standards
Dryzek (2008, 200) assumes the "identification of ways in which communicative capacities of policy actors might be equalized" as an important task for the critical policy analyst. Schlosberg (2007, 75) points to the centrality of participation in the discourse on environmental justice stating that "[f]or the environmental justice movement, the demand for more public participation and procedural equity in the development, implementation, and oversight of environmental policy is the key to address issues of distributional equity, recognition, and capabilities." The importance of participation and procedural equity is captured by the concept of procedural justice (Amerasinghe et al. 2008; Walker 2012, 47). Köckler (2011) defines procedural environmental justice as the initialisation of and meaningful involvement in environmental decision making processes for all. To reach meaningful involvement it is important that stakeholders have sufficient individual communicative capacities and concurrently communicative standards for procedures of decision making exist.

Identify factors of communicative capacity
The analysis of ways how to equalize communicative capacities of political actors requires the understanding of individual communicative capacities. One problem of mainstream procedural justice research is that mainly those are subject of scientific analysis who take part in the decision making process (Amerasinghe et al. 2008) whereas consideration of all possibly affected people should be followed (cf. Köckler 2011). Since those who lack of capacities or capabilities often don't join processes of decision making many suppressed are excluded from procedural justice research.

Coming back to the variety of stakeholders we named above as being relevant for the field of environmental justice the communicative capacity of a variety of people needs to be identified: people exposed to environmental burdens, decision takers, polluter, people benefiting from the exposure of others and land owners should be considered. Furthermore Fischer and Gottweis (2012, 3) ask scientists to reflect on how their advice is received by decision makers.

Identify communicative standards
Some decision making processes in the field of environmental justice could be assigned to the field of environmental and spatial planning (Köckler 2006; Dieckmann 2013). In most environmental and planning laws basic standards for participation are guaranteed that prescribe who has to be informed or consulted at what stage of the planning procedure and what consequences stem from statements of stakeholders for the decision-process.

The argumentative turn in planning and policy research mainly calls a turn from dominant empirical analysis to including studies of language and argumentation. This requires an alternative approach to policy inquiry with special attention to communication and argumentation (Fischer, Gottweis 2012). If we follow the communicative turn in planning recognition of the arguments of marginalised groups shall be increased (Healey 1996). Healey postulates to equalise communicative capacities. One contribution for this equalisation could come from communicative standards. But Davy (2008, 316) points out that planners have to face a lack of robust institutions. So, who or what can guarantee these standards? Fischer and Gottweis (2012, 19) offer a general approach: "They [Dryzek and Hendriks in the same book, HK] conclude that political systems need to facilitate multiple deliberative spaces such that policy making can be informed by a diverse range of argumentation and communication."

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