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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/9505/the-victorian-bushfires-how-environmentalism-leads-to-disaster/

The Victorian Bushfires: How Environmentalism Leads to Disaster

February 25, 2009 by

Fires are transformed into huge infernos and spread uncontrollably across Victoria only because of extremely high fuel loads throughout the state’s bushland. The reason? For years, writes Ben O’Neil, local governments have neglected to manage fire hazards on their land in order to be faithful to the principles of environmentalism — a philosophy that contends that nature has intrinsic value that must be preserved, regardless of any use it has to man.

{ 47 comments }

newson February 25, 2009 at 8:55 am

attentive observers of the australian labor party will note that for some time now, the wording of “the great threat of our era”, agw, has morphed into “climate change”. just hedging their bets…

western australia has also desisted from winter-time preventative burning. it’s a cheap way to buy green preference votes, and if it only costs a few thousands lives, who cares? the greens hate humans, anyway.

ironically, even the animals suffer more for the lack of winter burns. controlled burns allow slower-moving marsupials the chance to flee the fire-front. this is not possible in the summer fire-storm conditions witnessed in victoria.

worse yet, the needless tragedy of this inferno allowed the federal government the opportunity to gag debate on the massive stimulus plan (obamarama downunder) being foisted on the electorate. to discuss spending $42 billion during a period of mourning would just have been too crass for words.

the federal government has guaranteed carte-blanche to the victims, rewarding those who didn’t bother to insure, and thereby creating a moral hazard risk for the future.

Liberty Australia February 25, 2009 at 8:57 am

A great article that sums up the situation precisely.

John Shipp February 25, 2009 at 9:17 am

If everyone is in debt, then to whom are they in debt? Just as an economy cannot run on everyone taking in each others laundry, then neither can everyone lend computer bits to each other and call it debt. All of the US homes which are “bad debts” exist and must have some value in wood and material. I believe the whole thing is a bogus attempt to frighten people into giving up their freedoms. I will believe when I see Bankers who sold bogus debts peering out from behind bars.

Douglas Chalmers February 25, 2009 at 11:19 am

The Black Saturday (Feb 7 2009) bushfires were preceded by a heatwave in late January which lasted several days and affected all the South-Eastern states in Australia. But it was only in the state of Victoria that both the bushfires and the heatwave caused chaos. Thus inept infrastructure management and poor preparation by authorities actually created a disaster out of a manageable situation exacerbated by climate change and drought. The other states managed their own bushfires quite successfully, though.

The other three states also suffered with the 43°+ Celsius heatwave in January, 2009 (110-120°F) but it was only Victoria and its state capital, Melbourne, which fared badly. In Melbourne, there were massive power outages and 100′s of train services were cancelled on the hottest days because the city’s infrastructure wasn’t designed to function above 35°C (95°F). Other states’ cities functioned more or less normally. But, in Victoria, a 100 people also died in the heatwave, a tragedy in itself, uhh.

Those fires are still burning and also put both water and gas pipelines at risk of damage and closure as well as threatening high-voltage power lines both directly as well as from smoke causing them to earth out. Melbourne already has a shortage of water and wind-blown ash as well as the subsequent run-off from forthcoming rains in the water catchment areas affected by the fires will seriously degrade water quality, possibly for some years.

James February 25, 2009 at 11:21 am

I’m more familiar with California then Australia. In California a large part of the problem is the suppression of natural fires, its natural for fires to burn out the brush every few years. Giant sequia trees are dependent on these natural fires to reproduce. By supressing these natural fires it has allowed the brush to build up much more causing the fires to be more intense and causing forest fires instead of smaller brush fires.

Douglas Chalmers February 25, 2009 at 11:55 am

In the past century, white Anglo Australia’s “settler society” has become gradually but utterly incapable of relating to the country’s natural environment or to the reality of living in it – now the consequences, and 100′s dead – but has anyone really learned? Described as “hell + its fury”, this IS one of the results of European settlement none in government want to admit to, uhh.

They build homes amongst the gum trees (native eucalypt forests), fail to burn off every year, are even averse to it – and reap the inevitable consequences. Once people took notice of these hazards and cleared around homes and planted Banyans, bamboo + Jacarandas or trees from India or South America but they now have delusional expectations of being “Green” in a combustible eucalypt forest – yet at very great expense. So disgusting though, that local politicians are attempting to put it all down to ‘arsonists’ to deflect blame from their own culpability….. and its not good ‘bushfire strategy’ when one is confronted with a firestorm when very naïvely defending one’s home in an ‘idyllic’ bush setting.

Quote from The Age, Melbourne, the day before the fires: “Victorians should cancel whatever plans they may have….. and take whatever steps necessary to prepare for what Premier John Brumby is calling the “worst day in the history of the state”….. “If you don’t need to go out, don’t go out, it’s a seriously bad day. If you don’t need to travel, don’t travel. Don’t go on the roads. If you don’t need to use the public transport system, don’t use it. If you can stay at home, stay at home. If you’ve got relatives who are elderly, if you’ve got friends, if you’ve got neighbours, please call on them…”.

But that is a real-time description of an Anglo failed state and the consequences of decades of denial and refusal and outright lies – no power, no transport and soon maybe no water and no food – Victoria almost totally failed in its “day of reckoning” and its political parties/institutions (ALL the people at the top) are 100% responsible. Pretensions of a “world-class sporting precinct” and the very dated delusion of being the “world’s most liveable city” is certainly over. The result of 12 years of living in the 1950′s in their minds (the war on terror) – is that the 1950′s is back – no air-conditioning, inadequate schools and hospitals, but with double the population to cater for.

aussie libertarian February 25, 2009 at 1:12 pm

It is so refreshing to read this article and even more so, the subsequent comments. This kind of discussion would probably be considered blasphemous at home (Victoria) in the current situation. Yet it is so incredibly accurate.

pbergn February 25, 2009 at 2:22 pm

While it is valid to complain about inefficient steps that government bureaucrats make in protecting their constituents from the threat of wildfires, it is NOT fair to blame the concept of Environmentalism for that…

It’s like instead of blaming a bad driver for a bus crash, you are blaming the advocates of safe driving on the roads to have caused it… You are generalizing the blame and laying it on completely different party due to your political biases…

There is nothing WRONG with Environmental Protection movement. All it is, is to try to prevent over-use and over-exploitation of natural resources and the natural habitat for all biological life-forms inhabiting the planet Earth…

Think about it – without Environmentalists the unscrupulous entrepreneurs would get a free hand in doing whatever it is necessary to maximize their profits on the investment by cutting the corners and neglecting the longer-term impact on all the inhabitants of the same ecological environment… Now, I am not saying promote environmental protection to the absurdity, but within reason, the Environmentalism is a necessity to protect humanity from the greed and short-sightedness of some of its members…

gene February 25, 2009 at 2:26 pm

This article is extremely simple minded. To blame fires of that magnitude on one cause is known as “superstition”. Also know as Ideology.

Here’s just a few of the possible causes, all with as much validity.

1. similar to our study of climate, the study of fire only reaches back a number of centuries. fires started eons ago and have varied in size and itensity since day one. like climate, we can only guesstimate the patterns of fire through time.
2. climate change or lack of it.
3. man’s management of land since the land was inhabited, including what was mentioned, but also including previous management that lead to the present situation, such as removing only trees with monetary value.
4. man’s previous “prevention” of fire, causing less fire’s but fires of greater intensity.
5. population growth, more people present where the land burns to be affected by fire and more people around to initiate the fire.
6. impact of animal life and grazing, wild or domestic. this also changes through time.

Throughout most of the world, fires are a natural occurrence. We have never had 6 billion people on the planet and it seems fires are now burning with greater intensity just about everywhere. To point the finger at a few “environmentalists” and not include the other 5.99999 billion as a possible part of the cause is acting at about the third grade level. If you really know what is causing these massive fires, if you really understand what the climate is doing, if you really know why we are in the mess we are in, well, too bad einstein is gone because i am sure you could have taught him a few things also.

Huang Di February 25, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Let’s blame the environmentalists ?

I’m no sure, though, that tree-cutters will help at replenishing Australia’s scarce water supplies … by the way, when did the AU government authorize more water pumping from mining companies ?

In other words, could you SWEAR about this ready-made explanation for the fires in Australia, or do you have YOUR OWN THOUGHTS ?

Douglas Chalmers February 25, 2009 at 4:01 pm

“How Environmentalism Contributed to the Bushfires” – perhaps this actually has more to do with “cognitive dissonance” than any kind of rational thought or behaviour? After all, a tendency to constant erroneous judgements is at the bottom of denial and refusal, psychologically. Sadly, this applies to government and bureaucracy in its mismanagement of risk and its compulsion to please its constituency.

Quote Wiki: “Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, and also the awareness of one’s behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors…”

In other words, neither truth nor reality have much significance and especially where/when the results of one’s actions primarily impact others and not oneself. Thus, conveniently lying to justify one’s actions becomes compulsive and actions may become increasingly irrational. In the end, though, there must be a result consequent in real time arising from those actions. That is, the fruits of one’s thoughts and actions…..

At some stage, though, this becomes a kind of criminal behaviour and the fact that the results in this instance have cost up to around 240 lives and many more injured as well as the 100 or so deceased in the heatwave means that failure to act in a duty of care had become endemic in both the Australian federal and Victorian state governments. Such gross dereliction of duty cannot be merely wished away and neither can a “royal commission” overseen merely by a retired judge be sufficient to do justice to the issues involved and those who are now bereaved and/or dispossessed.

Arend February 25, 2009 at 4:45 pm

@ gene

“This article is extremely simple minded.”
Care to substantiate that statement?

“To blame fires of that magnitude on one cause is known as “superstition”.”

By principle? I mean all the causes you mention are mostly implicit in “the one cause” O’Neill provides. Namely, the undermining of private property rights and the undermining of public land management due to the practice of an environmentalist ideology.

“To point the finger at a few “environmentalists” and not include the other 5.99999 billion as a possible part of the cause is acting at about the third grade level.”

Majority arguments do not count as valid arguments in many people’s books. O’Neill is by the way pointing to the degrading effects of the ideology of environmentalism, and its practitioners where applicable. What’s so disingenuous about that?

@ pbergn that said “It’s like instead of blaming a bad driver for a bus crash, you are blaming the advocates of safe driving on the roads to have caused it… You are generalizing the blame and laying it on completely different party due to your political biases…”

The whole point of the article is that environmentalism isn’t the embodiment of safe driving in your analogy. Safe driving as a practice is rational. Environmentalism is not, in the instances mentioned. And it’s outright evil when it undermines private property rights.

Nad February 25, 2009 at 5:08 pm

A great article, really, not only in revealing the otherwise less-known peril of environmentalism, but also inefficiencies of bureaucracy and disregard towards private property arrangement. Thanks!

Nicholas Gray February 25, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Here in Australia, one story that made the news was a family that cleared all the land surrounding their house of trees, The local council fined them Au$50,000. because they wanted the county to have a forest-like look. Still, now the council can pay for the fire brigades, if you really insist on a silver lining…

Yer Mawm February 25, 2009 at 6:30 pm

All Environmentalism is…

A) Just another cult that allows the guilty to justify their actions.

B) A tool of Al Gore and his world elite to stifle the means of production, and make that means cheaper to buy with their funny money.

Great article, and metaphor for the financial crisis, and the Govt’s. management thereof.

Ben O'Neill February 25, 2009 at 7:18 pm

Thanks everyone for your comments on the article (those who were polite).

pbergn: If it is valid to complain about the land management practices of government bureaucrats then surely it is also valid to complain about the philosophy which underlies these practices. Contrary to your assertions, it is the philosophy of environmentalism which drives these practices. Moreover, your description of what “unscrupulous entrepreneurs” would do to land is pure fantasy. Except under land socialism (with the resulting tragedy of the commons) there is no reason to expect entrepreneurs to neglect the long-term impact of land use. In fact, it is when land is privately owned that the owner has a stake in the capital value and an incentive to look after it through the long term.

gene: You misrepresent the content of the article when you assert that is blames the fires on one single cause. The article clearly states (in paragraph three) how the fires may have started and that the fires were exacerbated and allowed to grow into huge infernos due to environmentalist policies, specifically the aversion to land clearing and controlled burning. To suggest that each of the six billion people on the planet were a possible part of the cause of the Victorian bushfires (and that failure to perceive this grand collectivist insight constitutes “acting at a third grade level”) is not terribly bright. Thank you for letting me know that a possible contributing cause of the bushfires was “climate change or lack of it” – you really put yourself out there on that one!

Update: Since this article was written, the confirmed death toll from the fire has risen to 210 people. See “Fire Death tolls hits 210.” The Herald Sun, 23 February 2009.
http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,25095352-29277,00.html

Jeremy February 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Hi Ben – is there a link to the full article? I can only see the summary paragraph.

Nicholas – the irony is just too strong.

Inquisitor February 25, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Apparently it is fine to blame normal citizens for failing to have taken preventative measures to ward against a calamity, but OK if the gov’t does it, then it’s a matter of “many causes”. Yeah, sure it is. And if government makes it impossible to lower the likelihood of catastrophic damage from fires, again it is not to blame. “Many causes” are involved. Nevermind that bushfires are a pretty common occurence in Australia. The superstition of “many causes” is behind it.

Ben O'Neill February 25, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Jeremy, the full article is at http://mises.org/daily/3343 (this page is just the blog for the article).

ehmoran February 25, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Another attribute of a purely “Free Market” society is the public chooses which items or actions are appropraite for our desired way of life as a majority.

If we don’t like a company destroying the environment (and as long as they are not in collusion with a Gov’t), we don’t buy their product, they no longer remain in business, and they no longer destroy the Envirionment.

If a person does something the majority doesn’t like, society scorns and embarrasses that individual and they longer remain part of our society. “Free Thinking, Acting, and Market Individuals RULE.”

We don’t need a Gov’t and Military to choose what’s best for society, because we either get along or destroy ourselves. Societies can’t compete with Gov’ts ability and capability of destroying unwanted societies.
SIMPLE

gene February 25, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Permit me to explain what I meant. Certainly environmentalism and government may have played a role, and the author would know better than me. They certainly due in the fires around here[pacific northwest usa] that have been increasing in intensity and occurrence recently. But to discount thousands of years of man’s management previous to that, and especially the last two hundred years of industrial management is looking at a lawn and only seeing one blade of grass!

We cannot blame “environmentalists” and “government” for all our problems. We, the six billion humans on the earth, have to take some accountablility. To persist in this us and them thinking gets us [supposedly free thinking and freedom supporting proponets] absolutely nowhere. These disastorous fires that are occurring do not have one specific cause but many.

Environmentalists may be wrong in this instance but they are in a lot of cases acting AGAINST big government and big corporate monopolies. the exact same enemies of people who support real free markets. Not being allowed to cut a few trees around your house is ridiculous but living in an extremely high fire area has inherent risks. To blame this worldwide problem on a few “tree huggers” really is very nearsighted.

We have huge pine beetle infestations around here, the largest ever recorded with the resulting fires and environmentalists and loggers have worked together to convince the government to allow thinning of the pines. You don’t get that by calling one side evil and looking at your own side as saintly.

PeterB February 25, 2009 at 11:17 pm

Nicholas,

As I recall in the news reports just after the fires – the family fined $50k for clearing the trees – theirs was the only house in their town left standing.

nicholas gray February 26, 2009 at 12:46 am

PB,
They were out in the bush, though it’s true the town nearest to them is a disaster area. And the house is still standing, with almost no damage.

Huang Di February 26, 2009 at 2:13 am

@Ben O’Neil :
I am terribly sorry that I misinterpreted your aim … but my original comment was based on the single-paragraph except that is the only thing that appears on this page (that is, without a link to the original article that I could find …)

My goal was only to state that, behind the mass-media reports on the single CH4 theory, there may have been OTHER aggravating factors, such as water pumping, the authorization for its extension in AU was given mere months before this terrific wildfire, if I recall correctly …

In other words, it is the lack of knowledge that killed those innocent persons : if the had realized that weeding out parts of the vegetation would ultimately have averted massive harm, they would have done it by themselves) … and one could successfully argue that it’s what Environmentalism REALLY is about …


Most persons didn’t care to read EXTENSIVELY enough … that is why a good number of them didn’t understand that, for instance, worldwide religious teachings all aim at Finding GENUINE happiness, not yet another poor substitute for it !

P.S : sorry about the increasingly creeping religiosity in my posts if you’re offended by it …

Colin February 26, 2009 at 7:23 am

I was somewhat surprised that criticism of the environmentalist policies mentioned in this article received some significant mainstream media coverage here in Victoria.

Unfortunately the focus did not last long so I suspect few have realised the significance of government and environmentalists culpability in the disasters of Black Saturday.

If only some environmentalists could be put to trial along with the arsonists then ignorant do-gooders might be hesitant to use political power to put untouched nature ahead of human lives.

They create the environment for death and destruction. It is just a matter of time until the disaster unfolds.

TokyoTom February 26, 2009 at 7:30 am

Ben, may I suggest that, as other authors do, you add a link to your main post in your summary paragraph above, so people who come directly to the blog don’t have to hunt around for it?

As for the substance, I’m afraid that what is otherwise an interesting and informative post is fatally skewed by what a like polemicist could call a misanthropic, enviro-hating bloviation. Too bad.

It is clear that poor public policy – some of if driven by greens, and some of it in the form of heavy-handed interference with private property owners – contributed to the disaster. But do the greens hate mankind, or has “environmentalism” generally led to disaster – as opposed to government land-ownership and land management policies in a democratic society, the nature of the Australian bush, the growth of human populations there, the vagaries of the weather and changing climate?

A brief look shows that there is room for complaint about greens, but fights over government and preferences are what we end up with when governments own and manage too many resources – struggles in which resource extractors often do much better. One article about the Victoria fires states:

“The poor management of national parks and state forests in Victoria is highlighted by the interactive fire map on the website of the Department of Sustainability and Environment. Yesterday it showed that, of 148 fires started since mid-January, 120 started in state forests, national parks, or other public land, and just 21 on private property.

“Only seven months ago, the Victorian Parliament’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee tabled its report into the impact of public land management on bushfires, with five recommendations to enhance prescribed burning. This included tripling the amount of land to be hazard-reduced from 130,000 to 385,000 hectares a year. There has been little but lip service from the Government in response.”

In the US, we’ve had a century or more of similar forestry mismanagement (fire suppression), long preceding the enviro movement, decades of wealthy people moving into risky areas, decades of increasing fire risks resulting from climate change (greater build up of vegetation with rain, but greater dryness as snowmelt runs off more quickly), and increasingly poor management as the Forestry Service and other fire-fighting agencies find that the Congress and state governments are giving them blank checks for fighting fires.

There are a number of elements of moral hazard in this, tied mainly to the fact that government is managing vast acreage and people living in areas of risk have not been paying all of the costs associated with risk mitigation or fire suppression/fighting.

Lew Rockwell notwithstanding, very little of the phenomenon of larger fires and expanding firefighting budgets in the US has anything to do with enviros (and certainly not the apparent contribution of climate change), as I’ve previously noted: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/08/04/climate-change-and-the-forest-service-s-perfect-budgetary-firestorm.aspx

To resolve problems in the US, Cato is pushing for the semi-privatization of public lands by turning various units into self-sustaining trusts (and turning off the public spigot).

In Australia, one suspects that the public lands aspects are the most difficult to deal with; local governments are likely to more quickly learn and to allow private landowners to firebreak their homes (but bad decisions and wishful thinking about only occasionally manifested risks are endemic in humans). You rightly suggest that had bushland areas in Victoria been regarded as “unowned land, ripe for homesteading,” there would have been better fire avoidance and suppression; please note that modern enviros had little to do with the creation of public lands 100+ years ago.

BTW, your views on what “environmentalism” is and what motivates those whom you believe espouse it is, from an an Austrian perspective largely unmitigated hogwash; one is forced to conclude that you have never read Roy Cordato’s summary in this area, for example: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/10/11/cordato-humans-cannot-harm-the-environment.aspx

Enviros are chiefly well-off people who are rightly concerned about unmanaged or poorly managed common/open-access resources. That they fail to recognize that there is a “tragedy of the commons” associated with the misuse of government, such that government can easily be as much of a problem than any type of solution is something that bears critical examination and explanation. You might find your approach to them emotionally satisfying, but it hardly seems true to Austrianism, much less productive.

FWIW, there is some useful commentary at the Australian libertarian blog, catallay files: http://www.catallaxyfiles.com/blog/?p=4151, and at Pielke Jr’s place: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/trends-in-homes-lost-to-autralian-bushfires-4950#comments.

Cheers.

gene February 26, 2009 at 11:20 am

Tokyo Tom, extremely well put. exactly what i was getting at and what was omissive in the article.

The only thing I would add, and I am not supporting governments management of public property, is that public property is “used” by more people and is more susceptible to fire because of that.

Also, there is a large segment of “greens” in the US who are aware of the huge role of government in our environmental problems. It is said that 50% of all pollution in the US is caused by a government agency or subsidy.

The antagonism between Libertarians and Environmentalists is unwarranted. Certainly they will never agree on everything, but a good deal of Libertarian thought would lead to a better environment and a good deal of environmental policies fall right in with “free market” ideals. Both groups need more friends, they already have plenty of enemies in positions of power, often the same enemies.

Ben O'Neill February 26, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Hi everyone,

A recurring point of contention, expressed in a few of the posts, seems to be my attribution of blame to environmentalism and environmentalists. So let me be clear on what I am saying here.

What I am saying is that the poor land management decisions in Victoria are the result of a particular moral philosophy on how one should deal with nature. That philosophy is ‘environmentalism,’ (also known as ‘deep ecology’) which I have described in paragraph three of the article. Environmentalism is a theory of moral philosophy, which contends that nature has intrinsic value and that humans should act to preserve this value, even when it is of no value to them. This is the essence of the philosophy of ‘deep ecology’ as described in much philosophical literature, including the article by philosopher Michael Berliner which is cited in paragraph three of my article.

It is true that bureaucratic mismanagement and poor public policy are more immediate causes for the bushfires, but these things are the result of the underlying philosophy that tells politicians and bureaucrats how they should deal with nature.

It is perfectly rational to be concerned about the environment for the purposes of sustaining the prosperity of people. Indeed, many people who call themselves ‘environmentalists’ or who are concerned about interference with nature do not propagate the view that nature has inherent value. What is irrational and destructive is the view that people’s interests should be sacrificed to the preservation of nature, which is the logical consequence of the philosophy of environmentalism. This latter view is completely incompatible with libertarianism.

When I refer to ‘environmentalists,’ I am referring to those who propagate the philosophy of environmentalism, not merely to anyone who cares about forests. Thus, a lot of people who probably call themselves environmentalists, I would not call environmentalists, and I would not consider them worthy of blame.

The article focuses mainly on the philosophy of environmentalism rather than any specific environmentalists or environmentalist groups (although I mention the Greens party in Australia as a group that I believe propagates this idea).

Tokyo Tom: Thank you for taking the time to give such a detailed response. The article citations you give are interesting, and bolster my view that governments have avoided controlled burns and land clearing.

You state that my view on what environmentalism is, is incorrect from an Austrian perspective (allegedly “unmitigated hogwash”). I do not think you are correct on this point. As I have stated above, my description of environmentalism is consistent with the philosophical literature on the subject (e.g. ‘deep ecology’) and I have cited relevant work in the field for those readers who want to know more about it.

Austrian economics is a theory of economics, and therefore makes no assessment of any moral philosophy. In my view, there is therefore, no such thing as the “Austrian perspective” of what environmentalism is. Austrian economics does not seek to define or evaluate theories of moral philosophy. Researchers like Roy Cordata have certainly done research on the economics of environmental problems (http://mises.org/daily/1760), but this is a very different thing from analysing the moral philosophy of environmentalism, which is the subject of my article.

Cheers,
Ben.

Saildog February 26, 2009 at 9:01 pm

There is no doubt that the VIC state govt. and local govt. policy contributed to the intensity of the fires. The enquiry that follows will no doubt cover these points. I even think it is possibly valid to lay charges of corporate homicide against these bodies, but that is for another time.

To blame the fires on “environmentalism” is also pure garbage. On a day when the temperature was in the mid 40′s C (120F+), after two weeks that included 3 heat waves of +40C temps, everything would have been tinder dry. On top of that our Australian Eucalyptus forests emit an oil vapour that hangs in a haze over the land. In a fire the air literally explodes and NOTHING stands in its way.

At its simplest level environmentalism is nothing more than concern for the environment. It is a commons and we are all dependent on it. Private property rights do not extend over land completely. Certain rights remain in the commons and are publicly administered. People who bought their properties in these areas knew this and signed up to this principle at the time of purchase. That is why they lived there, they liked the trees and the “environment”.

So please no shallow pontificating on this tragedy. It is a complex issue and one that needs proper investigation by qualified people.

TokyoTom February 26, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Ben, did you READ the Cordato piece that I summarized and that you have now linked to? It says, in relevant part:

by bringing together Austrian concepts of costs and the praxeological foundations of economics we discover a unique perspective on pollution and the role of property rights in solving environmental problems. Furthermore by placing environmental problems within the context of personal and interpersonal plan formulation, we discover that they are not about the environment per se but about the resolution of human conflict.

The concept of social costs, as typically invoked, completely disembodies and impersonalizes costs. … The “social cost” approach to environmental economics has led to the “dehumanization” of issues related to the environment [where] [p]ollution or “tragedy of the commons” problems are not problems because of the damage that some people may or may not be inflicting on others, but because they create what amounts to disembodied harms. A problem occurs because some goods are “overproduced” while other goods are “underproduced.” In its more extreme form this has led to a separation of the concepts of costs and harm from human beings completely, substituting notions such as “costs to the environment,” and damage to the ecosystem.

“Economic analysis of the environment that starts from a praxeological perspective shifts the focus from maximizing the social value of output or equating price to marginal social cost, to efficient intra- and inter-personal plan formulation and execution, i.e., the internal consistency between the means that people use and the ends that they desire to achieve. Within this context, pollution problems that are indeed problems create an interpersonal conflict over the use of means and therefore obstruct efficient plan formulation and execution. Pollution is therefore not about harming the environment but about human conflict over the use of physical resources.”

Humans cannot harm the environment. Instead, they can change the environment in such a way that it harms others who might be planning to use it for conflicting purposes.

The focus of the Austrian approach to environmental economics is conflict resolution. The purpose of focusing on issues related to property rights is to describe the source of the conflict and to identify possible ways of resolving it.”
(emphasis added)

As Cordato makes clear, the focus of Austrians in reviewing “environmental” problems is not on disembodied harms to an “environment” but on reviewing how the institutional structure facilitates or interfers with personal plan formation and the abilities of persons with differing preferences to transact in ways that simulataneous advance the preferences of each.

As Cordato notes, there whole discussion of “social costs” and an “environment” – which is the principal paradigm used throughout public discourse – is itself wrong and a distraction. The “environmentalists” that you purport to criticize are simply a small subset of the larger debate, which can only be moved ahead if we focus on CONFLICT RESOLUTION, and not whether enviros are evil, while people like you are virtuous, good-willed and clear-minded.

Further, your focus on “environmentalists” and “deep ecology” as a moral philosophy is an enormous and unhelpful strawman, and really tells us next to nothing – other than how muddled your own thinking is.

“the poor land management decisions in Victoria are the result of” the “particular moral philosophy” of “environmentalism”

Really? Can you demonstrate that the councils of government in Victoria staffed with card-carrying members of a “deep ecology” movement that puts preserving an untrammelled nature ahead of all human interests? I know very few people who care about environmental issues who actually ascribe to (much less understand) any such moral philosophy, and I doubt very much that voters, politicians or bureaucrats in Victoria are motivated by such a philosphy, not do I see in necessary to go looking under rocks for such people, when one can perfectly well see that the problem lies in imperfect human knoweledge and imperfect institutions.

a lot of people who probably call themselves environmentalists, I would not call environmentalists, and I would not consider them worthy of blame.

Nice to see you backing away from your strawman, but your article makes no such effort to distinguish between the truly evil enviros and everyone else who has legitimate preferences who are just idiots. But your continued focus on motives continues to distract from a legitimate and productive focus on the nature of the institutions that have constributed to the Victoria fires.

“The article focuses mainly on the philosophy of environmentalism rather than any specific environmentalists or environmentalist groups

I think that while you’ve provided some useful information about the fires and some inklings of the motivations and institutions involved, you’ve barely scratched the surface and have distracted us by waving around a red flag of “enviros!” whom you make no real effort to connect to the actual situation and whose actual motivations you make no attempt whatsoever to explore – which is precisely what makes it so ineffective in tell us how decisions by bureaucrats oand local councils regarding public and private land were made, what such decisions actually were or why such decisions were mistaken. So much easier to bash a few disembodied enviros, right?

I have no problem with your efforts to define or evaluate theories of moral philosophy, such as a supposed “deep ecology”, but I agree with Cordato that this is just a small subset of the much larger group of muddle-headed thinkers who accept the concept of “social costs” – with probably much more pernicious consequences in terms of costly governmental attempts at social engineering. In any case, I view Austrian perspectives as instructing us to focus on fixing institutions rather than on bashing supposed (and ultimately unknowable) motives.

I recommend that you reconsider whether your own efforts are likely to contribute, in any way, to constructive engagement and improved resource management, in Victoria or elsewhere.

Gil February 26, 2009 at 11:52 pm

Better yet – to say the solution should have been allowing for tree clearing around properties and controlled burnings on public property is another form of environmentalism. This form seeks to preserve nature whilst making it relatively ‘bushfire proof’. An anti-environmentalist solution would be human renovation of the bushland to urban and suburban development as well as forbidding the existence of fire-loving Eucalypts in favour of fire-hating tree species that don’t readily burn (which hail from Europe I believe).

Ben O'Neill February 26, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Tokyo Tom: None of the quotes you cite from Mr Cordato’s piece (yes, I have read it) contradict the fact that Austrian economics does not assess the correctness or incorrectness of normative moral propositions, such as in the philosophy of environmentalism. Mr Cordato’s piece compares the Austrian approach to standard welfare economics — nowhere in the article does he even mention the philosophy of environmentalism or its principle of inherent value in nature (which is very different from ‘social costs’ which refer to valuations by people).

If you have read the philosophical literature on which my explanation of environmentalism is based (one piece of which is cited in my article), then you will know that the distinction between environmentalist philosophy of the kind described, and mere concern for the environment, is a distinction that I have consistently maintained, and certainly not a ‘back-down’ from any alleged previous position.

The notion that it is impossible to infer large scale philosophical trends from human events (that these involve ‘unknowable motives’), or that one must demonstrate government officials to be ‘card carrying’ deep ecologists is incorrect. Deep ecologists may well be only a small proportion of the ‘green movement,’ but they have been highly influential to its philosophy and consequent practices.

It is interesting to note that the most positive emails I have received about this article have come from fire-fighters and bushfire experts, whereas the most impolite attacks have come from bloggers with a long history of irate sniping. Rather than continuing to respond in detail to your rancorous postings, which lack even rudimentary courtesy, I will leave it at that.

niku November 29, 2010 at 11:15 pm

“rancorous postings”:

Usage: {Rancor}, {Enmity}. Enmity and rancor both describe hostile feelings; but enmity may be generous and open, while rancor implies personal malice of the worst and most enduring nature, and is the strongest word in our language to express hostile feelings. [1913 Webster]

Joe B February 27, 2009 at 12:57 am

The basic premise of the article – that fuel loads have increased due to fears of controlled burning – is valid. I think the problem is in generalizing the entire environmentalist movement to blame. There are opposing factions within the environmentalist movement, many of whom would agree with this basic premise. Too many free-marketeers make this generalization, and it contributes to the impression that free markets and the environment are incompatible.

Tim Flannery’s “The Future Eaters” describes how aboriginal australians have been exercising controlled burning for the past 60,000 years or so. This contributed to the dominance of gum trees instead of conifers which had previously dominated the country. This changed when European settlers pushed the aboriginals out of certain areas and did not always continue the practice.

Of course, California has had worse fires since gum trees were imported from Australia in the 1850′s.

Environmentalism is ultimately about economic choices. It includes direct economic consequences such as destruction of property as well as individual preferences about the value of certain species or aspects of nature. I have koalas in my back yard, and I would like to keep them there even though it offers me no direct financial benefit – but they increase my psychic profit from choosing to purchase this house. If I saw a good reason to, I would pay into an action to preserve them.

Fears of climate change certainly contribute to attitudes against controlled burning, and the climate change alarmists should deserve some blame for this. So should groups that advocate preservation of specific species and ecosystems through blind conservatism without regard for the costs or risks. This is the real problem, as it is with all state actions – costs are not considered, therefore rational decisions can’t be made.

I think that the focus of Austrians and other rational thinkers in regards to environmentalism should be to challenge the various alarmist factions of the environmentalist movement and demand that all risks and costs are considered. As usual, the problem isn’t that people are making bad arguments, the problem is that they can convince the state that theirs is the right one.

Without a coercive state to enforce their narrow-minded theories, these alarmists would have to convince consumers, who would consider the costs and probably some opposing arguments before acting.

Free-markets are often regarded as opposed to environmentalism, but in fact they are a means to more effective environmentalism, as they are with everything else. Many people would choose “eco-friendly” products over ones that were blatantly harmful to the environment, or would contribute to an environmental cause. However, if they think the state is responsible for this using money that they’ve already paid in taxes, they would be less inclined to make additional personal contributions.

Absolute Rubbish April 1, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Finally some intelligence on the matter, not just pure emotional faeces!

TokyoTom February 27, 2009 at 1:37 am

Ben, I am consistently courteous, but that doesn’t require that one soften all of one’s criticisms.

Some of my comments may indeed seem “rancorous”, but to the extent they are it is only because I object strongly to the unthinking and unproductive “enviros are misanthropes!” ad hominem hype that is so often bandied about on the Mises blog. Your contribution to it here sadly detracts from what would otherwise be a very insightful discussion of the problem of the bureaucratic/political management of public land, and of heavy-handed and counter-productive interference with private land management.

the distinction between environmentalist philosophy of the kind described, and mere concern for the environment, is a distinction that I have consistently maintained, and certainly not a ‘back-down’ from any alleged previous position.

It is perfectly appropriate for a reader to comment on the post that he reads. In the present case, your main essay makes no such effort to distinguish between supposed adherents to a misanthropic “environmental philosopy” of the sort that you posit and others who are “mere[ly] concern[ed] for the environment”; I am correct to criticize you for this, and you are indeed backing down.

The notion that it is impossible to infer large scale philosophical trends from human events (that these involve ‘unknowable motives’), or that one must demonstrate government officials to be ‘card carrying’ deep ecologists is incorrect.

These are both strawmen; I do not suggest the former, but simply noted that Austrian perspectives are mainly concerned with whether institutions facilitate or hinder plan formation among persons with differing preferences. As for the latter, you are the one who have offered that proposition that – despite your fairly apt analysis of what otherwise looks like a rather typical failure of public decision-making – the “root of the problem is the philosophy of environmentalism”; I have simply noted that you have made very little effort to actually back up your proposition by showing HOW the Victorian fires and bureacratic/political mismanagement should be laid at the feet of the really really Bad environmentalists (as opposed to a host of others, including bureaucrats with no personal liability for mistakes in judgment, politicians who catered to popular viewpoints and local citizens who won an apparently phyrric battle over the actions of local governments). If you don’t want to defend this proposition, then perhaps you should not offer it up so strongly in the first place.

Austrian economics does not assess the correctness or incorrectness of normative moral propositions, such as in the philosophy of environmentalism.

My point, which you continue to dodge, is that Austrian economics focusses on how to address the institutional problems that hinder people from realizing their preferences. You note several of these problems – government ownership of resources and government restrictions on private owners – but prefer to focus on the evil motives of an unidentified group that somehow, insidously or not, somehow are primarily at fault.

the philosophy of environmentalism or its principle of inherent value in nature (which is very different from ‘social costs’ which refer to valuations by people)

While enviros themselves might consider the “principle of inherent value in nature” to be very different from more generalized concerns for a “disembodied environment” or for “social costs”, the rest of us can recognize that it is PEOPLE who believe in “inherent value in nature” and thus their preferences are of a like kind to the rest of us sloppy thinkers who tend to discuss things like “the environment”, “nature” and “social cost”, as a rather muddled short-hand for things that they care about and think that others do as well.

the most impolite attacks have come from bloggers with a long history of irate sniping.

Again, my comments are neither irate nor impolite (though in places strongly worded), nor do I have a “long history” of irascibilty or rudeness (if I did, I would long ago have been a persona non grata). With “sniping” perhaps you give me more credit than you intend, as snipers are fairly accurate with their shots, but I am hardly shooting from the sidelines but engaging you directly, on points of substance.

In any case, your complaints here are little more than a thin smokescreen for your failure to back up your “evil enviros deserve primary responsibility for disatrous bush fires” thesis. My advice is to cut back on the polemics, which not only get in the way of your underlying thesis about government mismanagement, provide much more heat than light, and leave you a little singed as well.

TokyoTom February 27, 2009 at 4:28 am

Ben, I am consistently courteous, but that doesn’t require that one soften all of one’s criticisms.

Some of my comments may indeed seem “rancorous”, but to the extent they are it is only because I object strongly to the unthinking and unproductive “enviros are misanthropes!” ad hominem hype that is so often bandied about on the Mises blog. Your contribution to it here sadly detracts from what would otherwise be a very insightful discussion of the problem of the bureaucratic/political management of public land, and of heavy-handed and counter-productive interference with private land management.

the distinction between environmentalist philosophy of the kind described, and mere concern for the environment, is a distinction that I have consistently maintained, and certainly not a ‘back-down’ from any alleged previous position.

It is perfectly appropriate for a reader to comment on the post that he reads. In the present case, your main essay makes no such effort to distinguish between supposed adherents to a misanthropic “environmental philosopy” of the sort that you posit and others who are “mere[ly] concern[ed] for the environment”; I am correct to criticize you for this, and you are indeed backing down.

The notion that it is impossible to infer large scale philosophical trends from human events (that these involve ‘unknowable motives’), or that one must demonstrate government officials to be ‘card carrying’ deep ecologists is incorrect.

These are both strawmen; I do not suggest the former, but simply noted that Austrian perspectives are mainly concerned with whether institutions facilitate or hinder plan formation among persons with differing preferences. As for the latter, you are the one who have offered that proposition that – despite your fairly apt analysis of what otherwise looks like a rather typical failure of public decision-making – the “root of the problem is the philosophy of environmentalism”; I have simply noted that you have made very little effort to actually back up your proposition by showing HOW the Victorian fires and bureacratic/political mismanagement should be laid at the feet of the really really Bad environmentalists (as opposed to a host of others, including bureaucrats with no personal liability for mistakes in judgment, politicians who catered to popular viewpoints and local citizens who won an apparently phyrric battle over the actions of local governments). If you don’t want to defend this proposition, then perhaps you should not offer it up so strongly in the first place.

Austrian economics does not assess the correctness or incorrectness of normative moral propositions, such as in the philosophy of environmentalism.

My point, which you continue to dodge, is that Austrian economics focusses on how to address the institutional problems that hinder people from realizing their preferences. You note several of these problems – government ownership of resources and government restrictions on private owners – but prefer to focus on the evil motives of an unidentified group that somehow, insidously or not, somehow are primarily at fault.

the philosophy of environmentalism or its principle of inherent value in nature (which is very different from ‘social costs’ which refer to valuations by people)

While enviros themselves might consider the “principle of inherent value in nature” to be very different from more generalized concerns for a “disembodied environment” or for “social costs”, the rest of us can recognize that it is PEOPLE who believe in “inherent value in nature” and thus their preferences are of a like kind to the rest of us sloppy thinkers who tend to discuss things like “the environment”, “nature” and “social cost”, as a rather muddled short-hand for things that they care about and think that others do as well.

the most impolite attacks have come from bloggers with a long history of irate sniping.

Again, my comments are neither irate nor impolite (though in places strongly worded), nor do I have a “long history” of irascibilty or rudeness (if I did, I would long ago have been a persona non grata). With “sniping” perhaps you give me more credit than you intend, as snipers are fairly accurate with their shots, but I am hardly shooting from the sidelines but engaging you directly, on points of substance.

In any case, your complaints here are little more than a thin smokescreen for your failure to back up your “evil enviros deserve primary responsibility for disatrous bush fires” thesis. My advice is to cut back on the polemics, which not only get in the way of your underlying thesis about government mismanagement, provide much more heat than light, and leave you a little singed as well.

Sukrit February 27, 2009 at 7:49 am

Forget the environmentalists for a second.

It’s also partly the government’s fault for subsidizing life in bush-fire prone areas. Not only that, but the politicians and bureaucrats are very intent on “rebuilding” homes in the exact same areas where they burnt down, thus ensuring more people will probably die in the future. Instead of enticing people to their deaths in the countryside, it would make more sense to stop all implicit and explicit incentives, and just let the natural preferences of people take root. Most likely, we will see more people living in cities as a consequence.

Douglas Chalmers February 27, 2009 at 9:03 am

“The council stood up in court and made us to look like the worst, wanton environmental vandals on the earth. We’ve got thousands of trees on our property. We cleared about 247…”

As it turns out, it is the presumed “environmentalists” who have become the “wanton environmental vandals ” as the Victorian bushfires released millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and will continue to do so for some weeks. It will actually take Australia quite a long time to compensate for such emissions with their useless projected new carbon offset trading scheme.

Sadly, though, no-one commenting here seems to have been able to imagine the significance of that or its relevant impact on global warming despite excessively exuberant but childish and unnecessary references to “smoke-screens” and “strawmen”.

Quote ABC, Australia: “With increasing concerns about rising CO2, rising temperatures and reduced rainfall in many of the forested areas, then we could well see much greater emissions from forest fires…” … wildfires in 2003 released 190 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, roughly a third of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions for the year. Such large, one-off releases of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, are not presently accounted for in Australia’s annual list of national greenhouse gas emissions. If they were, the country would vastly exceed its emission limits under the Kyoto Protocol… http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/02/27/2503343.htm

That again confirms my point that government policies are actually killing us – and will continue to do so for generations now. Of course that includes the delusional fantasies of “tree-changers” ( as compared with “sea-changers”) and their naive search for a lifestyle to compensate for the rigors of the materialistic society we have inflicted upon ourselves. That the Green movement has been trading on that for votes also belies the fact that it has been their intention to push up prices for rural land in such areas to their own advantage by the instigation of false ‘environmental” policies. That has become quite lethal for those who subsequently bought into that dream.

gene February 27, 2009 at 10:32 am

First of all, “deep ecology” is a segment of the environmental movement without much influence at all in the States. The mainstream of the environmental movement in the US deals with preventing damage that is “allowed” to occur mainly due to government subsidies of large corporations [The US forest service is a good example]. There is seldom any infringement on property rights here due to their efforts. Most of that also is government inflicted.

To say that “Nature has no inherent value” is like saying air has no inherent value. Even using deeply spiritual line of logic it certainly can be argued that there is absolutely no “value” at all without nature, period.

The saddest result of the article is that the basic message, people should be allowed the freedom to protect their habitat from natural danger, is completely lost in the attempt to involve and discredit an entire movement in what was a local event with “action” by local players.

Austrian philosophers would NEVER put up with this logic. All the players, including what the author calls “deep ecologists” are stating their prefrences, it is only the power and coercion of the government that can overstep and infringe on these actions, not a group of tree huggers.

Douglas Chalmers February 27, 2009 at 10:32 am

In regard to the ABC article I mentioned, I should add that:-

Australia is calling for amendments to rules on land use change under the United Nations so that only human activities that “can be practicably influenced” are included….. UN climate talks at the end of the year in Denmark that aim to agree on a successor pact to Kyoto, should discuss the growing threat from forest fires and how to develop better legal frameworks to tackle the problem…

In other words, this is concerned nations’ main chance in 2009 to formulate (or re-formulate) policies genuinely aimed at alleviating mankind’s pressure on global warming from increasing CO2 emissions. And this IS the main area that can actually effectively be addressed whilst there is still dithering on coal emissions in China and India and so forth. That is, its success is not impacted by economic development or investment in outdated technology.

In fact, it can be shown that such bushfires are largely attributable to human management of the environment and failure to either understand or work with the necessary means as regards combustible forests of eucalypts or pines or similar species as well as grasslands in fire-prone areas. Thus most fires “can be practicably influenced” by human activity of the right kind.

No doubt, it has been to the presumed advantage of “settler society” to ignore such things and to pretend that its adapted ways of rural England’s “green and shaded lanes” were somehow superior but repeated failure must surely at some stage strike the consciousness of even the most obtuse-minded neo-colonialist individuals in Australia never mind the USA. That it is so much easier with modern technologies seems to be lost upon the wayward Luddite legalists, though.

But “environmentalist” policies wrecking the health and risking the lives of Australians also included the Greens’ insane suggestion last year that drinking water from the nation’s main hydro-electric/irrigation dams be used to flush the Murray River bordering Victoria merely to protect the wildlife in the Coorong lakes at the mouth of the river from increased salinity from seawater. That is from dams that are now at only a minor percentage of capacity in the current drought and the hydro project must pump water back uphill in off-peak periods to re-use for power generation. http://www.greensmps.org.au/blog/an-emergency-rescue-plan-coorong

The love of an idyllic bush setting
Of Green eucalyptus lanes,
Of ordered policies and collective fantasies
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of a grey-power settler society,
Bob Brown’s Coorong awash under blue clear skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of climate change,
Of burnt-out mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her ‘far-flung battlefields’,
I love her dying Coral sea,
Her beauty and her terror (terra nullius)
The white mans’ scorched land for me!

(paraphrased from Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”)

Franklin February 28, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Tokyo Tom stated, “Enviros are chiefly well-off people who are rightly concerned about unmanaged or poorly managed common/open-access resources….”

Perhaps. Can’t speak for all. But I know plenty of self-proclaimed enviros in New Hampshire (USA). Lots of them living in idyllic, pastoral, neighborhoods, surrounded by hundreds of acres of hills and trees. And to keep it that way, the Planning and Zoning boards in their towns, with the accidental assistance of well-organized greens who help pass the macro legislation, ensure that these “well-off” folks can smell the pines and look out at untouched-by-human forests. Do these “well-off” folks pay for all that land they enjoy seeing? Hell, no. But they’re quite content footing the property tax bill for only an acre or so, which surrounds their extravagant houses, and they can ensure their house value continues to rise because they live out in the country, without the riff-raff bothering them, and safe from the evil developers who only want to drive the planet to a dust-ridden end. And those “well-off” folks don’t have to pay a dime for that gorgeous horizon, to boot. More upper middle class welfare for the suburban greens, indeed.

Reminds me of the old quip:
“What’s the difference between a developer and a conservationist?
The developer wants two-acres out in the country. The conservationist already has two acres out in the country.”

Ben O'Neill March 5, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Update: In a final irony, wildlife authorities believe that the Leadbeater’s possum (which was cited by Yarra Ranges Shire Council as one of the reasons for not conducting controlled burning) may have been wiped out for good by the Victorian bushfires. The final toll on flora, fauna and animal life is not known, but millions of animals are estimated to have been killed.

Millions of animals died in fires: Wildlife Victoria. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 2009.
http://www.smh.com.au/environment/millions-of-animals-died-in-fires-wildlife-victoria-20090305-8pdt.html

Jono March 24, 2009 at 10:47 pm

Superb article, it truly comes down to enforcing private property rights. The right to do what one wishes with ones own property is such a key freedom that has been lost in recent decades.

Douglas Chalmers March 25, 2009 at 8:32 am

“…we don’t own Mother Earth,
The Earth owns us…”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ-hbpWlXNQ

Douglas Chalmers April 17, 2009 at 5:24 am

House re-Growth Pod – the house of the future? “…a permanent and cost effective housing unit which can assist in the rebuilding of the fire devastated townships of Victoria ….a habitable starting point for the building of a new home…” (see pic) http://www.regrowthpod.com/

Absolute Rubbish April 1, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Absolute rubbish from the racist Chalmers. Australia has the best living standards of almost any Western country.. you are a great candidate for being exiled somewhere else. Typical socialist mentality – always complaining and blaming everyone else.

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