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Museletter #185: Peak Everything

Note: This issue is an edited version of the Introduction to 'Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines'.
During the past few years the phrase Peak Oil has entered the global lexicon. It refers to the moment in time when the world will achieve its maximum possible rate of oil extraction; from then on, for reasons having mostly to do with geology, the amount of petroleum available to society on a daily or yearly basis will begin to dwindle. Most informed analysts agree that this will happen during the next two or three decades; an increasing number believe that it is happening now - that conventional oil production peaked in 2005–2006 and that the flow to market of all hydrocarbon liquids taken together will start to diminish around 2010.1 The consequences, as they begin to accumulate, are likely to be severe: the world is overwhelmingly dependent on oil for transportation, agriculture, plastics, and chemicals; thus a lengthy process of adjustment will be required. According to one recent U.S. government-sponsored study, if the peak does occur soon replacements are unlikely to appear quickly enough and in sufficient quantity to avert what it calls "unprecedented" social, political, and economic impacts.2
This book is not an introduction to the subject of Peak Oil; several existing volumes serve that function (including my own The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies).3 Instead it addresses the social and historical context in which the event is occurring, and explores how we can reorganize our thinking and action in several critical areas in order to better navigate this perilous time.
Our socio-historical context takes some time and perspective to appreciate. Upon first encountering Peak Oil, most people tend to assume it is merely a single isolated problem to which there is a simple solution - whether of an eco-friendly nature (more renewable energy) or otherwise (more coal). But prolonged reflection and study tend to eat away at the viability of such "solutions"; meanwhile, as one contemplates how we humans have so quickly become so deeply dependent on the cheap, concentrated energy of oil and other fossil fuels, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have caught ourselves on the horns of the Universal Ecological Dilemma, consisting of the interlinked elements of population pressure, resource depletion, and habitat destruction - and on a scale unprecedented in history.
Petroleum is not the only important resource quickly depleting. Readers already acquainted with the Peak Oil literature know that regional production peaks for natural gas have already occurred, and that, over the short term, the economic consequences of gas shortages are likely to be even worse for Europeans and North Americans than those for oil. And while coal is often referred to as being an abundant fossil fuel, with reserves capable of supplying the world at current rates of usage for two hundred years into the future, a recent study updating global reserves and production forecasts concludes that global coal production will peak and begin to decline in ten to twenty years.4 Because fossil fuels supply about 85 percent of the world's total energy, peaks in these fuels virtually ensure that the world's energy supply will begin to shrink within a few years regardless of any efforts that are made to develop other energy sources.
Nor does the matter end with natural gas and coal. Once one lifts one's eyes from the narrow path of daily survival activities and starts scanning the horizon, a frightening array of peaks comes into view. In the course of the present century we will see an end to growth and a commencement of decline in all of these parameters:
  • Population
  • Grain production (total and per capita)
  • Uranium production
  • Climate stability
  • Fresh water availability per capita
  • Arable land in agricultural production
  • Wild fish harvests
  • Yearly extraction of some metals and minerals (including copper, platinum, silver, gold, and zinc)
The point of this book is not systematically to go through these peak-and-decline scenarios one by one, offering evidence and pointing out the consequences - though that is a worthwhile exercise. Some of these peaks are more speculative than others: fish harvests are already in decline, so this one is hardly arguable; however, projecting extraction peaks and declines for some metals requires extrapolating current rising rates of usage many decades into the future.5 The problem of uranium supply beyond mid-century is well attested by studies, but has not received sufficient public attention.6
Nevertheless, the general picture is inescapable; it is one of mutually interacting instances of over-consumption and emerging scarcity.
Our starting point, then, is the realization that we are today living at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history - an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible. Now that the most important of those sources are entering their inevitable sunset phase, we are at the beginning of a period of overall societal contraction.
This realization is strengthened as we come to understand that it is no happenstance that so many peaks are occurring together. All are causally related by way of the historic reality that, for the past 200 years, cheap, abundant energy from fossil fuels has driven technological invention, increases in total and per-capita resource extraction and consumption (including food production), and population growth. We are enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing feedback loop:
Fossil fuel extraction
--> more available energy
----> increased extraction of other resources, and production of food and other goods
------> population growth
--------> higher energy demand
----------> more fossil fuel extraction (and so on)
Self-reinforcing feedback loops sometimes occur in nature (population blooms are always evidence of some sort of reinforcing feedback loop), but they rarely continue for long. They usually lead to population crashes and die-offs. The simple fact is that growth in population and consumption cannot continue unabated on a finite planet.
If the increased availability of cheap energy has historically enabled unprecedented growth in rates of the extraction of other resources, then the coincidence of Peak Oil with the peaking and decline of many other resources is entirely predictable.
Moreover, as the availability of energy resources peaks, this will also affect various parameters of social welfare:
  • Per-capita consumption levels
  • Economic growth
  • Easy, cheap, quick mobility
  • Technological change and invention
  • Political stability
All of these are clearly related to the availability of energy and other critical resources. Once we accept that energy, fresh water, and food will become less freely available over next few decades, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, while the 20th century saw the greatest and most rapid expansion of the scale, scope, and complexity of human societies in history, the 21st will see contraction and simplification. The only real question then is whether societies will contract and simplify intelligently or in an uncontrolled, chaotic fashion.
Good news? Bad news?
None of this is easy to contemplate. Nor can this information easily be discussed in polite company: the suggestion that we are at or near the peak of population and consumption levels for the entirety of human history and that it's all downhill from here is not likely to win votes, lead to a better job, or even make for pleasant dinner banter. Most people turn off and tune out when the conversation moves in this direction; advertisers and news organizations take note and act accordingly. The result: a general, societal pattern of denial.
Where might we find solace in all of this gloom? Well, it could be argued that some not-so-good things will also peak this century:
Economic inequality Environmental destruction Greenhouse gas emissions
Why economic inequality? The late, great social philosopher Ivan Illich argued in his 1974 book Energy and Equity that inequality increases along with the flow of energy through a society. "[O]nly a ceiling on energy use," he wrote, "can lead to social relations that are characterized by high levels of equity."7 Hunters and gatherers, who survived on minimal energy flows, also lived in societies nearly free from economic inequality. While some forager societies were better off than others because they lived in more abundant ecosystems, the members of any given group tended to share equally whatever was available. Theirs was a gift economy - as opposed to the barter, market, and money economies that we are more familiar with. With agriculture and full-time division of labor came higher energy flow rates as well as widening economic disparity between kings, their retainers, and the peasant class. In the 20th century, with per-capita energy flow rates soaring far above any in history, some humans also enjoyed unprecedented material abundance, such that they expected that poverty could be eliminated once and for all if only the political will could be summoned. Indeed, during the middle years of the century progress was seemingly being made along those lines. However, for the century in total, inequality actually increased. The Gini index, invented in 1912 as a measure of economic inequality within societies, has risen substantially within many nations (including the U.S., Britain, India, and China) in the past three decades, and in the world as a whole.8 In the decades just prior to the 20th century, the average income in the world's wealthiest country was about ten times more than that in the poorest; now it is over forty-five times more. According to one study released in December, 2006 ("The World Distribution of Household Wealth,") the richest one percent of people now controls 40 percent of the world's wealth, while the richest two percent control fully half.9 If this correlation between energy flow rates and inequality holds, it seems likely that, as available energy decreases during the 21st century, we are likely to see a reversion to lower levels of inequality. This is not to say that by century's end we will all be living in an egalitarian socialist paradise, merely that the levels of inequality we see today will have become unsupportable.
Similarly, it seems likely that levels of humanly generated environmental destruction will peak and begin to recede in decades to come. As available energy declines, our ability to alter the environment will do so as well. However, if we make no deliberate attempt to control our impact on the biosphere, the peak will be a very high one and we will do an immense amount of damage along the way. On the other hand, we could expend deliberate and intelligent effort to minimize environmental impacts, in which case the peak will be at a lower level. Especially in the former case, this peak is likely to lag behind the others discussed, because many environmental harms involve reinforcing feedback loops as well as delayed and cumulative impacts that will continue to reverberate for decades after human population and consumption levels start to diminish. As the primary example of this, greenhouse gas emissions will undoubtedly peak in this century - whether as a result of voluntary reductions in fossil fuel consumption, or depletion of the resource base, or societal collapse. However, the global climate may not stabilize until many decades thereafter, until various reinforcing feedback loops (such as the melting of the north polar icecap, which would expose dark water that would in turn absorb more heat, thus exacerbating the warming effect; and the melting of tundra and permafrost, releasing stored methane that would likewise greatly exacerbate warming) that have been set in motion play themselves out. Indeed, the climate may not return to a phase of relative equilibrium for centuries.
Well, if the goal of the last few paragraphs was to balance bad-news peaks with cheerier ones, that effort so far seems less than entirely successful. Surely we can do better. Are there some good things that are not at or near their historic peaks? I can think of a few:
  • Community
  • Personal autonomy
  • Satisfaction from honest work well done
  • Intergenerational solidarity
  • Cooperation
  • Free time
  • Happiness
  • Ingenuity
  • Artistry
  • Beauty of the built environment
Of course, some of these items are hard to quantify. But a few can indeed be measured, and efforts to do so often yield surprising results. Let's consider two that have been subjects of quantitative study.
Leisure time is perhaps the element on this list that lends itself most readily to measurement. The most leisurely societies were without doubt those of hunter-gatherers, who worked about 1000 hours per year, though these societies seldom if ever thought of dividing "work time" from "leisure time," since all activities were considered pleasurable in their way. For U.S. employees, hours worked peaked in the early industrial period, around 1850, at about 3500 hours per year.10 This was up from 1620 hours worked annually by the typical medieval peasant. However, the two situations are not directly comparable: a typical medieval workday stretched from dawn to dusk (sixteen hours in summer, eight in winter), but work was intermittent, with breaks for breakfast, midmorning refreshment, lunch, a customary afternoon nap, mid-afternoon refreshment, and dinner; moreover, there were dozens of holidays and festivals scattered throughout the year. Today the average U.S. worker spends about 2000 hours on the job, a figure somewhat higher than was the case a couple of decades ago (in 1985 it was closer to 1850 hours). Nevertheless, a long historical overview suggests that time-intensiveness of human labor seems to peak in the early phase of industrialization, and that a simplification of the modern economy could result in a reversion to older, pre-industrial norms.
In recent years the field of happiness research has flourished, with the publication of scores of studies and several books devoted to statistical analysis of what gives people a sense of overall satisfaction with their lives. International studies of self-reported levels of happiness show that, once basic survival needs are met, there is little correlation between happiness and per-capita rates of consumption of fossil fuels. According to surveys, people in Mexico, who use fossil fuels at one-fifth the rate of U.S. citizens, are just as happy.
The opportunities to continue to enjoy current (or elevated) levels of happiness and to reduce work hours may seem pale comforts in light of all the enormous social and economic challenges implicit in the peaks discussed earlier. However, it is worth remembering that the list above details things that matter very much to most people in terms of their real, lived experience. The sense of community and the experience of intergenerational solidarity are literally priceless, in that no amount of money can buy them; moreover, life without them is bleak indeed - especially during times of social stress. And there are many reasons to think that these two factors have declined significantly during the past few decades of rapid urbanization and economic growth.
In contrast with these indices of personal and social well-being, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is easily measured and shows a mostly upward trend for the world as a whole over the past two centuries. But it takes into account only a narrow set of data - the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period of time. Growth in GDP tells us that we should be feeling better about ourselves and our world - but it doesn't take into account a wide range of other factors, including damage to the environment, wars, crime and imprisonment rates, and trends in education. Many economists and non-governmental organizations have criticized governmental reliance on GDP for this reason, and have instead promoted the use of a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which does take account of such factors. While a historical GDP chart for the U.S. shows general ongoing growth up to the present (GDP correlates closely with energy consumption), GPI calculations show a peak around 1980 followed by a slow decline.11 If we as a society are going to adjust agreeably to lower rates of energy flow - and less travel and transport - with minimal social disruption, we must begin paying more attention to the seeming intangibles of life and less to GDP and the apparent benefits of profligate energy use.
This is no mere palliative. Addressing the economic, social, and political problems ensuing from the various looming peaks will require enormous collective effort. If it to be successful, that effort must be coordinated, presumably by government, and enlisting people in that effort will require educating and motivating them in numbers and at a speed that has not been seen since World War II. Part of that motivation must come from a positive vision of a future worth striving toward. People will need to feel that there will be an eventual reward for what will amount to many years of hard sacrifice. The reality is that we are approaching a time of economic contraction and that consumptive appetites that have been stoked for decades by ubiquitous advertising messages promising "more, faster, and bigger" will now have to be reined in. People will not willingly accept the new message of "less, slower, and smaller," unless they have new goals toward which to aspire. They must feel that their efforts will lead to a better world, and tangible improvements in life for themselves and their families. The massive public education campaigns that will be required must be credible, and will therefore be vastly more successful if they give people a sense of investment and involvement in formulating those goals. There is a much-abused word that describes the necessary process - democracy.
As another way of mitigating our paralyzing horror at seeing our society's future as one of decline in so many respects, we should ask: decline to what? Are we facing a complete disintegration of everything we hold dear, or merely a reversion to lower levels of population, complexity, and consumption? The answer, of course, is unknowable at this stage. We could indeed be at the brink of a collapse worse than any in history. Just one reference in that regard will suffice: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year analysis of the world's ecosystems released in 2006, in which 1300 scientists participated, concluded of 24 ecosystems identified as essential to human life, 15 are "being pushed beyond their sustainable limits," toward a state of collapse that may be "abrupt and potentially irreversible."12 The signs are not good.
Nevertheless, a decline in population, complexity, and consumption could, at least in theory, result in a stable society with characteristics that many people would find quite desirable. A reversion to the normal pattern of human existence, based on village life, extended families, and local production for local consumption - especially if it were augmented by a few of the frills of the late industrial period, such as global communications - could provide future generations will the kind of existence that many modern urbanites dream of wistfully.
So the overall message of this book is not necessarily one of doom - but it is one of inevitable change and needed deliberate engagement with the process of change on a scale and speed beyond anything in previous human history. Crucially: We must focus on and use the intangibles that are not peaking (such as ingenuity and cooperation) to address the problems arising from our overuse of substances that are.
Our One Great Task: The Energy Transition
As we have seen, just a few core trends have driven many others in producing the global problems we see today, and those core trends (including population growth and increasing consumption rates) themselves constellate around our ever-burgeoning use of fossil fuels. Thus, a conclusion of startling plainness presents itself: Our central survival task for the decades ahead, as individuals and as a species, must be to make a transition away from the use of fossil fuels - and to do this as peacefully, equitably, and intelligently as possible.
At first thought, this must seem like an absurd over-simplification of the human situation. After all, the world is full of crises demanding our attention - from wars to pollution, malnutrition, land mines, human rights abuses, and soaring cancer rates. Doesn't a monomaniacal focus just on fossil fuels miss many important things?
In defense of the statement I would offer two points.
First, some problems are more critical than others. A patient may suffer simultaneously from a broken blood vessel in the brain and a broken leg. A doctor will not ignore the second problem, but since the first is immediately life-threatening, its treatment will take precedence. Globally, there are two problems whose potential consequences far outweigh most others: climate change and energy resource depletion. If we do nothing to dramatically curtail emissions of greenhouse gases soon, there is the substantial likelihood that we will set in motion the two self-reinforcing feedback loops mentioned previously - the melting of the north polar icecap, and the melting of tundra and permafrost releasing stored methane. These would, if set in motion, lead to an averaged global warming not just of a couple of degrees, but perhaps six or more degrees over the remainder of the century. And this in turn could make much of the world uninhabitable and make agriculture impracticable in many if not most places, and could result not only in the extinction of thousands or millions of other species but the deaths of hundreds of millions or billions of human beings.
The post-peak decline in availability of oil, natural gas, and coal - if our dependence on these fuels continues unabated - could trigger economic collapse, famine, and a general war over remaining resources. While it is certainly possible to imagine survivable transition strategies away from fossil fuels involving proactive efforts to develop alternative energy sources on a massive scale and to create policies mandating energy conservation, also on a massive scale, the world is currently as reliant on hydrocarbons as it is on water, sunlight, and soil. Without oil for transportation and agriculture; without gas for heating, chemicals, and fertilizers; and without coal for power generation, the global economy would sputter to a halt. While no one envisions these fuels disappearing instantly, we can avert the worst-case scenario of global economic meltdown - with all of the human tragedy that implies - only by proactively reducing our reliance on oil, gas, and coal ahead of depletion and scarcity. In other words, all that would be required in order for the worst-case scenario to materialize would be for world leaders to continue with existing policies.
These two problems are potentially lethal; they are first-priority ailments. If we solve them, we will then be able to devote our attention to other human dilemmas, many of which have been with us for millennia - war, disease, inequality, and so on. If we do not solve these two problems, then in a few decades our species may be in no position to make any progress whatever on other fronts; indeed, it will likely be engaged in a struggle for its very survival. We'll be literally and metaphorically burning the furniture for fuel and fighting over scraps.
My second reason for insisting that the transition from fossil fuels must take precedence over other concerns can likewise be framed in a medical metaphor: Often a constellation of seemingly disparate symptoms issues from a single cause. A patient may present with symptoms of hearing loss, stomach pain, headaches, and irritability. An incompetent doctor might treat each of these symptoms separately without trying to correlate them. But if their cause is lead poisoning (which can produce all of these signs and more), then mere symptomatic treatment would be useless.
Let us unpack the metaphor. Not only are the two great crises mentioned above closely related (both peak oil and climate change issue from our dependence on fossil fuels), but - as I have already noted - many if not most of our other modern crises constellate also around fossil fuels. Even long-standing and perennial problems like economic inequality have been exacerbated by high energy-flow rates.
Pollution is no different in this regard. We humans have polluted our environments in various ways for a very long time; activities like the mining of lead and tin have produced localized devastation for centuries. However, the problem of chemical pollution that is spread generally throughout the environment is a relatively new one and has grown much worse over the past decades. Many of the most dangerous pollutants happen to be fossil fuel derivatives (pesticides, plastics, and other hormone-mimicking chemicals) or by-productions from the burning of coal or petroleum (nitrogen oxides and other contributors to acid rain).
War might at first seem to be a problem completely independent of our modern thirst for fossil energy sources. However, as security analyst Michael Klare has underscored in his book Blood and Oil,13 many recent wars have turned on competition for control of petroleum; as oil grows scarcer in the post-peak environment, further wars and civil conflicts over the black gold are almost assured. Moreover, the use of fossil fuels in the prosecution of war has made state-authorized mayhem far more deadly. Most modern explosives are made from fossil fuels, and even the atomic bomb - which relies on nuclear fission or fusion rather than hydrocarbons for its horrific power - depends on fuel for its delivery systems.
One could go on. In summary: We have used the plentiful, cheap energy from fossil fuels quite predictably to expand our power over nature and one another. Doing so has produced a laundry list of environmental and social problems. We have tried to address these one by one, but our efforts will be much more effective if directed at their common root - that is, if we end our dependence on fossil fuels.
Again, my thesis: Many problems rightly deserve attention, but the problem of our dependence on fossil fuels is central to human survival, and so as long as that dependence continues to any significant extent we must make its reduction the centerpiece of all our collective efforts - whether they are efforts to feed ourselves, resolve conflicts, or maintain a functioning economy.
But this can be formulated in another, more encouraging, way: If we do focus all of our collective efforts on the central task of energy transition, we may find ourselves contributing to the solution of a wide range of problems that would be much harder to solve if we confronted each one in isolation. With a coordinated and voluntary reduction in fossil fuel consumption, we could see substantial progress in reducing many forms of environmental pollution. The decentralization of economic activity that we must pursue as transport fuels become more scarce could lead to more local jobs and more fulfilling occupations, and more robust local economies. A controlled contraction in global oil trade could lead to a reduction of international political tensions. A planned conversion of farming to non-fossil fuel methods could mean a decline in environmental devastation caused by agriculture and economic opportunities for millions of new farmers. Meanwhile, all of these efforts together could increase equity, community involvement, intergenerational solidarity, and the other intangible goods listed earlier.
Surely this is a future worth working toward.
The (Rude) Awakening
The subtitle of this book, "Waking Up to the Century of Declines," reflects my impression that even those of us who have been thinking about resource depletion for many years are still just beginning to awaken to its full implications. And if we are all in various stages of waking up to the problem, we are also waking up from the cultural trance of denial in which we are all embedded.14
This awakening is multi-dimensional. It is not just a matter of becoming intellectually and dispassionately convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change, peak oil, or any other specific problem. Rather, it entails an emotional, cultural, and political catharsis. The biblical metaphor of scales falling from one's eyes is as apt as the pop-culture meme of taking the red pill and seeing the world beyond the Matrix: in either case, waking up implies coming to the realization that the very fabric of modern life is woven from illusion - thousands of illusions, in fact.
In order for that fabric to be held together, there is the requirement for one master illusion, which is the notion that somehow what we see around us today is normal. In a sense, of course, it is normal: the daily life experience of millions of people is normal by definition. The reality of cars, television, and fast food is calmly taken for granted; if life has been like this for decades, why shouldn't it continue, with incremental developmental changes, indefinitely? But how profoundly this "normal" life in a typical modern city differs from the lives of previous generations of humans! And the fact that it is built on the foundation of cheap fossil fuels means that future generations must and will live differently.
Again, the awakening I am describing is an ongoing visceral as well as intellectual reassessment of every facet of life - food, work, entertainment, travel, politics, economics, and more. The experience is so all-encompassing that it defies linear description. And yet we must make the attempt to describe and express it; we must turn our multi-dimensional experience into narrative, because that is how we humans process and share our experiences of the world.
The great transition of the 21st century will entail enormous adjustments on the part of every individual, family and community, and if those adjustments are to be made successfully, rational planning will be needed. Implications and strategies will have to be explored in nearly every area of human interest - agriculture, transportation, global war and peace, public health, resource management, and on and on. Books, research studies, television documentaries, an every other imaginable form of information transferal means will be required to convey needed information in each of these areas. Moreover, there is the need for more than explanatory materials; we will need citizen organizations that can turn policy into action, and artists to create cultural expressions that can help fire the collective imagination. Within this whirlwind of analysis, adjustment, creativity, and transformation, perhaps there is need and space for a book that simply tries to capture the overall spirit of the time into which we are headed, that ties the multifarious upwellings of cultural change to the science of global warming and peak oil in some hopefully surprising and entertaining ways, and that begins to address the psychological dimension of our global transition from industrial growth to contraction and sustainability.
Most of the peaks that are before us cannot be avoided, but there are many things we can do to navigate down and around them so as to enhance human sanity, security, and happiness. Let us do those things. Let us work to make a future world from whose vantage point, decades hence, we can look back on these premonitions as having been far too gloomy.
1. From the OPEC Bulletin, Nov.-Dec., 2006: "[A]ll in all, most would appear to agree that peak oil output is not very far away for all of us. It could take place sometime within the next decade or so, which in fact means that there is not much time left for a world economy to be driven largely by oil." Meanwhile, Claude Mandil, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, speaking on the IEA World Energy Outlook 2006, had this to day: "WEO-2006 reveals that the energy future we are facing today, based on projections of current trends, is dirty, insecure and expensive."
2. Robert Hirsch et al., "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management" (2005),
3. See also: Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak (Hill and Wang, 2005), and Roger D. Blanchard, The Future of Global Oil Production: Facts, Figures, Trends and Projections, by Region (McFarland, 2005).
4. Energy Watch Group, "Coal: Resources and Future Production," See also Richard Heinberg, "Burning the Furniture,"
6. Energy Watch Group, "Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy," Dec., 2006
7. Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (Calder & Boyars, 1974), p. 17.
8. See
10. Data for this paragraph are taken from from The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor (Basic Books, 1993); see also
11. GPI
12. See
13. Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum(Metropolitan Books, 2004).

14. Thanks to my friend Chellis Glendinning, for her book titled Waking Up in the Nuclear Age (1987), which was an inspiration in more ways than one. 

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