The complexities of collapse


Even the mighty Thor was unable to prevent the collapse of Norse civilization in Greenland

Many in the climate/sustainability world are understandably preoccupied with the notion of collapse. After all, it is reasonably argued that if we do not change the course of our civilization then collapse is inevitable. This is undoubtedly true, as any civilization that is not sustainable must either change and become sustainable  or face an ever-increasing frequency of daunting challenges. For a time, at least, such a civilization can overcome challenges by a combination of skill and luck. But eventually either skill or luck (or perhaps both) will run out.

Our civilization is unsustainable. Massively so.

But while in theory the reasons why a civilization collapses are simple, in practice nailing down the reasons why and applying the lessons of past civilizations to our current predicament is anything but simple.

Greenland: A new emerging picture

For example according to conventional wisdom the Norse civilization in Greenland collapsed because they failed to adapt to the harsh climate. While the neighbouring Inuit civilization, which did not suffer a collapse, relied on mobile hunting strategies that maximised the abundant marine resources around Greenland, the Norse refused to abandon their agrarian traditions which had served them well for generations further south in temperate regions. But this agrarian based civilization was poorly suited to the harsh climate of Greenland and thus it didn’t take much to push the Norse towards collapse.

At least that is what the conventional wisdom tells us. Speaking at last months AAAS annual meeting in Vancouver, Andrew Dugmore of the university of Edinburgh described how recent evidence is raising strong doubts about the conventional wisdom on the Norse in Greenland and the implications of this new understanding raises troubling implications for the resilience of modern civilization.

Rather than adhering to a rigid agrarian civilization that was out of place in the Arctic, the Norse adapted quickly to the difficult climate of Greenland. While not giving up entirely on their agrarian tradition they quickly began to exploit the abundant marine resources that surrounded them.

Thanks to the short summers of the arctic, Norse farms in Greenland could not produce enough food to sustain the population through the long arctic winter. In order to survive they supplemented their food supply with a large hunt of the many harp and hooded seals that migrate along the coast of Greenland in the spring. Due to various environmental factors, fish never became a staple food as it did in other Norse settlements further south.

As time progressed and the unpredictable nature of the Arctic climate began to take it’s toll on the ability of the Norse to maintain sufficient production levels on their farms, their reliance on the seal hunt intensified. This increased reliance on the seal hunt allowed some Norse settlements to survive some large scale decadal variations in climate, but it sowed the seeds of their eventual collapse.

Over time the seal hunt became absolutely essential, and during the 15th century a combination of cold and stormy conditions severally restricted the ability of the Norse to hunt for the harp and hooded seal they depended on. It is worth noting that the cold and stormy conditions were not unprecedented, but combined they presented a serious challenge to the settlers’ ability to hunt seals in sufficient numbers.

Adding to their difficulty was the fact that in previous times of struggle it was the seals that provided them enough food to sustain them through the difficult times. But each time the seal hunt provided enough food for the Norse to overcome the shortfall of production on their farms they increased their reliance on this one resource.

This made sense at the time. Most civilizations increase their reliance on resources that prove to be reliable, especially in times of stress, and decrease their reliance on resources that, for whatever reason, are unreliable. The Norse in Greenland did this, and we do this today.

By successfully adapting to the challenges of living in the harsh, highly variable climate of the arctic the Norse settlements became less resilient and fell into a rigidity trap which rendered them unable to adapt to a specific combination of challenges. Their increased dependence on the one resource that allowed them to survive previous difficulties sowed the seeds of their eventual collapse.


Generalists vs specialists

The trade-offs made by the Norse in Greenland are reminiscent of the specialist vs generalist trade-offs forced on animals and plants by evolutionary pressures.

A generalist animal is able to survive in a wide variety of environments by exploiting a wide variety of resources, conversely a specialist is only able to survive within a narrow range of conditions because it is only able to exploit a few very specific resources. As with all trade-offs there are advantages to both being a specialist or a generalist.

Generalists can be thought of as a jack of all trades but master of none. The perfect example of a generalist is the rat. It can survive in almost all terrestrial ecosystems, from ancient tropical jungles to the modern concrete jungles of human cities. Because it is a generalist it can easily adapt to changes in its environment and quickly begin to exploit new resources if the need or opportunity arises.

Specialists,on the other hand, are much less able to adapt to a changing environment and frequently find themselves unable to exploit new resources when the need arises. Pandas for example feed almost entirely on bamboo. If anything were to prevent the panda’s access to bamboo, they would not survive. In compensation for this trade-off specialists are better able to exploit very specific ecological niches that are out of reach to generalists.

Looking at the Norse civilization through this lens, it is clear that as the they moved northward to Greenland the harsh conditions they encountered pushed their civilization to become more specialized. This enabled them to exploit the limited resources available to them in Greenland. When faced with difficult times it was this specialization that helped them survive. But, over time, as they became ever more specialized at exploiting the migrating seals, they fell victim to a rigidity trap. They were now fully dependent on the seals for their survival. When climatic conditions made seal hunting impossible they faced a fate much like the one which threatens Panda populations when they lose access to the bamboo they require.

This specialization might have allowed the Norse to survive for a time in Greenland, but it left their civilization rigid and unable to adapt to changing conditions.

The question we need to ask ourselves is what aspects of our current civilization have become rigid and unable to adapt. There are undoubtedly many. Much like the Norse found it difficult to adapt, we are finding it difficult to change.

As the new emerging picture of what happened to the Norse of Greenland makes clear, successful short-term adaptation is no guarantee of long-term success. In fact successful adaptation can lead to less resilience and create dangerous vulnerabilities to later change.


  1. Jared Diamond had a few chapters on Greenland in Collapse, more or less the conventional wisdom of the Norse attempting to duplicate an ineffective farming regime, and failing to adopt the more successful Inuit lifestyle.

    This is an interesting alternative, though it would be wrong to throw out the importance of farms - the Norse kept their beasts in stalls for over 6 months of the year, putting hay in one end, and extracting milk and excrement (for fertilizer) at the other.

    The most relevant matter from a climate point of view is that this presentation explodes the revered myth of idyllic Greenland in the medieval period - no fields of corn and barley, only some milk and no honey. Diamond reckons that the Norse population hardly exceeded 5,000 - many authorities put it at less than 3,000.

    Hostility between the Norse and the Inuit may also have been an influence on the demise of the Norse. If the Inuit gained control of the entrances to the fjords, they could have seriously constrained the Viking's hunting and fishing. Chronicles suggests one of the Norse settlements (the "Western", really the more Northerly) was snuffed out by the Inuit.

    • "The most relevant matter from a climate point of view is that...

      For me at least I think the most relevant matter is that multiple changes in the climate (in this case cold and storminess) can combine in ways that are far worse than the sum of their parts.

      The Norse had faced worse cold spells and bigger storms but when those effects combines they hammered their ability to survive.

      The MWP stuff is, I suppose, important when talking to a select group of people but ultimately it isn't that important to our understanding of the climate system.

      "Hostility between the Norse and the Inuit may also have been an influence on the demise of the Norse."

      Perhaps, though that was not discussed at the AAAS meeting. However what did come up is why the the Norse didn't hunt for the common ringed seal which would have been available to them almost year round.

      The Inuit did hunt the ringed seals, and it is thought that perhaps the Norse refused to learn from the experience of the Inuit because they say them as 'inferior'. In this regard one could consider that some aspects of the rigid European mentality story might have some truths to them.

      As for the western settlements there is some evidence from Norse reports that conflict with the Inuit was a problem there, but little archaeological evidence and modern understanding of the relationship between the Norse and the Inuit.

  2. Thanks Dan - I'd never heard of this issue of subsistence on seals... and I'd forgotten the Norse stayed until the 15th century. How closely did the abandonment of Greenland coincide with the start of more southerly explorations (the Basque's, John Cabot, and of course Columbus)? It wasn't a terribly long time between Norse and European exploration after all, was it?

    • Some of the Viking sagas hint at finding European precursors in places like the Faroes and Iceland. It is surmised these were Irish monks who sought lonely places to pray and meditiate, using boats of wooden frames covered in animal hides. At least one replica has crossed the Atlantic.

      The most famous of the voyaging Irish monks was the 6th century St Brendan, and his legendary adventures circulated in Europe in a Latin text. Columbus was certainly aware of this account, which is a strange mixture of the improbable and the fairly possible.g. islands of birds, a sinking island etc.

      Columbus, and probably no one outside the Norse world, were aware of the saga accounts of Greenland and North America until modern times. But he was influenced by the Brendan legends.

      • According to Mark Murlansky's mind-boggling book "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World", Basque fishermen were putting into port in Newfoundland in summer throughout late middle ages, drying their fish in the long northern sun, and providing much protein for much of Europe, without any other culture really understanding how they did it. That is not the only amazing argument in the book, but it has to be admitted that it makes one sit up and take notice. Nevertheless, Murlansky's evidence is presented in a convincing way.

        I don't know what academic consensus is on this. Quick search turns up little. There's this:

        Wikipedia turns up nothing between the Norse and the Portuguese arrival in 1497.

        It is nevertheless certain that there was a vigorous Basque fishing presence in Newfoundland in the 1500s, including Port-aux-Basques all the way up in Labrador.

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  4. I assume you're familiar not just with Diamond but with his primary source material in Joseph Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Civilisations"? Tainter's treatment of collapse is at once more nuanced and more abstract than Diamond's. He also examines many more case studies. I can't remember the specifics of his treatment of Norse Greenland, but I don't think it was simply a case of too agrarian in an increasingly hostile climate.

    • No I have not read Tainter though I am aware of his work. I have read other works on Norse Greenland.

      Diamond did hae more nuance than I could give in a paragraph. He considers other facets of Norse colonial life, such as relationships with the mother country and other outposts, relationships with the Inuit, and the Vikings' own social structure. Each of those also had an influence on the survival of the colony.

    • This post is, by necessity, much simplified. Though perhaps I could have been more explicit in that. It is rare that there exists only one single reason for collapse (Pompeii is the only example that comes to mind). But more often there is a overriding cause (the seals in this case) which can suffice for most discussions.

      In fact one of the other speakers at the AAAS meeting mentioned the problem in taking such anthropogenic studies beyond case studies and teasing out useful lessons for modern civilization. This is incredibly difficult in part because of the complexity mentioned above.

    • Yes, I'm also quite familiar with Diamond. I was just making the point that he relies on Tainter quite frequently (as he acknowledges) and that (I believe) Tainter's overarching hypothesis to have greater explanatory power.

  5. That is a very interesting claim, Dan, thanks.

    The obvious analogy, then, is petroleum. Slightly less obvious is growth.

    I do not think one can call *capitalism* itself maladaptive. That would be a very silly overextension, and honestly nobody but a sophomore or a professor could make that mistake.

    But the way growth has been tangled in is very deep. And the growth imperative stops working sooner than people expect. About twenty years ago, actually, but we're only starting to pay the piper now.

    Capitalism CAN be saved and SHOULD be saved. But is is not a slam dunk, and current trends are terribly maladaptive... SOMETHING has to be done with "growth", gradually and sustainably. Getting to "good enough, so we can concentrate on living" is a problem not so much independent of climate as subsuming of it. The reason we are getting nowhere on climate is because it is embedded in larger systemic problems.

    Most of advanced society needs to go into semiretirement.

    • My first thought was the analogy could be nuclear. Are those who advocate wholesale move to nuclear energy potentially putting us in a precarious position? (As I've said before, I genuinely don't know - uncertainty is my close acquaintance on nuclear.)

      Perhaps the analogy to petroleum, and/or our high energy dependent society, is the bloody stupid move to Greenland in the first place.

    • Perhaps the analogy to petroleum, and/or our high energy dependent society, is the bloody stupid move to Greenland in the first place.

      Well, had we not moved to petroleum and/or high energy analogously to the move to Greenland, we certainly wouldn't have to worry about internet discussions of our problems.

    • I am not yet convinced that

      1) there is a limit to the size our economy can grow (though obviously there exists planetary boundaries which necessitates a limit on the quantity of natural resources we can use), and

      2) that even if there does exist a limit to the size of the economy that we have reached or exceeded it (though again in some aspects, the most obvious being GHG emissions we are already well past any reasonable limit)

      But getting into this is probably a bit much for a comment thread. (though perhaps some from of discussion/article would be interesting)

    • I'm inclined to disagree about saving capitalism. Greater use of co-operatives, say of the Mondragon style, may well offer a superior way to organize our econmic activties.

      In particular, please read "For the Common Good". Amongst other fine aspects the book offers a devestating critique of The Invisible Hand and Free Trade.

  6. OPatrick --- Nuclear power plants (NPPs) are a solution to the low carbon energy problem. A properly managed ebergy system based on NPPs can continue to operate for a very long time indeed.

    Its so long I view it as sustainable although one can certainly argue that eventually the human population will need to become small enough to be sustainable from solely biology based resources.

    • I would say nuclear is a potential part of a climate solution. But that isn't guaranteed. As David Roberts recently pointed out large scale base-load energy and intermittent renewables are not a particularly good match.

      But my bottom line is that since the risks from Nuclear power are less than the risks of unmitigated GHG emissions, nuclear should be on the table. I am not sure it will be the best solution but it shouldn't be discounted.

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  8. Dan Moutal --- After 2--3 years of looking at all the various electrical energy producers I have come to the conclusion so well expressed by George Monbiot: ain't wonderful but its the best we got.

    Wind is unreliable so not an effective solution. For various reasons solar PV may have a serious role to play if the prices ever come down far enough. Other choices are just boutique players.

    From Bernard Cohen's "Understanding Risks" one sees that NPPs are about as risky as eaating peanut butter. So far safer than what the changing climate is already doing to people.

    • Was that peanut butter estimate pre-Fukushima or post-Fukushima?

      The Space Shuttle had a perfect record, after all, until it didn't. It was considered so safe that they launched a schoolteacher into that fireball.

    • @ David

      I don't actually disagree (though the peanut butter comment is a bit rough to swallow).

      I just don't consider my self knowledgable enough to confidently declare which energy generation technology is the winner.

      But certainly nuclear should be on the table.

  9. Michael Tobis --- Pre-Fukushima but the LLE estimate remains unchanged; nobody died from anything but the earthquake and resulting tsunami. Some few of the cleanup crew received a rather large radiation dose; a radiologist has estimated that their lifetime risk of cancer increased from 42% to 42.2%. Even so, those few will receive regular checkups more frequently so I suspect their LLE has actually decreased.

    Different technologies do not have the same LLE so the shuttle analogy is exceedingly poor.

    • Oh please. An ancient province has been destroyed.

      Yes, life is worth something. But place, culture, connection, these are part of life, and a great deal of that has been irrevocably, suddenly and unexpectedly lost.

      Making light of this because of the lack of immediately identifiable mortalities, this smacks of highly self-serving spin among the nukes community.

      Fukushima was a disaster of the first order. Fortunately, it was not climate-related at all. But as climate change accelerates, are there comparable vulnerabilities that we have not identified? The thing is that one disaster triggered another. Disasters on the scale of the Tohoku earthquake are intrinsically rare. In the future we will very likely encounter disasters we have never heard of. How can we be confident that the nuclear infrastucture won't just dirty-bomb us back to the stone age all by itself in the long run?

      Is there even engagement on this question? So far I've only seen a smidgen of PR. Dismissing it on mortality count is simply ducking the very serious questions raised by Fukushima.

    • Michael Tobis, what is your opinion of Bill McGuire's thesis? That is, that the shifts in distribution of the weight of H20 due to cryosphere melt and SLR is likely to increase seismic activity, as it did during prehistoric shifts in ice cover?

      (BTW, I agree about the costs of Fukushima not necessarily being measured primarily in mortalities. It is also worth noting that it is unlikely that all the workers are going to be monitored, given the role of Yakuza-hired labourers. See here, for instance:

    • I had thought of that one myself, but I don't know enough about plate tectonics to do the calculations. I saw a talk from someone who could, though. He claimed that rapid decline of mountain glaciers could lead to some earthquakes, but only in glaciated mountains and on a local scale. No huge city-busters are possible according to his mechanism.

      If McGuire's more extravagant thesis is to hold water, there ought to be evidence in the period of ice collapse after the LGM, which was recent and which shifted much more mass than our future warming is likely to. If there's no evidence that 20Ka - 10Ka was particularly tectonically active, I would consider the theory refuted.

      And as far as I know there isn't, so I do.

    • @ Mtobis

      Fukushima was a disaster of the first order.

      Yes... but the nuclear component was very small compared with the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami. If talking about the risks of nuclear power then the damage caused buy the tsunami is not relevant. Well except for the damage caused to the nuclear plant.

      In regards to earthquakes there is this:

      I wouldn't worry about the potential increase in earthquakes though, the other more certain consequences of unmitigated GHG emissions are more than enough to worry about.

    • Dan, no, Tohoku is the name of the earthquake and the tsunami. Fukushima is the name of the nuclear plant and the nukcear disaster. (Actually both are geographic names but this will serve for clarity.

      While it's probably a good thing that we have disagreements, I cannot imagine why you are saying this. I have agreed that the mortality came from the earthquake and mostly the tsunami. But the vast destruction, health threats, and secondary economic damage (are you going to want to buy property inside this zone?) are not something to just shrug off. This is essentially irreversible damage. Two pieces of the earth are now unsuitable for human habitation. If we have these systems for ten thousand years, will we have a thousand Chernobyls?

    • These questions touch on a lot of my misgivings about nuclear. I do think nuclear enthusiasts discount the importance of a 'sense of place' to people, which of course is an impossible thing to measure. Tens of thousands of people losing their Heideggerian 'bridge' is a significant outcome.

      Even so, I think I am convinced enough that in a stable society the benefits of nuclear may outweigh these costs (though I'm still unsure of the financial costs) and that nuclear is at the least a sensible choice for a significant proportion of our energy production. However, it's the legacy we are leaving to an uncertain future that concerns me most. I simply don't know, and haven't seen addressed, what pressures multiple nuclear power plants would put on a society that is struggling for coherence and survival. Can nuclear power plants be run, or safely mothballed, without the need for continued highly sophisticated maintenance? Or will they represent a continued liability?

    • OPatrick's comments about the legacy of nuclear in an uncertain future articulate what also concerns me the most about nuclear. In an optimistic future, nuclear might indeed play a significant role (despite its various drawbacks). Yet energy infrastructure often has a lifespan of more than half a century. Including decommissioning, nuclear plants can require significant resources for a century. In the face of climate change, peak oil and unknown unknowns, how many nations in the world are we confident will *not* face significant economic and/or political disruption over the coming century? Do the Gen III and IV nukes, much hyped for their passive safety features, still require extensive expert oversight once shut down, or can they, as OPatrick asks, be safely mothballed?

    • @ Mtobis

      Dan, no, Tohoku is the name of the earthquake and the tsunami.

      In that case I misunderstood what you were saying.

      But I still have to disagree with your overall conclusion. Nuclear power might not be risk free, but nothing is. In the end nuclear power is less risky than unmitigated emissions so it should be on the table.

      @ OPatrick

      Can nuclear power plants be run, or safely mothballed, without the need for continued highly sophisticated maintenance?

      Shorty after the meltdown at Fukushima the CBC science show Quirks and Quarks (I think it was them, but it may have been The Current or As it Happens) did a segment on nuclear power and addressed this question directly. The short answer is with current designs this is yet not possible. At best we have nuclear plants that can be cooled passively for several days before some active cooling systems would need to be brought online. This might not sound like much, but it gives operators an important window to prevent damage to the nuclear core.

      But obviously this is not ideal. Newer plant designs are working to extend the amount of time a plant can be passively cooled, and even create plants where the operators could all just walk away and the plant would shut itself off safely.

      • Nukes may be on the table. (Even coal is on the table.)

        I'm just far less inclined to rely on them than I was. We now see that the excuse that Chernobyl was a special case is not satisfactory. That claim is refuted, and the case for nuclear power is consequently much weaker than it was. Fail-safe designs are well and good, but they have to stand the test of cascades of disasters and errors forever. We are still looking at huge risks.

        What I objected to in what you said was the suggestion that Fukushima as a disaster could be measured by mortality to date, and was therefore not a big deal. There are other losses compared to a typical disaster that kills a dozen people, say, a trainwreck. Such an event, tragic though it may be, doesn't waste a province.

        Admittedly, fossil fuels are wasting the whole world. But there are other alternatives.

  10. "Two pieces of the earth are now unsuitable for human habitation." --mt

    That's why I'm beginning to like nucular. Nothing makes better natural reserves. The higher mutation rate might well be a good thing in this age of large scale extinction.

  11. OT, although the headline certainly fits just as well, I see that some of Michael's colleagues have found that things are looking even more ominous for the ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea embayment. Interestingly and more than a little ironically, the period over which the shelves were found to have been weakening has a considerable overlap with the period during which the glaciological consensus was saying exactly the opposite.

    Somewhat more topically, the "What's New in Science" section appears moribund. Too bad, since there's a steady supply of important new papers that get little attention.

  12. Well I suppose the discussion of Fukushima province is part of the complexities of collapse.

    First of all, nobody builds any longer the kind of reactor that actually exploded at Chernobyl. The 13 which are still in operation have containment concrete around the reactors now and much better trained operators. Positing future Chernobyl style accidents simply is not credible as no other type of reactor can explode and now all power generating reactors have containments.

    I'm not sure how many people were rended homeless by the earthquake and tsunami. About 100,000, I think, were evacuated due to a perception of radiation risk. As it happens they would have been better advised to stay put (indoors) and take iodine pills, but that's only after the event and in any case requires that the wind blew in the direction that it did. The BDBA (Beyond Design Basis Accident) could have delivered much higher doses to the immediate surrounds.

    There are only a few so-called hot spots and a rational policy would be to move back except for those hot spots. It's not obvious the Japanese will be rational about it.

    However that turns out, most of Fukushima province is ok. The farmers' produce is monitored and is prefectly safe to eat. Life continues sorts like normal.

    A serious effect of the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident has been turning off almost all of Japan's reactors with the possibility that many will not be turned back on. This means Japan is now almost entirely depende4nt upon imported coal and LNG; as a result 2010 was a trade deficit year. Japan cannot continue to survive so; indeed manufacturers sensitive to the price of electricity are beginning to state they will have to move out of Japan. As so-called renewables cannot compete in delivered electricity price with the existing NPP fleet, economically Japan has no choice but to turn most of the NPPs back on.

    Yes, collapse is complex. But not because NPPs are in reality hazardous [in comparison to the alternatives] but because NPPs are perceived to be so.

  13. There were questions in commentsz above about 'mothballing' NPPs. Decommisioning is greatly simplified by placing the NPP in a so called safestor state for several decades at the end of usefulness. This state requires a modest monitoring, nothing fancy. Since all the actinides have already been removed one could, in principle, just leave the unit in safestor to the end of time.

    This still leaves the question of safely isolating the actinides. The best solution is to simply consume all the actinides in a fest reactor. Otherwise very long term isolation must be arranged.

    • David, thanks for this - for what it's worth I find you as credible a voice as they come on this.

      You mention above the improvement in safety from better trained operatives, what level of expertise are we talking about and? And what number of experts, per plant as it were? How easy would it be for a highly stressed society to maintain this expertise?

  14. OPatrick --- I only know in detail about the United States. A nuclear plant under NRC license requires operators who have completed (at least) (1) an associate's degree from a 2 year post-secondary institution specializing in nuclear eactor operation, ad (2) a training stint at NRC to obtain a license for exactly one particular NPP. In practice many of the operators have also served some time in the nuclear navy before retiring to civilian life. Those people at least must do (2), I'm unsure about (1) as the Navy's training is very thorough and may well suffice.

    In addition many, if not all, NPP owners have an extensive program of retaining existing personell.

    As impressive as that sounds, the training is not that difficult as the operators are not engineers (so don't have to study thermodynamics and kinetics, both of which tend to weed out the less skillful and certainly the less dilligent).

    An NPP site often has some engineers on staff. The primary reason is continued maintenance on the steam side and not so much on the nuclear side.

    Since an NPP typically runs 24/7 there needs to be (at least) 4 separate operation crews, but not 4 sets of engineers. Including the required armed guards an NPP site typically has about 300 personnel per reactor but I don't know the breakdown of specialities. With modern computers aiding in the control of the NPP [which NRC now allows] I don't see the need for more than 2 operators in the control room, but I'm unsure what practices the NRC actually allows.

    As matters stand right now a fundamental limitation to the worldwide nuclear industry is a sufficient number of engineers. There is high demand (provided one is willing to live in another country than of origin) for batchelor degree engineers in almost all specialties, including those required by the nuclear industry.

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