Rubbish landfills India
Delhi, India. Rubbish is not processed but simply dumped layer upon layer on top of older waste. Photo: © W. Brown

What is the Anthropocene Epoch?

In this article, we explain the meaning of ‘Anthropocene’ and why it’s important. We discuss the relationship that humans have with Planet Earth and why we have become the new ‘super-predator’. As well as highlighting certain doubts surrounding the issue, we identify five major reasons why the term Anthropocene is appropriate, one of which concerns the ongoing ‘sixth mass extinction’ event, which is causing huge damage to so many fellow species.

Definition and Meaning of Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is an unofficial replacement name for the current geological epoch (Holocene), reflecting the profound impact of human behavior on Earth’s climate system and biosphere, and the damage caused to other species.

Although we humans did not appear until 22:24 hours on December 31 of the Cosmic Year – see History of Earth in One Year – our actions during this short period of time – notably the irreversible damage caused by the over-consumption of natural resources, our worldwide pollution, and our reckless use of fossil fuels – have had unique and devastating effects on Earth and its precious biodiversity of plants and animals.

It is for these reasons that a number of scientific organizations have proposed changing the name of the present epoch from “Holocene” to “Anthropocene” in order to reflect the humancentric nature of our era.

As of September 2020, the proposal has not been officially approved by either the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) or the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), although the ratification process is proceeding, and the issue is to be debated formally by the ICS in 2021.

Deforestation, felled trees in Amazon. This deforestation is a hallmark of the Anthropocene.
Approximately 18 million acres of forest are destroyed every year. Since humans started chopping down trees, about 46 percent of all forests have been felled. Photo: © Crustmania/Flickr

Doubts About Changing Holocene to Anthropocene

Part of the uncertainty surrounding the issue of the Anthropocene, is the question of dates. What is the most appropriate start date for the new Anthropocene epoch? There are numerous possible landmarks in history that could serve as a starting point, including: (1) The emergence of anatomically modern man (c.300,000 BC). (2) The Neolithic Revolution (c.9,000 BC) leading to the adoption of agriculture by prehistoric societies and the surge in global population (c.5,000 BC), once the initial effects of disease and warfare had worn off. (3) The start of the Industrial Revolution (c.1780). (4) The beginning of the Nuclear Age (1945). (5) The domination of modern industrialization, with its product-redundancy and pollution. (6) The intensification of climate change (c.1980 or earlier) around the world. Other possible starting points include: the colonialization of the Americas and Africa.

Another doubt concerns the issue of global warming, which has become the major motivating force behind the Anthropocene campaign. In response, the climate change denial movement has made global warming a political rather than an environmental concern, which has muddied the waters.

Lastly, even if the term “Anthropocene” rightly reflects the existential danger posed by accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, does this justify turning it into a new geological epoch? To put it another way, should the names of our multi-million-year epochs be based on the concerns of a particular century? You don’t have to be a climate skeptic to reject the idea of using words like Anthropocene in the geologic timescale. After all, geological time transcends millennia, let alone centuries.

5 Reasons Our Epoch Should be Called the Anthropocene

There are at least five major reasons why the name Anthropocene epoch is justified. (1) Humans have achieved superiority over most, if not all, other organisms. (2) Human over-consumption of natural resources. (3) Human extinction of animals. (4) Human pollution of land and sea. (5) Global Warming.

Human Evolutionary Superiority

There is no doubt that Homo sapiens has become established as the world’s new super-predator. We are demonstrably more intelligent, more resourceful and more skilful than any other species in history. And our control of Planet Earth proves it. Notwithstanding our lack of success in mastering microbes, such as those behind COVID-19, our evolutionary superiority is surely sufficient to justify the use of the word Anthropocene.

Open Mining Landscape. Opencast mines are often left looking ugly and toxic - the symbols of the Anthropocene.
The ugly blight of opencast mining. Opencast mining leaves behind problems with drainage, air, soil and water quality. Vegetation including forest ecosystems, noise levels and ground vibrations, human health and habitation can all be affected too. Photo: © ArcGIS

Abuse of Natural Resources: A Key Symbol of the Anthropocene

If genetic superiority is an immutable evolutionary fact, our abuse and over-consumption of global resources is pure self-indulgence. We chop down trees, build roads through bird sanctuaries, replace mangrove forests with commercial shrimp farms, and construct vast open cast mines with huge tailings ponds that scar the landscape and pollute groundwater.

Not only is the environment suffering, our own societies are suffering as certain communities, towns, cities, regions – even countries – are left behind in our greedy struggle to accumulate resources and possessions.

Driven by planned and perceived obsolescence, we over-consume food, fashion, cars, and a host of other stuff – notably energy – wasting prodigious amounts in the process. This level of consumption necessitates ever greater industrial production, which requires the extraction of more and more coal and natural gas, as well as a range of petroleum products. Furthermore, the environmental effects of fossil fuels are seen as a necessary evil in order to keep the system going.

Surface mining, for example, has caused enormous damage to local ecosystems and to the health and safety of local communities. One Harvard University study into the public health effects of coal extraction, noted a clear link between open cast coal mining and a variety of diseases, including: heart, lung and kidney diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure. 1 Furthermore, poisonous chemicals in the ground being mined – such as arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, iron, lead, manganese or selenium – can easily contaminate local drinking water. 2

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 led to major damage to marine ecosystems and animals. Dolphins were a well-documented casualty. In April 2016, for example, a study in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms disclosed that 88 percent of 360 baby dolphins within the spill area had “abnormal or under-developed lungs”, compared to 15 percent in other localities. 3 According to scientists with considerable experience in post-spill mortality, over 1 million coastal birds perished as a direct result of the oil spill. 4

Pelican covered in oil. Disregard for the safety and well-being of animal species is a key feature of the Anthropocene.
Hundreds of thousands of seabirds were lost in the 2010 Horizon oil spill, considered the worst environmental disaster in US history. Pictured, a brown pelican covered in oil from the spill, found along the Louisiana coast. Disinterest in the fate of animals and animal habitat is a mark of the Anthropocene.

Another example is fracking. This is a relatively new mining technique which is used to ‘flush out’ oil and gas from shale rock formations. Depending on the characteristics of the rock and the well, a single fracked well may need anything between 1.5 million and 16 million gallons of water. 5 Not surprisingly, local water shortages due to fracking are becoming a serious problem. 6

Much of our consumption is based on a monumental appetite for raw materials. We import raw materials like chromium and manganese from South Africa; aluminium, bauxite and lead from Australia; cobalt from the Congo; copper from Chile, tungsten from China; manganese from Ukraine; nickel from Canada; iron ore from Brazil, and molybdenum from Peru.

If mining development requires widespread deforestation, so be it. If mining companies damage the land, or the water table, or the health of the local inhabitants, or the health of their own workers, most of us shrug our shoulders. It’s not our problem. 7

Fundão waste dam in Mariana, Brazil collapse: pollution Doce River
Multinational greed has led to the collapse of numerous high risk buildings in developing countries caused by lack of investment and structural oversight. For example, on November 5, 2015, the Fundão dam in Mariana, Brazil, collapsed, polluting all 600 kilometers (375 miles) of the Doce River. The dam stored poisonous residues left over from the mining of iron ore. When it failed, around 43 million cubic meters of mud, silica, manganese, iron oxide and other heavy metals were released into the local river system, resulting in 19 deaths and the destruction of several villages. When the brown mudflow reached the Atlantic Ocean 17 days later, it contaminated the coral reefs in the Abrolhos Marine National Park, a 900-sq km nature reserve in the South Atlantic. Four years later, fishing remains forbidden in some areas of the Doce River, due to excessive concentrations of heavy metals. Photo by Gabriela Bilo/Estadao Conteudo. 8

We carve out huge cattle grazing spaces from forested areas across the Amazon Rainforest. We establish plantations for crops like cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar cane, palm oil, fruits, and rubber, in previously forested land across the globe. We import species of non-native animals to control local pests, causing centuries of local ecological problems. We do all this, or allow these things to be done in our name, without giving a thought.

The ecosystem and its delicate balance is of no concern to us. What matters is profits. If the pursuit of profit requires that biomes be damaged, animal habitats destroyed, and certain animals – such as birds of prey – be targeted for destruction, so be it.

The loss of biodiversity caused by human activities is one of the primary characteristics of the Anthropocene. 9 Unfortunately, behind every cull or crackdown on animals, lurks the profit motive. For example, we kill around 100 million sharks every year in order to provide Asian restaurants with enough shark fin soup.

Commercial overfishing is one of the most gross examples of over-consumption of natural resources. We overfish herring without caring that this results in huge problems for the survival of cod because herring are cod’s main food source.

We harvest too many krill, without caring about the impact it has on the marine food web, or that the lives and breeding patterns of seals, penguins and whales (among many other species whose diets depend on krill), may be severely threatened.

According to UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) just under 90 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted. This shows how careful we must be in future. If we carry on like this, fish stocks will eventually become exhausted.

These are just a few examples of the things that take place around the clock, in order to keep our shops well stocked and consumers content. They show humans – the world’s new “super-predators” – at work, taking what they want no matter what the cost to animals or to the environment. 10

Animals starve, kangaroo without plants to feed
A landscape without plants is no habitat for most animals. In the Australian bushfires of 2019-2020, over 3 billion animals were killed. Photo: © Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Human Extinction of Animals and Plants

Sometimes called the ‘sixth mass extinction’ or the ‘Anthropocene extinction’, the modern world’s ongoing loss of biodiversity involves countless species of plants and animals, as well as widespread degradation of habitats like coral reefs, coastal and estuarine mangrove forests, As well as Arctic sea ice, and rainforests.

There is no general consensus on when the mass extinction began. It has even been suggested that it includes the loss of animals resulting from the migrations of modern man from Africa around 200,000 BC. 11 However, it is definitely seen as being associated with a human presence, hence the idea of the Anthropocene epoch. 12

What makes the anthropocentric sixth mass extinction completely different from ‘natural extinction’ is the rate at which it is happening. Scientists estimate the present rate of extinction is 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural rate. 13 14

Extinctions of species continue to occur on every land mass and in every ocean. According to the U.N.’s 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, around one million species of plants and animals face extinction within a matter of decades because of human action.

In The Future of Life (2002), Harvard professor E.O. Wilson states that if human disruption of the biosphere continues unchecked, half of Earth’s higher lifeforms will be extinct by 2100.

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List of Endangered Species
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What’s the Cause of the Sixth Mass Extinction?

The overarching driver of species extinction is the growth in human population and rising per capita consumption, especially by the rich. 15 As we shall see, this unsustainable consumption leads to widespread pollution and waste. See also: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

On the ground, human activities that cause most harm to animal species and the habitats on which they depend, include: agricultural and housing development, mining, toxic contamination, deforestation, and the transmission of infectious diseases spread via livestock and crops.

Illegal poaching and overhunting are also important factors. For example, Populations of big cats, such as lions, tigers and leopards have been decimated by big game hunting. According to IUCN estimates: lion numbers have plummeted by 95 percent; tiger numbers by 94 percent; leopard numbers by 94 percent; and cheetah numbers by 74 percent. Although cheetahs appear to be the least affected, the surviving population is crammed into 9 percent of their normal range.

Kuta Plastic Beach, Bali
Surfers wade through the plastic pollution on Bali’s Kuta Beach. In a recent cleanup, authorities gathered 18 tonnes of rubbish. Indifference to waste and proper waste disposal is another mark of the Anthropocene. Photo: © Antara

Human Pollution of Land and Sea

The human focus on maximum productivity for a maximum return means that industrial output will always outstrip environmental controls, with legislators and local authorities left scrabbling to hold businesses to account for their environmental pollution and contamination.

The tar sands mess-up in Alberta, whereby oil companies polluted the landscape and then filed for bankruptcy, leaving municipal authorities with a massive clean-up bill, is typical of the ‘corporate Anthropocene’.

That said, here is a short survey of the most common areas of pollution together with their main sources.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is caused by the release of chemicals and particulate matter into the atmosphere. Common pollutants include aerosols of black carbon, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Secondary polluants, formed in the troposphere from primary pollutants, include ground-level ozone and urban smog, created by the reaction of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons with sunlight.

Motor vehicle pollution and industrial emissions are the leading causes of air pollution. Significant sources include coal-fired power plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, petrochemical infrastructure, incinerators, large livestock farms, PVC factories, plastics, and other industrial concerns. Cement CO2 emissions are another important source. Agricultural air pollution also comes from the spraying of pesticides and herbicides.

In developing countries, especially India and China, the burning of wood, crop stubble combined with emissions from coal-fired power plants and vehicle engines causes a vast atmospheric haze – known as the Asian brown cloud – that hangs over the region during the winter dry season.

Air quality has deteriorated markedly since 1900. In 2016, a study found microscopic particulate matter (PM) lodged inside the brains of 37 individuals who had lived in Manchester or Mexico City. The tiny particles were believed to be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. 16

Indoor air pollution has decreased significantly in high income countries, due to better housing, the use of cleaner fuels and more modern cooking and heating facilities. In developing countries, however, where as many as 3 billion people still use open fires and solid fuels (or kerosene) for cooking and heating, it’s a different story.

Studies conducted during the Covid-19 lockdown show that the relative absence of noise is having a beneficial effect on numerous species. See also: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.

Water Pollution

The most widespread form of water pollution occurs through the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, due mostly to the burning of fossil fuels. One quarter of this CO2 is absorbed by the sea, resulting in a phenomenon known as ocean acidification that damages the exoskeletons and shells of molluscs and crustaceans, as well as corals.

Other common sources of water pollution include: the negligent discharge of wastewater from industrial facilities, or discharges of untreated sewage, agricultural runoff containing chemical fertilizers and pesticides causing eutrophication in the water system, and groundwater pollution from waste disposal and septic tanks.

Pollution can also be the result of natural disasters causing damage to pipelines and other hazardous waste containment infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Shipping and oil rig accidents are common causes of oil spills, witness the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Plastics Pollution

Each year, we generate between 275 and 350 million metric tonnes of plastic waste, of which around 90 million tonnes ends up in the ocean, including 5 trillion pieces of microplastic.

Microplastics, (no bigger than 1-5 mm in size), have been steadily accumulating in our oceans since they first appeared in the 1970s. Microplastics have been found in every ocean, including the Arctic Ocean. Recently they were even found in 9 out of 10 ice-core samples taken from the Arctic Sea. 17 In the Barents Sea, nearly 50 percent of the fish tested had microplastics in their digestive tract.

Fur Seal tangled in fishing net
Fur Seal tangled in plastic and fishing net. More than 650,000 marine animals, including seals, dolphins, whales and turtles are killed or injured in fishing nets each year. Photo: © Optics4Birding

Scientists estimate that plastic waste kills an estimated 1 million sea birds and 100,000 other sea creatures, annually 18, while the number of marine species known to have been affected by either entanglement or ingestion of plastic debris has doubled since 1997, from 267 to 557 species. 19

Ironically, we too are now consuming microplastics – from tap water. According to a 2017 study, an average of 83 percent of tap water samples were found to be contaminated by pieces of microplastic. America was found to have a 94 percent rate of contamination, while European countries had a 72 percent contamination rate. The researchers calculated that people may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water per year. 20

Soil Pollution

Contamination of the soil typically occurs when chemicals are spilled during transport, dispersed by run-off, or by underground leakage from tailings ponds and other storage facilities. Among the most significant soil contaminants are heavy metals (such as chromium, cadmium, and lead), Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), herbicides, pesticides, chlorinated hydrocarbons, zinc, arsenic and benzene.

Municipal landfills are a common source of methane emissions many chemical substances entering the soil environment, due to the amount of substances illegally dumped there, or from earlier (pre-1970) landfill sites that were subject to fewer environmental controls.

Nuclear Contamination

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that up until 1994, thirteen countries used the ocean as a dumping ground for their nuclear/radioactive waste.

Map of nuclear dumping sites in the sea
Map: Sea dumping sites used for disposal of low- level nuclear radioactive waste. Source: Stanford.edu

Britain, for example, has been depositing nuclear waste in the Irish Sea ever since the 1950s. French nuclear plants are reported to have dumped similar radioactive material into the English Channel, while for decades the Soviet Union dumped major quantities of radioactive waste into the Kara Sea, Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean.

Other culprits, included: The United States, Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand.

In addition, according to the IAEA, radioactive waste was also dumped at more than 50 sites in the northern part of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Nuclear pollution also threatens the terrestrial biosphere. Each year, for example, the average 1000-Megawatt nuclear reactor needs approximately 25 tons of uranium fuel. (For comparison, a coal-fired power plant requires more than 2.5 million metric tonnes of coal in order to generate an equal amount of electricity.) But extracting and processing this uranium leaves behind an enormous amount of toxic waste. For example, to produce 25 tons of uranium fuel means leaving behind 500,000 tons of waste rock and another 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings, which will remain toxic for millennia. The tailings contain a number of radioactive elements like polonium, radium and thorium, as well as arsenic and other heavy metals, and emit cancerous radon-222. 21

As of 2011, the global stockpile of uranium mill tailings – sand-like material that can seep into the local environment – totals more than two billion tonnes. 22 No UN-approved plan or other internationally agreed arrangement exists for how to dispose of these highly toxic residues. For more, see: Is Nuclear Energy a Replacement for Fossil Fuels?

Pollution from Heavy Metals and PCBs

We are polluting the sea with heavy metals and other chemicals. Around 300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, and other hazardous slurry from industrial plants are deposited annually into the world’s oceans. 23

In addition, millions of tonnes of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural runoff enter the ocean every year, causing very-low oxygen ‘dead zones’ with fatal results for marine life.

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and organochlorine (OC) pesticides are also entering the ocean in quantity. Studies now show that several species of large fish have exceptionally high PCB concentrations in their blubber – high enough to cause population declines. Three out of four species – striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and killer whales (orcas) – had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal toxicity thresholds. 24 PCB’s, now banned, damage the ovaries of female orcas, limiting their ability to breed. Several orca groups, including those around the UK, Brazil, Japan and California, are almost certainly doomed.

Sunscreen Pollution

Several studies have shown that even low-levels of sun cream products (typically containing zinc or titanium blocking agents) cause rapid bleaching of warm water corals. Researchers have calculated that in tropical countries alone, 16,000-25,000 tons of sunscreen will be used of which at least one quarter will be washed off in the sea. Even if the sunbather doesn’t enter the sea, a significant percentage of sunscreen chemicals (e.g. oxybenzone) will get into the ocean through the sewer system. Oxybenzone is also found in more than 3,500 skin care products worldwide. 25

Electromagnetic Pollution

A major source of electromagnetic pollution is the mobile phone industry. The health effects of constant exposure to electromagnetic radiation remain unclear.

Exposure to ionizing radiation (e.g. from x-rays), is known to increase the risk of cancer. However, while many studies have examined the health effects of non-ionizing radiation from cell phones, radar, microwave ovens, and other sources, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans. However, scientists have reported some statistically significant associations for certain subgroups of people. 26

Noise Pollution

On land, the main culprit is the internal combustion engine, with cars and trucks causing the most problems. Studies on birds like zebra finches and robins, as well as grasshoppers, have shown pronounced effects from background noise.

Levels of anthropogenic ocean noise have doubled every decade for the past 60 years in several regions. The sources of this noise are mainly caused by shipping traffic, the oil and gas industry and the military. Studies into the effects of marine noise have found significant impacts on species as varied as sea hares, whales, hermit crabs, blue mussels, oysters and squid.

California fire destruction
A female resident cries as a fire approaches the town of La Conchita, CA in Dec 2017. California’s 2018 Climate Change Assessment predicts that California will experience an increase of 50 percent in large fires this century and that 77 percent more land will burn. Photo: © towardsdatascience.com

Global Warming: The Ultimate Hallmark of the Anthropocene

The main driver of climate change is the constant discharge of greenhouse gas from the burning of fossil fuels by power plants, industrial furnaces and factory processes – notably in the cement industry – and motor vehicles. This is what the man-made climate crisis is all about – too many greenhouse gases being pumped up into the atmosphere forcing the greenhouse effect to keep raising the temperature.

And it’s these rising temperatures that are damaging the planet. They melt the polar glaciers and ice sheets, which causes more sea level rise and more coastal flooding. They cause heatwaves that dry out forests, resulting in unprecedented bushfires in Victoria, Australia, with catastrophic loss of animal life. Australian scientists estimate that 3 billion animals died in the 2019-2020 fires. 27 They also cause marine heatwaves that damage coral and decimate mangroves. For more, see: Effects of Climate Change on Animals.

Global temperature rises also cause ocean deoxygenation and acidification in the open sea. The former kills corals; the latter causes huge stress to larger fish, like marlin and tuna, who hunt at most levels.

Global warming has a huge impact on the phenology of animals, birds and fish. It disrupts their migration, egg-laying, breeding, and reproduction rates. It also affects the marine food web in various ways. Seabirds accustomed to finding prey at a certain coastal spot in the ocean, may find that the prey has migrated in response to ocean warming. See: 10 Birds Threatened by Climate Change.

Meantime, whales who migrate to the Southern Ocean in order to feed on krill, may find that the krill have moved in order to keep in step with melting sea ice, whose underside is a major food source due to the numbers of phytoplankton who shelter there. Indeed, studies suggest that 20-80 percent of certain traditional habitats could become unsuitable for krill spawning by the year 2100. 28 For more, see: Effects of Global Warming on Oceans.

As a rule of thumb, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) estimated that approximately 1 in 10 of species are at an increasingly high risk of extinction for every 1°C rise in average temperature. With global temperature projections showing a likely 3°C rise by 2100, it looks like 30 percent of species are in danger of being wiped out for good. For more, see: Effects of Global Warming.

The Anthropocene – An Epoch of Environmental Disasters

The Anthropocene, the new humancentric epoch, has been disastrous for so many species who (if they have survived) are reduced to a fraction of their former habitat. Polar bears have seen much of their sea ice habitat disappear. Cheetahs are reduced to 7 percent of their former grassland habitat. Marlin, tuna and other large fish can no longer hunt in the deep because of a lack of oxygen in the ocean. Krill’s sea ice habitat is also disappearing. Meantime, 3 billion animals in Australia perished because of the effects of climate change.

For more about how to reconcile human and animal rights, see our article on the ethics of climate change.

Biomes are changing. Ecosystems are degrading. Forests are drying out. By the end of the century, the Amazon Rainforest may have turned into savanna and forest fires may be raging across the globe. West Antarctic is already vulnerable to a rapid melting sequence, and even previously rock-solid East Antarctica has started melting. If any part of the Antarctic ice sheet collapses, sea level rise could exceed six feet. With storm surges, the rise could be twice that, or more, with disastrous consequences.

Meantime, while the planet burns, and climate tipping points approach even closer, governments argue about tariffs and pull out of international agreements designed to tackle climate change. For all our sakes, let’s hope that this dysfunctionality in the face of an existential crisis, is not the defining mark of the Anthropocene.

References

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  18. Source: UN Facts About Oceans. []
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