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On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

Julio A. Alvarado Vlez


FLACSO, Argentina

Author note
Julio A. Alvarado Vlez, Doctorado en ciencias sociales, Facultad Latinoamericana
de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Buenos Aires, Argentina.
E-mail address: julio2alvarado@gmail.com

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

Introduction
The environmental global crisis has brought into the attention of many a concept of
awareness on the human impact on Earths life cycles. The concept has been called the
Anthropocene, a term that is a combination of Greek roots meaning anthropo human
and cene new.
The Anthropocene has been a proposed geological chronological term for an epoch
beginning when human activities first had a significant global impact on the Earths
ecosystems, perhaps since the industrial revolution.
The Anthropocene as a concept has been and still continues to be a topic of debate
because of the nature of its arguments: the global environmental crisis is humankinds
fault. Although the term Anthropocene is a relative new one, the concept itself is not.
The concept of the Anthropocene has its precedents dating back to 1873 when a
noted Italian geologist and Catholic priest argued on the appearance of human activity
in the archive of deep time the Earth. Since then, the concept of human altering
Earths ecosystems has kept many scientists on researching the causes that perhaps
caused them and that are leading us towards a new epoch, the Anthropocene.
Nevertheless, this concept has also caused many others to try and disclaim that humans
cannot be the reason why Earth has changed but, as argue by them, it is just part of
Earths normal cycles.
The aim of this paper is to critique the concept of the Anthropocene from the point of
view of environmentalists and anti-environmentalists for which purpose the analysis
will be divided in three parts:
1. A historical approach to the Anthropocene concept which emphasizes the
meaning of the concept beyond a simple term used to describe a new geological
epoch;
2. A review on the origins of The Anthropocene epoch which analyzes studies
proving the beginning of the Anthropocene, and
3. A counterpart analysis from anti-environmentalists and their perspectives on the
global environmental crisis.

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

Historical approach to the Anthropocene concept


The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) defines officially the epoch
in which we live as the Holocene epoch, which started approximately some 12000
years ago; however, many experts (Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2011;
Hoffman & Jennings, 2015; among others) believe that there is enough evidence mass
extinctions, changes in atmospheric and marine chemistry, and altering of terrestrial
features

to assure mankind is living in a whole different epoch. An epoch marked by

human activity that has affected and continues to affect the broad range of ecosystem
services that support human life and could eventually lead to crisis in the biosphere
(Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2011).
In the light of the above mentioned, a new concept is emerged however, as
mentioned by Stromberg (2013), it has not officially been declared as a new epoch yet
in order to explain what some experts refer to, as the new epoch in which humankind is
currently living in, the Anthropocene epoch.
This relative new concept, the Anthropocene, has been the main cause of much
debate for over a decade now among scientists of a variety of fields, such as: ecologists,
geologists, scientists of the social sciences, etc. In contrast to the debate of wheter or not
humandkind is living in a new epoch, Bondre (2014) mentions that the meaning of this
concept is been characterized as a surprisingly malleable concept because of the range
of narratives that the concept accomodates. Among these narratives Bondre points two
major ones given by a group of researchers of two separate worlds: The International
Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Demensions
Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). On the one hand, is it Earths
newest geological epoch, one in which humanity competes with and even defies the
forces of nature on a planetary scale? On the other hand, is it a symbol of
anthropocentrism and even a certain type of narcicissm?
Whichever one of the the two narratives might be the answer, it is clear that the
Anthropocene reframes the ever-evolving relationship between humans and their nonhuman environment (Bondre, 2014).
The concept of the Anthropocene became widely known when Paul Crutzen and
Eugene Stoermer, based on their findings of how human activity dwarfs their natiral

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

counterpart, wrote in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere


Programme, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of
mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term anthropocene for the
current geological epoch (Kolbert, 2010).
Steffen et al. (2011) also mentioned the Anthropocene concept as proposed by
Crutzen in order to capture the quantitative shift in the relationship between humans and
the global environment. Moreover, they present a list of what this concept suggest: i)
that the Earth is now moving out of its current geological epoch, called the Holocene
and (ii) that human activity is largely responsible for this exit from the Holocene, that is,
that humankind has become a global geological force in its own right.
With the above in mind, there are questions to be answered, because if we are just
now moving out of our current geological epoch, can we already think of our time as a
different one than the officially recognized? or should we wait for future generations to
use the concept they consider the right one? About this Hoffman & Jennings (2015)
have stated: The Anthropocene Era represents an emergent awareness of a fundamental
change in the intellectual, cultural, and psychological conceptions of who we are as
humans and how we relate to the world around us.
Although the concept of the Anthropocene was popularized by Crutzen in 2000, it
has been focus of study long before. Steffen et al. (2011) mention the use of the term
Anthropocene by the biologist Eugene F. Stoermer, who admits using the term in the
1980s, but never formalizing it until contacted by Crutzen.
But the quest to trace the roots of the concept itself can even said to have been
brought to light back in 1873, when Stopani pointed human activity as a new telluric
force which in power and universality may be compared to the greater forces of earth.
Nevertheless, Steffen et al. (2001) mention that the development of the concept was
interrupted by the two world wars of the twentieth century and only re-emerged in 1955
at the Princeton symposium on the Mans role in changing the face of the earth,
followed much later by a series of meetings to bring awareness on this regard.
According to Steffen et al. (2011), there were made references at all those meetings
about the earlier concept of transformation of the biosphere into the nosphere, that is,
the anthroposphere or the anthropogenic transformation of the Earth system; however,
the diverse notions of nosphere did not quite represent or are not equivalent to the new
concept of the Anthropocene; to put it in other words, contrary to the Anthropocene

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

concept, it might be that the concept of nosphere only represents a state of mind in
which humankind has to elevate consciousness about Earths problems, and the
Anthropocene represents not only a state of awareness about the way humankind has to
act towards the Earth and everything humankind has to do in order to maintain
sustainability for future generations, but perhaps it is a defined epoch.
It is important to realize that it does not matter what the term used to define the new
epoch in which humankind lives is, but the importance itself is in its concept and the
way how we approach it to understand that the concept of the Anthropocene is brought
attention to a real problem with real and massive consequences that, as estimated by
researches in the field of climate change and development, are being felt nowadays by
many people around the globe. The Earth and everything in it are struggling with
climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletions, among other problems, so
perhaps it can be said that the concept of the Anthropocene focuses on humankind, not
just becoming but already, as geological agents that have altered the cycles of life on
Earth.
Review on the origins of The Anthropocene epoch
The beginning of the Anthropocene is a subject of heated debate among the scientific
community; and in order for it to become officially recognized as a geological epoch by
the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a subordinated body of the
International Union of Geological Sciences, a start date must be recognized that is
global and can be defined stratigraphically by biological, chemical, or other types of
markers (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2005).

would
The
epoch
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adesignate
sliver
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rom
years
ago
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the
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perhaps
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determined
to
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to
beginning
ofthe
Anthropocene

Although it is defined that the epoch would have encompass for the time being a

sliver of geological time separate from the Holocene (roughly 12,000 years ago to the
present), the debate continues around the date that might represent to be a good marker
to designate the beginning of the Anthropocene (Showstack, 2013).
Many argue about the beginning of the Anthropocene and many events have been
proposed as the start of this epoch. According to many experts, among the main events
that might have altered the natural cycles of life on Earth and caused the start of the
Anthropocene they mention the following:

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

i)

The advent of agriculture, because certain agriculture-related activities such


as rice paddy irrigation and deforestation may have led to sharp rises in

ii)

concentrations of CO2 and methane as early as 8,000 years ago.


The Industrial Revolution that our exploitation of fossil fuels and
monumental increases of energy use and population started to push us far
enough to show a discernible human influence beyond natural (Holocene)

iii)

variability.
The Great Acceleration, or the beginning of the nuclear age in the mid-1940s.
In this period, not only did our testing and use of atomic weaponry leave a
distinctive radioactive signature in the sediments of Earth, but almost all
human activities from water use to fertilizer consumption to globalization
saw a dramatic intensification (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural
History, 2005).

Many experts, however, identify that the answers lead to the unprecedented rise in
human numbers since the early nineteenth century -from under a billion then to over six
billion now, set to be nine billion or more by midcentury. This population growth is
intimately linked with massive expansion in the use of fossil fuels, which powered the
Industrial Revolution, and allowed the mechanization of agriculture that enabled those
additional billions to be fed (Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen, & Crutzen, 2010).
Although humankind has been blamed for the start of new and dark epoch, it is
important to find out what precisely we have done in order for the Anthropocene to have
started. According to Biello (2015), the Homo sapiens is the main suspect on many of
the events being felt nowadays. He mentions that, perhaps, it (the Anthropocene) started
around 50,000 years ago with the extinction of woolly mammoths, wooly rhinos or
giant ground sloths. Biello adds that hunting combined with the burning of landscapes
in places like Australia seem to be the main reason there are no more giant kangaroos,
along with these other big animals. The lethal pairing of hunting and burning, Biello
mentions, is just one of the ways humans have been changing the world for millennia.
Another way humans have changed the world may be attributed to planting crops
which now cover most of the worlds arable land, such as corn or wheat. In addition,
ranching, herding, the clearing of forests to make room for agriculture and the mass
expansion of the rice paddy have all led to enough greenhouse gas emissions to stave
off a long cool-down into an ice age starting 5,000 years ago (Biello, 2015).

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As pointed out in Ruddiman et al. (2015), Crutzen and Stoermer believe it can be set
as the start date of the Anthropocene somewhere around the industrial revolution
initiated by James Watts invention of the steam engine at that time. Dukes (2013)
mentions more exactly the year 1784, because of the consequent atmospheric pollution,
caused by the steam engine, soon led to the confluence of natural and human activity
and thus of geological and historical time. However, it is open to question by Ruddiman
et al. whether this choice is the correct one because of the lack of a key requirement for
formal stratigraphic designation: a golden spike marker that is widely detectable in
geologic records.
Another important fact mentioned by Ruddiman et al. (2015) is a preliminary
recommendation released by a working group of the subcommission of Quaternary
Stratigraphy of the Geological Society of London to mark the beginning of the
Anthropocene on 16 July 1945, when the first atomic bomb test took place in
Alamogordo, New Mexico. According to the working group, the reason for this precise
date to be marked was that the isotopic by-products of bomb testing provide a
distinctive marker horizon in ice cores, ocean and lake sediments, and soils
(Ruddiman, Ellis, Kaplan, & Fuller, 2015).
Nonetheless, it is important to distinguish that the Anthropocene, far from a exactly
start date that marked the beginning of a new epoch, has been a process characterized by
humans actions that doesnt just begin with the industrial revolution but comes from
the result of a development of stages that occurred even before that.
For instance, the findings presented by Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill (2007) on the
beginning of the Anthropocene highlight three stages since the industrial revolution that
characterized this new geological epoch but with prior events that, although were not
capable of dominating the forces of nature and thus marking a new geological epoch,
they certainly put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.
First of all Steffen et al. refers to the first tool that humankind utilized to mark that
path toward the Anthropocene, the use of fire. It modified landscapes and had an
important impact of the environment. So, if the notion still exists that humans lived in
idyllic harmony with their environment, this myth can be debunked. In like manner,
another hypotheses points at the early development of agriculture as the cause that
prevented the onset of the next ice age. According to this argument the clearing of forest
for the development of agriculture led to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO 2)

On The Anthropocene: hard science or pop culture?

and methane (CH4) concentrations and a the result the reversing trends of concentration
decreases established in the early Holocene. Therefore, the use of wood or charcoal
rather than resorting to fuel subsidies from the Carboniferous and the changes caused to
ease the tasks of the preindustrial human societies did in fact change, although in a
small scale, the coastal and terrestrial ecosystems (Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007) .
Although the reasons that led to the onset of industrialization, and what can be
considered as the first stage of the Anthropocene, are argued (wood shortages, abundant
water power and coal in England, social and political structures that rewarded risktaking and innovation), it is clear that this transition had an important role on the history
of the Earth and a huge impact on it. For instance, since 1850 the use of traditional
renewable energy has decreased and the sharp rise, as seen in figure 1, in fossil fuelbased energy have also contributed to change the environment, and thus, quantification
of the human imprint on the Earth System can be most directly related to the advent and
spread of fossil fuel-based energy systems.
Figure 1
Use of fuels in energy systems at the global scale, 1850-2000

Retrieved from The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?
(Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007).

It is important to mention the transition to a high-energy consuming society because


this caused a rise on population from a billion in 1820 to more than six billion today,
which eventually created an era of intensified human influence upon the Earth system.

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As mentioned before, agriculture has had an impact on the global environment rising
from 10% of domesticated terrestrial surface to over 30% by 1950; however, the
changes experienced by industrialization were especially evident in the atmosphere. The
concentrations of CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) had risen by 1950 to about 1250 and
288 parts per billions by volume (ppbv), respectively, noticeably above their
preindustrial values of about 850 and 272 ppbv (31, 32). By 1950 the atmospheric CO2
concentration had pushed above 300 ppmv, above its preindustrial value of 270275
ppmv, and was beginning to accelerate sharply (Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007).
In conclusion, during the course of this stage as mentioned by Steffen et al. (2015),
the rise of CO2 concentration resulting from the industrial revolution provided an
indisputable evidence that human activities were affecting the environment, thus
marking the beginning of the Anthropocene between 1800 and 1850 and lasting until
1945, with the arrival of the Great Acceleration or the second stage on the path towards
the Anthropocene epoch.
Although even before World War II the concentration of CO2 had risen above the
upper limit of the Holocene, Steffen et al. (2015) emphasize that during this stage the
impact on Earth is caused by an even more and critical rise of CO2 concentration that
started starts somewhere around 1950. The rise of CO2, however, is the result of the
accelerated rise of the human enterprise after the end of World War II (e.g. growth of
population, water use, fertilizer consumption, etc.) (Fig. 2).
The third stage as mentioned by Steffen et al. put the process of the Anthropocene
around 2015 with the recognition that human activities are affecting the function of
Earth; thus, this process is not just characterized by environmental problems but rather
it focuses on the awareness these problems have brought to humankind in different
levels (political, philosophical, economic, etc.).
Humankind has become self-conscious about the problems leading us towards the
Anthropocene epoch and because of this factor, a debate has emerged on the
possibilities that we still have and the solutions needed to prevent this process of
advancing any faster. It is clear that this epoch, the Anthropocene, is still in formation
and on the process of becoming a bigger threat to Earth and all its elements. However,
on this stage the problems affecting the future have been approached differently. For
instance, one of these approaches and perhaps the one that dominates all the others is

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the approach that analyses the economic system as the engine that could keep running
the world no matter what problems might come.

Figure 2
The change in human enterprise, 1750-2000

Note. Retrieved and adapted from The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces
of nature? (Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007).

The business-as-usual approach that we referred to above focuses on utilizing the


resources that we have now, not to solve the problems leading us to the Anthropocene
but rather utilizing them to solve more pressing human need as we still have time to
worry about it in the future. Nevertheless and with this in mind more questions rise, do
we really have time to worry about it later? or do we need to mitigate this problem now?
Perhaps the more reasonably answer can be: we need to do both, mitigate the problem
now and worry less about it in the future. We dont have any more time, we need to act
now.
The real problem with doing something to mitigate this problem hasnt been that we
havent tried to do something, but that we dont want to do it as long until something
happens. In fact this can be demonstrated with a real example. Ecuador, a small nation
in South America offered to leave its oil reserves underground with the condition that
the developed countries contributed with a part of the revenues that Ecuador would lose
for giving up the exploitation of these resources; however, and sadly, the rich countries
didnt accept this nor did anything else to avoid this from happening.

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The severity of the problems that Earth is facing keeps forcing humankind into
thinking about what can be done. But what options do we have? The results from recent
events on a political level rise even more questions. Can we do something else to
prevent the Anthropocene from happening? So far, the approaches discerned from the
big debate on what to do in order to solve this crisis, or as referred by some others as
future crisis, are not giving any solutions. However, there have been other proposals
to solve or at least ameliorate the symptoms of the Anthropocene, the Geo-engineering
options.
Geo-engineering involves purposeful manipulation by humans of global-scale Earth
System processes with the intention of counteracting anthropogenically driven
environmental change such as greenhouse warming; furthermore, this proposal has been
highly controversial. Can we manipulate Earth and everything that happens in it? Hasnt
it been enough what we have done to the forces of nature?
This suggestion (geo-engineering) has not only raised serious ethical questions about
whether or not we should control nature at our disposal but it has been thought of as the
only possible cure to the problem. Whatever the correct approach might be to solve this
problem, it is clear that in order to change what has been done to Earth with need to
make some significant changes in values and management.
All these events are still causing much debate and many scientists are still trying to
identify the clear-cut evidence to mark the new epoch. However, no matter when it
exactly started many believe that the important subject that should matter are the events
happening right in front of our eyes and not trying to identify the exact date when the
problems started or more precisely when the Anthropocene started. But stratigraphers,
the ones in charge on determining precisely when the Anthropocene started argue the
contrary. For them, it is not a matter of just the present events that have caused so many
problems around the globe, as mentioned before, but the real starting point of a new
epoch has to be identify in the rock strata in different parts of the world in order for it to
be recognized as an official epoch.
The Anthropocene: are we there yet?
The concept of the Anthropocene whether is considered new or old has focused on
humankind as THE FACTOR that altered the nature of the Earth. Furthermore, it has

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been backed up by research of many renowned scientists. Theres even many journals
that have adopted the term Anthropocene as either the name of their journals or as part
of it, for instance we can name a few: Anthropocene, a journal that publishes peerreview work addressing the nature, scale, and extent of interactions that people have
with Earth; the Anthropocene review, a journal focusing on all research pertaining to the
Anthropocene; and Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. However, what exactly
have all of them in common? And why has it been so important to have many journals
addressing the Anthropocene? In this chapter we tried to answer these questions and
focus on the other side of this debate (the Anthropocene and the global environmental
crisis), but more importantly we argue about the environmental crisis which all of these
journals, and not to forget some websites, magazines, environmentalist groups,
newspapers among others argue and want to make us believe we are in.
It is said that a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth, and perhaps the battle for
establishing a new epoch has been about wanting to be right and not proving to be it.
The concept of an epoch in which humans have been the cause for natures actions has
become not just a matter of discussions among the scientific community but a hot trend
topic. Why would someone make a journal on the Anthropocene? Perhaps the answer is,
to create awareness of a real problem Earth is going through now; however, why so
many of them? Are all of them necessary and in case they are then why are they selling
the information we need to know in order to know whats going on? The answer is
capitalism in all its glory. Creating a pop culture on this has been the task for some
people in order to get revenues. Addressing the problem is only secondary to their goals.
For instance, one clear example is the focus of Michael Shellenberger and Ted
Nordhaus, founders of the Breakthrough Institute, whose philosopy is based on whats
known in academic circles as ecological modernizarion theory1.
The concept of the Anthropocene has been used to create awareness of a global
environmental crisis; however, this concept has been disproved by Christopher
Monckton in a paper called Climate sensitivity reconsidered.

1 Ecological modernization theory is the view of industrialization, technological


development, economic growth, and capitalism like not only potentially compatible
with ecological sustainability but also as the key drivers of environmental reform.

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According to Monckton (2008), CO2s effects on temperature had been overstated


500-2000% in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United
Nations climate panel, climate assessment report published in 2007.
Monckton demonstrated via 30 equations that computer models used by the UNs
climate panel were pre-programmed with overstated values for the three variables
whose product is climate sensitivity (temperature increase in response to greenhousegas increase). In addition, Moncktons paper shows the following results from his
research:

The IPCCs 2007 climate summary overstated CO2s impact on temperature

by 500-2000%;
CO2 enrichment will add little more than 1 F (0.6 C) to global mean

surface temperature by 2100;


Not one of the three key variables whose product is climate sensitivity can be

measured directly;
The IPCCs values for these key variables are taken from only four published

papers, not 2,500;


The IPCCs values for each of the three variables, and hence for climate

sensitivity, are overstated;


Global warming halted ten years ago, and surface temperature has been

falling for seven years;


Not one of the computer models relied upon by the IPCC predicted so long

and rapid a cooling;


The IPCC inserted a table into the scientists draft, overstating the effect of

ice-melt by 1000%;
It was proved 50 years ago that predicting climate more than two weeks

ahead is impossible;
Mars, Jupiter, Neptunes largest moon, and Pluto warmed at the same time as

Earth warmed;
In the past 70 years the Sun was more active than at almost any other time in
the past 11,400 years.

Conclusions
The Anthropocene as a new geological epoch in which human alteration since the
beginning of agriculture has marked Earths natural cycles is and will be a very

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difficult concept to regard as true for many people. However, after the analysis of not
just the concept but also the facts, it is impossible to deny that we are evidencing a
transition into a new epoch.
The name of this new epoch hasnt been established yet, however, a crisis doesnt
become one just by giving it a name but by experiencing the consequences of
irresponsible acts and that is exactly whats happening today on Earth: changing
landscapes, wildlife at risk, other wildlife already extinct by human causes, increased
risks of drought, fire and floods, economic losses, etc.
It may still take some time for the scientific body in charge of naming big

stretches of time in Earths history, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to


define what exactly the boundary is and where it appears in the rock strata; however
as Crutzen once suggested that shouldnt stop us from seeing and learning what it
means to live in this new Anthropocene epoch, on a planet that is being
anthroposized or changed by human activity at high speed.
The concept of the Anthropocene highlights what we have done wrong as humans
and what we can do to ameliorate this situation. Perhaps Earth is doomed to evolve
into a different system someday but what living organism maintains itself the same
forever. Alternatively, it could be argued that the Anthropocene has not yet arrived
because human impacts on the planet are destined to be even greater 50 or a hundred
years from now. (Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2011)
It doesnt matter when the Anthropocene began or even if it did but the concept
itself is significant. It highlights the scale of our impact on Earth. By admitting that
there is a global environmental crisis or even that a new geological epoch is about to
come, we are declaring that the impact of our activities is global and irreversible. It
allows us to unite many different discussions regarding the state of the planet, from
climate change to loss of biodiversity to environmental degradation, by identifying
the one thing they have in common: they have all been affected by human influence.
(Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2005)

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