Home News A Totalitarianism of Our Time: What Arendt Tells Us About Environmental Injustice

A Totalitarianism of Our Time: What Arendt Tells Us About Environmental Injustice


Is environmental injustice so widespread, and are its impacts so damaging, that it may be understood as a totalitarianism of our time? When a baby in Flint, Michigan turns into poisoned by lead and suffers lifelong neurological injury due to a governmental determination to change the town’s water supply, how would coverage responses be improved if lawmakers acknowledged that this devastation means the ‘proper to have rights’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 296–297) has been misplaced? When a resident of Detroit, Michigan is left stranded like a ‘refugee in the city’ (to cite Detroit activist Monica Lewis-Patrick) due to authorities water shut-offs, how extreme and disenfranchising do the results need to be for lawmakers to acknowledge environmental racism causes ‘“de facto” stateless[ness]’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 279)? In Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley,’ well being destruction is a widespread actuality as a result of companies weaponize minority communities’ perceived invisibility by putting poisonous industrial websites dangerously near their houses. Might legislation—native, nationwide, and worldwide—be deployed to problem environmental injustice if we accepted that communities are successfully ‘banish[ed]’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 444) from society when incapacitating well being impacts negate neighborhood members’ talents to take part in public life?

The questions posed above illuminate how Hannah Arendt’s work, notably 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, affords a novel strategy to understanding environmental injustice and the climate crisis. Arendt’s work, lengthy outstanding within the human rights and political concept canons, grew to become the topic of further, intense public curiosity following former US President Donald Trump’s 2016 win and ensuing authoritarian approaches to governance. (Gross sales of Origins surged, climbing to sixteen occasions greater than regular.) Though Arendt’s work stays central in discourse about rights, there has not been adequate consideration paid to what sheoffers for an unique understanding of environmental injustice. Arendt’s work helps us to grapple with deficiencies relating to native and worldwide insurance policies on environmental injustice and environmental racism. Environmental injustice is, I argue, a totalitarianism of our time. Native environmental injustice and the worldwide local weather disaster can have totalitarian impacts on the identical communities—and should be addressed as linked phenomena—with a purpose to develop simply, decolonial, and equitable environmental and local weather insurance policies. Arendt helps us to know environmental injustice and the local weather disaster—and what actions to take.

The ‘Proper to Have Rights’ at Native and World Scales

In Origins, Arendt discusses her idea of the ‘proper to have rights,’ explaining that there’s just one human proper that issues: the fitting to belong to a political neighborhood through which we acquire entry to all different supposedly common rights promised in worldwide declarations. In essence: citizenship. Arendt explains how ‘lack of house and political standing turn into an identical with expulsion from humanity altogether’ ([1951] 1968, 296–297).

Governments and companies apply environmental racism by withholding assets from and forcing poisonous publicity on minority communities, stripping communities of the ‘proper to have rights’ and exploiting circumstances the place the ‘proper to have rights’ is already absent.In Origins, Arendt writes concerning the horrific remedy of displaced survivors of World Conflict II as a failed take a look at case for the worldwide human rights system. Writing within the mid-twentieth century, she was not, in fact, commenting on the plights of local weather refugees fleeing sea-level rise, residents of cities experiencing unprecedented rainfall and flooding, or folks in California, Turkey, and Australia fleeing a number of the worst wildfire seasons in historical past. Nor was she commenting on the water injustice that has plagued Flint and Detroit, or the massive variety of folks worldwide whose pressured publicity to toxins is so extreme that it should be understood as  what I name toxic saturation.’ These conditions reveal, nonetheless, the relevance of the ‘proper to have rights’ to environmental injustice.

In circumstances the place environmental injustice means ‘powerlessness’ (and, I argue, resistance to powerlessness) ‘has turn into the most important expertise of [people’s] lives’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, vii), it’s fully potential to be in possession of one of many world’s most ‘powerful’ citizenships, in a developed nation corresponding to the US, whereas nonetheless being diminished to rightlessness and de factostatelessness.(As a consequence of area confines, this text focuses on the US context. In different writing I discover how Arendt’s work helps us to know environmental racism worldwide, together with underneath occupation in Palestine and in post-apartheid South Africa.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in the US. Air air pollution is linked to greater COVID dying charges. Systemic environmental racism signifies that the populations which have confronted the best COVID dying tolls are those already residing in fenceline communities close to pollution-emitting websites, inhaling poisonous air, being disadvantaged of water, and dealing with inequitably inadequate healthcare entry. These residing situations make these communities a number of the most weak to the pandemic and the local weather disaster. Most lately, as of August 2021, ‘Most cancers Alley’ was devastated by Hurricane Ida. Residents of communities corresponding to St. James parish, already battling toxic industry expansion, are actually threatened by crude oil spills and chemical leaks within the wake of the storm.

Rebecca Solnit argues, relating to gender-based violence, that the failure to deal with systemic violence as ‘a disaster, or perhaps a sample’ (2014, 21) fuels that violence—an argument that additionally applies to environmental injustice. The lack of the ‘proper to have rights’ anyplace challenges the validity of the worldwide human rights challenge all over the place. Ignoring a disaster—a obtrusive sample—is pouring gasoline onto that disaster’s flames. Environmental injustice has a world sample, as reviews of poisoned water pop up in quite a few locations worldwide past Flint, and as toxins corresponding to lead, different heavy metals, and chemical substances sicken and kill folks from Philadelphia to Iraq to Nigeria. And but, media reviews usually deal with these incidents as remoted—not often as systemic environmental racism fueled by industries accountable for injustice that’s each short-term and long-term, and each native and international.

An Arendtian strategy reveals that environmental injustice is a up to date ‘totalitarian’ drive—a drive that strips folks of their ‘proper to have rights’ and results in de factostatelessness whereby folks keep their citizenship, however are with out rights in apply. Just like the totalitarianism of Arendt’s time, environmental injustice can solely be combatted as soon as native episodes are acknowledged not as remoted situations, however as interconnected, strategic circumstances of subjugation which might be linked with the local weather disaster and different struggles for justice. As Margaret R. Somers argues, writing about victims of Hurricane Katrina, ‘stateless residents’ are ‘socially and morally excluded—invisible, dispensable, and forgotten. Human beings handled on this means turn into surplus, unfit of social or ethical recognition by others’ (2008, 114). Environmental injustice is distinct from the totalitarianism of Arendt’s time, however she affords important insights for understanding how environmental injustice features within the modern period. Environmental injustice alters present understandings of totalitarianism and citizenship.

Environmental Racism in the US

In some circumstances, the hyperlink between native environmental racism and local weather injustice is evident. ‘Cancer Alley,’ comprised of predominantly Black, low-income communities, suffers excessive most cancers charges as a result of numerous poisonous industrial websites. Diamond, Louisiana, one affected neighborhood located between a Shell/Motiva oil refinery and Shell chemical plant and the previous ‘epicenter’ of a slave rise up (Lerner 2005, 13), was merely, Steve Lerner writes, ‘not a spot the place most individuals would select to stay’—a spot the place folks have suffered diseases together with most cancers, bronchial asthma, and pores and skin problems from toxins and, within the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties, ‘mourned neighbors and mates killed by explosions at these amenities’ (2005, 9). The identical business fueling the local weather disaster makes use of communities’ perceived invisibility due to racism and financial discrimination to pollute with a low threat of attracting exterior concern, making residents’ ‘proper to have rights’ meaningless. Diamond residents demanded Shell purchase their houses at truthful costs to fund relocation. Finally, in 2002, Diamond’s residents won—a ‘bittersweet victory’ as a result of by transferring to security, they misplaced their bodily neighborhood and left Diamond ‘one other fenceline ghost city’ (Lerner 2005, 284). There are quite a few communities within the US South affected by surprising environmental racism. In Reserve, Louisiana, for instance, the chance of most cancers is fifty times the nationwide common.

In different circumstances, the hyperlink between native environmental racism and local weather injustice could also be much less instantly obvious however is simply as crucial. In 2014, the Metropolis of Detroit disconnected 33,000 households from water for incapability to pay (and has disconnected tens of thousands more since 2014). The shut-offs have been finally acknowledged by three UN special rapporteurs as a human rights violation, putting political stress on the town to scale back shut-offs with out authorized authority to implement an finish to shut-offs (Krakow 2020). (For a quick dialogue of Detroit and the ‘proper to have rights,’ albeit not within the context of environmental justice, see 2018’s The Proper to Have Rights (DeGooyer, Hunt, Maxwell, Moyn).) Catarina de Albuquerque, who on the time was the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, visited Detroit, noting, ‘I heard testimonies from poor, African American residents … who have been pressured to make unattainable selections—to pay the water invoice or to pay their hire.’

Years of environmental racism in Detroit, a majority-Black metropolis, set the stage for residents to be with out adequate water and at higher threat in the course of the pandemic. Environmental racism has additionally made residents extra vulnerable to the climate crisis due to inequities relating to water entry, healthcare, and infrastructure.

On the shut-offs, Monica Lewis-Patrick, President and CEO of We the Individuals of Detroit, commented, ‘For many individuals, it’s … such as you’re a refugee within the metropolis due to the upcoming menace.’ As ‘refugee[s] within the metropolis’ of a developed, rich nation with democratic governance, the experiences of Detroit residents reveal this text’s idea that native environmental injustice is highly effective sufficient—totalitarian sufficient—to render residents de facto stateless whereas they’re nonetheless de jure residents.

Flint, Michigan, a metropolis of 100,000 folks, was collateral injury in 2014 when governor-appointed ‘emergency managers’ usurped elected officers, main the town to change to a inexpensive water supply amid a monetary disaster, exposing residents to poisonous lead and inflicting an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed twelve and sickened at the least ninety. (The unrecognized variety of ailing is believed to be much higher.) The Environmental Safety Company (EPA) and state and metropolis officers knew and withheld information. Arendt’s conception of totalitarianism as a drive that dispossesses folks of the ‘proper to have rights’ reveals how, on native and worldwide scales, totalitarian methods deem folks dispensable, prioritizing financial acquire for the elite. This cycle of prioritizing monetary pursuits over civilian security—notably the security of minority communities—follows the identical template as governmental justifications for delaying significant motion on local weather change. This sample of ‘sacrifice’ aligns with racism laid naked by the COVID-19 pandemic and calls to threat lives for the sake of the financial system in the course of the pandemic, an strategy advocated for by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

An Arendtian strategy crystallizes why we should cease de-linking native disasters from international local weather injustice. Each native environmental injustice and international local weather injustice, at totally different scales and speeds, result in a typical consequence: depriving folks—no matter their de jure citizenship standing—of the ‘proper to have rights.’ In an period of environmental injustice, one needn’t be actually disadvantaged of ‘house and political standing’ to be ‘[expelled] from humanity’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 297). An individual can retain citizenship, however be so profoundly affected by environmental injustice that they’re rendered, in most ways in which matter, de factostateless.

‘Banished’ by Environmental Injustice

On exclusion as a step en path to tyranny, Arendt writes, ‘Banishment banishes solely from one a part of the world to a different a part of the world, additionally inhabited by human beings; it doesn’t exclude from the human world altogether’ ([1951] 1968, 444). Environmental injustice has devastating impacts on well being to the extent that persons are successfully ‘banished’ from the system of legal guidelines and protections that purport to make sure that weak populations not solely have primary rights, however stay with dignity. This state of ‘banishment’ applies not solely to folks Arendt acknowledges as missing the ‘proper to have rights,’ together with refugees, however usually manifests in its most insidious type in circumstances the place rights are enshrined legally via citizenship, however are denied in apply—even when persons are not bodily forcibly relocated. Individuals affected by environmental injustice could be made simply as rightless as displaced folks or victims of a totalitarian society. That is evident in Iraq, the place years of pressured toxic saturation attributable to the US navy have left civilians trapped and with out the ‘proper to have rights.’ 

Giorgio Agamben describes the refugee because the ‘distinctive determine’ who allows us to ‘understand the kinds and limits of a political neighborhood to return’ (1995, 114). Environmental injustice reveals the citizen as a determine who stretches the bounds of de facto statelessness to incorporate communities like these in Flint, Detroit, and ‘Most cancers Alley.’ This determine—the citizen subjected to environmental injustice—allows us to ‘understand the kinds and limits of a political neighborhood’ already in existence, however severely deformed relating to primary rights protections. Just like the stateless particular person Arendt or Agamben describe, environmental injustice leaves the citizen unable to show to both the state or humanity to say the ‘proper to have rights.’

‘Authorized identification doesn’t assure a very good life, however its absence is a severe obstacle to it,’ writes Jacqueline Bhabha (2011, 1). These formally missing ‘authorized identification’—stateless individuals—are disadvantaged of primary rights, corresponding to entry to secure air and water. Individuals with authorized citizenship who exist on the furthest margins of society—or are abruptly pushed past the margins, as in Flint and Detroit—are made de facto stateless by environmental injustice, though they keep citizenship and are technically members of a robust, sovereign state.

Robert D. Bullard, main environmental justice scholar and advocate, defines environmental justice because the precept that ‘all folks and communities are entitled to equal safety of environmental and public well being legal guidelines and laws’ (1996, 493). This text demonstrates that environmental injustice is so extreme as to require that de factostatelessness be acknowledged as a too commonplace or inevitable consequence of environmental injustice. De facto statelessness prompted or worsened by environmental injustice is ‘not the exception however the rule,’ to quote Walter Benjamin ([1968] 2007, 257).

Members and Strangers

On twentieth-century genocide, Arendt writes, ‘When no witnesses are left, there could be no testimony’ ([1951] 1968, 451). Systemic racism has made it potential for governments and companies to enact environmental injustice whereas relying on communities’ subjugated positions as assurance that there will probably be no ‘witnesses’ to supply ‘testimony.’ Neighborhood group and activism rejects these unequivocally false, racist assumptions. Neighborhood actions in opposition to environmental injustice within the US and worldwide have confirmed these racist techniques finally ineffective in numerous circumstances together with in Flint, Detroit, Diamond, St. James, and within the circumstances of Indigenous resistance to the Keystone XL and Dakota Entry pipelines.

Even when neighborhood members bear ‘witness’ and converse out to offer ‘testimony’ about environmental injustice, governments and the personal sector usually flip this visibility in opposition to them, positioning them as ‘witnesses’ who will not be sufficiently credible to supply legitimate ‘testimony’ of their experiences. In Flint, residents started talking out months before metropolis officers acknowledged the disaster, however their complaints have been ignored. Now Michigan’s former governor Rick Snyder lastly faces prosecution, years after contaminated water first started flowing into Flint houses. 

Seyla Benhabib notes, ‘Democracies needs to be judged not solely by how they deal with their members however by how they deal with their strangers’ (1998, 109). Environmental injustice necessitates a reconsideration of how we outline the bounds between ‘member’ and ‘stranger.’ Environmental injustice requires that we consider worldwide methods and states by how they defend, or fail to guard, ‘strangers.’ Estranged residents of states unable or unwilling to defend residents’ rightsmust be acknowledged as a part of this ‘strangers’ class. As Arendt writes,

The conception of human rights … broke down on the very second when those that professed to consider in it have been for the primary time confronted with individuals who … misplaced all different qualities and particular relationships—besides that they have been nonetheless human. The world discovered nothing sacred within the summary nakedness of being human ([1951] 1968, 299).

Arendt makes clear that totalitarian forces ‘banish’ folks from the realm of rights protections. Because the examples mentioned present, environmental injustice possesses this identical harmful energy. Regardless of how systematic, nonetheless, environmental injustice doesn’t essentially emanate from a single authoritarian or totalitarian motion or determine.

In On Violence,Arendt writes, ‘Paperwork is the type of authorities through which everyone is disadvantaged of political freedom, of the facility to behave; for the rule by No one is just not no-rule, and the place all are equally powerless we have now a tyranny with out a tyrant’ (1970, 81). The thought of ‘tyranny with out a tyrant,’ when utilized to environmental injustice, reveals a system of injustice and racism so ingrained that it doesn’t require a single catalyst. The wrongdoer is likely to be the federal government on the metropolis and state ranges (Flint and Detroit) or the federal degree (Keystone XL and Dakota Entry Pipelines), or a company (Shell in Diamond), or a mix of all these forces. The commonality is that when the ‘proper to have rights’ is violated regionally, the repercussions are inevitably international. It is because 1) a lack of rights regionally undermines the validity of worldwide human rights protections; and a pair of) a lack of rights regionally as a result of environmental injustice makes that very same area people profoundly weak to the worldwide local weather disaster, and different international challenges—most lately the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s important to notice the wealthy physique of literature complicating and critiquing Arendt’s work. Kathryn T. Gines (2014) supplies a key evaluation of racism in Arendt’s work, and Ayça Çubukçu (2020) addresses Arendt’s strategy to race and civil disobedience. Çubukçu importantly notes Arendt was not ‘immune from the racism of her time’ (2020, 48) and was ‘profoundly restricted’ by the notion that the US ‘is an distinctive land of freedom and democracy’ (2020, 33). A dialogue of those critiques in their very own proper is important, however past the scope of this text. Right here, nonetheless, it’s price noting not solely how Arendt’s work adjustments how we perceive environmental injustice, however how the evaluation of environmental injustice reveals insights—in addition to gaps and flaws—in Arendt’s writing. Acknowledging this permits Arendt’s theories to be utilized in new methods, at occasions transcending the bounds of the time through which she was writing.

Injustice That’s ‘World in its Political Aspiration’: Can Worldwide Regulation Ameliorate Environmental Injustice?

Can environmental injustice be seen, like totalitarianism, as a drive that’s ‘international in its political aspiration’ (Arendt [1951] 1968, 389) due to the extent to which the modern capitalist context promotes the exploitation of pure assets on the expense of some people? And, if the lack of the ‘proper to have rights’ in numerous native contexts demonstrates the ineffectiveness of worldwide legislation, what’s worldwide legislation’s future position within the struggle in opposition to environmental injustice? Though worldwide agreements are a elementary element for dealing with the local weather disaster, examples mentioned right here reveal why accountability on a neighborhood scale, and insurance policies pushed by native communities, are important for real environmental justice and safety of the ‘proper to have rights.’ On this level, there’s a poem by the nineteenth-century author Stephen Crane (1899) that gives a becoming sentiment:

A person mentioned to the universe:
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘Nonetheless,’ replied the universe,
‘The actual fact has not created in me
A way of obligation.’

Crane’s provocation could be curiously utilized to fascinated by worldwide legislation. Environmental injustice would possibly recommend that worldwide legislation is an detached universe refusing to actually acknowledge the existence of its struggling human topics.Alternatively, is worldwide legislation the lone determine that Crane describes, begging to be acknowledged, in a ‘universe’ of politics and worldwide relations that doesn’t really feel obliged to answer worldwide legislation’s calls for for cover of people and the setting?

B.S. Chimni argues, ‘worldwide legislation is the principal language through which domination is coming to be expressed within the period of globalization’ (2003, 47). Antony Anghie poses the questions, ‘What does it imply to say that “worldwide legislation governs sovereign states” when sure societies have been denied sovereign standing?’ and ‘What persevering with results comply with from this exclusion?’ ([2004] 2007, 7). Anghie additionally writes, ‘sovereignty was improvised out of the colonial encounter’ ([2004] 2007, 6). As I have written regarding denial of the human right to water, modern manifestations of environmental injustice are, in lots of circumstances, examples of the ‘persevering with results’ of excluding sure teams from sovereign standing—excluding them from citizenship, and by extension, from worldwide legislation. Environmental injustice’s dominance in marginalized communities is linked to historic patterns. A neighborhood needn’t be legally denied sovereign standing, at current, with a purpose to undergo from the harms Anghie describes. ‘Legacies of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid persist, even when communities previously topic to illegality have since been granted authorized standing’ (Krakow 2020).

Arendt writes that propaganda is central to totalitarianism however ‘all the time makes its enchantment to an exterior sphere—be it the nontotalitarian strata of the inhabitants at house or the nontotalitarian nations overseas’ ([1951] 1968, 342). Can strategic efforts to disregard or masks environmental injustice regionally, corresponding to the federal government and EPA concealing harmful lead ranges regardless of residents’ documentation in Flint, be understood as propaganda in an Arendtian sense? The fossil gas business’s propagandistic efforts to deny and under-report its impacts on local weather helped stall motion on local weather change. These types of propaganda contribute to environmental injustice as a totalitarianism of our time.  Can worldwide legislation itself be seen as ‘propaganda’? When there’s a proliferation of non-enforceable treaties, do these developments propagandistically produce an look of worldwide authorized motion to masks a actuality of inaction?

Arendt was not solely within the course of by which totalitarians come to energy, but additionally within the aftermath of totalitarian devastation. The most important local weather threats loom forward as environmental disasters together with unprecedented flooding, wildfires, and droughts are quickly turning into extra extreme and frequent. What can studying Arendt inform us about not solely how all-encompassing environmental and local weather injustice have emerged and dominate our lives, however about how we will fight these injustices and picture residing via local weather emergency?

Arendt’s conceptions of the ‘proper to have rights’ and totalitarianism present us that with a purpose to stay via the local weather disaster whereas centering environmental justice, we should acknowledge that environmental injustice skilled regionally is rarely divorced from international local weather injustice. Worldwide legislation, and worldwide human rights, solely have which means when justice is achieved regionally. Neighborhood experiences and voices should be centered to drive insurance policies on environmental injustice. That is the way in which ahead for addressing rightlessness and de facto statelessness attributable to environmental injustice, and the way in which ahead for combatting environmental injustice as a totalitarianism of our time.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1995. “We Refugees.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Trendy Literatures 49,no. 2: 114–119.

Anghie, Antony. (2004) 2007. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of Worldwide Regulation. Cambridge: Cambridge College Press.

Arendt, Hannah. (1951) 1968. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Benhabib, Seyla. 1998. “On European Citizenship: Replies to David Miller.” Dissent 45, no. 4: 107–109.

Benjamin, Walter. (1968) 2007. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Bhabha, Jacqueline, ed. 2011. Youngsters With no State: A World Human Rights Problem. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bullard, Robert D. 1996. “Environmental Justice: It’s Extra Than Waste Facility Siting.” Social Science Quarterly 77, no. 3: 493–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42863495.

Chimni, B.S., 2003. “Third World Approaches to Worldwide Regulation: A Manifesto.” In The Third World and Worldwide Order: Regulation, Politics and Globalization edited by Antony Anghie, Bhupinder Chimni, Karin Mickelson, and Obiora Okafor, 47–73. Leiden/Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

Crane, Stephen. (1899) 2016. “A Man Mentioned to the Universe.” In Conflict Is Variety and Different Poems, 36. Mineola: Dover Publications. First printed by Frederick A. Stokes Firm (New York). Additionally out there through Poetry Basis: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44049/a-man-said-to-the-universe.

Çubukçu, Ayça. 2020. “Of Rebels and Disobedients: Reflections on Arendt, Race, Lawbreaking.” Regulation and Critique 32, no. 1: 33–50.

DeGooyer, Stephanie, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, and Samuel Moyn. 2018. The Proper to Have Rights. London: Verso Books.

Gines, Kathryn T. (Now Kathryn Sophia Belle). 2014. Hannah Arendt and the Negro Query. Bloomington: Indiana College Press. 

Krakow, Carly A. 2020. “The Worldwide Regulation and Politics of Water Entry: Experiences of Displacement, Statelessness, and Armed Battle.” Water 12, no. 2: 340. https://doi.org/10.3390/w12020340.

Lerner, Steve. 2005. Diamond: A Wrestle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Hall. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2014. Males Clarify Issues to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Somers, Margaret R. 2008. Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Proper to Have Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge College Press.

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