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A Circular Economy in a Complex MultiDimensional Sustainability Game

You may have heard of the circular economy.

It is an economy where economic material flows enter the biosphere with manageable or no impact.

There is lots to like about this! Indeed, this is the environmental end game of sustainability is it not?

The best news is that the European Parliament is talking seriously about serious plans to support a circular European economy.

But the term seems a bit two dimensional, particularly when we think of the social and economic imperatives of sustainability.

Imagine this instead: a great complex sphere of economic, social, cultural, physical interrelationship hurling down a path littered with signpost screaming: STOP UNSUSTAINABLE.

That is the economy we live in today and that’s why it is so hard to instigate change. Circular just doesn’t quite capture the complexity and inertia of it all.

Its plausible, for example, to have a completely circular economy with the same intolerable levels of social injustice or economic inequality.

A multidimensional, circular economy is the sustainability goal it would seem.

In the meantime, I’ll take what we get on the circular front. So lets cross our fingers for Europe.

Test your knowledge on the circular economy quiz at the Guardian.

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Regulatory Klieg Lights, Corporate Photophobia and Sustainability.

I like a good government intervention from time to time. Problem is, good, market moving interventions are far and few between.

Some, like Naomi Klein, advocate massive infrastructure investments as a means to solve our climate crisis. Even if this was politically feasible, endless public investment might never be enough to stem underlying forces of unsustainable, dare I say ignorant consumption.

Bolstering growing but still weak sustainability market signals, on the other hand, seems a more feasible, less costly and faster way to the same end.

Requiring pension funds to publically state if they considered social, environmental and governance (ESG) criteria in investment decisions worked to this end, for example, leading to dramatically increased ESG investment levels in Canada, England and France with minimal financial or political costs.

Transparency works because consumers by and large want good things to happen. Sustainability reporting, labeling, or any form of shining light on corporate behavior lets consumers and investors decide if we want – or not – to buy or invest.

If a company fears light there is a reason for it.

The massive corporate-led, anti-GMO labeling campaign in various US states is instructive. Why don’t companies want us to know about GMOs? I am pretty certain it’s because they don’t really want us to understand what GMOs are all about.

Consumers may be ignorant but we are hardly dumb. Indeed, a recent Pew Foundation poll found while most consumers don’t really know what GMOs are they are pretty sure they can’t be a good thing! The poll also found that more information about GMOs would only confirm this fear and dramatically alter buying habits. Hence the corporate photophobia.

So while Kline is right about the climate crisis, it may be easier and ultimately more enduring to leverage capitalism by shining a little klieg lighting on corporate deeds rather than swim against implacable and fickle political tides.

Make sustainability reporting and labeling mandatory.

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The EXPONENTIAL power of Sustainability Market Signals

Sustainability market signals — the signals guiding the market towards more and better corporate sustainability – are growing.

These signals can be purchase and/or brand-oriented and are sent by consumers looking for both functionality and some form of sustainability inherent in a product/service. The value can be tangible, as in a biodegradable soap or a solar panel, or intangible, such as the feeling one gets buying a local artisan’s hand-made scarf, or helping a Costa Rican cooperative by purchasing their fairly traded coffee.

Less obvious are some more common products such as low energy light bulbs (probably the most successful sustainability product ever) or simply buying one brand over a competitor’s because it has more sustainable packaging. (See the example of Puma’s clever little bag in Do we really understand shared sustainability value creation?)

There are also non-purchase sustainability market signals. A long-time stakeholder favorite is the boycott and increasingly, positive or negative stakeholder media campaigns. More traditional approaches include stakeholders advocating for regulatory change and/or various forms of civil disobedience. GMO opposition is a prime example.

Sustainability market signals are growing. Consumer surveys from Latin America, Asia, Europe the UK and the US confirm this, all saying pretty much the same: about 50% of consumers are excited by the thought of making sustainability purchases and between 15% and 25% actually do so on a fairly regular basis.

If I would have to guess, the hard core sustainability market, or consumers whose majority purchases have some inherent sustainability value is still far less than 1% world-wide.

A much higher percentage of folks are sending non-purchase signals especially, for example, around minimum wage, work conditions in the textile industry, local food production and consumption, health and safety issues, and economic, social and race equality/justice.

Curiously and frustratingly, most consumers and advocates have yet to put 2 + 2 together and don’t flex the exponential power of consistently sending purchase and non-purchase signals together. Fighting companies selling GMO food but still buying GMO laced foods is a prime example.

The days is coming where these two signals converge more coherently in the marketplace. In the meantime, we can take heart that like no other warm and fuzzy concept, sustainability has penetrated deeply into the heart and soul of the market psyche.

The holiday season is upon us.

Sell and buy well.

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Infinite Economic Pleasure – Want Experiences

A couple of days ago, I argued wanting less stuff is the way to a sustainable economy and, not incidentally the path to greater personal happiness – but that’s a story for later.

In the meantime, to be happy with less and not have the economy fall over the edge of the universe – three words: Want More Experiences.

Family picnics, discover nature, church parties, group tours, art shows, dining out, theater, hobby groups, coffee clubs, urban gardens, night clubbing, music festivals (I recommend Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Music & Food Festival)

These are the things we love and the things that keep us happy, healthy and whole. Buy more experience, less stuff.

PS Check out Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card which give 2x points for dining out!!! Holy cow, a sustainability idea from a financial corporation.

PPS Check out Discover the Forest a cool campaign to “reconnect your family with nature by discovering a forest or park nearby.


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Industrial Tragedies and Sustainability, Honoring Bhopal and Others….

Thirty years ago methyl isocyanate leaked from a storage tank at a plant owned by Union Carbide in Bhopal India. Between 4,000 to 20,000 people were to eventually die in one of the worst industrial accidents in history. To this day, justice, many feel, has not been given to the victims and their families.

The leak, as with many other industrial accidents, was avoidable. Over history, there have been many millions of smaller and larger industrial catastrophes, some due to negligence, others to greed, many to incompetence, and some just to terrible luck and fate.

In the greatest sense, there will be no justice for those in Bhopal or others who have suffered, without an end to preventable industrial accidents. See Bhopal. Dec 3, 1984. Companies can do more. See also, Blameless in Bangladesh.

Below is a list of some of the most infamous industry related accidents over the last 114 years. It is not complete, there are other terrible incidents not mentioned. When I read it over this morning, it felt as though miners, factory workers, chemical plant employees, innocent men, women and children who just happened to live nearby and the ecologies irreparably damaged were giving silent testimony through the ages for more and better corporate sustainability.

This list, and this posting, is dedicated to those in Bhopal and others who have tragically suffered. It is also dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of professionals and volunteers the world round who have worked, and are working ceaselessly within companies and without to improve the health and safety of workers and the environment.

  1. March 20, 1905: Grover Shoe Factory Disaster, Brockton, Massachusetts, boiler explosion, 58 workers killed.
  2. March 10, 1906: Courrières Mine Disaster, Courrières, France. 1,099 workers killed.
  3. January 20, 1909: Chicago Water Crib Disaster, Chicago, USA 60 worker killed.
  4. March 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York City, USA workers killed.
  5. October 14, 1913: Senghenydd Colliery Disaster, Sengheydd, UK 439 workers killed.
  6. December 6, 1917: The Halifax Explosion, Halifax, Canada, 2000 people killed, 9000 injured.
  7. October 4, 1918: A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant Explosion (ammunition plant), Sayreville, New Jersey, 100 workers killed.
  8. January 15, 1919: The Boston Molasses Disaster, Boston, USA, molasses tank burst, 21 people killed, 150 injured.
  9. September 21, 1921: Oppau BASF Explosion, Oppau, Germany, chemicals, 500–600 people killed, 2,000 injured.
  10. March 1, 1924: Nixon Nitration Works Disaster, Edison, New Jersey, nitrate spill, 24 people killed, 100 injured.
  11. 1927 – 1932: Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster, Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, USA, 476 workers killed from silicosis.
  12. 1932-1968: The Minamata Disaster, Minamata, Japan, Chisso Corporation, mercury dumped in Minamata Bay, 3,000 people suffered deformities, mercury poisoning symptoms or death.
  13. April 26, 1942: Benxihu Colliery, Benxi, Liaoning, China. 1,549 workers killed.
  14. July 17, 1944: Port Chicago Disaster, Port of Chicago, CA, USA, (munitions 320) people killed.
  15. April 16, 1947: Texas City Disaster, Texas, USA, ammunitions explosion, 578 people killed, 3,500.
  16. 1948: Chemical Explosion, Ludwigshafen, Germany, BASF, 207 workers killed.
  17. October 1957: The Windscale Fire, Windscale, UK, nuclear accident, no fatalities, massive radiation leaked to environment.
  18. May 1962: The Centralia Coal Mine Fire, Pennsylvania. USA.
  19. May 28, 1965: Dhanbad Coal Mine Disaster, Jharkhand, India, 300 workers killed.
  20. August 9, 1965: Little Rock Air Force Base, Searcy, Arkansas, missile silo fire, 53 workers killed.
  21. October 21, 1966: Aberfan Disaster, Aberfan, Wales, colliery disaster, 116 children and 28 adults killed.
  22. March 1967: The Torrey Canyon Supertanker Shipwreck, Cornwall, England first major oil spill at sea.
  23. February 3, 1971: The Thiokol-Woodbine Explosion, Georgia, Thiokol Chemical plant, 29 workers killed, 50 injured.
  24. June 1, 1974: Flixborough Disaster, Fixborough, England, chemical plant explosion, 28 people killed, 36 injured.
  25. August, 1975: The Banqiao Dam Failure, Henan Province, China, 250,000 people killed.
  26. July 10, 1976: Seveso Disaster, Seveso, Italy, ICMESA, dioxins release, 10,000 animals died, 193 people suffered from chloracne.
  27. March 16, 1978: The Amoco Cadiz, Puerto Real, Spain, 68,684,000 gallons crude oil spilled, Amoco.
  28. April 27, 1978: Willow Island Disaster, Willow Island, West Virginia, USA, cooling tower collapsed, 51 workers killed.
  29. February 6, 1979: The Roland Mill Explosion, Bremen, Germany, flour dust explosion, 14 workers killed, 17 injured.
  30. March 28, 1979: Three Mile Island Accident, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, USA, nuclear reactor meltdown, radiation leak to environment.
  31. June 3, 1979: Ixtoc I Oil Spill, Bay of Campeche of the Gulf of Mexico, Pemex.
  32. November 20, 1980: Lake Peigneur Oil Rig, USA, oil rig drilled into a salt mine transforming freshwater lake into a salt water lake, Texaco.
  33. February 15, 1982: Ocean Ranger, Newfoundland, Canada, deep water oil platform sunk, 84 workers died.
  34. May 27, 1983: Benton Fireworks Disaster, Benton, Tennessee, 11 people killed.
  35. July 23, 1984: Union Oil Refinery Explosion, Romeoville, Illinois, 19 workers killed.
  36. November 19, 1984: San Juanico Disaster, San Juanico, Mexico, liquid petroleum gas tank explosion, hundreds people killed and thousands injured.
  37. November 23, 1984: Uherské Hradiště, Czechoslovakia, factory in collapsed, MESIT, 18 workers killed, 43 injured.
  38. December 3, 1984: Bhopal Disaster, Bhopal, India, methyl isocyanine released into atmosphere, Union Carbide India Limited, 4,000 to 20,000 people killed.
  39. July 19, 1985: Val di Stava Dam Collapse, Stava, Italy, tailings dam from Prestavel mine failed, 268 people killed.
  40. April 26, 1986: Chernobyl Disaster, Prypiat, Ukraine, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 50 workers killed, several thousands of people died from cancer over time.November 1, 1986:
  41. The Sandoz Disaster, Schweizerhalle, Switzerland, releasing tons of toxic agrochemicals into the Rhine.April 10, 1988:
  42. Ojhri Camp, Rawalpindi Pakistan, military storage explosion, 1,300 people killed.
  43. May 4, 1988: PEPCON Disaster, Henderson, Nevada, USA, chemical plant fire, 2 workers killed, 300 injured.
  44. May 5, 1988: Shell Oil Refinery Explosion, Norco, Louisiana, refinery explosion, 7 workers killed, 42 injured.
  45. June 28, 1988: Auburn, Indiana, chemicals accident, 5 workers killed.
  46. July 6, 1988: Piper Alpha Disaster. North Sea Oil Platform fire, 167 workers killed.
  47. March 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA, 10.8 million gallons crude oil spilt, 100,000 to 250,000 seabirds died, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, billions of salmon and herring eggs were destroyed.
  48. October 23, 1989: Phillips Disaster, Pasadena, Texas, USA, chemical plant explosion, 23 peopl killed, 314 injured.
  49. July 5, 1990: Arco Disaster. Channelview, Texas, USA, Arco Chemical Company complex explosion, 17 workers killed.
  50. May 1, 1991: Angus Chemical Nitro-Paraffin Explosion, Sterlington, Louisiana, USA, 8 people killed, 120 injured.
  51. September 3, 1991: 1991 Hamlet Chicken Processing Plant Fire, Hamlet, North Carolina, USA, 25 workers burned to death.
  52. May 9, 1993: Nambija Mine Disaster, Nambija, Ecuador, 300 workers killed.
  53. May 10, 1993: Kader Toy Factory Fire, Thailand, 188 workers killed, mostly young women.
  54. September 3, 1998: Haysville KN Grain Elevator Explosion, Haysville, Kansas, USA, 7 workers killed.
  55. January 30, 2000: Baia Mare Cyanide Spill, Baia Mare, Romania, 100,000 tons of cyanide contaminated water, Aurul Mining Company, up to 80% of aquatic life of some of the affected rivers.
  56. May 13, 2000: Enschede Fireworks Disaster, Enschede, Netherlands, fireworks depot explosion, 22 people killed, 947 injured.
  57. September 21, 2001: AZF Fertilizer Factory Explosion, Toulouse, France, AZF, 29 people killed, 2500 injured.
  58. November 3, 2004: Seest fireworks disaster, Seest, Denmark, N. P. Johnsens Fyrværkerifabrik. 17 injured.
  59. March 23, 2005: Texas City Refinery Explosion, Texas City, Texas, USA, BP, 15 killed, 100 injured.
  60. December 11, 2005: Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal Fire.
  61. April 18, 2007: Qinghe Special Steel Corporation Disaster, molten steel spill, 32 killed, 6 injured.
  62. February 1, 2008: Istanbul Fireworks Explosion, Istanbul, Turkey, fireworks factory exploded, 22 people killed, 100 injured.
  63. February 7, 2008: Georgia Sugar Refinery Explosion. Port Wentworth, Georgia, USA, Imperial Sugar, dust explosion, 13 people killed, 42 injured.
  64. March 12, 2008: Gourmet du Village Bakery Warehouse Roof Collapse, Morin-Heights, Quebec, Canada, 3 workers killed.
  65. August 17, 2009: Sayano–Shushenskaya Power Station Accident, Sayanogorsk Russia, 75 workers killed.
  66. February 7, 2010: 2010 Connecticut Power Plant Explosion, Middletown, Connecticut, USA, 27 workers killed.
  67. April 20, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico, largest offshore spill in U.S. history, 11 workers killed.
  68. April 5, 2010: Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, West Virginia, United States, Massey Energy, 29 miners killed.
  69. October 4, 2010: Alumina Plant Accident, Ajka, Kolontár, Devecser, Hungary, tailings reservoir broke, 9 people killed.
  70. November 19, 2010: Pike River Mine Disaster, New Zealand, coal mine explosion, 31 people killed.
  71. March 2011: Fukushima I Nuclear Accidents, Japan.
  72. July 11, 2011: Evangelos Florakis Naval Base Explosion, Cyprus, munitions dump explosion, 13 people killed.
  73. January 20, 2012: Burns Lake, British Columbia, wood mill explosion, 2 people killed, 20 injured.
  74. September 11, 2012: Ali Enterprises Garment Factory Fire, Karachi, Pakistan, 289 people killed.
  75. November 8, 2012: Neptune Technologies & Bioressources, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, 2 people killed, 19 injured.
  76. November 24, 2012: Dhaka Tasreen Fashions Fire, Dhaka, Bangladesh 112 workers killed.
  77. April 17, 2013: Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Waco, Texas, USA, fertilizer explosion occurred, West Fertilizer Company, 14 people were killed, 160 injured.
  78. April 24, 2013: Rana Plaza – Savar Building Collapse, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1129 workers killed, 2,515 injured.
  79. July 6, 2013: Lac-Mégantic Derailment, Lac-Mégantic, Quebec Canada, oil shipment train derailed, 40 people killed.
  80. May 13, 2014: Soma Mine Disaster, Manisa Province, Turkey, 301miners killed.
  81. August 4, 2014: Mount Polley Mine Disaster, Likely, British Columbia, extensive ecological damage toxic tailing flow to river.

Source: Wikipedia


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2 for 1 Economic Self-Flagellation and Wanting Less Stuff

In North America, most of us live in a vicious cycle of 2 for 1 economic self-flagellation.

First, we want too much stuff, more than we can afford really, so most of us need everything at the lowest price possible.

Second, we want expensive things most can ill afford.

So we work extra hours, or take on crazy credit levels to pay for things. When we get the stuff we want, we quickly become unsatisfied with it (cause stuff don’t make us happy) and so we start the cycle again.

Many, too many, of us have been willing to live this way for some time despite the often grave personal and financial consequences. We sacrifice our own quality of life and/or that of others to buy cheap or dear, and wittingly or not, encourage inevitable and avoidable personal, environmental and labor exploitation. We don’t like it but we still like our cheap and expensive stuff.

Companies are smart and they pay attention, so we shouldn’t be shocked when they manage to deliver our “needs.” They are, after all, only doing our bidding.

The only escape from our own self-inflicted punishment: want less stuff.

If you don’t belong, join the Story of Stuff movement… photo credit: The Story of Stuff


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Collaborative Competitive Advantage and Corporate Domination in the Sustainable Century.

Sustainability is fundamentally a social problem and its coming will be much more complex than defining yet another, slightly better algorithm for recycling more cans or putting more solar panels on rooftops (though both help!).

The environmental problems we face are symptomatic of accepting a social and economic organization that encourages producers and consumers to degrade and devalue our natural resources and, indeed, our very own selves and others.

If the problem is social, then the challenge by definition is one of collaboration. History shows great social change requires incredible collaboration. In groups large or small, almost nothing changes without collaboration.

Imagine the unfathomably complex funding, fueling, and fighting of World War II by the United Sates. Consider the massive coming together of passion and commitment in Gandhi’s India. But think on a smaller scale too of something more personal, say, your last successful work project, a fundraising party for your church, or the harvest of your community garden.

Collaborative advantage will mean working not just within the walls of an organization but without as well. Now famous examples — Unilever, Nike, Natura, Tata — have substantial history from which to judge both the success and challenges of this approach.

Collaborations can be as modest and simple as honestly listening to stakeholders as Cycna Cement does in Aguascalientes, Mexico; or it can be as complex as Kholer’s launching of a national sanitary campaign in India with the participation of various levels of governments, NGOs, schools and other stakeholders (see also Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet competition).

Providing any valuable product or service is complicated enough as it is – doing it with stakeholders who share you sustainability end goal but may not have the same talents, language, means or methods, not only defines the challenge of creating a sustainable economy, but the work of companies who will dominate the economy in the not too distant future.


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Remember libraries? (And Keeping Wikipedia Ad Free!)

You know those hushed and quiet rooms lined with bookshelf after bookshelf after bookshelf, each packed tight with adventure, knowledge, inspiration and excitement.

My mother used to take us to the Maple Ridge library in British Columbia, Canada when we were young. I remember holding her hand as we entered the hallowed hall, feeling that sacred feeling, smelling the earthy aroma of hundreds of waiting volumes, the adrenaline of possibility, of an endless journey anywhere I wanted to go or places I would never have dared dream of alone.

And it was up to me,  myself alone to decide where to go. The librarian would always help me but she would never direct or tell me what to read, no never. Neither were there clues to guide me save the alphabet and my curiosity. No logos, no tag lines, no signs, no billboards, no flashing lights, no announcements…just me and my young mind.

Alas, the internet has radically altered the way we seek knowledge and entertainment. It is great in so many ways, but as with everything, there are dangers. Social media, in particular, has decoupled and confused knowledge with commercial and personal content often thinly veiled – sometimes ridiculously so — advertising and promotion. Spawning native advertising is ever more prolific and never transparent enough. Truth in advertising is stretched, omissions commonplace and the full and honest truth an increasingly rare currency indeed.

That is why it is critical the internet’s library, Wikipedia, remains free of advertising. Wikipedia is as sacred a vault of knowledge as any library, unbothered and undistracted by the suasion of advertising.

Wikipedia is a not for profit organization as befits the world’s font of knowledge. If you haven’t donated to their current campaign, get out your wallet, your purse, collect pennies on the street corner, tell your neighbors, and donate now!

Histrionic? Perhaps, but the fate of intellectual freedom and a sustainable world may just be in the balance and that’s not nothing.


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Bhopal. Dec 3, 1984. Companies can do more….

Aljazeera’s The Stream asks us today: can justice be given to the Bhopal survivors some 30 year later?

This question is not just a test of our willingness and ability to hold companies accountable, but it is yet another test of our basic humanity.  It should also test our faith in a capitalist system whose incredible power we can decide to use — or not — to satisfy our real needs, meet the greatness of our values, and work for the betterment of all and not just a few.

Can justice balm the incalculably personal losses of people who were already subject to such terrible and oppressive forces? Can justice ever heal their punctured hearts? Perhaps not, but we must offer without hesitation recourse, heartfelt support, and compensation for lives so ruinously and carelessly destroyed.

Justice in the larger sense will certainly never be served if we continue to allow systemic industrial failures of smaller and greater magnitude to occur. These are not accidents, they are sins of omission, of commission, of greed, of incompetence and the advancement of society – some would say our very survival as a species –  demands more of companies, governments, and indeed of ourselves to see and tell the truth. (see also Blameless in Bangladesh).

I barely remember the day, but we should never ever forget the consequences and the lesson we seemed to have failed to learn which seems to me the very least we can do.

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More Consumption & Less Poverty is key to Sustainable Economy….

While we must focus on zero environmental everything and radically reducing consumption in developed countries – production waste, water, carbon-based energy etc. simultaneously we must work to eradicate the scourge of poverty in developing countries which means, ironically, a lot more not less consumption.UN We have

Poverty is morally repugnant and unacceptable. It is also one of the greatest sustainability challenges of this century. People working to just get by rarely have the time, energy or income to spare for solving pressing community and environmental issues cursing their efforts to live life to its fullest potential.

Imagine releasing the power of millions of Rigoberta Menchu Tums and Neslon Mandelas from the grips of poverty. The benefit, as my friend Jesse Fripp recently noted in a Sustainable Century podcast, is “exponential self-actualization.”

Folks, rich and poor, in developing countries have spoken. 13 of their top 16 development priorities voiced by 1.4M developing country residents surveyed by the UN are poverty alleviation related. The first environment issue ranked 11th.

This doesn’t mean the environment is not important to developing country folk, it is, but people know resolving poverty is the fastest way to fixing the environment.

What does this mean for your company? Not more philanthropy that is for sure, more sustainability shared value creation, definitively.

see for more information on what folks want!
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