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America the Vulnerable

History warns we're sleepwalking towards collapse
Monday, May 27, 2013, 8:13 PM

For most people, the collapse of civilizations is a subject much more appetizingly viewed in the rearview mirror than straight ahead down whatever path or roadway we are on.

Jared Diamond wrote about the collapse of earlier civilizations to great acclaim and brisk sales, in a nimbus of unimpeachable respectability. The stories he told about bygone cultures gone to seed were, above all, dramatic. No reviewers or other intellectual auditors dissed him for suggesting that empires inevitably run aground on the shoals of resource depletion, population overshoot, changes in the weather, and the diminishing returns of complexity.

Yet these are exactly the same problems that industrial-technocratic societies face today, and those of us who venture to discuss them are consigned to a tin-foil-hat brigade, along with the UFO abductees and Bigfoot trackers. This is unfortunate, but completely predictable, since the sunk costs in all the stuff of daily life (freeways, malls, tract houses) are so grotesquely huge that letting go of them is strictly unthinkable. We’re stuck with a very elaborate setup that has no future, but we refuse to consider the consequences. So messengers are generally unwelcome.

Awash in Self-Delusional Cornucopianism

Will the cost or availability of oil threaten America’s Happy Motoring utopia? There should be no question. But rather than prepare for a change in our daily doings, such as rebuilding the railroad system or promoting walkable neighborhoods over suburban sprawl, we tell ourselves fairy tales about how the Bakken shale oil play will make America “energy independent” to provide the illusion that we can keep driving to Wal-Mart forever.

This is an especially delusional season in the U.S., with salvos of disinformation being fired every day by happy-talkers seeking to reassure a nervous public that everything is okay. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen an Atlantic Magazine cover story titled “We Will Never Run Out of Oil” followed by a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) stating that the U.S. would become the world’s number-one oil producer by the year 2020, and many other bulletins of comforting optimism from The New York Times, NPR, and Forbes. The Atlantic Magazine used to be a credible organ of the American thinking classes, and the Paris-based IEA is vested with authority, though its political agenda to prop up the status quo is hidden. In any case, these are the interlocutors of reality for the public (and its leaders), and the memes they sow travel far, wide, and deep, whether they are truthful or not. The infectious cornucopianism they gleefully retail has goosed the stock markets and made it even more difficult to put out the contrary view that we are in deep trouble, perhaps even on the verge of an epochal disruption.

The Warnings of History

Dmitry Orlov published a fascinating book on this subject in 2008 titled Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. Orlov, born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1962, had the unusual experience of emigrating to the U.S. as a twelve-year-old in the mid 1970s, and then returning periodically to what is now called Russia before, during, and after the collapse of its Soviet system. He had a front-row seat for the spectacle and an avid intelligence rigorously trained in the hard sciences to evaluate what he saw. He also possessed a mordant, prankish sense of comedy that endowed his gloomy subject with a lot of charm, so that reading him was the rare pleasure of encountering true prose artistry on a par with his countryman and fellow émigré, the late Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov was a scientist, too, by the way, working for years as a professor of entomology (insects, with a specialty in butterflies) to pay the light bill.

Recall the smug triumphalism in America that greeted the shockingly sudden collapse of the sclerotic USSR in 1991 (no bang and little whimpering). Serious historians were so intoxicated that one of them declared it to be “The End of History,” meaning that there would be no more geopolitical struggles henceforth, a preposterous idea that became instant dogma from Harvard to the U.S. State Department. To our pols and their wonks, it proved the manifest superiority of neoliberal corporate capitalism. Case closed. Now the USA could go forth unopposed and turn the Black Sea into a lagoon of pure Coca Cola, bringing liberty, democracy, Chicken McNuggets, and Michael Jackson videos to the disadvantaged citizens of long-benighted lands yearning to “consume” freely.

From his special perch between the two nations, Orlov saw the whole show differently: as a warning that the U.S. would probably meet a similar fate, but that the outcome for us would probably be much worse due to our massive stranded assets (the whole kit of suburban sprawl), our degraded sense of public goods, our lost traditional craft skills, and our pathetic lack of mental fortitude. The arguments he presented were clear, sensible, and absent in virtually every other venue where people discussed the repercussions of the Soviet collapse. To me, Orlov’s points were startling in the slap-your-forehead sense of …but of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

History to Repeat Itself "Over Here"?

Food

For instance, Orlov pointed out that the food production system in the Soviet Union had been so direly mismanaged for so long most of the 20th century that a whole counter-system of work-arounds had been established in the form of nearly universal household gardening. Even families who lived in the ghastly Modernist apartment slabs of Moscow had access to garden plots in the vast un-suburbanized Russian countryside, and they could get there on public trains and buses. The more privileged had dachas ranging from humble shacks to fancy villas, each with a garden. The Russian people were used to the necessity of growing their own food and had the skills for preserving it to offset the idiocy of the official distribution system in which citizens wasted whole days waiting on line for a cabbage, only to be told they had run out. When the Soviet system collapsed, the effect on society was far less than catastrophic, perhaps even salutary, because a large cohort of people with an interest in growing food, who formerly only pretended to work in dismal bureaucratic jobs, were now available to reoccupy and reactivate the de-collectivized farming sector that had been a drag on the Russian economy for generations.  After a period of adjustment, one thing was self-evident: no more lines at the Russian grocery stores.

Russia's Dacha Gardens Feed Body and Soul (The Christian Science Monitor)

Summer retreats provide not only solace but lots of produce – and even more of it now, amid economic hard times.

Home grown: Lydia Kolbetskaya stands in her greenhouse in this summer-cottage village 100 miles east of Moscow. She grows strawberries, tomatoes, and more – enough for the retiree to feed herself and help her daughter’s family.

By contrast, in the U.S., even farmers don’t have kitchen gardens. This is not a myth. I live in an agricultural backwater of upstate New York where dairy farming modeled on industrial agri-biz reigned for decades (it’s in steep decline now), and as a rule, the farmers do not grow gardens. They buy balloon bread, Velveeta, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes at the supermarket, just like the insurance adjusters and other office drones, and whatever leftover part of their farm is not planted in corn is occupied by an above-ground pool, or the carcasses of retired all-terrain vehicles, or the miscellaneous plastic crap associated with raising children in a “consumer” culture.

When even farmers don’t grow any of their own food, you can bet that a lot of knowledge has already been lost. American supermarkets operate on a three-day resupply cycle. The system is much more fragile than most Americans probably suppose. My guess is that few even think about it. The resupply system has never failed, except briefly, in localities hit by natural disasters. However, a financial crisis could cripple the food distribution system of the entire nation. Truckers who don’t get paid won’t deliver. Trouble in the Middle East oil nations could provoke an oil crisis something we haven’t experienced since the 1970s.  There are many ways for this complex system to fail the point being that when it does, there will be no backup, as was the case in the former Soviet Union. So one might conclude from reading Orlov that our prospects for being able to feed ourselves are a lot worse.

Housing

Housing bears a similar story. There was no private real estate in the old USSR. People just occupied apartments and homes that belonged to the state and were assigned largely on the basis of privilege and connections to the people in power. When the political system collapsed, nobody got kicked out of their dwelling place. No foreclosures occurred. Over time, the situation took care of itself emergently, shall we say. Private ownership resumed after a 75-year hiatus. Laws regulating it were put in place. Many Russians ended up in possession of apartments and houses they had occupied for decades, and a real estate market emerged from that (with some strong-arming from the potent Russian mafia).

Contrast that outcome with America’s experience beginning in 2007 with the imploding housing bubble: an extravaganza of foreclosure and even homelessness. And that episode must be considered a preview of coming attractions, because the U.S. has not entered the robust phase of collapse yet. When that happens, you can expect the tribulations of property loss to be epic. It could throw our system of property law into chaos for a generation or more, as the volume of foreclosures would become virtually unmanageable. Property law is at the core of our political system, which would then follow directly into an unmanageable condition. Orlov’s point, I think, is that a political collapse in the U.S. would leave many more people discommoded than was the case in old Soviet Russia.

Transportation

Similarly, too, bodes transportation. The Russians never adopted a culture of car dependency. A small minority of connected people had cars that they ostensibly “owned,” but the vast majority of the population depended on an elaborate public network of subways, trams, buses, and railroad trains. As a result, they never constructed an alternative universe of suburban sprawl. When the Soviet system imploded, the trains, buses, etc., kept on running. Russians could still get where they had to go to do what they had to do (rebuild their lives). We in America have poured our accumulated national wealth into a drive-in utopia that has no future in the remaining years of non-cheap oil. Any kind of an oil problem, whether it is a sharp geo-political event or just the slow crushing grind of high gasoline prices, will leave Americans stranded.

Conclusion (to Part I)

The arc of history is clear on what can (and usually does) happen when societies exceed their ability to support themselves sustainably. The swift vaporization of the USSR is our most recent example; one that should be especially concerning to Americans as the U.S. (for reasons cited) is less prepared to absorb the shocks of a similar systemic failure.

In Part II: A Clear Picture of What to Expect, we examine Orlov's most recent work, which shows how sovereign collapse progresses along a well-understood trajectory: Financial > Commercial > Political > Social > Cultural.

The U.S. looks certain to follow this progression at least partway in our lifetimes, likely sooner than later.

Click here to read Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

In the meantime, remain aware that the decisions we make and actions we take now will have outsized repercussions for our future. Act wisely and act soon.

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14 Comments

jonarmst's picture
jonarmst
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 14 2011
Posts: 14
JHK, the broken record of the century

How exactly is this article different from, oh, exactly 100% of everything else that JHK has been writing over the past decade or so?

(I should say 99% of everything that's different.  He seems to suddenly and conveniently make a neoconservative about-face whenever he discusses the state of Israel -- like all of a sudden he goes from a crypto-John Zerzan/Pentti Linkola type to Richard Perle -- apparently it's a lot easier -- and better paying -- to bash the fat white American suburbanite NASCAR fans that Kunstler loathes with a passion.)

Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily disagree with most of what's written here -- but I think at this point it's safe to say the nearly everyone here already "gets it", and those of us that read _The Long Emergency_ (and had it keep us up at night) are still waiting for TEOTWAWKI.

Keep in mind, newbie readers, that One Note Jimmy was the guy who was calling for the end of civilization during the Y2K crash, which everyone with even a nominal knowledge of IT or computer science (or even a smidgen of common sense) knew was going to be a triviail non-event.  Had he not Peak Oil and resource depletion to latch on to, I can't help but think that JHK would just be babbling about superviruses, Art Bell's "Coming Global Superstorm", or any number of other Rense.com-worthy "megacalamities".

Regards,

Jonathan Armstrong

ckessel's picture
ckessel
Status: Martenson Brigade Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 12 2008
Posts: 422
JHK and the Status Quo

Johnathan,

Do you also bash the MSM and the likes of Paul Krugman et al for promoting the Real Broken Record of the Century? Remember that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Federal Reserve and I submit that the policies of that organization and the related crony capitalism that passes as our 'economic system' is your real BROKEN RECORD.

I stand by JHK and his willingness to continue to speak out. We need many more folks like him IMHO.

Coop

jonarmst's picture
jonarmst
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 14 2011
Posts: 14
Still here after Y2K

So since I call JHK on his incessant doom-and-gloom I'm a Krugman fan?  Far too many "gurus" of the self-styled "alternative press" also get a free ride from their own (albeit much more limited) demographics.  

As previously stated, I agree with much of what One Note Kunstler writes -- or rather, whatever his 500th remix of whatever he's been writing for the last ten years says ("suburbia is ending and it's all the fault of churchgoing NASCAR fans") -- but let's face it, he's the epitome of a "doom porn peddler" -- kind of like Matt Savinar of the old lifeaftertheoilcrash.net website who used to cherry-pick headlines from a bunch of disparate sources and relabel the headlines with an "End Is Nigh" motif.  Kunstler might be good for "beginners" but for paid PeakProsperity subscribers like myself, I've grown a bit weary and unimpressed with this sort of material.

On a larger level, I wish that a few more of these "gurus" would be called on their wildly fantastic predictions that never seem to come to pass.  Where's James Turk's $10,000 gold that was supposed to happen a few years ago?  Why is Harry "Dow 40,000" Dent still being touted as a guru even though his latest sensationatalistic "Dow 500!" crash is not going to happen, either?

I'm not going to stop thinking critically about some of these seemingly "outside-the-box" thinkers.  A lot of these guys have their own agendas that are no less related to enhancement of personal prestige (and enhancement of their pocketbooks) than Krugman and their ilk -- the fact that they may seem more "sincere" and appealing due to their (seemingly) contrarian nature doesn't make them above scrutiny.

Jonathan Armstrong

davidallan's picture
davidallan
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 15 2009
Posts: 7
self delusional cornucopianism

The biggest challenge we have is not population growth or global warming or a broken financial system or resource depletion or pollution or species extictions or peak oil... The biggest challenge is our inability to take on board information that doesn't fit with our core beliefs. Those core beliefs come from the consensus view of our culture.  There are various names for this consensus trance - business-as-usual mindset, sheeple thinking and, as Jim says, self delusional cornucopianism.

Sure,.most of us have heard this content before. But not all; consider the new membership, those fresh from the crash course. Chris and Adam frequently post articles with repetitive themes and we can usually take something fresh from it.

Does a fish know it's living in water, does my dog know it's breathing air. No, probably not, this is just how things are. Similarly most people are unaware of the cultural beliefs they have taken on  - it's just how things are. So thumbs up to Jim for shining a light once more on this fundamental issue. The fact is it'is not at all obvious to most poeple. If it was we wouldn't be in the predicament  we're in.
 

A. M.'s picture
A. M.
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2008
Posts: 2345
Preaching vs. Productivity

DavidAllen,

I think what it comes down to isn't "Is J. H. Kunstler's material fresh?", but rather "What is it doing for the target audience?"

The most off-putting thing that I've seen on PeakProsperity is the "blame the fat American" discourse in which people who're literally caught in circumstances that they are, in most cases, wholly unaware of, are painted as devious conscripts in a cabal of Judaeo-Christian archaics who's outdated ideas are damning us all. There's a sort of supremacy that has stemmed from progressive thinkers that takes on the appearance of indemnification from the 'obsolete' values of the interior U.S., and it's pretty unfair and counterproductive to take that posture.
I'm pretty sure the author, as well as most of the readers, drive a car. Probably shop at stores, too. Might have even taken out a loan from a bank. 

We're all part of the problem, as it were. And we can all, just as simply, be part of a solution.
It's circumstance that's the ultimate arbitor right now, and we're all being victimized by those circumstances. 

So - is blame-placing doing any real good?
I don't think so, but that's just my opinion; I'd rather see more articles on how to be self-sufficient, how to utilize alternative energy, grow food, network with like minds and break away from the kleptocracy for a more egalitarian society. 

I'm just confused why Dmitri Orlov didn't write this piece... and why anyone thinks that Jared Diamond has *any* credibility, considering his work consists mainly of information stolen from Dr. Albert Bartlett, and subtly racist attacks meant to denigrate European contributions (of which there have been many, and Mr. Diamond should loathe to remember the renaissance, Issac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci, and dozens of other great European thinkers and visionaries) to society by purporting that anglo culture is one big, oppressive, fast food enterprise, hell bent on destroying anything that stands in its way, and then glorifying the utopian societies that were trod under (conveniently ignoring human sacrifice, cultural oppression and lack of innovation in said societies). 

Societies collapse. There's a lifespan on everything. Pointing fingers at the obvious symptoms does nothing to treat the malady.

Cheers,

Aaron
 

BeingThere's picture
BeingThere
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 7 2013
Posts: 50
Our Vulnerabilities

I'm glad to read JHK's mention of global neoliberalism, truly a scourge of our time and the constant attempt to destroy government and any kind of accountabilty to those who live and pay taxes in sovereign nation states.

This summer in secret, there will be discussions and the passing of the TPP Trans Pacific Pact that will go unnoticed by us all, but will make the citizenry wholly accountable for all banking and corporate graft.

We will not be able to protect ourselves from polluters, for instance.That pact will make us pay with our tax payer money any attempt by governments to sue corporations as those corporations can claim that all regulations stop them from making as much money as they could have.

We will also not be able to set up state run banks, like the one we have in North Dakota. That would be the way to turn the bankster system around, but they are trying to put the kabosh on that.

Imagine the BP blowout in the gulf and we are totally unable to get redress from the British run company. That does make us all colonies of corporations and banks, doesn't it?

______

One more comment: Upstate NY where JHK lives does have some great farms with excellent produce and animal products which are sold 4 days a week at the Greenmarket in NYC.

The problem is that these farmers say that without the NYC market, they couldn't survive. They are more expensive than the foods shipped in from the global market, but they do have great produce and that equation of price differential could change as gas prices continue to rise.

Choose_the_future's picture
Choose_the_future
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 13 2011
Posts: 2
Hiding away is not the solution

Re: Preaching Vs. Productivity

Hi Aaron,  

"...more articles on how to be self-sufficient, how to utilize alternative energy, grow food, network with like minds and break away from the kleptocracy..." would be very useful for after a collapse, but they won't make help to make you "part of a solution". 

As I'm sure you are aware, modern economies are configured so that they must continually grow or they will collapse.  This endless economic growth means and endless increase in use of the resources that the Earth and its environments provide for us, and an endless increase in commandeering the use of the surface of the Earth.  This means that hoping to become self-sufficient and hide away is doomed to fail as the current economic system expands to take all.

Even if you and many others were to set yourselves up as an independent, self-sufficient, sustainable, isolated society, the modern economic monster must still be fed and it must still grow inexorably; so eventually it must come to want the resources that you have, and it will come and get them.

If you want to be part of a solution you first need to change the monster into something that is sustainable.  Yes, societies collapse; but that shouldn't stop us from being one of the few that don't; especially considering that when we go down we are likely to take a good part of the Earth's biodiversity with us.

You may (or may not) find this interesting:
 

http://choosethefuture.jimdo.com/the-future/choosing-to-fail/

jyl1st's picture
jyl1st
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 11 2009
Posts: 3
Alternatives to "Corporate Capitalism" Economic System

Aaron/Jim-Do:

Thanks for the reference to the TPP (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Pacific_Strategic_Economic_Partnership).  I agree with need for Chris/Adam to continue to feature articles like this one (for new subscriers) and to provide solutions, I think they do a good job of  balancing both.  Take a look at the recent book for Economic Historian Gar Alperowitz: What Then Should We Do?   I higly recommend it.   He provides a historical perspective on wealth/power and our current system, AND, the emerging potential alternative system that may be taking shape in the US.   I hope Chris/Adam invite Gar to speak on Peak Prosperity - see: http://www.garalperovitz.com/.  Also, take a look at the Post Carbon Institute site on resilience: http://www.resilience.org/.   They sell three books there: Rebuilding he Foodshed, Power from the People, and Local Dollars Local Sense.

Cruginator's picture
Cruginator
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 15 2012
Posts: 1
Still here after Y2K - cheers to Jonathan

You have brought a clear voice to those of us who have been "sucked in" by JHK, Dent, Turk et. al.

Keep offering your comments you made my day !!!

Perhaps you should start a blog ?

Crugar Tuttle

Robert8020's picture
Robert8020
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 25 2013
Posts: 3
Wearing my tin hat

Better an old demon than a new God?

All right, we’ve heard it before; business as usual is not an option. Still the question persists with thorns. What should we do?

Given, the average “civilized” populations are not volunteering to give up what little wealth they have cobbled together and the lifestyle it affords them, nor are they opting for a poorly defined retrograde, culturally foreign future.  Where does that leave us?  Where do we go from here? It seems to me the momentum of our histories, constrain our possible futures.  Our cultural evolutions, principles among them being our consumer capitalism, our science and its technological advances, the entailed precedents, beliefs, practices and expectations, are all based on an obsolete paradigm, one which needs to be unwrapped, exposed as detrimental and replaced. That is one hard nut to crack; that is one tough sales-pitch. That is a lot to ask.  We must admit to ourselves that our current dominant culture manifests misguided moral judgment, imprudent and pernicious normative behaviors, certain to condemn our heirs to grave and dire consequences.  And even knowing this... is not enough for us to give it up. 

With hungry children to feed, rent or a mortgage to pay, I need more than a light on possible viable futures and alternate livelihoods. The activist needs to offer me a transition strategy that avoids penury, disenfranchisement, and marginalization, one that promotes and supports a capitalist bent toward benefiting the ecosphere and natural systems, deposing and penalizing the capitalist pursuing anthropocentric profit. How to make that future happen is now on the Tin-Hat-Brigade’s agenda.

Bob Lapsley

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 2502
The Price for the USA? $500Mil

Intelligent CIA operative explains where you are and where you are going.

Source

badScooter's picture
badScooter
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 20 2011
Posts: 89
JHK

What I find incredible about JHK is I generally agree with his main thesis, but my neck is about as red as you can get, philisophically speaking, and he so likes to snipe at such folk.  I don't at all agree with his Obama apologetics (not that Romney was much of a choice), and it puzzles me that someone with his ovious intelligence and vision to extrapolate our current situation into a quite possible unhappy conclusion could discount "us hicks" and the down-to-earth values one can generally find here.  Sorry for the political sidetrack, fire away if you must...that part of his presentation has just always rubbed me wrong.

m

Robert8020's picture
Robert8020
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 25 2013
Posts: 3
From dirt to dinner and back again. I am...wearing the Tin Hat.

I am new to this site, and not really up to speed with the politics involved; although, I know politics must play a major part in any solution preferred by my way of thinking.  My interest in all this is in the overriding paradigm, the one that may well be (maybe not) Human Nature, our core animal instinctual drives, our biology and our chemistry.  I’m talking the third rail… beyond reproach, beyond question, yes I am talking free will and free won’t.

“Morals and ethics drive our behaviors”, said the academic scorpion as he ferried across the river on the back of the frog.  We all know the story; midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both to a drowning death.  When asked why, the scorpion explains simply “that’s my nature”.  The fable illustrates my view that our behavior, more so than we would care to admit, is irrepressible, no matter what the consequences, no matter how we rationalize.  At times it serves us well and at others it kills us.  Now I am not saying our history, and our immediate environments do not contribute to the biology; they do, but we often claim the irrational choices we make today are reasonable choices made freely by sheer will.  …how do you square that with your natural born brains biology with its contributions to the irrational self destructive road we run?  I say whoa-deah, back up, slow down, regroup, let’s talk a little closer, look what’s driving us. May be we can change our nature.

P.S.

Hey BadScooter, I say this as a proud south Florida cracker who works hard every day and works overtime making dollars in exchange for nickels and who will die in the service of my family, trying as I do to give them peace, security and a powerful good dose of love and laughter. 

mh505's picture
mh505
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 8 2013
Posts: 1
having lived and worked in

having lived and worked in post-Soviet Russia for many years and having observed their particular brand of raw capitalism at very close range, I have followed Orlov's work from the beginning. The fact that he is a D&G'er doesn't mean he is wrong.

Yet he turns at least one blind eye to the conditions reigning in Russia today. Today's Russians - especially in the 5 big metropolitan areas - albeit still much hardier and self-sufficient than the average American (which is not a difficult thing after all) - are not very different to any other modern society.  The middle classes have "learned" to rely on their cars rather than public transport (I know dozens of Muscovites who absolutely refuse to ride the metro even though Moscow traffic is legendary for its traffic jams) and no longer have productive gardens in their dachas or even know how to grow potatoes.

They will be severely impacted by the crisis to come.

Also, Orlov or Kunstler are neither the only and certainly not the first people who were seeing what is going to come. Here is James Fallow with a piece from 2005 - 3 years before Orlov published:

http://esocap.com/uploads/files/Countdown.pdf

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