Epistemic Collapse

13 April 2017


Not long ago in Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery I discussed some of the experiences likely to be related to a local and limited collapse of social institutions, as a way to consider broader and deeper scenarios of social collapse. In this connection I quoted the following from Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

For Tainter, collapse is sociopolitical collapse, but we need not be limited by this stipulation. There are potentially many different meanings of “collapse” and I would like to particularly focus on what I will call epistemic collapse, which has played at least as prominent a role as social collapse in the extinction of civilizations.

A definition of epistemic collapse, that is to say, a catastrophic loss of knowledge, can closely parallel Tainter’s definition of social collapse, like this:

A society has epistemically collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of knowledge (epistemic complexity). The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a body of knowledge must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The epistemic collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of epistemic structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of epistemic weakness and decline.”

Tainter emphasizes that a “collapse” implies a previous level of attainment and stability (continuity); I agree with Tainter that this is an important qualification to make. It should also be pointed out that collapse implies a subsequent stability of the lower level of complexity and attainment, perhaps for a generation or two. In other words, a collapse — whether social, epistemic, or otherwise — means that stability and continuity at a higher level of complexity and integration is rapidly replaced by stability and continuity at a lower level of complexity and integration.

We know that one of the reasons the European “Dark Ages” were dark was the loss of the accumulated knowledge of classical antiquity, or, if not the loss (in an absolute sense), its restricted access due to loss of educational institutions, reduction in the publication, copying, and distribution of books, reduction in literacy, and so forth. During this period of reduced access to knowledge, some knowledge was lost in an absolute sense. Some books deteriorated or were destroyed before they were copied, and so have been lost to history. Much of the tradition of educational institutions was lost, as the educational institutions of classical antiquity went extinct or were extirpated (Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD) and were subsequently replaced by educational institutions attached to the Catholic Church.

To reach further back into the past, around 1200 BC there was a generalized collapse that led to the extinction of several Bronze Age civilizations (this story is recounted in Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). This severe blow to civilization led to a significant epistemic collapse characterized by widespread loss of literacy throughout the ancient world. Homer, we recall, was recounting an “ancient” time of heroes and heroic deeds, and it has been speculated that the Homeric corpus was the translation into written form of oral poetry that survived from this dark age of more warfare and less reading as compared to the age that preceded it.

In the kind of generalized collapse resulting in the extinction of civilizations that characterized the Late Bronze Age, there was both social and epistemic collapse, but to what extent are these two modalities of collapse separable? Even if not instantiated in human history, is it possible for a civilization to remain socially stable while experiencing epistemic collapse, or to remain epistemically stable while experiencing social collapse? I think that counterfactuals could be constructed to illustrate the possibility of isolated social or epistemic collapse, but these would not be very convincing without some historical parallel to make the point. A possible example could be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which was not tightly-coupled to a social collapse, but which entailed a significant epistemic loss, or the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, which, again, was not tightly-coupled to social collapse (except for the collapse of Baghdad itself) but was a disaster for learning and certainly issued in permanently lower levels of epistemic attainment in the region. For an illustration of the opposite isolation, it is arguable that Byzantium preserved the epistemic record of Roman civilization even as all Roman social institutions collapsed and were replaced.

The above considerations suggest that a distinction should be made between collapse (of some particular kind) and the extinction of a civilization. Only the most generalized collapse over several classes of human endeavor result in the extinction of civilization, and we can obtain a more finely-grained appreciation of how societies ultimately fail and civilizations go extinct (or resist extinction) by separating social, financial, legal, religious, and epistemic collapse, inter alia.

Multiple collapses result in the extinction of civilization. Civilization is itself a complex institution that is comprised of many sub-institutions; that is to say, civilization is an institution of institutions. We can classify the institutions that go on to make up a civilization as social institutions, economic institutions, legal institutions, epistemic institutions, and so on. All of these institutions are intertwined in civilization, but it sometimes happens that even an integrated institution within civilization will collapse without the civilization of which it is a part collapsing. The many intertwined institutions that together constitute civilization mutually support each other and can bring a civilization through a difficult time if enough of these institutions persist despite the failure of other institutions.

If our nascent scientific civilization were to experience an epistemic collapse, but the social institutions of our civilization retained a significant measure of continuity, our civilization could enter into a state of permanent stagnation (something I noted as the greatest existential risk of our time in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). If, on the other hand, we provide a robust backup of our knowledge, so thorough that a social collapse is not also an epistemic bottleneck, we could see the social institutions we know disappear even while our knowledge was largely intact and propagated into the future. Thus the human future itself admits of possible isolated social or epistemic collapse. Something like our civilization would survive on the other side of this collapse, after the recovery or replacement of the failed institutions, but that civilization would be fundamentally altered by the process.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Carl Sagan’s Dream

10 December 2012


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I have finally watched the whole of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey television series. I have in earlier posts expressed my admiration for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which I have watched numerous times, but, until now, Sagan’s Cosmos had eluded me. (And I didn’t even include it in my post Documentaries Worth Watching — because I hadn’t yet watched it when I wrote that.)

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While the Cosmos series is ostensibly a popular exposition of cosmology — and even, we could say, Big History before big history was known as such, since Sagan insistently places human beings in their cosmological context — the Cold War, strangely, is never far from the surface. Sagan had evidently felt so sharply the existential threat of nuclear war that he returns to this human, all-too-human theme in several places in his exposition of the grandeur of the essentially impersonal, and therefore inhuman, cosmos.

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This concern for nuclear war reaches its zenith in the final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth,” when Sagan recounts the narrative of a dream of nuclear war ending our terrestrial civilization. This dream sequence does not appear in the book version of Cosmos — perhaps it was included in the television series in order to give human interest to such a difficult topic.

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Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which I wrote about in Cyberspace and Outer Space — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.

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As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.

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Sagan uses this device of his dream of terrestrial civilization extinguished by nuclear war to introduce his theme of the episode — who speaks for Earth? After the dream narrative, Sagan then describes nuclear war again, in less personal but still horrific terms, and then asks, “We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” This, then, allows Sagan another summary of his history of science, this time noting the dark underside of science as a part of human civilization. Sagan returns to the Library of Alexandria, where some of the first moments of the series are set. Thus Sagan comes full circle, in a nice narrative closure.

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Sagan’s final recap of the history of science in this last episode mirrors an earlier theme from episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” in which he discussed two distinct traditions of ancient Greek civilization, one that he traces to Democritus and Aristarchus, that is about the sunny uplands of the human intellect as revealed by the best science of which human beings are capable, which is then followed by an almost malevolent account of a counter-tradition that he traces to Pythagoras and Plato, in which the pursuit of knowledge gets caught up in mysticism, obscurantism, and superstition. Even from the earliest beginnings of the Western tradition, it seems, we are dogged by the dialectic of eros and thanatos.

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In episode eight, “Journeys in Space and Time,” Sagan offers us a counter-factual history in which the early beginnings of science in ancient Greek civilization develop continuously and are never interrupted and derailed by the Dark Ages. Sagan speculates that we might now be going to the stars, in spaceships emblazoned with Greek letters, if we had not experienced a thousand year hiatus in the development of science. This idea reappears in a subtle way in Sagan’s dream narrative: when describing the alien civilization that falls silent he suggests that they might have come through a similarly dark time, that they were survivors of past catastrophes, only to be later destroyed by forces they could not control — like us. For Sagan, industrial-technological civilization is its own worst enemy.

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It is interesting and instructive to compare Sagan’s historical perspective to that of Kenneth Clark, who begins his Civilisation: A Personal View in the midst of the European dark ages in order to make the point that civilization made it through this period, as Clark says, by the skin of our teeth. Sagan clearly thought that we are now only making it through by the skin of our teeth. The ever-present threat of nuclear war could end our civilization at any time, and that would be it for all of us. Another way to formulate this would be to say that, for Clark, the “great filter” of human civilization was the dark ages, while for Sagan the great filter is now.

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Clark’s decision to begin in the dark ages was an elegant solution to the problem of how to tell the story of Western civilization without spending all 13 episodes on the Greeks and the Romans — something I would be tempted to do. The solution was to avoid classical antiquity altogether, and to begin with the pitiful remnants of the dark ages and how these gradually grew into a new civilization. Sagan approached this differently, distributing expositions of past and possible dark ages throughout his narrative, so that it appears in the first and the last episode and several of the episodes in between — as I said above, the spirit and the existential angst of the Cold War is never far below the surface of Cosmos.

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Is the history of ancient science any less essential to Western civilization than the history of ancient art? I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t think so. I think that ancient art and ancient science are equally essential and implicated in the world today — and for that reason, equally dispensable. Sagan, then, could have adopted the same “solution” as Clark: avoid classical antiquity altogether, and start with the rebuilding of Western civilization after its early medieval nadir. But Clark got the dark ages out of the way, and, once finished with them, did not return to the theme of the end of civilization. For Sagan, the potential end of civilization is an ever-present menace, so that it could not be taken up in the first episode and then forgotten.

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Another theme that appears in a subtle way in several episodes of Sagan’s Cosmos is that of the social responsibility of scientists. Sagan does not pose this in a strong or an explicit way, but it does come up from time to time, entangled as it is with the development of science and technology. If we recall one of antiquity’s greatest scientists, Archimedes, we remember that Archimedes was known for constructing engines of war for the defense of Syracuse, and that Archimedes himself was a victim of war, struck down by a soldier because he refused to leave his mathematical work.

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In episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” mentioned above for its contrast between the traditions of Democritus on the one hand and Pythagoras on the other (i.e., the contrast between science and mysticism), Sagan discusses how many philosophers of antiquity — including the greatest among them, Plato and Aristotle — defended retrograde institutions like slavery, and how they served tyrants. (This is, in essence, a Marxist argument that Plato and Aristotle were creating an ideological superstructure to defend the economic infrastructure of the society of which they were a privileged part.) I assume that this reference to tyrants was an oblique reference to Plato’s brief foray into practical politics when he visited the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (yes, the same Syracuse) in the capacity of what we would today call a political adviser. Even Plato was insufficiently brilliant to transform the dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher king.

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This unsuccessful intervention in Syracuse is recounted in Plato’s seventh letter, and in the famous seventh letter Plato made in quite clear that he was doing exactly that he presented as the duty of the philosopher in his famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic: after the philosopher has, by his own effort, raised himself out of the cave of shadows and eventually come to look at the blinding form of The Good, he has an obligation to return to the cave of shadows to try to make those still chained below understand their bondage to mere appearances. Plato wrote that he did not want to be considered a mere man of words, and so he undertook his mission to Syracuse, although he was rebuffed and unsuccessful, as most philosophers who return to the cave of shadows are rebuffed by those they seek to enlighten.

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Plato, then, took the responsibilities of the philosopher seriously — so seriously that he undertook a mission likely to fail. But who most needs our intervention? Should we preach to the choir, or should we attempt to pursue our intellectual ministry among the philosophical equivalents of prostitutes, beggars, and thieves? So Plato was no stranger to the social responsibility of the intellectual, and Plato’s mentor, Socrates, took the social responsibility of the intellectual so far as to die for it. Sagan has some harsh words for Plato, and perhaps some of them are deserved, but Plato lived in a dark time, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and all his efforts must be seen in this context. Could he have done more? Perhaps. Could Socrates have done more? I think not. Socrates gave all.

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In the last episode of Cosmos, “Who speaks for Earth?” that includes the dream narrative recounted above, Sagan says that he really has no idea why ancient civilization failed and gave way to barbarism, but that he would make one observation: that no scientist working at the Library of Alexandria ever questioned the injustices of the society of which he was a part. This is a echo of his earlier criticisms of Plato and Aristotle for defending the institution slavery. And despite disowning knowledge of why Greek civilization failed, he adds another explanation, related to the previous: that ancient science was an elite undertaking that did not broadly involve the mass of the people of antiquity.

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It was precisely Plato’s desire to initiate the masses into what he called the “dear delight” of philosophy that inspired Plato to write so beautifully in a popular style (he wrote in dialogue form), and to convey his ideas in parables and allegories that are as enchanting as stories as they are compelling as philosophical analysis. Plato did what he could, but in a society in which there was no broadly-based moral revulsion of slavery, and in which literacy was quite low compared to the level of contemporary expectations, it was inevitable that much of what Plato and Aristotle said fell on deaf ears. Bertrand Russell, in discussing Aristotle’s disproportionate influence over medieval scholasticism pointed out that this was not Aristotle’s fault, but the result of Aristotle having produced his comprehensive body of work at the end of an intellectually creative period.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In yesterday’s The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking I suggested that developmental psychology formulated in terms of perspective taking can be iterated throughout life and indeed on macro-historical scales, since the continual extension of human knowledge results in the formulation of ever more comprehensive concepts, and these more comprehensive concepts suggest in turn more comprehensive perspectives that can be attained.

In a future science of civilizations, it may be possible to formulate the developmental path of civilizations. It should be pretty straight-forward to acknowledge that civilizations develop, but this is actually a politically controversial case to make because if civilizations develop that means that different civilizations will be at different stages of development, and that in turn means that different civilizations have achieved different stages of civilizational maturity. This is a controversial claim to make, because in contemporary thought it is considered the height of ill manners to suggest that any one civilization is “higher” or “more advanced” or “more mature” or “superior” to any other civilization. I previously discussed this in The Very Idea of “Higher” Civilization.

Nevertheless, I will stick my neck out and make the unfashionable claim that civilizations do develop, that there are broad patterns of development (thought not anything necessary or categorical), and that the implied corollary — that some civilizations are in a more advanced stage of development than others — is also true. Moreover, I hold that entire civilizations can develop perspective taking, just as individuals can develop perspective taking. The breadth and scope of perspective that a given civilization can subsume constitutes a quantitative measure of its progress to civilizational maturity.

Given, then, that there is the possibility of a developmental psychology (or even a developmental cognitive science) that might do a reasonably good job of outlining the growth of the individual’s knowledge and ability to coordinate multiple perspectives, and given also that a future science of civilizations might formulate a developmental epistemology that would do a reasonably good job of outlining the social growth of knowledge, we obviously here have an ontogenetic development and a phylogenetic development.

Making this explicit, then, ontogenetic epistemic development is the growth of knowledge of the individual, while phylogenetic epistemic development is the growth of knowledge of social wholes. Each is dependent upon the other in a escalation of knowledge. (As we shall see below, there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the escalation of knowledge.)

The individual who achieves a new level of perspective taking can pass this knowledge along socially so that others can learn it without having to independently make the breakthrough on their own. Societies incorporate perspective taking into socially constituted bodies of knowledge and passes this along to individual members of a society. Thus there is an interplay, a dialectic, between the individual’s development and the development of the society of which the individual is a member. Each can spur the other to attain to a perspective that either in isolation would not achieve.

Since the emergence of settled civilization, epistemic escalation has been the rule, but it has been a rule with many exceptions. Even given the dialectical interplay between individual and society, the intrinsic tension of which implies a creative resolution, there are times when knowledge stagnates and societies experience retrograde development.

Stagnation and retrograde development is almost as controversial as maintaining that civilizations experience development. Also, historians have come to distance themselves from “loaded” evaluative terms like “dark ages,” and rightly point out that things are usually more complex than a distinction between “progress” and “dark ages.” This is much like my observation yesterday that Erik Erikson’s developmental stages are overly simplistic. The critique that I gave of Erikson yesterday could be applied equally to individuals and civilizations.

Progress and stagnation are probably too simplistic, but sometimes they are apt. However, there is another way to conceive the situation that might present novel possibilities of cognizing civilizational development, and this comes from further analogizing between individuals and civilizations (or, if you like, between the microcosm and macrocosm of knowledge). When an individual experiences stagnation or retrograde development, this is usually the result of mental illness. Now, there is still a certain evaluative disapproval that attaches to mental illness, but this is becoming less acute, and most people today see mental illness as less a moral issue and more of a medical issue. (This perspective, of course, has problems of its own, which I discussed in Banishing Despair.)

If we come to understand civilizational decline, then, not as a moral issue, not as a result of decadence, but as a pathology of civilization, as the sickness of civilization, we might formulate an understanding of stagnation and retrograde development that has eluded us in our earlier use of moral concepts to explain decline.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Which alternative represents the future of humanity?

Which alternative represents the future of humanity?

Last month in The Phenomenon of Civilization, after briefly surveying some possible fates not merely of our civilization, or of any one particular civilization, but of civilization on the whole, I concluded thus: “The present world would seem to offer no clues as to which scenario we should favor. Certainly there are many possibilities, and scenarios can be spun endlessly, but there is no dominating fact of the development of our time, or of the character of civilization of our time, that points to any one course of evolution or devolution.”

I now have reservations about the claim that there is no dominating fact of the development of civilization. Civilization is a temporal phenomenon and it has exhibited a significant measure of historical viability. That, in and of itself, is significant.

A map indicating dark ages in various regions of the world.

A map indicating dark ages in various regions of the world.

Although particular civilizations have come and gone since the origin of the first civilizations, there has been no time since that origin that the phenomenon of civilization itself has been completely extinguished, however dimly the flame may have burned during some periods of time and in some places throughout the subsequent history of civilization. While there has been much savagery and barbarism since our ancestors first began to live settled lives in cities supported by agriculture, there have been at least an equal number of Golden Ages and cultural high points. The continuum of civilization is riddled with exceptions and discontinuities.

It could be argued that the proven historical viability of civilization has slowly and gradually increased the robustness of civilization over time, making the continued likelihood of civilization higher than its possible disappearance from history. The longer civilization lasts, the stronger, the more durable, and the more pervasive it seems to become. The Greek Dark Ages from about 1200 BC – 800 BC were dark indeed, but elsewhere in the world civilization carried on at a minimal level. The Dark Ages of later Western history were not nearly so dark (nor as protracted) as the Greek Dark Ages, but, relative to the level of civilization immediate prior and immediately following, the European Dark Ages represented a low ebb of civilization.

The architecture, art, and literature of the western European Dark Ages is relatively modest and humble.  This picture of Santa María del Naranco, an example of Asturian architecture of the Ramirense period, shows it to be a building of harmonious proportions, but still diminutive in comparison to, say, the Colosseum preceeding it or Notre Dame de Paris following it; but at about the same time Hagia Sophia was being built at Constantinople at a scale to rival any monumental construction.

The architecture, art, and literature of the western European Dark Ages is relatively modest and humble. This picture of Santa María del Naranco, an example of Asturian architecture of the Ramirense period, shows it to be a building of harmonious proportions, but still diminutive in comparison to, say, the Colosseum preceding it or Notre Dame de Paris following it; but at about the same time Hagia Sophia was being built at Constantinople at a scale to rival any monumental construction.

Recent scholarship has reacted against the very idea of a “Dark Ages” and the term is scarcely used today, but it remains a useful way to characterize western European civilization from about 400 AD to 800 AD (roughly speaking). In Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective, I observed that, “No one reads Spartan poetry. No one admires Spartan architecture. The Spartans themselves had little use for such niceties.” It could be similarly observed that, while there is surviving literature from the European Dark Ages, it is not widely read today. Beowulf, the best-known classic of the early Middle Ages, comes from the ninth century, already a period passing out of the Dark Ages, as testified by the production of classic literature. Thus civilization did reach a low ebb, but it flourished elsewhere, beyond western Europe, and ultimately returned to western Europe.

The above considerations imply that the overall development of civilization does point to a pattern of development, and that pattern of development suggests that, if future will be like the past (the basic premiss of inductive reasoning), then civilization has a future that is stronger and greater (in a quantitative sense) that its history to date. But whether it is ever adequate to characterize civilization in quantitative terms is at least questionable: what we rightly value most in the history of civilization are the qualitative achievements that show themselves to exemplify an ideal not previously even conceived, much less concretely realized.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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