“Much more than a simple ecology, ecosophy is a wisdom-spirituality of the earth. The new balance is not so much between man and the Earth, but between matter and spirit, between spatio-temporality and consciousness. Ecosophy is not simply a science of the earth (ecology) and even wisdom on earth, but the wisdom of the earth itself that occurs when a man knows how to listen with love.”–Raimon Pannikar
In ancient Greece, the word cosmos designated nature’s grand universe; the organizational pattern of the universe as our greatest context as well as the organizational pattern inherent in human society. This relatedness of nature and society in harmony with each other also held for the human mind or psyche that is preoccupied with them, so all three – universal nature, human society, and individual psyche/mind – were seen as embedded levels of our complete world, and all three were based on the same organizational principles and laws of operation or conduct.
In this truly cosmic model, the Greeks believed that if we knew how the greater cosmos was organized, we would know how to organize our smaller human cosmos, the world of the polis or Plato’s Republic, for the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. The greater cosmos came out of chaos, which was not seen as the disorder conjured up by that word, but as the unpatterned no-thing-ness of the universal source, the infinite potential (more as in today’s chaos theory) within which all arises. Thus, the matter of how cosmos-as-order arose and functions was of supreme importance for the Greeks.
To create a harmonious human cosmos within nature’s greater cosmos, the Greeks believed that the human mind and emotions would have to be trained to function by the principles of harmonious cosmic organization. Epic poems, ancient Greek drama, and eventually even logic and metaphysics were all teaching tools. Dramas about terrible tragedies wove together the levels of cosmos in order to teach people democracy – what difficult or horrific situations could befall people, what decisions had to be made, what consequences must be dealt with when bad decisions were made individually or collectively, how cosmic influences moved between levels. Comedy taught similar lessons by spoofing how people actually behaved in order to promote better behavior, as in Aristophanes’ plays Lysistrata wherein women scheme to make peace when men fail to do so.
Another familiar ancient Greek word, philosophy, etymologically meant love of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom) and was used to designate the pursuit of wisdom by studying the natural world for guidance in human affairs. This was especially true for the pre-Socratics who at times are called the cosmologists, before Socrates began the searching for wisdom interiorly within the human conscience and initiated ethics as a branch of philosophy. The cosmologists assumed that the study of nature would reveal patterns of relationships applicable to human society – patterns that would help people organize and conduct their own lives, the lives of their families and their society wisely. There was destiny in the stars, hence the importance of astrology. Thus, philosophy, from the outset, encompassed what later was designated as natural science, the term ‘science’ coming into use only in the Middle Ages.
The Greeks were aware that understanding nature, including our own human nature, would help us live on Earth more intelligently and peacefully. To know one’s nature is to know how to live in harmony. Sadly, science abandoned that mission when philosophy became an independent field of knowledge while the systematic study of nature became ‘science,’ from the Latin scientia, a word implying knowledge, and the analytical separation or division of things into parts to understand them. The dichotomy began in the 17th century with Francis Bacon and signals the arrival of the modern sensibility, or perhaps a better term would be “insensibility” toward nature, which to put it mildly is nothing short than that of a rapist toward a woman whom he wants to control and exploit.
With the arrival of such a dichotomy, wisdom, which was part of the original understanding of science disappears or is relegated to philosophy understood esoterically as a very broad pursuit in its own right, based on thinking instead of experimentation or other formal scientific research. Meanwhile, within science the Greek notion that studying nature can bring wisdom in the running of human affairs was simply neglected and even lost.
Enter Ecosophy, often called deep ecology, which usually presents itself as something brand new, a new philosophy, a new Renaissance spurred by the ecological crisis of our times and able to save human-kind from its self-destructive tendencies.
Now, given the relationship to nature that the ancient Greeks explored as above argued, the question arises: is ecosophy, this latest modern synthesis of scientific ecology and philosophy, merely a reinventing of the wheel, the wheel already discovered by the ancient Greeks? The answer, I am afraid, has to be both yes and no, which may sound like an evasion or a paradox. But let me explain. The answer is yes in the sense of what we in modern times have regretfully forgotten about our cultural origins; as in so many other fields of knowledge disproportionately influenced by modern deterministic-mechanistic science, we, especially those of us committed to a positivistic approach to the apprehension of reality, continue to conclude that ancient philosophy too is a passé, long superseded anachronism, with some latent cultural-historical value, to be sure, but practically useless to solve our pragmatic ecological problems, the sooner disposed, the better. Within this line of thinking, modern science divorced from philosophy must at all costs have the last word, because it is the latest of human developments; what arrives at the end of a process, evolutionary or otherwise, has to be the best because it is the latest and most modern and most progressive; and progress, after all, is all but inevitable and unstoppable. This of course is positivism with a vengeance, which continues to be taken for granted by so many knowledgeable intelligent persons; but is it reasonable? Let’s briefly explore this assumption. When we do we also find out that the answer is not only yes but also no.
For a while, since Descartes’ rationalistic philosophy came into being announcing modernity in the 17th century, we have assumed that the universe is a great machine. And yet, lately our astronauts, who have seen the Earth from far above it, are speaking of an Earth that feels very much alive to them. From a rather depressing scientific story of a non-living material universe accidentally giving rise to all within it, and devoid of meaning or purpose, those astronauts as well as many notable physicists are beginning to enunciate a brand new more hopeful and visionary story strangely resembling that of the ancient Greeks: that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine and that we are, in some way, its conscious co-creators, active responsible agents for a living Earth, not mere fatalistic victims of our destiny as consumers of stuff. “In the beginning was the Word” may be just as good, just as reasonable, if not better, than “in the beginning there was a big bang which began the process of entropy and final dissolution.”
I said “a new story” purposefully. In Italian the word “storia” the way a Vico interprets it, has two meanings: it can designate a myth, as well as well as history documented by humans about events effecting their existence. Few would disagree that we humans always have been, from time immemorial, and probably always will be, storytellers. Whether we create our stories from the revelations of religions or the researches of science, or the inspirations of great artists and writers or the experiences of our own very personal lives, we live by the stories we believe and tell to ourselves and others. As Thomas Berry, walking in the footsteps of Giambattista Vico and Teilhard de Chardin, one of the authors of the word ‘ecology,’ said quite cogently: “We cannot tell the human story without telling the Earth’s story.”
Vico, Jung and Campbell discovered that certain archetypes of mythology were held in common by many ancient cultures. Of course the story most often referred to as the quintessential “Hero’s Journey” is that of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Campbell intimates that such a myth or story is incomplete. What happens to Ithaca after Ulysses’ return and heroic challenge of his wife’s suitors? Does the island, having returned to order and stability, become a sustainable resources’ society thriving in peaceful prosperity? We are not told; we need to fill the gap. It has been noted by some eco-sophists that Darwin’s evolution story is like the youthful adventures of Ulysses which now needs to be replaced by another adventure with the goal of building a mature ecologically stable society. Progress cannot be stopped. And this, of course, is positivistic.
Alas, in our modern positivistic world obsessed with explaining how the universe works but wholly disinterested in its ultimate meaning and destiny, story seems to have lost its vital importance. We have assumed since Descartes, since the empiricists and the positivists, since Darwin, that science alone could lead us to the truth, as story never did or could. We misguidedly thought that myths were mere fairy tale story for children or ignoramuses and then doubled up on that assumption by declaring the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection just another ethnic Hebrew myth comparable to the myth of Atlas or Thor. We assumed a reality independent of humans – a material-mechanistic (lately morphed into a cybernetic) universe that could be studied objectively without the human interfering in it in any way. In more poetical terms, we banished the gods and we declared the lord of the Universe dead.
When however, physicists discovered that all the universe was composed of energy waves and that every instance of our human reality was a wave function collapsed from sheer probability by a conscious observer, they were slightly surprised and everything began to change. That discovery meant that our world is produced in our consciousness and that language, to put it in Heideggerian terms, is the house of Being; that the Kantian phenomenon includes human consciousness- that realities are not fixed scenarios in which we grope our way about, but ever-changing creations we ourselves ‘bring forth’ both individually and collectively through our beliefs and actions. In other words, a universe more like a great thought than like a great machine appears; one that is more like a storytelling universe we make up as we go than like a stable physical reality in which we grope our way about. A universe more likely to be found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel than in Galileo’s scientific astronomy. Of course the hard-nosed positivist will continue to insist that such is the delusion of people unable to bear the brutal reality revealed by a material mechanistic universe.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my oculist, who in attempting to explain to me the incredible complexity of the human eye (and non-human animal’s eye too), blurted out the following: only a fool can think that this kind of complexity simply came about by sheer chance. He then agreed with my observation that the ancient Greeks might have well had it on target all along by postulating a nous, or a Cosmic Mind or Cosmic Intelligence behind the purpose (telos) and orderliness exhibited by the cosmos.
Indeed, it takes time for the new scientific stories of a conscious living universe and Earth to percolate. But philosophers of science such at Thomas Kuhn have by now made it clear that science can only give us useful hypotheses, not truths. Even the ever-more-obsolete scientific beliefs and findings told us a story, and a very powerful story at that. It told us we lived in a one-way universe beginning with a Big Bang and running down ever since like a battery depleted in the process of powering all the random collisions that gave us galaxies and our world. Some of those collisions, we were told, brought about certain molecules that sprung rather magically to life, but life – so the (largely Darwinian) story goes – became a struggle for survival in fierce competition before the running-down tide called ‘entropy’ eventually sweeps all life away.
This was a tragically misleading story. We abandoned community, cooperation and solidarity, as proclaimed by great religions of the world, to individualism, social Darwinism and greedy competitive selfishness a la Ayn Rand, and turned our human civilization into a capitalistic, competitive ‘Get what you can, while you can’ globalized shopping mall. Some now call it “globalization” whose main feature is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We have been frantically chopping down, drilling, digging and scraping up Earth’s ‘resources’ as if – or rather, because – we expected no tomorrow. We have literally put ourselves into the Sixth Great Extinction and are the first of Earth’s species to create such disaster. Only Earth’s very first creatures, her most ancient bacteria, came close to our destructiveness, causing both global hunger and global pollution in turn. They found a solution, we have not yet by transforming themselves into cells.
Primeval bacteria, our deep ecologists tell us, had Earth to themselves for almost two billion years – fully half of all biological evolution, and crossed a the tipping point which led to evolving the evolution of the nucleated cell as a giant bacterial cooperative. These cells, being new on Earth, then went through their own competitive youth for a billion years until they crossed point into full fledged maturity by evolving multi-celled creatures, to wit Humanity which in turn crossed another tipping point when tribes built the first cities collectively as centers of worship and trade that we are only now discovering in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
These city cooperatives too have been experiencing their own youth as cities became the centers for competitive empire-building over thousands of years up to national and now corporate empires. We have at last reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration, where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. Will we have the courage and the wisdom to cross it?
There is cause for optimism in this regard. Just as everything seemed hopeless, we suddenly have a cause for new hope. In such a sense the answer to our initial question continues to be no: what is going on is not a mere imitation or a reinvention of the wheel of ancient Greece; it is only that if we do not know the history of ancient Greece; there is something added, just as the Renaissance was not just a reinvention or imitation of the wheel of ancient Greece, there was an added value which was unknown to the Greeks: Christianity and the good news that this God was immanent within the universe and participates in its history. That changes the meaning of the story. We are slowly discovering that rather than wait for saviors to save us, we may have the power to save ourselves. How are we to do it? By first changing our story. From cogs within the wheels of a mechanized industrialized world, satirized so masterfully by Charlie Chaplin in one of his silent movies, we have developed a technology—the Internet—that is able to give us the capacity for collaboration and genuine communication. Now we can all save ourselves; not one at a time but together as a human species. We seem to have finally intuited that there is something hopelessly immature about the competing and fighting and grabbing going on at the highest levels of human society. Some have called it Capitalism and have added that it is the best economic system ever devised by man. Reality does not bear that out.
But the call to humanity goes on. Community as a concept, finally having lost the taint of its association with communism and its political agenda of world domination, is in wonderful revival as local self-sufficiency and sustainability become very human and very practical goals in an uncertain world. Caring and sharing are replacing competing and grabbing, in no small measure due to the increasing empowerment of women, who have always held these values and are promoting an ethics of care, care for the Earth who is the mother of us all, as St. Francis so wonderfully expressed in Italian literature’s first poem “The Canticle of the Creatures.” Indeed, many see this as a final growing-up and maturity of humanity. We can be thankful for this new Renaissance, so to speak, to the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Da Vinci (who conceived of no dichotomy between science and art), Vico, de Chardin, Berry, Sparenberg, Capra, Kuhn, Pannikar, not to speak of the various founders of ecosophy such as Ness and Eisler.
That wisdom expressed by those visionaries, is inherent in the nearly four billion years of Earth’s evolution. Species after species, from the most ancient bacteria to us, have gone through a maturation cycle from individuation and fierce competition to mature collaboration and peaceful interdependence. The maturation tipping point in this cycle occurs when species reach the point where it is more energy efficient – thus, less costly and more truly economic – to feed and otherwise collaborate with their enemies than to kill them off. But the process is not inevitable, for if it were, then we would be determined robots devoid of free will.
A final caveat is in order here: we need to be careful not to characterize this positive hopeful trend called ecosophy deterministic and inevitable or we shall fall once again in the trap of the narcissistic, idolatrous worship of “inevitable progress.” Man’s freedom needs to be preserved and protected because it is part of his identity. Without self-knowledge, as Socrates reminded us, no way forward is possible. We shall not know what are the ethical imperative consonant to human nature. The maturity brought about by time and experience is important but there is also decrepitude to consider. To refuse to change in the name of a pseudo-conservatism, deluding oneself that immobility insures order and stability, is to forget that immobility can also be a sign of decay and death. There is a kind of democracy in the cemetery: they are all equally dead and immovable.
Mark Twain tells a story of his 18 years old daughter thinking of him as the most stupid man in the world, but by the time she was 25, she was surprised at how much “the old man” had learned and matured in seven short years. What Twain is driving at is that the one who had changed was not him but his daughter. She had matured, of course, but she had also acquired wisdom or she would have continued to think of her father as the most stupid man in the world, no matter how many years passed. Wisdom can be an eternal idea but as Plato put it, nobody can be a genuine philosopher before the age of 50.
It is to be fervently hoped that human-kind has matured enough to realize that Ecosophy can not only unite our separate categories of economics, ecology, finance, politics and governance, but can also wonderfully unite science and spirituality, secularity and religion, and thus be the harbinger of human values into the entire human enterprise; as such it also represents a new humanism on the horizon. This new humanism cannot even be imagined till we have at least an inkling of the old humanism of the 14th century.
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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