Environmentalist fails at Climate Change Experiement

As a biology major, born and raised in Missoula, Montana, Climate Change is not new to me. Proud of our wide open spaces, I think I am aware of the impact I have on the world around me. Thats the goal of a holistic education right? Prompted by an environmental ethics class at Gonzaga,  I underwent a personal experiment over the coarse of the semester with intention to account for my carbon footprint. The following is my reflection on this task, suggesting reasons to why simple obstacles remain in the path of mitigating the anthropocentric climate crisis.

Appreciating a very square looking rock at GreyWolf Peak outside of Arlee Montana. 

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One drop in the ocean counts. A carbon footprint, referring to the net weight of carbon released by an entity within a specific time, is a measurable contribution to climate change. With over seven billion people on this planet, these footprints leave a mark. That is not to say we are hopeless to scar the Earth. We are called to account for ourselves in this matter as moral agents. Climate change is a moral issue each and every one of us is wrapped in. Perhaps it is time for me to reassess my own participation in this issue. 

Tons of carbon equivalent emissions, CO2e, rack up quickly through participation in polluting activities, consumer choices, and lifestyles. Most of these behaviors are programmed. They are a product of generalized social norms, expectations and practices. They are thoughtless action. The cost of these behaviors on the future is frightening. The effects of this programmed consumerism is not remotely considered in the line item pricing of what can be purchased (“Can Economics Save the Planet?”). In order to reconcile the disconnect between action and effect, proposed economic justifications such as carbon credit offsets, taxes and the sort have been put forth time and time again in a democratic fashion. Unsurprisingly they have been turned down. Unsurprisingly people don’t want to be inconvenienced in a measurable fashion in order to be held accountable for a free-rider problem. Unsurprisingly the majority of people choose the red pill and remain blind to their own power of choice. Unfortunately, the current mode of proposed mitigation is not firmly vested in actual behavioral patterns. The patterns which cumulate CO2e can easily be continued, slipping the recognition of their effect under the run by literally paying a middleman. 

Sumner beach in Christchurch New Zealand. Yes, flying all the way accross the world is taxing. Physically, mentally, perhaps emotionally. Should we account for the strain this journey takes on our environment as well? 

The dilemma of a reasonable carbon footprint is both personal and social. What is an acceptable footprint if the average is outside the box? It is essentially impossible not to have some sort of CO2e debit at the end of the year. We exhale carbon dioxide do we not? Even being somewhat conscious of my own contribution to climate change I expected my own account of my behaviors to be less than it was. As an avid outdoorswoman, a re-user of glass, a buy in bulk kind of gal, my carbon footprint measured at +10 tons CO2e each year, leaving me nine more years to live in my carbon budget. The current carbon budget for the next century allocates ~97 tons of CO2e per person for the climate to refrain from warming 2, over which highly devastating change will occur from this positive feedback loop (Hausfather). Prompted to acknowledge my own impact, I began an experiment. I was going to reduce my own carbon footprint, and that of my family in concentrated factual manner. How hard could it be?

Those who are aware of the threat of climate change often view personal habits like leaving the kitchen lights on at night or driving to work, to be central contributors of the footprint. However, this just isn’t so. The issue is much greater than this. The issue of personal involvement in climate change is much more wide reaching. An enormous factor of global CO2e emissions arise from agricultural sector which only accounts for 10% of the surface of the earth (Houghton, 187). Furthermore, this figure is specifically representative of the increased social demand for meat. Sheep and cattle are known to release methane gas due to their biology (enteric fermentation) and chickens and pigs release significant amounts of nitrous oxide (Houghton, 187). The chemical effect on the atmosphere from these gases is enormous. Carbon emissions from livestock production accounts for nearly 15% of the entire global contribution (Henning 165). The prospect of changing this figure is daunting and seems to be found far from the scenery of my own backyard. But this issue isn’t in my backyard at all: it’s in my kitchen, and my pantry, the very muscles that move my body. Choosing to take this challenge into my own hands, I decided my tact to reduce my footprint would be to decrease my meat consumption. “Earth has not evolved solely for our benefit, any changes we make to it at our risk. This way of thinking makes it clear that we have no special human rights; we are merely one of the partner species in the great enterprise of Gaia,” (Ruse 9).

The combination of conscious decision and choice describes the landscape of a moral decision. “You are the sole benefactor of your unjust act,” (Broome 91). While my wallet may afford me as much beef-jerky as my heart desires, my conscious will never be fully emptied of the highway-side feedlot I drove by in New Mexico. The smells stayed in the rental car for miles. The methane gas in the atmosphere for 23 years (Houghton 58). As my experiment preceded, I found myself thinking about the impact of my decisions regularly. I found myself over-intellectualizing my decisions. However, ironically I did not find myself changing my behaviors as much as I would have liked. Rather than falling, dumb and blind, into a pattern of vegetarianism, I seem to have fallen into some cognitive dissonance. 

Yes, this is a Tarantula. Strolling accross the trailhead parkinglot of the Organ mountians, NM, this little guy skirts away as my feet make the gravel go “snap crackle pop.” What direction we focus our attention is what brings our world to life. I didn’t think my footsteps were that heavy but I guess this one did. 

Appreciating the power of personal decision and individual action, I realize how cutting out meat products reduces my impact on the environment. However, I could not give into this simplicity. Changing my very behavior takes a lot more than desire. Perhaps this takes incentive, substitutions or punishment? This is a psychological question that deepens the moral conundrum I felt trapped with. Forgoing something consciously was much more difficult than relinquishing something by accident. Perhaps this is why voluntary simplicity is so beautiful? This was my unconscious aim when I set the goal of reducing my meat intake. “The voluntary simplicity invites us, as a choice, to acknowledge what was there all along,” (Elgin 18). Rather that simplifying my lifestyle, in the way of consumptive choices, I made my life much more psychologically complex. Suddenly acknowledging my ethical position and moral actions within climate change brought a gravity to my actions that paralyzed me. This is embarrassing to admit. 

When calculating my annual carbon footprint, I noticed a deficit in individual measurability. The preset assumptions in the EPA, and Berkley calculators may be important to balance out the overall carbon usages of an individual, but small individual efforts like grocery bags—which make a difference—were not factored in. These calculators, even after repetitive use, seem superficial. This makes big technical changes, like installing solar panels, extremely appealing to concerned moral agents. My family seriously discussed installing solar panels at the beginning of this experiment. We guesstimated the size of our roof, averaged the number of hours of light we get every day and talked to neighbors who recently installed solar panels. As life has it, as quickly as the chatter for solar panels began, it dissipated. Winter has set in, and re-roofing the house as well as installing solar panels is definitely off the table.

Given the outcomes, has my experiment been a total failure? I think not. Somehow, my efforts have transcended beyond my own focus. My family, intense meat lovers, a clan that is never soon to give up meat, has had incredible success implementing vegetarian dishes to regular rotation. I am surprised when I call home and hear of a bean dish, or a veggie slow roast on the menu. A major factor to my family’s footprint is the higher than average meat consumption. Leveling out this dietary plan, even mildly, decreased our carbon footprint my one-ton CO2e (“Footprint Calculator”).  Along with modifying our family’s habits, I have noticed a deeper appreciation for what is served. My thirteen-year-old brother can sure be a brat, but after breaking up the habituation of what is served for dinner, it seems like he notices what is in front of him. It might be the time of year but “thank you’s” have more sincerity. I see the virtue volunteer simplicity growing at home. “Simplicity is a virtue, we claim, because it furthers human and nonhuman flourishing,” (Gambrel & Cafaro 95). In fact, my family seems to be recalibrating itself. Letting go of physical items, clearing out old junk and making space. Room to celebrate, to live and to breathe. 

 Home is where the heart is. My Mom brother Rex at a home-town bike race. We chase fleeting dreams that a pop-up camper is all we need. Easy to think this way in spring… much harder in the dark of winter. Simplisity is not stagnant.

My own recalculation may have showed no change, but my experience brought about valuable reflection that exceeds numbers. This experiment has led me to question my own code towards environmental ethics. Behaviors and habits don’t change easily overnight. I am surprised by my difficulty in adopting lifestyle changes that reflect my own moral values. This may indicate just how deeply my culture incorporates consumerism and environmentally taxing habits. On a positive note, this project has increased my awareness of the technical solutions at hand that I can employ daily to account for my moral character. Most importantly, I realize that each step I take to lighten my carbon footprint makes a difference. While the free-rider problem was an obstacle at the beginning of this project, I am beginning to see how my drop of water belongs to the sea. 

Sources:

Broome, John. “Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World.” W.W. Norton. Pp85-96.2012.

“Can Economics Save the Planet.” Yes on I631, Clean Air and Clean Energy Initiative, 
Clean talk I-1631. 9, Wolff Auditorium, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. September 9, 2018.

Elgin, Duane. “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich.” Harper,2. 2010.

“Footprint Calculator.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. July 14, 2016. https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/

Gambrel, Joshua C., Cafaro, Philip. “The Virtue of Simplicity.” Journal of Agricultural Environmental Ethics 23:85—108. 2009

Hausfather, Zeke. “How much ‘carbon budget is left to limit warming to 1.5C?”. CarbonBrief on Climate. 9 April 2018. https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-how-much-carbon-budget-is-left-to-limit-global-warming-to-1-5c

Henning, Brian G. Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change. Anselm Academic. 2015.

Houghton, John. Global Warming: The Complete Edition.5thed. Cambridge University Press. 2015.

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Do Dead Trees Have Value?

In 2016, I graduated from Gonzaga with degrees in Political Science and Environmental Studies. Almost immediately, the Sierra Club hired me to work on forest issues in California.

Following a semester featuring two environmental ethics courses, I was frankly happy to leave the days of debating whether or not a tree has intrinsic behind. I was ready to enter the “real world” of pragmatic policy discussions and commonsense decision-making.

Daniel Barad_429x354Then, I arrived in a state where 129 million trees had died in the past five years due to drought and beetle infestation. Massive fire seasons dominated national headlines and displaced thousands of Californians. In the most progressive state in the Union, legislators and bureaucrats alike called for the removal of all 129 million trees by whatever means necessary; hard-earned environmental protection laws be damned!

Contrary to intuition, dead trees are not, in fact, driving fire behavior in the West. The most destructive fires in California do not occur in the forests, but rather in coastal shrublands. A year after dying and losing their needles, dead trees are no more flammable than live ones.

Dead trees, particularly charred trees, play a vital role in forest ecosystems. The black-backed woodpecker, a threatened species, requires areas with large numbers of dead trees to survive. Additionally, California northern spotted owls like to nest in old growth forests bordering areas of high tree mortality so they can more easily see their prey as they fly (this phenomenon is aptly named the “Bed and Breakfast Effect”).

The science is clear. The ecological benefits are undeniable. So why are there prevailing calls to remove dead trees in remote areas that pose no threat to human lives? Because what we have here is not a scientific query; it is an ethical dilemma.5E5C4EF5-BFE7-495A-9123-C8682787E5DB

Does a tree have value after its death? Those who value a tree for its contributions to humanity would likely answer no. If a tree is no longer producing oxygen, it has no value in the forest. It ought to be salvaged promptly for wood products or bioenergy.

Those who value a tree in and of itself might also say that it need not be considered after its death. Alive, the tree had interests; it soaked up the sun, absorbed CO2 and drank as much water as it could so that it could be the highest and best version of a tree. Dead, the tree no longer has interests.

Finally, to those of us who see a tree as a part of an irrevocably intertwined web of existence, the dead tree has value where it stands and eventually falls. While it stands, the tree is home to crucial forest fauna. As decomposes, it is nutrients for wildflowers, native vegetation and new trees. In turn, the wildflowers nourish bees and other insects while the vegetation feeds herbivores who later feed carnivores.

A dead tree is not a valueless tree unless one views it as an individual or a commodity. A dead tree is an irreplaceable part of a whole, a component part of a complex web of being.

After graduating, I could not leave ethics in the rearview mirror. Instead, I headed full speed into a forest of dead trees, backward policy and conflicting values. The “real world” is not an escape from ethical dilemmas, it is where they matter most.

Climate Change is a Social Justice Issue

My name is Audrey Holloway and I am a senior (’18) biology major with a minor in environmental studies. I have always been passionate about the environment and animal rights, but environmental justice has become a large part of what drives me since coming to Gonzaga. Being able to tie in a passion for others while also advocating for our environment is something I feel is so crucial in today’s world, and I love being able to be a part of a movement like this.

Climate change is an environmental issue, but it is also biological, economic, social, and political. How one participates in and is affected by climate change weighs heavily on your economic status and the abilities of one’s communities to cope with our shifting planet. If you have the money to be on a vegan diet or move from an area affected by heavy flooding, then great. But so many people are stuck in a poor socioeconomic situation that they do not even have the option to escape. And it is often the same people who are being most heavily affected that are contributing the least to the issue. It is so crucial to address climate change as an intersectional issue and emphasize that when we address one aspect of it, we can help so many more.

 

Tying climate justice in to the overall issue of climate change makes it more impactful for me personally. While I am very emotionally invested in the wellbeing of our planet for the planet’s sake, I also am a big believer in equality and social justice. I often think back to a specific instance when I was studying abroad. I had the opportunity to do a two-week road trip through Namibia at the end of my time, and Namibia is a country that is largely undeveloped. One of the byproducts of this rawness is that a majority of the country has a very primitive plumbing system, if any at all. I remember once, we were driving to a campsite one day that was deep within the desert. We were about an hour into our drive and so far the only sign of people that we had seen was a man walking a herd of goats. A little while later, we came upon a mother sitting under a makeshift canopy constructed out of branches, and her son, probably only five or six years old. As the woman sat under the canopy weaving, her son ran excitedly to the side of the road holding two empty plastic water bottles, waving them frantically. We pulled over and said hello and smiled and one of my friends filled his bottles with our huge three gallon containers of water and then gave him a few extra of our regular bottles. We gave the little guy high fives and his mother kept saying “Thank you” over and over as we gave her one of the most basic needs for human life.

It made me feel incredibly privileged and extremely guilty that I had the ability to unload so much water on them, while they sit on the side of the road during the day, hoping that someone will pass by to give them two water bottles. These people were not asking for money or food, but literally water because their country is experiencing one of the worst droughts in their history. This experience really amplified the concept that our climate changing affects people much more drastically than one could even conceive, unless you are living it. It is the epitome of injustice that people are losing food, water, and their homes over circumstances far from their control.

The Tangled Web We Weave

Sir Walter Scott may not have been thinking about how this quote could relate to environmental ethics, but as I have been pondering the idea of theory and practice, the context of this quote really resonated with me. Although the original source is from the play “Marmion” and is related to a love triangle, the overarching theme of the play is conceptualized around this “tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” and the unforeseeable consequences that can potentially result from it. So, how am I linking this to environmental ethics? Well, as I stated, I have been pondering my own environmental ethic and have decided that there really is a triangular process at work. The first angle of the process, as I see it, is figuring out who I am as an individual and what my beliefs and values are rooted in. These moral guidelines should shape my worldview, which acts as a catalyst for the second angle which is the process of determining my environmental ethic. The framework of this worldview then dictates the actions that will be taken on behalf of it, the third angle. This seems simple enough until we come to the crossroads of theory and practice. If I am a Christian by day and Dexter by night, or an environmental activist who drives a hummer and lives in a plastic house, no matter how I might try to justify it, there is a disconnect between what I think I believe and what I am actually willing to do in support of my belief. Thus, I am deceiving myself and others by not reflecting, or emulating that which I say is my environmental ethic. It is essentially the old, “Talking the talk, but not walking the walk” cliche. The reality is that no one can completely avoid being a hypocrite all together, but there is something to be said about at least attempting to avert this character trait as it can have unforeseeable consequences in the pursuit of my cause. This has been my main struggle because if I am to make any kind of a positive influence in changing the hearts and minds of those around me to embrace a life of simplicity and to have a mindset to think about how actions impact the ecosystem as a whole,  I have to set the example. So, the question remains: What action am I willing to take to honor the ethic I have? It is a fickle process that I am still working through, and as a 38 year old wife and mother of 5 boys, who is a full-time student and part-time employee, I know I need to be realistic and intentional in my attempts to create change within my home and in the community. My first stepping stone is to make small, attainable outcome goals, such as supporting holistic farmers, who are preserving natural habitats for livestock and plants. This means that when I go out to eat, my options are very limited, but it is still something more attainable than my entire family taking the bus everywhere we have to go. What seems like a huge bummer, really just gives me more of an opportunity to cook at home with my family. It simply is a matter of perception as to whether the glass is half full or half empty.  As I call myself a Christian and have many hearts and minds in my own home whom I hope to inspire, I feel it is essential that I show love for and am in support of justice for all of creation. I want my children and those around me to see that they can find joy and contentment in a life of simplicity and thoughtfulness, more-so than that of accumulation. My hope is that others will see something about my life that seems worthy of contemplation and will be encouraged to set their own ethical goals. I am a firm believer  that a simple life void of the stumbling blocks of narcissism, greed and pride is a better kind of life. It helps us to engage with one another and creation the way I feel God intended. I am not sure if the changes I make to my lifestyle, or the conversations I have explaining these changes will result in any kind of profound influence, but I know that I no longer have action paralysis. I am at the very least taking steps (the journey of a thousands miles and all that) to walk the walk because I believe that the journey matters, regardless of the end result.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Having an Ethic as a Farmer

Growing up on an apple orchard in rural Washington State and then going to a university such as Gonzaga can be quite the culture shock. Going from a small, public high school to a private, Jesuit university in the middle of Spokane feels like two drastically different worlds and finding my place in the middle of them has been a challenge. Being an Environmental Studies major, I learned in many different classes the problems that agriculture cause in our environment. The very word “mono-culture” was the embodiment of evil and I’m sure we have all sat around and talked about how we need to diversify our farms and break up the large scale farms that pump pollutants into our ecosystems. Now that is all well and good but I never really placed those lessons back on my own family farm. In my mind, we were too small of a farm, too insignificant to contribute that much to the global ecological disaster. How wrong I was.

As many of you future students have experienced, there is a project that involves a “carbon footprint calculator” that determines through various questions what your family’s own carbon footprint is based on their lifestyle choices. My total carbon output was quite high, actually very high. Like 147 tons of carbon dioxide every single year. That’s a lot, and the actual number is probably much higher. The footprint calculator that we used for the purpose of our project did not measure many carbon-producing factors that we contribute to on the farm. For example: our use of petroleum-based fertilizer every single spring. The pesticides that we use on our apples multiples times a year and the amount of water that goes into the orchard in a single growing season. Suddenly I realized that my family used the same carbon-intense methods that we had been learning about at Gonzaga. This giant, evil corporation polluting and destroying the land with enthusiasm that I had pictured in my mind suddenly changed its form. No more did Monsanto hover above us, the evil became my house, my family and the tractors and other equipment we use on a daily basis.

This all came at a unique time in my career at Gonzaga. In Professor Henning’s class, we were talking about what our own environmental ethic was and how we can expand our direct duties to the various organisms in our world. I was in a dilemma. How am I am able to accurately and sufficiently say that sentient beings deserve direct duties if I am directly contributing to the destruction of the local ecosystem through pesticide and fertilizer runoff? Before DDT was banned for agricultural use in the US, every farmer in

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Apples ready to harvest. Foil in the row to reflect sunlight for better color.

my valley used the pesticide because it was cheap and effective. DDT not only killed the pest insects, it also killed off the birds and amphibians in the area as their eggs’ shells became weak and prone to damage. I could not defend the use of these chemicals because I thought that sentient beings deserved direct duties. These animals were killed because we wanted a couple pests gone from the apples, and the other egg-laying creatures were just caught in the crossfire. Anthropocentrism at its finest. I had dreams of taking over the family farm one day, but how could I knowing what our farm did to the natural world around us?

The farm kid within me fought back, however. My father is a second generation farmer, on a small plot of land doing what he knows how to do in order to provide for his family. The farming methods and use of pesticides is how Dad make the best product for market. Being a small farm with a relatively small amount of land, we have to use the quality over quantity method. That means doing some things, like spaying pesticides, that are harmful to the environment but are necessary for our farm. Another thought rang through my head that said, “why should we change what do on the farm for an ecosystem that is full of other farms in the first place?” All around our valley is orchards. All use the same practices and are just trying to put food on the table same as everybody else, same as the animals that live around and in the orchard. What ecosystem is there to destroy? It is all just orchard anyway and I would rather have that over urban sprawl any day.

Here’s the kicker, I still don’t know what to do with my dilemma. I struggle with keeping the ethic that I found in Environmental Ethics (eco-centrist) and accepting the fact that my family contributes to hurting that ecosystem. How can I say that my family should change their whole life just for the sake of the ecosystem around them when it has been so drastically changed already? On the other hand, the degradation of the environment could have been avoided in the first place had other farming practices been implemented long ago, and if I won’t implement or advocate for change, who will?

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Bloom in April. The most gorgeous time of year.

An Environmental Ethic for Artificial Intelligence

This semester I took a class about the philosophy of technology. Like environmental ethics, phil of tech is a relatively new discipline when compared to the age of philosophy as a whole. Also like environmental ethics, the concepts presented in phil of tech are particularly relevant in addressing the most urgent problems of our modern age. Below I have shared a link to a research paper I recently completed that incorporates environmental ethics into a proposed moral framework for artificial intelligence. I think that it poses some interesting philosophical questions about our duties to non-human entities with respect to the impending creation of AI that have the potential to be more intelligent, capable, and moral than humans.

The Necessity of an Ecocentric Environmental Ethic for Artificial Intelligence

Reflection on a Semester of Environmental Ethics.

At the beginning of the year, I was somewhat accurate with what I first thought environmental ethics was. I first wrote that it was, “the moral aspects of the decisions we make regarding the environment, taking into account the people, the locations, costs, and reasons that are involved in environmental decisions.” I thought that we would be looking more into the post decision ethics, or basically the moral effects of our day to day lives. I have come to find out though that ethics comes way before the decision-making process. One should know their ethical standpoint before they make any major decisions, which in environmental ethics could be based in anthropocentrism, sentiocenstrism, biocentrism, or ecocentrism.

I imagined that this class would look more into society’s decisions and current processes, as well as the ethical implications behind those. For example, I wrote “I feel like many of the ethical environmental decisions made in life are out of my control (energy, water supply, waste management, etc.).” I was expecting to perhaps see a case study of the current state of energy within the United States, and our ethics behind this. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that environmental ethics is way more individual oriented. I was challenged to personally reflect on my own environmental ethics each day throughout the course which I enjoyed much more than simply studying other examples. For me, a class is far more tangible and enjoyable when it relates to me personally. What do I really care about, as opposed to what others say I should care about? What can I do personally to act upon this? Why do I care about these things? These were questions I was confronted with consistently.

I was also thinking way more small scale than what I found to be the focus of the class. I had imagined the basic, easily changeable behaviors that we hear about in our day to day lives; using less water, turning off lights, recycling, etc. I was once again pleasantly surprised to discover that ethics is deeply engrained in pretty much any choice that we make. It is not just the small things within my daily life that make me ethical or not, but rather the reasons behind my actions. Sure, I could stop eating meat. But why? Because someone told me it’s better for the environment? Or because I care about the emotional well-being of the animal, believe it is deserving of direct duties, want to have a smaller ecological footprint, and am in pursuit of better health? There are much larger “whys” than I had anticipated, far more than the simple answer “because it is ethical.”

Possibly the largest part of the course that I could not have expected at the beginning is that ethics involves way more than just humans. Most often in my previous philosophy courses, we had only ever considered humans and how we can treat them all ethically (anthropocentrism). It had never occurred to me to treat animals, plants, or ecosystems ethically. I embraced the discussions of reasons why we should or should not extend direct duties to other living things because it forced me to reorient my thoughts. I was no longer just thinking about human actions and their effect on other humans, but instead was thinking about the effect on almost every other organism as well. There are reasons behind each decision regarding every piece of dirt, plant, and animal. I really enjoyed reflecting upon many of these reasons, and look forward to continuing my understanding of myself.

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