21 Worldchanging Principles for Sustainability in the 21st Century, from WorldChanging.com
From WorldChanging.com , arguably the most important website on the internet (May 7, 2007):
“Over the next twenty-one days, we’ll be running a series highlighting the principles on the changing nature of sustainability in the 21st century and sharing resources from our archive that delve deeper and provide context for each. At the end, we hope to have a [semi-comprehensive] toolkit of the guiding concepts behind our vision of a globally sustainable future.”
As the public gains interest and personal investment in living more sustainably, knowing the backstory becomes increasingly important. Whether it’s food, lifestyle products, building materials — most everything in the designed or built environment — a big part of making good choices involves knowing where things come from, what’s inside them, and how they got to point of use. If we know the backstory as consumers, we can make good choices; and if businesses and designers know they’ll have to tell the story of their product, they make sure it’s a story someone would want to hear.
A focus on the backstory takes us to the “cradle” stage of a product’s lifestyle, where the entire rest of its life is determined. This is the stage where change towards sustainable practices must start, and the most powerful place from which to begin a redesign of the material world.
The green space is teeming these days with lengthy and complex explanations about the meaning of sustainability. But from that wealth of information, two exceptionally simple methods emerge for understanding what such a planet would actually look like, and how we can get there. Ecological Footprint and One Planet both frame human impact in terms of physical space. One indicates the space we exploit through our consumption patterns, and the other indicates the space we have to share — equitably and permanently — as a global population, if we intend to sustain life on Earth. The concepts distill daunting challenges into individual goals: If we can each shape our own footprints such that they never exceed what the planet can support, we’ll accelerate our progress exponentially.
The 20th century industrial model follows a linear course — what many people now call “cradle to grave” — meaning that products we manufacture die when they’re no longer useful to their owner, sent to a point of no return in a landfill somewhere. It’s a model that epitomizes a wasteful and unsustainable system. In a sustainable industrial world, we take that fatal end point and reconnect it to the beginning, closing the loop and creating the possibility of reusing those dying industrial ingredients to manufacture a new generation of useful items. Instead of a linear “cradle to grave” model, we now have a cyclical “cradle to cradle” model.
In their book, Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart illustrate the potential of closed loop manufacturing to bring about a new industrial revolution, free of waste and pollution, which promises a sustainable material civilization. It’s an idea that’s been widely adopted by sustainable designers and architects, developed into certification criteria for sustainable products, and used as a clear and basic teaching tool for comparing the practices we need to leave behind with the ones that can carry us well into the future.
The fourth principle in our series looks at life cycle analysis (LCA) and understanding the resource use involved in every stage of a product’s life, from design through disposal (or reuptake into another manufacturing cycle, as in a “cradle to cradle” scenario).
When we analyze a product’s life cycle, two of the important factors are the “embodied (or embedded) energy” and “virtual water,” both of which are accounting methodologies for establishing the total energy or water required for a product or service to exist in the world, including raw material extraction, transport of parts, disassembly, and decomposition or recycling. From an environmental perspective, a value cannot be accurately placed on a product or service without considering the cost of all of these in-between and indirect phases.
For too long, it’s been so easy to take for granted the benefit of natural systems to quality of life that we’ve treated them as though they will be free and functional forever. But in the last few years, the value of the services we receive from the Earth has become increasingly apparent, not only in terms of sentiment, but in terms of dollars and cents. In other words, we’re figuring out that preservation offers greater economic gain than resource extraction, and realizing that accounting for what we’re losing now — and what we stand to lose if we don’t calculate the dollar value of things like bees and rainforests and biodiversity — may save us in the long term. Worldchanging’s archive of material on this topic is quite extensive, as it’s a key example of a new solution for saving our most ancient assets.
Whether in government, business, science, technology or media, transparency is one of the key factors in demonstrating authenticity, establishing trust, and proving there’s truth to claims of responsibility and sustainability. A transparent system makes previously hidden processes visible to all, allowing citizens to see how decisions have been made, how resources have been obtained, and how conclusions have been reached that effect their lives.
With new technologies and networked movement building, citizens are now more capable than ever of forcing transparency where opaque systems lead to human rights abuses and corruption. The increasing use of open source as an approach to solving problems and disseminating information collaboratively means that we — the public — hold more power in determining our future. We write frequently about transparency in many contexts, as it forms an important part of the groundwork for a just, equitable, sustainable and democratic future.
Strategic consumption is the recognition that the immediate, or tactical, effects of our purchases are of such limited power as to be essentially meaningless.
Bill Rees, who coined the term ecological footprint, says individual behavior changes in the absence a broader strategy for creating change are pointless:
“We’re all on the same ship and what we do in our individual cabins is of almost no consequence in terms of the direction the ship is going.”
But we’ve all got to buy things, and we quite rightly would rather that our dollars do as much good as they can. Hence the concept of strategic consumption: the practice of basing decisions not only on the immediate qualities of a product or service, but also on the changes buying them is likely to have in the broader world.
In the industrialized world, we’ve gone through many phases and iterations of innovation to reach the level of technological advancement we currently enjoy. It took well over a century, for example, to get from Alexander Graham Bell’s historic first telephone call to ubiquitous mobile phones and VoIP. And, indeed, in our societies, the old and the new are everywhere intertwined: we may use Blackberries and take genetically-targeted medications, but many of us still drink water delivered through victorian clay pipes and drive internal combustion automobiles over MacAdam roads.
That’s not the case everywhere. In rural areas and emerging megacities across the Global South, basic services like telephone and power lines just don’t exist. This creates a new kind of opportunity: where even the most basic systems of telephony have never been introduced, for instance, it’s possible to skip the landlines altogether and jump straight to mobile phones — leapfrogging to the technological forefront.
Leapfrogging has tremendous implications in terms of promoting development, facilitating access to medical care and educational tools, enabling new forms of local currency and credit, and transferring remittances around the world. It’s a means of sharing information and leveling the playing field between Global North and Global South. Some of the innovations now being created in leapfrogging nations will probably influence in turn development in the industrialized world — a process that’s been described by such clumsy terms as leapback and frogleaping, but which we can probably all expect to see much more of in coming years.
All of this may turn out to be extraordinarily good news for sustainable development, as access to information technologies, distributed power and water systems and innovative medical, agricultural and architectural solutions help people create new pathways out of poverty and towards a bright green future.
How best do we meet the enormous social and humanitarian needs we find everywhere in the world today? There is no one right answer, no one perfect solution. Sustainable development will demand a variety of approaches, including much new thinking and innovative work.
Two relatively new ideas we wrestle with frequently here at Worldchanging are social entrepreneurship and base of the pyramid businesses. Both are approaches with their problems (and many critics), but both also offer useful insights into the business of creating change.
Social entrepreneurship involves either businesses serving social ends, or social programs run in the manner of businesses. The idea is to leverage business’ unparalleled ability to get things done in order to serve needs which have traditionally been addressed solely through charity and governmental entitlements. Critics charge that this blurring of the boundary between profit- and change-making enterprises leads many funders and investors to commit category errors when judging social enterprises, often demeaning the true goals (poverty reduction, public health, etc.) when those goals prove resistant to business-modeled fixes, but such approaches have also, quite clearly, worked in a number of cases.
Base of the pyramid efforts aim at bringing the world’s poorest people into the global economy by marketing goods and services to them which help better meet their needs. At its worst, this becomes a means of wringing micro-profits from the poor without in any meaningful way changing their circumstances. At its best, however, it brings transformative tools, from micro-finance and micro-insurance, to needed goods made available at an affordable price, into the lives of the poor.
Together, social entrepreneurship and base of the pyramid approaches illuminate a much broader trend, which is to treat entrenched social and sustainability difficulties as problems capable of solution through the conscious and context-sensitive application of innovation.
A significant number of the innovations we’ve highlighted on Worldchanging have been designed and developed through collaboration. Whether in hands-on settings or through web-based tools, engaging a wider community almost inevitably yields a product which is more appropriate for its intended context and better suited to the end-user. This model also enables iterative improvement even once a product or service has been released into the world.
One way to facilitate that continuing evolution and improvement is to use Creative Commons licensing. Whereas copyright declares a product complete and “all rights reserved,” thereby putting a lock on the possibility for anyone to replicate or build upon the original concept, Creative Commons declares “some rights reserved,” creating the possibility of placing rights on only certain aspects of a work, or on the work in only certain locations (as with the Developing Nations Creative Commons License). Creative Commons has made a profound difference in the process of innovation in general, permitting more rapid, cooperative development and allowing effective models to be distributed everywhere.
Socially responsible investment (SRI) has become a highly effective tool for changing business, proving to investors and CEOs alike that doing good in the world can also help a company do well. A surprising percentage of investment dollars now go into various sorts of socially responsible funds, and many of those funds out-perform their more mercenary competitors.
Part of the conversion process to becoming a believer in SRI involves learning to trust a slower pace of return on investment (though larger end result). As Joel Makower previously wrote, Much like its gastronomical brethren movement, slow food, patient capital is a backlash against institutionalization — in this case, of money as a means of earning, well, a fast buck. Rather, say its adherents, money should be a means of creating wealth — the kind that enriches society, the environment, and our collective soul just as much as investors’ financial standing.
In order to know that businesses really are balancing the pursuit of profit with environmental and social responsibility, transparency is essential. Again here, investors can be a driving force in changing companies’ behavior around transparency, and one way they’ve done it is to collectively demand disclosure of CO2 emission information from corporations around the world. Transparency, it turns out, is also a great way to reduce the risk of the kinds of corporate corruption and criminality that have made headlines so often over the last decade.
The practice of philanthropy wields influence far beyond the amount of money that foundations and individuals give away each year. Because a great number of the tasks most vital to building a better future demand investments whose return is measured in impact rather than dividends — tasks that would not be done correctly (or sometimes at all) if they needed to return a profit — smart philanthropy acts as a sort of yeast, catalyzing innovations that will pay off handsomely in future public benefits, from child welfare to ecosystem services.
But much of the philanthropic work done today is less smart than it ought to be, and a whole host of new ideas is bubbling up which offer the possibility of real transformation in the field.
One of the biggest changes is a dramatically increased demand for transparency in the ways foundations and donors track and reveal the impacts their giving has, why their gifts were made, and what they’ve learned from their failures. Shockingly enough, many philanthropists still treat their grantmaking and evaluation processes like business secrets, when they ought to be thinking about how to leverage the value of the new knowledge their money has purchased (in the form of programatic efforts from NGOs) by sharing it as widely as possible.
If the opacity of philanthropic practice is a problem, the ways many institutions invest their endowments is a flat scandal. Many foundations fund their charitable giving by investing in companies that are actively creating the kind of harm those foundations are trying to undo. In the wake of a series of scandalous revelations of amoral investment practices, there has been a wave of calls for not only greatly increased transparency on the part of foundations about their portfolios, but also more comprehensive tools for holistically evaluating the social and environmental impacts of the stocks they hold — what we here term their philanthropic footprint. Foundations that get it are increasingly treating their portfolios as part of their toolkit for creating change.
Being clear about their philanthropic footprints also frees foundations and the NGOs they fund to think more clearly about partnerships with private sector companies, partnerships that when done right — as some sayis increasingly the case in the global response to the water crisis — offer tremendous opportunities to use the strengths of all three kinds of organizations to best advantage.
NGOs themselves are beginning to change as well. On the one hand, they are beginning to respond to the emergence of millions of networked small donors, becoming more nimble, more open and collaborative, and quicker to form mutually advantageous networks themselves. On the other hand, they are beginning to demand longer-term investments in the creation of considered strategies, intellectual groundwork and slowly-emerged innovations (especially in the sustainability arena). This combination of nimble openness and deep strategy is less a contradiction than it might seem though, as it becomes clearer that long-term vision coupled with operational spontaneity offers the best recipe for success in a world where online communications, technical innovation and rapid cultural and political change are sending tremors through the strategic landscape.
The big question is whether all this change is happening fast enough. With many of the problems we face being the kinds (from climate change to fighting global poverty) in which time is not on our side, we need rapid innovation and we need it immediately. The men and women who are working to change philanthropy are thus giving us all a gift, even if we never see a coin of the money they grant out.
While many things about living a sustainable lifestyle have changed since the early days of environmentalism, it’s been true all along that the best way to buy green is to buy nothing. Even with the current upsurge in “eco-friendly” consumer goods, the lightest impact we can have as consumers is to consume less, buy less, and use less. The obvious argument against the whole idea, of course, is that to live a comfortable life, we all need things, and this whole “buy nothing” attitude is just guilt-making and impossible. Yet when it comes down to it, in many cases what we really want is the service those things provide, not the things themselves. If we could have the resulting conveniences that all our possessions afford us without owning them ourselves, would our lives be as comfortable and easy? Service designers say yes.
Service designers create product service systems, which are a way to facilitate access to everyday conveniences through organized sharing, while maintaining (or even elevating) our quality of life. The classic example of this, which we reference frequently, is car-sharing. The concept has been around for decades, but recently, it was hugely inconvenient and inefficient. Technology has revolutionized the car-sharing experience by allowing a person to instantaneously locate a car, unlock it and drive away with nothing but a cell phone and a swipe card. We get the personal mobility without the annoyances of car ownership, and by participating in a car-sharing service, we help to remove up to twenty passenger cars from the road. In effect, you dematerialize the car, getting the ride without the hunk of metal and gallons of oil. This is important because while it might seem surprising, almost half of energy a car uses in its lifetime goes to manufacturing and disposal, meaning that no matter how hard we try to drive less, if we own a car, much of the energy is sucks up has already been spent.
Product service systems are now being designed to address many other needs. In urban areas, they make dense living in compact spaces more pleasant by requiring less stuff to live a comfortable life. In addition, sharing systems encourage people to get acquainted with their neighbors and larger community, which increases safety and livability. Some service designers envision a world where people will lust after services the way they currently lust after consumer goods — what London design crew Live/Work calls “service envy.” It such a shift in attitudes can really happen, we’ll be that much closer to transforming our material world.
Urban density is major element in the picture of a bright green future. Compact homes, closely situated, make a drastic difference in the all-around efficiency of a city, from energy to transportation to shopping for basic necessities. They also make it easy to skip driving and take transit or walk, which decreases pollution and improves physical health. Finally, they foster the creation of supportive community networks in which resources can be better shared and everyone feels safer.
Knowing, however, that populations in general are on the rise, and urban populations in particular, it’s important to look ahead towards growth that can accommodate greater numbers without degrading the surrounding natural environment and encouraging sprawl. Smart growth strategies look at ways to make living closer to the city more appealing than a life out in the suburbs, encouraging more dense development on the edge of cities and less sprawl out into the open space outside the metropolitan area.
When facing gigantic problems like climate change, the first thing we need to know is how far we have to go. What is a sufficient response? What’s good enough? One way to make sure our responses are sufficient is to make sure we have no impact at all. That’s the idea behind climate neutrality. By reducing energy use, using energy more efficiently, and offsetting what we do use, we can reduce our “carbon footprint” to essentially nothing. (It may not be as easy as that — there are still complications having to do with our public footprint, but getting to personal carbon neutrality is a pretty good first step.)
If climate neutrality is about knowing that we’re doing the right thing, climate foresight is about knowing what’s going to happen because of what we’ve already done. The earth’s climate impacts every living system on the planet, and essentially every human-made system as well. However, what those impacts will be, how quickly they’ll unfold and what ramifications they’ll have are still largely unknown to us. Answering those questions is what climate foresight is for. By using a combination of climate models and futurism tools, we can figure out, for instance, how climate change will effect our attempts to restore natural systems, or how high we might expect the fees to rise. It’s still an inexact science at best, but with more and more important scientific bodies and other researchers working to find the answers, we have a better and better ability to anticipate the consequences of climate change and thus to work to make the systems upon which we depend more resilient.
It’s an unfortunate truth that many of the things we routinely do in our daily lives hurt the planet or other people. And we all want a certain degree of prosperity, most of us hope to have that affluence be guilt-free — to be able to live a good life without a sense that we have become bad people — and this can seem an insurmountable challenge when we look into the backstories of the things we buy.
But there’s actually a pretty simple formula for changing a guilty lifestyle into a guilt-free (or at least less guilty) one.
First, we stop doing as many bad things as we can. (We shouldn’t drive to the store when we can just as easily walk, for instance.) Second, make what we can’t or won’t cut out as low-harm as possible. (Most of us agree that we still need lights, but we can invest in CFLs or better monitors). Third, when we can’t cut something out and can’t do it in a better way, we can try and do something else that makes up for it.
That’s the theory behind offsetting: balancing the harm we do by paying someone else to do something that is as good as our actions are bad.
Most readers will be familiar with the idea of carbon offsetting. This is a practice of paying a company to make investments which reduce the amount of carbon released by our society in an equal proportion to the amount we’re emitting. There’s all sorts of schemes for doing this — some visionary and extremely useful, others a little less thoughtful, a few not really good at all. It’s an emerging industry, and we’re still learning how to design out the flaws.
But the idea of offsetting needn’t stop with carbon. Earlier this year Worldchanging contributor Jer Faludi suggested a scheme for water offsets. Jer pointed out that rather than spending extravagant amounts on greywater capture systems, low-flow toilets and showers, we’d achieve greater overall water savings by financing water offsets — buying more efficient irrigation systems for farms or orchards, which use many times more water than homes and offices. Such ideas show us both the promise of offsetting, which is to move with maximum efficiency towards a more sustainable future, and the perils associated with offsetting. The worst of those perils may be purely moral, that we being to believe that because we have the money to balance the harm we do in our lives with investments elsewhere, that the harm we do doesn’t matter.
That said, at this stage of the game, and this being an imperfect world, offsets are a pretty useful thing.
The history of industrialization involves a long, ugly series of civil injustices through the environmental degradation of communities at the receiving end of industrial waste streams. It’s no coincidence that huge manufacturing plants dispose of their byproducts where people have the least power, money and influence to fight back. As a result, these communities have suffered disproportionate health problems and dealt with substandard environmental conditions for decades, while having the least access to the resources industry both exploits and provides.
During the same period, the environmental movement has grown and become known (at least early on) more for its vehement advocacy for whales and rainforests than for disenfranchised citizens; that was presumed to be the work of the civil rights and social justice movements. More recently, though, it’s become glaringly obvious that these movements are inextricably linked — that environmental degradation is a civil injustice — and from the junction of the two, the environmental justice movement has emerged.
Environmental justice defines environment to include communities, human health and racial equality in equal proportion to resource depletion, pollution, extinction, and the numerous other issues associated with environmentalism. Not surprisingly, many of the initiatives towards achieving environmental justice have sprouted within affected communities, but clearly the problems and the problem-solvers can’t incite widespread change from an isolated position. Today, projects like Sustainable South Bronx and Chicago’s Little Village have raised public attention on the issue and made it clear that a sustainable society cannot exist until environmental justice is done.
Nothing is more personal than food. It forces us to make decisions every day that have real and immediate impact, which means learning about what we’re eating and figuring out how to make good choices is essential. As environmental issues move to the forefront of public consciousness, the meaning of a good choice doesn’t just have to do with a food pyramid or a nutrition label, but with knowing where your food came from, how it got to you, and who was involved in that process.
Food is one of the primary subjects with which we deal when talking about backstory, since it’s one of the most accessible means of understanding the life of an item prior to its arrival in your hand. In many ways, food is also one of the best and easiest places to push for a change in that backstory, whether calling for different conditions for the producers, demanding a change in a product’s contents, selecting a new source, or deciding to grow your own.
It’s also becoming more common for schools to offer healthier food in the lunchroom and better education in the classroom (or the school garden), setting kids up at a young age to feel empowered with good knowledge enough to make good decisions as they grow older. Many of these educational programs, particularly in urban areas, work to establish urban-rural connections that support farmers and make city-dwellers more aware of and connected to the origins of their food.
In order for food to be sustainable, it must be grown, processed, sold and consumed in such a way that it doesn’t deplete the earth’s resources, create injustice, or cause harm. The more we know about the whole story of our food, the better able we are to judge whether it’s good for the planet and good for us.
We need new sources of energy for a whole variety of reasons, especially the fact that we’re changing the climate (perhaps even driving it towards tipping points like permafrost melt and ocean acidification much more quickly than we thought — indeed, NASA scientists say we now have less than ten years to act).
There is no simple answer to the question “How do we fuel our society sustainably?” Indeed, there probably isn’t even an answer. Instead, we’ve got to be willing to explore a whole variety of technologies, approaches and business models, and to acknowledge that the answers change with the context. Wind turbines, for instance, make a lot of sense in California, with its well-established grid and coast-to-mountain winds, while distributed independent solar photovoltaics may make a lot more sense in the rural developing world. The best approach will be one which emphasizes diversity
What’s called for is lots of research, open debate and investment. We need a decade or two of furious exploration, collaboration and competition.
Who the storyteller is has a lot to do with the kind of story you’re likely to hear. That’s why citizen media is important: we need to learn to think in new ways about a wide array of interconnected and emerging problems, and to do that well, we need a wide array of perspectives on those problems, and channels for the introduction of possible solutions. In the public debate, no less than in ecosystem science, diversity promotes resilience.
Luckily, we find ourselves with more tools for citizen storytelling than ever before, and more citizen journalists are rushing to use them. From zines to blogs, pirate radio to podcasts, independent filmmaking to video journals, immersive fiction to sms text message campaigns to machinima, the tools and methods are proliferating.
Three trends seem especially worth noting.
First, as these tools get cheaper, they enable people who never before had a global voice to find one (indeed, for some of the best in perspectives from far-off places, check out Global Voices, the website run by our board chair, Ethan Zuckerman). That, in turn, is beginning to change the way we talk to one another on a global scale, even the choice of subjects we talk about. In the very near future, though, as these tools spread, we should expect to see some dramatic shifts in what the world chooses to show and say, hear and see.
Second they allow us to cheaply and easily record more of what’s happening around us and turn it into stories. To some extent, this is the emergence of the participatory panopticon, the trend through which all of our lives are increasingly recorded by one another; but in a larger way, this is also about freeing the power of social documentation, much the way that cheaper cameras allowed portraiture — which for most of history was a means of building the status of the wealthy and powerful — to become a tool for the depiction of injustice and the advocacy of social reform. Whether we’re talking about the human rights group Witness, the photos of hooded prisoners from Abu Grahib, the Blair Watch project or cellphone images from the streets of New York’s protests during the last Republican convention, these tools are making some of the shadowiest parts of our societies visible.
Third, they allow us recombine the words and images over which we have control into new forms which illuminate that which does not yet exist: they allow us to share the fruits of our imagination as never before. They allow us to engage in future-making. And the ability to suggest a possible future is an extremely powerful political tool.
As Bruce Sterling says in Tomorrow Now, “The future is a process, not a theme park.” What that means for Worldchanging, is that we don’t practice imagining the future in order to be right, we imagine it in order to think more clearly about the systems in which we find ourselves embedded. We think about the future not in order to predict it — that’s essentially impossible in any meaningful sense — but in order to see more clearly the ways in which we can act today to influence it. By using tools and modes of thought which encourage our foresight, we can anticipate new threats and opportunities, and better apprehend the nature of the tools we have at our disposal for acting in the face of those threats and opportunities.
Imagining the future, then, paradoxically makes us more innovative and effective in the present.
But imagining the future helps us with another important task, as well: remembering our duty to the people who will come after us.
Many of the best things about our society are the legacies of people who came before us and made the conscious choice to leave the world a better place. On the other hand, many of the biggest disasters unfolding around us are to a depressing extent the fruits of bad, greedy, shortsighted — sometimes evil — decisions made in the past.
More than any generation yet born, we have a duty to think carefully about the world we will leave behind us. If we act boldly and with wisdom, will could leave our descendants, our children’s children, a planet with good options — they will have problems of their own to face, but they will be more interesting problems than mere survival. If we flinch or shirk, we will leave them a greatly diminished planet, a shriveled husk of the world we were born into. Imagining the futures that will be created through our choices allows us to, as Andy Kerr put it, make ourselves into great ancestors.
That’s why we spend so much time thinking about the future, discussing various visions of the future, pointing out trends and driving forces, talking about history, and in general trying to help think about the broad flow of events in these trying times: because knowing when you are makes you more effective at what you do, and more likely to do the right things.
Keywords : sustainability, life-sustaining civilization design, worldchanging, backstory, ecological footprints, one planet thinking, cradle to cradle, closed-loop system, life cycle analysis, embodied energy, virtual water, ecosystem services, ecological economics, transparency, strategic consumption, leapfrogging, social entrepreneurship, base of pyramid, collaborative innovation, creative commons, socially responsible investment, patient capital, carbon disclosure, philantrophy, NGOs, product service systems, compact communitites, smart growth, access by proximity, carbon neutrality, climate foresight, offsetting, environmental justice, sustainable food, sustainable agriculture, clean and renewable energy, citizen media, citizen journalism, imagining the future
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