Last Blog

I learned a lot in this course. I’ve been dreading taking this class because I don’t really care all that much about environmental issues but coming in and being exposed to all the different readings and going out on trips to ECHO, CREW, downtown Fort Myers, and so on put a different perspective on it.

51849-4884ECHO in Fort Myers

Before this course I never really considered my impact on the world. I didn’t actively harm it but I didn’t go out of my way to preserve it either. By getting me out into the local community on the field trips and service learning hours I’m starting to come around to the idea that one person taking small steps in their own life can make an important difference.

I thought the readings were the weakest part of the course. Most of them were extremely sensationalistic which compromised their message. Surely there are books and passages about the importance of taking care of the environment that don’t rely on convincing people the world is going to end if we put a plastic bottle in a trash can. Going through all the different readings was a good thing as it exposes us to different environmental thinkers but I think picking better excerpts could help. The vast majority felt like they were preaching to the choir rather than trying to attract new converts.


I don’t mind having this be a required course. If it was optional I seriously doubt I’d take it and I’m sure the vast majority of students are the same way regardless of how they feel about environmental issues. However, by being forced to take it we all carry the knowledge we gained from the course as we move forward in life. Some of us will be going into business, some education, some government, some will be staying in the area, and some will be moving across the country or perhaps the world but wherever we are we can make a small difference through something we learned in Colloquium.

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Is the university a biosphere?

(not to be confused with a Bio-Dome, which I can say with a fair amount of certainty it is not)

Depending on how loosely you define a biosphere, yes. Merriam-Webster says that a biosphere is “the part of the Earth in which life can exist” or “living organisms together with their environment.” In reference to the first definition, Florida Gulf Coast University is a part of the biosphere but, barring a particularly interesting apocalypse which leaves the entire world uninhabitable except for a few hundred acres off of Ben Hill Griffin in Estero, it will never be a biosphere itself. However, that definition is a bit pedantic as there’s no reason to limit biosphere to “of the Earth.” If we find an inhabitable planet surely we’ll refer to its biosphere so since there’s nothing inherently Earth-dependent I think the second definition is more apt. In this case, FGCU is definitely a biosphere. The students and administrators of our university have done a great job in making sure to find the best possible balance of allowing organisms to live naturally in their environment with the human intrusion necessary on a campus. A few years ago I visited one of my friends who was attending Northwestern and their campus is night and day compared to ours which goes for the vast majority of universities around the nation.

(I didn’t ask, but this doesn’t look LEED certified to me)

In addition, we absolutely change the environmental impact of our community through education. By making colloquium a required course, FGCU exposes students that never would have even considered taking it (me) to environmental issues they should be concerned with, the writing and arguments of many prominent environmentalists, and small things that they can do in their everyday lives that help the environment. That focus on the “micro” is the best way FGCU changes the environmental impact of our community because every person that decides to do something environmentally harmful (littering, wasting electricity, etc) because obviously their action isn’t going to change anything on a global stage which is what the people on TV and such are always talking about is ignoring the effect it has on their local environment.

Surely the university has had harmful effects on the environment. Over the last 20 years it turned a swamp, natural environment into a fairly good-sized university. That doesn’t happen without some displacement of native species and changes to the surrounding environment as a whole. However, I think FGCU does a good job of trying to offset these harmful effects by not only investing in the future through education but through tons of little things it does right now: LEED certification, bear-proof trash cans, prevalent recycling cans, the preservation of trails, and so on.


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Blog: Plan B Ch. 10/Earth Charter

Chapter 10 may be my favorite chapter of Plan B 4.0 and favorite reading of the entire course. Instead of being full of rhetoric and sensationalism it’s grounded in reality and suggest practical steps we can take that are actually plausibly possible.

It’s hard to narrow down the chapter to one quote but the portion on tax shifting was by far the best part, in my opinion. “Cutting income taxes while increasing gasoline taxes would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic congestion, safer roads, and reduced risk of global warming – all without jeopardizing long-term fiscal solvency.” (pg 246) This plan would appeal to the left by increasing gasoline taxes which will help the environment and to the right by offsetting that increase in taxes with a decrease in income taxes. The danger with this plan is that the left doesn’t get on board because the gasoline tax is one of the most regressive taxes we employ. Raising it would hurt the poor more than the rich. However, taxing is most efficient when the tax is localized – people who use more gasoline are releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere and by making them pick up more of the tab we’re disincentivizing the wanton use of gasoline and therefore reducing externalities – so a system more similar to Cap and Trade may be more palatable politically.

dog-and-otterWhy can’t we be friends?

Principle 1 of the Earth Charter says that we should “[r]ecognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.” (1a) This is straight out of Aldo Leopold’s reading about The Land Ethic: “One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. […] Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.” (pg 65) While I still strongly disagree that the assertion that a songbird has no economic value is wildly incorrect, the point as a whole is a good one. A person who values fellow people depending on what they can do for him would be considered cold and cruel, the same should be true of a person who views other living things that way.

Why can’t we be friends?

Principle 2 of the Earth Charter says that we should “[p]romote the development, adoption, and equitable transfer of environmentally sound technologies.” (7c) This reminded me of when Lester Brown said “Raising irrigation efficiency typically means shifting from the less efficient flood or furrow systems to overhead sprinklers or drip irrigation, the gold standard of irrigation efficiency.” (pg 223) This might seem like something that only a large corporation or act of Congress can change, but each individual person can do their part to incentivize the use of more environmentally sound technology by voting with their dollars and buying from companies with good environmental reputations and not buying from companies with poor environmental reputations.

The color of your skin don’t matter to me

Principle 3 of the Earth Charter says that we should “[e]radicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.” (9) Again, Lester Brown has an entire chapter dedicated to this titled ‘Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population.’ One of the ways he suggests we can do this is by massive debt forgiveness for developing countries: “A few years ago, for example, when sub-Saharan Africa was spending four times as much on debt servicing as it spent on health care, debt forgiveness was the key to boosting living standards in this last major bastion of poverty. […] The year after the Gleneagles meeting [where the heads of the G-8 industrial countries agreed to cancel the multilateral debt that a number of the countries owed to the World Bank, the IMF, and the African Development Bank], Oxfam International reported that the IMF had eliminated the debts owed by 19 countries, the first major step toward the debt relief goal set at the G-8 meeting. For Zambia, the $6 billion of debt relief enabled President Levy Mwanawasa to announce that basic health care would be now free.” (pg 189) This is an example of exactly the type of action that Principle 3 encourages. On balance, that $6 billion does far more good in Zambia then it ever could in Britain, France, or the United States.

As long as we can live in harmony

Principle Four of the Earth Charter says that, “…peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.” (16f)  David Orr talked about the same thing when he said “at some level of alertness and maturity, we respond with awe to the natural world independent of any instinctual conditional conditioning. […] [Albert Schweitzer] described this response as ‘reverence for life’ arising from the awareness of the unfathomable mystery of life itself. […] Schweitzer regarded reverence for life as the only possible basis for a philosophy on which civilization might be restored from the decay he saw throughout the modern world.” (pg 194-195)  I think there is certainly a correlation between a person respecting his or her fellow people and that person being environmentally responsible.  And furthermore, having a ‘reverence for life’ can only assist you through your life as you face ethical dilemmas.

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Blog: Plan B 4.0 Ch 3

In contrast to the previous chapter this one was rough reading as we returned to the doomsday predictions.

One of the more audacious parts was “For instance, a landmark 2009 study by a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the effects of climate change will be twice as severe as those they projected as recently as six years ago.” (pg 58) Dire, indeed, but ultimately meaningless without context. What will be twice as severe? Will the planet warm 0.07 degrees Celsius instead of 0.035? Will the oceans rise 0.5 cm instead of 0.25? Those are bad, yes, but not doomsday-level doubling. On the other hand, if100 million hectares of crop land fail instead of 50 million that could be catastrophic. Doubling is a relative term and you need context for it to mean anything.

Another alarmist part that made me laugh a little was “If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt entirely, it would raise sea level 23 feet.” (pg 61) No doubt that would be calamitous. But is that a realistic outcome? Brown goes on to say that the Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the planet, but provides no follow-up on how much of the Greenland ice sheet is likely to melt or what conditions would likely have to be met for it to melt completely. Without either of those that statement is essentially a fun fact that boils down to “There is a lot of ice in Greenland.”

A musk ox enjoying the cold of the artic.

As the chapter continued I thought it got a lot better and I thought the part about the plant pollination process was particularly interesting. “The most vulnerable part of a plant’s life cycle is the pollination period. Of the world’s three food staples – rice, wheat, and corn – corn is particularly vulnerable. In order for corn to reproduce, pollen must fall from the tassel to the strands of silk that emerge from the end of each ear of corn. […] When temperatures are uncommonly high, the silk strands quickly dry out and turn brown, unable to play their role in the fertilization process.” (pg 70) I think this is a major effect of rising temperatures that ought to get more attention. We always hear about the ice melting and super hurricanes or whatever but if staple crops are starting to fail to be pollinated that has much more immediate and dire consequences for us as a species and our planet as a whole. Between the increased difficulty in pollinating, the water wars described in a previous chapter, and inefficient irrigation methods he will describe later in the book it seems to me that our food supply is the weak link that will cause us harm long before rising sea levels and such does.

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Blog: Plan B 2.0 Ch 2

I really enjoyed this chapter because it, for the most part, presented facts, figures, and statistics and let the magnitude of them speak for themselves with just enough commentary involved to keep the chapter from reading like an excel spreadsheet. I much prefer this style to, say, Rachel Carson’s style of primarily style with a little substance.

A perfect example of this was on page 45 when Lester Brown said, “[…] Sudan’s population climbed from 9 million in 1950 to 40 million in 2007, a fourfold rise. Meanwhile, the cattle population increased from 7 million to 41 million, an increase of nearly sixfold. The number of sheep and goats increased from 14 million to 94 million, a near sevenfold increase. No grassland can survive such rapid continuous growth in livestock populations.” Those numbers would be persuasive presented alone and with that last sentence to summarize the list of figures it’s a convincingly-constructed argument. Brown certainly had the opportunity to go full sensationalist (declaring something like 99% of all life in Sudan will die in the next week if we don’t act within 7 hours and 17 minutes) like so many authors of previous readings but didn’t and his argument was stronger for it.

Something I disagreed with was “there is the option of producing automotive fuel from fast-growing trees, switchgrass, prairie grass mixtures, or other cellulosic materials, which can be grown on wasteland. the technologies to convert these cellulosic materials into ethanol exist, but the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol is close to double that of grain-based ethanol. Whether it will ever be cost-competitive with ethanol from grain is unclear.” (pg 50) Actually, it is pretty clear. Brown spends the preceding two pages discussing how “[t]he price of grain is now tied to the price of oil” (pg 49) and talking about how the rise in oil prices have driven up the price of grain. If we take him at his word then the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol will lower over time, since the technology exists, and the cost of grain-based ethanol will rise over time due to the supply of easily obtained fossil fuels diminishing and at some point cellulosic ethanol will be more cost-effective. What Brown should have said is “When it will be cost-competitive with ethanol from grain is unclear.” That minor point aside, I agree with the spirit of that section of the chapter as a whole in that I don’t think our government should be subsidizing the production of ethanol.

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Blog 10: Plan B 4.0 Preface and Ch 1

The beginning part of Plan B 4.0 is a bit slow compared to the rest of the book. Essentially author Lester Brown is just setting the foundation for the rest of the book and as such there wasn’t a whole to agree or disagree with. That said, there were many interesting facts.

Plan B 4.0

The most fascinating was “But instead of continuing to decline, the number of hungry started to edge upward, reaching 915 million at the end of 2008. It then jumped to over 1 billion in 2009.” (pg 4) This fact is so interesting because it comes in the same time frame as record lows for people living in poverty. In other words, even though fewer people are in poverty now than ever before the number of people going hungry continues to rise. This has severe consequences that were adequately laid out in the reading.

Another important quote from the reading is “The risk is that this will increase hunger and political instability, leading to even more failing states.” (pg 9) It’s important to note that the consequences of inaction are not contained to the environmental realm. If there is famine across a continent there will be rebellions, revolutions, and anarchy leading to, in all likelihood, worse rulers than before and even more suffering. The geopolitical consequences are, I’d argue, even more important than the environmental consequences.


Something I do disagree with was “The market does not respect the carrying capacity of natural system. For example, if a fishery is being continuously overfished, the catch will begin to shrink and prices will rise, encouraging even more investment in fishing trawlers. The inevitable result is a precipitous decline in the catch and the collapse of the fishery.” (pg 17) This is a pretty half-baked attempt at economic analysis. On its face, yes that is a problem. It’s known as the tragedy of the commons and occurs when it’s in each actor’s self interest to contribute to depleting a common resource even though the actual depletion of the resource is in no one’s best interest. Think about half of a leftover cake on the counter in a house with several kids. Each kid may not want another piece of cake tonight and would rather have it tomorrow, but since they each can’t be sure there will be any tomorrow they get a piece now to ensure that get a slice. This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but sums up the basics. However, in the situation Brown describes he leaves out several important economic forces. First, if the catches are shrinking there won’t be an increase in investment in fishing trawlers. A smaller catch at a higher price won’t be much different, and indeed could be less revenue, than a larger catch at a lower price. In addition, one fishery’s catches shrinking won’t a large enough impact on the price to spur new investment. Third, now more than ever companies have to be concerned with corporate responsibility. Customers have shown that they are willing to boycott companies who are irresponsible in their activities and are willing to pay more money to support a brand that has a good reputation. All of these considered, this minor point is embellished at best.

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Blog 9: Orr Biophilia vs Biophobia

David W. Orr

In stark contrast to the last several readings I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It tackled a thought provoking question in a fair-minded way, making it persuasive. That’s not to say I agree with everything written, and he seemed to backslide a bit toward the end, but agreement is not required for enjoyment.

Right off the bat David W. Orr articulated an observation that I’ve been supporting in the last several blog posts: “In varying degrees humans have always modified their environments. I am persuaded that they generally have intended to do so with decorum and courtesy toward nature – not always and everywhere to be sure, but mostly.” (pg 188) I think it’s unfair to smear those who support, say, genetically modifying crops as anti-environment. It’s simply a different point of view toward the environment. Perhaps a person looks at the good that can come from genetically modified crops and decides it outweighs the harm it causes nature. Another person may look at the bad that can come from genetically modified crops and decide that it outweighs the good that can come from them. Neither has to be “good” or “evil,” reasonable minds can disagree. By putting this quote so early in the reading it signaled to me that Orr views the debate in the same way and that he was prepared to give a well-thought defense of whatever position he holds along that spectrum.

I did have a minor disagreement toward the end of the reading: “What we love only from self-interest, we will sooner or later destroy.” (pg 199) I think an important part of promoting sustainability is making more people feel self-interest toward the environment. If they feel connected to it they are far less likely to act in ways that actively harm it. For example, quite a few of the most environmentally supportive people I know are hunters. This seems contradictory on its face but it does make sense. Not only are these hunters are spending weekends or longer out in the elements and interacting with nature intimately but if they do things like litter or support the clearing of a forest for a factory that is going to lessen the enjoyment they get from hunting.

A confusing part of the reading was in his conclusion when he asserted that “[n]or do I doubt that our descendants will regard our obsession with perpetual economic growth and frivolous consumption as evidence of theologically induced derangement.” (pg 210) This seemed to me to come out of nowhere and was completely out of tone with the rest of the reading. After spending a dozen or more pages crafting a well-articulated support of his opinion he defaults to an ad hominem attack on anyone who dares to disagree with him or spend their money on things that he deems frivolous. It really doesn’t make much sense to me.

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Blog 8: Shiva Biodiversity

As is quickly becoming a theme with the excerpts we read, I found the excerpt from Vandana Shiva’s Tomorrow’s Biodiversity a little melodramatic. She brought up several points that I agree with – more than I expected after reading the opening few paragraphs – but once again I felt that the argument was weakened by writing in the “STOP TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS OR WE ALL DIE” style that has apparently become fashionable. If we were in danger of extinction then obviously we would want people sounding alarms but the meat of her argument doesn’t support that, therefore a more measured “or else” should have been used in my opinion.

Dr. Vandana Shiva

The part of the excerpt that I agreed with most was “Only one per cent of all the genetic material of higher organisms is known to relate to the form and function of the organism. We are still ignorant about the role of the remaining 99 per cent, but, in our usual human arrogance, instead of referring to our 99 per cent ignorance, we refer to the 99 per cent ‘junk’ DNA.” (pg 42) You see this attitude constantly in science and it’s a real detriment to the scientific method. There are several quotes from classical thinkers about how little we, as humans, know but my favorite is one by Socrates: “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.” At every point in history the people of that time thought that not only they knew a good deal about the world around them but they assumed that they had corrected all the errors of past generations and everything they thought they knew was correct until the next generation comes around, corrects them, and the cycle begins again. One wonders what we think we know that will turn out to be patently false.

One part of the excerpt that I particularly disagreed with was “The extinction of a species means not just the loss of that particular species, but also a threat to the other species that are supported by it through ecological processes. When one plant becomes extinct, with it disappear the twenty to forty animal and insect species that rely on it.” (pg 45) While on its face this seems perfectly reasonable, logically it must be wrong. Shiva noted four pages earlier that the current extinction rate is 27,000 species per year and that that is 1000 times the natural rate. However, that means that before humans started greedily committing biological genocide there were 27 species going extinct each year which should mean, by her logic, that those 27 species wipe out over a thousand other species that are dependent on them and, in turn, those 1,080 species cause the extinction of 43,200. In just a few years out of millions we’re already above the human-caused extinction rate. This leads me to think that plants and animals are more resilient about adapting than we give them credit for.

The most interesting part of the reading was definitely on page 49 where Shiva lists some startling statistics about monoculture. A few examples:
“In Europe 80 per cent of all farmland is sown to just four crops.”
“In the UK three varieties of potatoes make up 68 per cent of the crop; one variety makes up the remaining 32 per cent.”
“In Sri Lanka, 2,000 varieties of rice were cultivated in 1959, but only 5 major varieties today.”
Even if these numbers are cherry picked or massaged in favor of her argument they are high enough to still be shocking if you allow for a bit of error. They’re so shocking that when I first read through the list I didn’t believe them but after reading up on Shiva she seems to be a fairly credible source. Just unbelievable.

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Blog 7: Silent Spring

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is one of the more influential books of the 20th century. It was read by senators, presidents, and industry leaders and influenced environmental policy in the more than fifty years since – a picture of Carson even hung on Al Gore’s wall during his time as vice president. Its publication was the catalyst for the modern environmental movement and likely the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. I had heard of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring over the years but never actually read any of it until now. In today’s political climate just about every environmental issue that comes to the fore is bitterly partisan and contested and reading through these excerpts I can see why.

Similarly to previous readings, the biggest problem I have with Rachel Carson’s excerpts is the unnecessary sensationalism. We’ve had over 50 years since her book was published to review its accuracy and by all accounts she was, to some degree, right about pesticides and DDT in particular. Given that her position was right why does she feel the need to cheapen her argument by writing nonsense like “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides.'” (pg 155)? In my opinion, it would be far more persuasive if she had acknowledged the benefits and uses of pesticides and then presented her research on why we should be careful with how much we use. By taking the Luddite-esque position of “if you use pesticides, you’re killing everything” she portrays herself as an unrealistic radical and that perception taints everything else in the book and frames the situation as a black and white issue with no middle ground – either you’re saving the earth or killing it. In the long run I think this approach hurt the environmental movement because it attracted people that agreed with that us-versus-them mentality and put industry on the defensive. After the publication of Silent Spring, chemical companies began mailing monthly newsletters to media outlets detailing the benefits of their chemicals and began a campaign to discredit Carson. Perhaps they would have done that either way, but her uncompromising position and use of language like “grim specter” (pg 152), “chain of evil” (pg 153), and “chemical death rain” (pg 159) took away all other options.

Carson testifying before the Senate.

However, she does bring up good points in spite of her vitriol. “Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture – the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop. Such a system set the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations.” (pg 157). This is the meat of her argument. She concedes that there is no doubt that farmers face insect and pest problems so saying that they should stop using insecticides and pesticides is unrealistic. Explaining why they have those problems, giving them alternatives to those pesticides, and explaining why they should use them is the way to go, as she does here.

Towards the end of the excerpt she finally reaches more of a civil tone when she states that “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.” (pg 159). That is something that at least could be discussed and debated among reasonable people. Even if you believe, as she clearly does, that any use of insecticides or pesticides is, on balance, bad for society you must take stock of the state of the world and remain in the realm of possibilities – which banning all chemicals is not. Had she used a tone as reasonable as she did in the last few paragraphs of the excerpt throughout her book perhaps instead of having a polarized, partisan split between those who care about the environment and those who care about technological advancement – two positions that are not, despite our current political climate, mutually exclusive – we could have found some middle ground where reasonable businessmen and reasonable environmentalists endeavor to find a balance between the two.

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Blog 7ish – Douglas: Nature of the Everglades

I thought this reading was rather boring. I didn’t count the pages but it seemed much longer than the previous readings and really just described the Everglades. If I was born and raised in New York City I may find it an interesting read for 5 to 10 pages but as someone who’s lived here for a few years and spent a fair amount of time in them it was just details I either already knew or wasn’t interested in.

“The sea rose up over the edges of that new shape of the Floridian plateau, warming and washing it gently, moving north of Okeechobee in a long curve over the once-risen land.” was one part of the book I found mildly interesting. I’ve always found the ancient geology of Florida interesting because of how unusual it is and it’s that peculiarity that helped form the Everglades as we know them.

“Southwest it was all custard apple, a subtropic, rough-barked, inconspicuous tree, with small pointed leaves and soft fruits.” Another one of the more interesting things about the Everglades in my opinion is the types of plants that thrive in it. All over the country, and world, you see plants that live in ponds, lakes, and rivers but the plants that grow and live in the Everglades are something else entirely.

“Glaring under the sun or bleak in the rain, flat, with patches of scrub and bright salt weeds, this is the country of the birds. The man-o’-war birds from the keys float and tumble over it in their effortless flight. Thousands of sandpipers and sanderlings rise in clouds from the water meadows.” This is an example of the inane trivia that this reading was dedicated to disguised in excessively flowery language to the point that your brain, or perhaps only mine, shuts anything else out. Each of these types of birds received one sentence that really barely described them and was moved on from. As I’m unfamiliar with those types of birds something a little more substantial would’ve gone a long way to make this reading more interesting. What kinds of things do they eat? Do they fly off for winter or summer? What eats them? The author may know, but isn’t telling. At least we have Wikipedia.

A Man-o’-War wishing it got more attention in the reading

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