Cities, Climate Change, and Christianity

Well-off city dwellers need to say ‘enough.’

By Sallie McFague

In the 2007 United Nations report on climate change, the overall assessment was “unequivocal” confidence that global warming is underway and 90 percent certainty that human activities are the cause. However, recent updates of the 2007 report spell out a more daunting scenario. The worst-case projections are being realized, leading to an increasing risk for abrupt and irreversible climatic shifts. In other words, the dreaded tipping point is now a realistic possibility. In December 2009, the world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to devise an international treaty that must surely be one of the most complicated and difficult ever attempted.

The twin of climate change—the economic meltdown—also faces us. These two are the product of the same insatiable desire for more: more money, more energy. Uncontrolled greed underlies both of these planetary disasters. Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times last spring, put it this way:

What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall—when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.” What if we face up to the fact that unlike the U.S. government, Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts?1

There are many needed responses to such news, but here I will attempt just one—an exercise in “thinking differently” about nature, our place in it, and particularly urbanized nature. Most human beings of the twenty-first century will live in cities, and cities are where half of the world’s greenhouse gases are generated. What is the relationship between cities and nature, and how can we achieve sustainable cities?

To be sure, a few old cities such as New York and San Francisco, which are built high and tight, are lauded as “green metropolises,” but few modern cities of 10 million or more fit this category.2 Moreover, scholars from many different disciplines who produce theories about cities—what they are and what makes for good ones—have mostly not paid much attention to sustainability. We postmoderns are so focused on our social constructions, our interpretations, and the products which we build (such as cities), that we forget what lies behind and beyond all our constructions, both mental and physical: it is “nature,” that encompassing and mysterious term for everything that is.3 Nature is not only “irreducible to us,” but it is also that upon which we rely every moment of our lives for air, water, food, and habitat. One of the consequences of our increasing awareness of human control over nature—both in thought and in action, in interpretation and in physical construction—is the loss of a sense of our dependence on what is “more than us.” This forgetfulness is most evident in city dwellers, because cities are “second nature,” what we have built from, transformed from, changed from “first nature,” this “more than us,” which is never reducible to us and our constructions.4

Sallie McFague speaking at an HDS event

Sallie McFague speaking at the Center for the Study of World Religions’ “Ecologies of Human Flourishing” event in October 2009. HDS Photograph

If the issues contained in the threat of climate change and its twin, unsustainable economics, are to be addressed, we must overcome this forgetfulness of “first nature.” We must recall that “nature” is not just the trees, parks, and flowers in our cities, but, rather, it is the foundation of cities, the material from which cities are made. Every sidewalk, condo, office building, sewer pipe, electric grid, shopping mall, concert hall, parking lot, car and bus—everything in a city is made from nature. We do not see this lifeblood of our cities, since much of it is hidden in its new transformations—the trillions of energy exchanges that take place for every school, hospital, and jail that is built. Energy is used not only for transportation and electricity—everything we do that involves change of any sort takes place through an exchange of energy, and energy is nothing but “first nature.” Therefore, we postmodern citizens of cities must acknowledge our situation: we are energy hogs in our use of “first nature,” even if we do not mean to be, and our cities are prime examples of “second nature.”

As geographer and student of cities Edward Soja rightly points out, “The urban spatiality of Nature in essence ‘denaturalizes’ Nature and charges it with social meaning. . . . Raw physical Nature may be naïvely or even divinely given to begin with, but once urban society comes into being, a new Nature is created that blends into and absorbs what existed before. One might say that the City re-places Nature.”5 Soja rightly intends to undercut the conventional wisdom that views the natural and social worlds as separate. Rather, he suggests, we should focus on the hybrid—lived space—and especially on the city. By privileging space and place, everything changes. We no longer indulge in binary dualisms of nature versus culture, but realize that at least since the beginning of agriculture and hence of urbanization, nature has never been pristine. As he puts it, we have been “without nature” for 12,000 years, which means, for all intents and purposes, always without it. There is no untouched nature, no wilderness. Even Antarctica is “urbanized,” that is, socially and historically constructed.

Highlighting space is a necessary corrective to the Western and Christian emphasis on time and history. It has several advantages. First, it focuses our attention on the earth (rather than on heaven) and does so by forcing us to attend to humanized space—cities—where most of us human beings now live. It spotlights the need for habitat, for humanely built spaces, here and now. Second, it helps us to see that natural disasters are never only natural. It forces us to accept some responsibility for the effects of global warming as well as poverty. Third, it raises issues of power and privilege in ways that a naïve focus on “first nature” fails to do; for instance, who lives in the big house on the hill, and who lives in the shack beside the railway tracks? Fourth, it prohibits the romantic notion that all we need to do is “get back to nature,” as if nature were pure, good, and available as our guide in life.

This turn to space, especially urbanized space, suggests a revolution in Western thought as well as timely attention to the space—cities—where climate change and economic sustainability will meet their harshest test. The turn to space and place—focusing on the needs of billions of human bodies as well as trillions of other creatures—is a recognition that we are not robots or cyborgs, but bodies that need space. Christianity’s traditional concern with time and history and its relative indifference to space and place carries Gnostic overtones. We need to remind ourselves: “To be human . . . is to be placed.”6 As our planet becomes fuller with people and their increasing desire for high-energy lifestyles, space takes on new meaning. Everyone wants/needs more space as well as a place. Millions of “displaced persons,” as well as cities of 12 to 15 million human beings, are the shadow side of the recent and now defunct North American real estate boom’s “Location, location, location.” Place, space, is about bodies and their most basic needs: food, water, habitat, medical care, education, and leisure. Time and history can bracket out these “lowly” bodily needs in order to focus on things of the mind and spirit: interpretation, meaning, and “eternal salvation.”

But does the turn to space and place mean that “the City re-places Nature”? I fear that Soja’s language of blending, while appreciative of the hybrid, second nature of cities, in fact encourages us to forget first nature as the source of our being. Jane Jacobs said that “without cities, we would be poor,” but I would add “without nature, we would not exist.”7 If we think of the city as absorbing or replacing nature, I fear that nature’s intrinsic value as well as its finite limits will be hidden from our view. What, then, will deter our appetite for unlimited, voracious overutilization of other life-forms and earth processes? What will control our greed (the question that our ecological and economic crises are asking)?

The bottom line is that we are totally, minute-to-minute dependent on nature and its services. Nature in the first sense—”the all-encompassing source or ground of all there is”—our own planet Earth with its particular constitution of elements suitable for living things, is the sine qua non. No matter how much we transform “first nature” as epitomized by the city and by our myriad interpretations, it is not infinitely malleable. The human ability to distance ourselves from first nature, both by changing it and by objectifying it, is causing a deep forgetfulness to overtake us.

This forgetfulness is epitomized in the city dweller’s relationship to food. As Michael Pollan puts it in his book tracing “the natural history of four meals” back to their roots: “All flesh is grass.” Even a Twinkie or a Big Mac “begins with a particular plant growing in a specific patch of soil . . . somewhere on earth.”8 Our flesh (and the flesh that we eat) can be traced back to the grass that feeds us. “At either end of any food chain you find a biological system—a patch of soil, a human body—and the health of one is converted—literally—to the health of the other.”9 And yet, we city dwellers have forgotten this all- important piece of information: the inexorable, undeniable link between our health and the health of the planet; the body to body connection. “Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.”10 We need to re-learn the importance of this most basic of all transformations.

Thus, as living things seem to increase in order, they always do so by a decrease somewhere else, by sucking orderliness from their environment. A good example is the high level of orderliness in cities versus the price paid for this comfort and complexity by “nature”—clear-cutting forests, degrading arable land, lowering diversity in fisheries, draining water from aquifers. City life is high-energy life: millions, billions, of transformations of energy must occur every hour for us North Americans to live as we wish to and have become accustomed to. With every energy exchange—from the ones moving our cars to those in our electric toothbrushes—a decrease occurs, quality is lost, something somewhere “pays.” In house rule language, if we keep raiding the fridge this way, there will be nothing left to eat.

But urban dwellers seldom see this. The city is the prime example of both our greatest accomplishment and our greatest danger. Jerusalem, the city of desire and delight, is fast emerging as Babylon, the city of excessive luxury in the midst of extreme poverty. “Of all the recognized ecological systems it is human urbanism which seems most destructive of its host.”11 Cities suck energy from near and far to allow some city dwellers to live at the highest level of comfort and convenience ever known, while many others exist in squalor. I would underscore that this does not mean that we should retreat to either the country or suburbia, for these spaces are even less energy-efficient for millions of human inhabitants. The city is where most of us must live and where just, sustainable living has the best chance.

Nonetheless, city dwellers must attend to the judgment of the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide, which claims that we are excessive energy users—we are literally consuming the planet. This massive study, “the first attempt by the scientific community to describe and evaluate on a global scale the full range of services people desire from nature,”12 reaches the sobering conclusion that out of 24 essential services provided by nature to humanity, nearly two-thirds are in decline.13 The Assessment stresses the need for consciousness-raising: “We must learn to recognize the true value of nature both in an economic sense and in the richness it provides to our lives in ways more difficult to put numbers on.”14 Such true value ranges from the taste of a cup of clean water to the sight of snow-capped mountains. We are nature’s debtors and nature’s lovers.

The task before us—”a qualitative shift in our responses and thinking,” according to anthropologist David Harvey—is daunting.15 Yet, such appears to be the overwhelming conclusion coming from all fields that study planetary health. As botanist and conservationist Peter Raven says: “It is also a fundamentally spiritual task.”16 From the time of Aristotle to the eighteenth century, economics was considered a subdivision of ethics: the good life was understood to be based on such values as the common good, justice, and limits. Having substituted the insatiable greed of market capitalism in place of these values, we are now without the means to make the qualitative shift in thinking that is required. It is impossible to imagine us acting differently—acting as “ecological citizens”—unless we internalize ecological values.17

One of the distinctive activities of religion is the formation of basic assumptions regarding human nature and our place in the scheme of things. As theologians widely agree, all theology is anthropology. Religious traditions educate through stories, images, and metaphors, creating in their adherents deep and often unconscious assumptions about who human beings are and how they should act. It is at this point that the religions can make a significant contribution to the planetary crisis. For we live within the assumptions, the constructions, of who we think we are. As these assumptions, constructions, change, so might behavior. One small contribution toward this possibility is to change the metaphor by which we think of ourselves in the world. The conventional and widely accepted metaphor in twenty-first-century market capitalism is the individual in the machine. Human beings are seen as subjects in an objectified world, a “thing,” which is there for our use—our needs, desires, and recreation. To see ourselves this way, however, is an anomaly in human history, for until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the earth was assumed to be alive, even as we are.18 From the Stoics to the worldview of First Nations’ peoples, including medieval Christians, the apparent organic quality of the earth was not questioned. But during the last few hundred years, it has become increasingly useful and profitable to think of the world more like a machine than a body. If the machine model is dominant, then we will think of the world’s parts as only externally related, able to be repaired like cars with new parts substituting for faulty ones, with few consequences for the earth as a whole. With such a basic model in mind, it is hard for people to see the tragedy of clear-cutting forest practices or the implications of global warming.

The “individual in the machine” model fits easily into the sensibility of city dwellers. Since most of us have a difficult time recognizing “first nature” as the source of the buildings, trucks, machines, and highways we construct, thinking of the world in terms of exchangeable parts is easy. Cities do not appear to be organic entities made from the earth; rather, they have independent parts “made by human beings” that can be torn down when needed and new ones constructed. However, the “body” is reemerging across many fields of study as a basic metaphor for interpretation and action.19 This interest is hardly novel: from the Socratic notion of the body (“man”) as the measure of all things to the Stoic metaphor of the world as a living organism and First Nations’ understanding of the earth as “mother” of us all, body language has historically been central to the interpretation of our place in the scheme of things. This is true of Christianity as well, which has focused on bodily metaphors: Jesus as the incarnate God, the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ, the church as the body of Christ.20 To see bodily well-being as the measure of both human and planetary well-being is so obvious that it seems strange it should need a revival, but surfacing once again is the realization that an appropriate metaphor with which to imagine our relation to the world is not the individual in the machine, but bodies living with the body of the earth.

The body as measure, as the lens through which we view the world and ourselves, changes everything. It means that human beings as bodies, dependent on other bodies and on the body of the earth, are interrelated and interdependent in infinite, mind-boggling, wonderful, and risky ways. It means that materialism (in the sense of what makes for bodily well-being for all humans and for the earth) becomes the measure of the good life. Combining the socialist with the ecological vision of human and planetary flourishing, the good life cannot be a small percentage of individuals hoarding the basic resources for their own comfort and enjoyment. Rather, if we desire to take care of ourselves, we must also take care of the world. The metaphor of body—not just the human body, but all creaturely bodies—is a radically egalitarian measure of the good life: it claims that all bodies deserve the basics (food, habitat, clean air and water).

The Christian incarnational understanding of the God-world relationship—that the world is from the beginning loved by God and is a reflection of the divine—means that flesh, bodies, space and place, air and water, food and habitat are all “religious” matters. The locus of attention of incarnational Christianity is the body, both the world as body and the bodies that compose it. The material focus becomes central; incarnational theology is militantly anti-Gnostic, anti-spiritualizing, anti-dualistic. The Christian incarnational focus on bodies can be seen in the two central historical streams in Christianity: the sacramental and the prophetic, or the Catholic and the Protestant. The sacramental dimension says that the world is a reflection of God, tells us of God, and connects the earthly, bodily joys of life (beauty, love, food, music, play) with God. The prophetic dimension insists that since the world is a body, it must be fed and cared for: all parts must receive their just supply of resources and it must be sustained for the indefinite future. While the sacramental dimension of the model encourages us to appreciate and love others, the prophetic dimension focuses our attention on limits—the recognition that bodies, including the body of the world, are finite. All life-forms must have food, fresh water, clean air, and a habitat.

The prophetic dimension of the organic model, which sees all bodies as needing the basics, suggests an ethic of self-limitation for well-off urban dwellers, so that slum dwellers may have space and place. This dimension must take center stage. Our very survival may well rest on living within such a construction of nature—one in which “second nature” is constrained. An ethic of self-limitation could also help address the issue of climate change due to excessive urban energy use.

I have taught a course on spiritual autobiography many times; in fact, it is the first course I taught almost 40 years ago. It is about people who live lives of extraordinary love for others, especially the weak and vulnerable, folks like Teresa of Avila, John Woolman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Jean Vanier, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Dorothy Day. Lately, I have been struck by a characteristic shared by many of them, the rather shocking practice of self-emptying, of what the Christian tradition has called “kenosis.”21

I believe self-emptying suggests an ethic for our time of climate change and financial chaos. These two related crises are the result of excess, our insatiable appetites that are literally consuming the world. We are debtors twice over—financially and ecologically. The very habits that are causing the financial crisis are also destroying the planet. Whether in Buddhism’s release from desire by nonattachment or Christianity’s admonition that to find one’s life one must lose it, religions are often counter-cultural in their various ethics of self-denial in order that genuine fulfillment might occur. While in some religious traditions, such self-denial moves into asceticism and life-denial, this is not usually the underlying assumption.

In the Christian tradition, kenosis, or self-emptying, is a way of understanding God’s actions in creation, the incarnation, and the cross. In creation, God limits the divine self, pulling in, so to speak, to allow space for others to exist. This is an inversion of the usual understanding of power as control; instead, power is given to others to live as diverse and valuable creatures. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:7, God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” substituting humility and vulnerability for our insatiable appetites. In the cross, God gives of the divine self without limit to side with the poor and the oppressed. God, like Jesus and the temptations, rejects absolute power and imperialism for a different way. Therefore, Christian discipleship becomes a “cruciform” life, imitating the self-giving of Christ for others. What an inversion this is of triumphal, imperialistic views of Christianity!

Simone Weil says that human beings are naturally “cannibalistic”: we eat instead of looking, we devour rather than paying attention, we consume other people and the planet in our search for self-fulfillment.22 From the twenty-first-century ecological perspective, sin is refusing to share, refusing to live in such a way that others—other people and other life-forms—can also live. For us in our time, sin is refusing to live justly and sustainably with all others on our planet, refusing to share the banquet of life.

The United Nations Earth Charter, a document which lays out principles for a just, sustainable planet, agrees. Its first principle reads: “Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.” An ethic of self-emptying begins with paying attention to others, looking not eating, and it is a somber, thoughtful ethic for our time of climate change. “Environmentalism” is not simply about maintaining green spaces in cities or national parks; rather, it is the more basic issue of energy use on a finite planet. The crisis facing us is not about time and history and human meaning; rather, it is one of geography, one of space and place and habitation.

This “crisis” does not have the immediacy of a war or plague or tsunami. It has to do with how we live on a daily basis—the food we eat, the transportation we use, the size of the house we live in, the consumer goods we buy, the luxuries we allow ourselves, the amount of long-distance air travel we permit ourselves, and so forth. The enemy is the very ordinary life we ourselves are leading as well-off North Americans. And yet, for all its presumed innocence, this way of life, multiplied by billions of people, is both unjust to those who cannot attain this lifestyle and destructive of the very planet that supports us all.

The kenotic paradigm in the spiritual heirs that I teach about includes the recognition that life’s flourishing on earth demands certain limitations and sacrifices at physical and emotional levels. The realities of our time mean that the vocabulary and sensibility of self-limitation, egolessness, sharing, giving space to others, and limiting our energy use no longer sound like a special language for the saints, but rather, like an ethic for all of us. The religions may be the greatest “realists,” with their intuitive appreciation for self-emptying and self-limitation as a way not only to personal fulfillment but also to sane planetary practice. Religions could take the lead in exploring and illustrating how an ethic of self- limitation might function in light of the twenty-first-century crisis of climate change.

So what does this have to do with cities? Recent UN projections on the growth of cities claim that slum living is now among the fastest-growing legacies of “civilization.”23 Given present trends, one out of three city dwellers will be doomed to the slums. The conditions in many cities—those pushing 15 million—are already dire. The needs of the doubling of city populations by mid-century from the present two billion to four billion are mind-boggling.24 Housing, public health, transportation, energy, food and water, education, and medical services are the basics for minimal human existence.

For well-off city dwellers, the kenotic, prophetic sensibility means some concrete, empirical, on-the-ground changes. It means that second nature, the built environment, must be minimalized rather than maximized. It means small condos and apartments, not mansions; living spaces that go up, not out; small, hybrid cars, not Hummers; food that is grown locally, not halfway around the world. It means saying NO, saying “enough.” Second nature is built upon first nature, and first nature is, increasingly, a vulnerable, deteriorating body unable to support the Western high-energy lifestyle. This realization should impact us at all levels: what we eat, our means of transportation, what we wear, the places we live, the parks where we play, the offices where we work. One of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century is decent, livable conditions for the billions who will live in cities. We well-off city dwellers need to take up less space, use less energy, lower our desires for more, attend to “needs” before “wants”—become small, in other words.

We need to imagine living within a “bounded economy,” living with restraint. In a recent issue of the journal Nature, scientists name nine key “planetary boundaries” that must be respected to avoid catastrophic environmental disaster.25 Three of these boundaries—climate change, biological diversity, and nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans—have already been breached through human activity. The planet has limits; it demands we live within these limits. We do not own the earth, we do not even pay rent for it; it is given to us “free” for our lifetime, with the proviso that we treat it with the honor it deserves: appreciating it as a reflection of the divine and loving it as our mother and our neighbor.


  1. Thomas Friedman, “The Inflection Is Near?,” The New York Times, March 8, 2009, WK12.
  2. See David Owen, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead, 2009).
  3. Catherine Keller expresses this dilemma when she writes: “Indeed, in the effort to expose the human social constructedness of the category Nature we do not yet have an adequate vocabulary for naming that reality that is us and is more than us, that something in which we are embedded and which remains, however we (re)construct it, irreducible to us”; “Introduction. Grounding Theory: Earth in Religion and Philosophy,” in Ecospirit: Religion, Philosophy, and the Earth, ed. Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller (Fordham University Press, 2007), 7.
  4. Edward Soja notes the history of these terms in “Seeing Nature Spatially,” a paper presented at the University of Chicago Divinity School conference “Without Nature: A New Condition for Theology,” October 26–28, 2006, 2–3. A more down-to-earth definition of “second nature” can be seen in the title of Michael Pollan’s book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Dell, 1991). Here, it is not the city as a whole that is second nature, but city gardens in contrast to nature untouched by human hands.
  5. Soja, “Seeing Nature Spatially,” 13.
  6. T. J. Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 23.
  7. As quoted in Soja, “Seeing Nature Spatially,” 13.
  8. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2006), 17.
  9. Ibid., 9.
  10. Ibid., 10.
  11. Jeffrey Cook, “Environmentally Benign Architecture: Beyond Passive,” in Global Warming and the Built Environment, ed. Robert Samuels and Deo K. Prasad (Spon, 1994), 143.
  12. UNEP, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Statement From the Board: “Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being,” 16.
  13. “Provisioning Services (food, fiber, genetic resources, biochemicals and natural medicines, fresh water); Regulating Services (air, climate, water, erosion, disease, pest, pollination, natural hazard); and Cultural Services (spiritual and religious values, aesthetic values, recreation and ecotourism).” Ibid., 17.
  14. Ibid., 5.
  15. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (University of California Press, 2000), 220.
  16. Peter H. Raven, “The Sustainability of the Earth: Our Common Responsibility”; paper presented at the University of Chicago Divinity School conference “Without Nature: A New Condition for Theology,” October 26–28, 2006, 25.
  17. See Seppo Kjellberg, Urban Ecotheology (International Books, 2000), 46.
  18. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (Harper and Row, 1983).
  19. David Harvey mentions “the extraordinary efflorescence of interest in ‘the body’ as a grounding for all sorts of theoretical enquiries over the last two decades or so”; Harvey, Spaces of Hope, 97.
  20. For further elaboration, see Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Fortress Press, 1993).
  21. The text from Philippians sums this up: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:5–8).
  22. J. P. Little, “Simone Weil’s Concept of Decreation,” in Simone Weil’s Philosophy of Culture: Readings Toward a Divine Humanity, ed. Richard H. Bell (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 41.
  23. Stephen Hume, “We Are Seeing the Urban Future and It Is Slums—Slums on a Frightening Scale,” The Vancouver Sun, June 21, 2006, A17. See the UN report, “State of the World Cities: Globalization and Urban Culture, 2004–2005.”
  24. Report of the Third Session of the World Urban Forum, June 19–23, 2006, Vancouver, British Columbia, 3.
  25. “Planetary Boundaries Breached,” as quoted in The Vancouver Sun, September 24, 2009, B5.

Sallie McFague is Distinguished Theologian in Residence at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia. She taught theology and ecology for many years at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. She gave a fuller version of this lecture on October 28, 2009, at the Center for the Study of World Religions as part of the “Ecologies of Human Flourishing” series. The lecture is a revision of issues and topics also explored in “Where We Live: Urban Ecotheology,” chap. 7 of A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Fortress Press, 2008), her most recent book.

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