Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis

By John Feeney:

[Original version published at The Oil Drum; Revised here for clarity – 11/12/07, 11/17/07, 5/31/08, 8/12/08]


Some of us who examine and discuss environmental matters are constantly puzzled and frustrated by the seeming inability of elected officials, environmental organizations, and environmental and political writers to “get” the nature of our ecological plight. Could it be they’re simply unaware of the ecological principles which enable one to understand it?

Since some undoubtedly are, and in light of the warnings in the UN’s latest report on the state of the global environment, here is a brief list of axioms and observations from population ecology with which everyone should be familiar. Most are taught in introductory level ecology and environmental science classes. They appear sequentially, so the reader can step logically through a progression which should make clear some of the fundamental elements of the global ecological challenge before us:

  1. A finite earth can support only a limited number of humans. There is therefore a global “carrying capacity” for humans. A typical definition of carrying capacity (PDF) is “The maximum number of animals that a specific habitat or area can support without causing deterioration or degradation of that habitat.”
  2. Axiomatically, a population which has grown larger than the carrying capacity of its environment (e.g., the global ecosystem) degrades its environment. It uses resources faster than they are regenerated by that environment, produces waste faster than the environment can absorb it without being degraded, and otherwise damages the functioning of its environment. Such a population is said to be in “overshoot.”
  3. Al Bartlett sometimes writes, “A SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH: If any fraction of the observed global warming can be attributed to the activities of humans, then this constitutes positive proof that the human population, living as we do, has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth.” The same can be said of much of the rest of the extensive and growing human-caused ecological degradation we see today, including the breakdown of the web of life indicated by the ongoing Sixth Extinction. It is symptomatic of having exceeded the earth’s capacity to sustain our current numbers for the long term. It is, in fact, proof that under current conditions we have done so. Here’s why: Recall the definition of carrying capacity: “The maximum number of animals that a specific habitat or area can support without causing deterioration or degradation of that habitat.” Now consider that most serious, global environmental problems we see today result from our consumption of various resources. The Sixth Extinction, for instance, results in large part from our consumption of habitat on which species depend. Since total consumption = population size x average per capita consumption, then if we agree that the loss of habitat and consequent loss of biodiversity constitute “deterioration or degradation,” we can recognize that, living as we do (per capita consumption), our numbers have passed the point at which the biosphere, our global habitat, can sustain us without suffering degradation — precisely the state of overshoot. [1] [2]
  4. It’s axiomatic, as well, that a population can only temporarily overshoot carrying capacity. It will subsequently decline in number, to return to a level at or below carrying capacity. That is, though a population may grow in size until it is too large for existing resources to sustain it, it must subsequently decline.
  5. Because it degrades it’s environment, a population in overshoot erodes existing carrying capacity so that fewer members of that species will be supported by that habitat in the future.
  6. Among other factors, our extraction of nonrenewable resources such as oil and coal has allowed us temporarily to exceed the earth’s carrying capacity for our species. As these supplies are drawn down, if alternatives do not keep pace, we will struggle to maintain our present numbers. Likewise, if we remain in overshoot as a result of our numbers and existing or continuing ecological degradation, the number of humans will, of necessity, subsequently come down. Whether we have a hand in voluntarily and humanely bringing them down, or simply let nature manage the whole thing for us, is up to us.

It seems unlikely anyone could fully comprehend the six steps above, and still deny we face a grave, worldwide ecological crisis. But for some, self gain or political ideology tied closely to self-image might be enough to fuel such denial. For others, I hope this little essay is informative.

For an in-depth analysis of the same and related issues try William Catton’s Overshoot.
[1] Indeed, we can alternatively think of carrying capacity as the sustainable “load” or total consumption level, which is, as mentioned, the product of population size and per person consumption. More sophisticated demonstrations of the impact of population on the environment make use of the related, slightly more complex equation, I = PAT, or its even more sophisticated elaboration, the STIRPAT equation.  For our purposes in this essay, the simple multiplication of population size and per capita consumption will suffice.

[2] Though for humans, carrying capacity may vary somewhat as a function of how we live, no matter how we live we cannot eliminate carrying capacity constraints. It seems unlikely, for instance, that even a hypothetical complete switch to renewable energy, as essential as it ultimately is, would, in itself, drop humanity back to within the limits of carrying capacity. At a time when humans are estimated globally to usurp as much as 40% of all products of terrestrial photosynthesis (link 1 (PDF), link 2, link 3), and when groundwater depletion, habitat destruction and attendant species extinction, extreme overfishing, the global spread of chemical toxins, increased risk of disease due to growing population size, density, and mobility, and the depletion of an array of non-energy resources constitute a large portion of our ecological challenge, we would likely remain in overshoot due to our sheer numbers.

In the end, as we’ve learned from the problem of peak oil, it seems we have never so much extended carrying capacity as learned increasingly and perilously how to overshoot it.

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85 responses to “Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis

  1. The challenges ahead appear daunting. At least to me, the evidence presented here and elsewhere indicate that somehow, somewhere, at some point in time, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will find humane and responsible ways to reasonably and sensibly begin moving forward sustainably by LIMITING INCREASES in the rate of growth of presently unbridled large-scale production capabilities, unrestrained per capita consumption and unregulated propagation of the human species.

  2. Hi, nice article! Im preparing for a debate, “Urbanization improves environment” i have to speak for the proposition. The improvement has to be with reference to the population and the economic development. Can you give me some ideas…Thanks
    Aseem Naphade(

  3. Hi Aseem,

    So you have to argue that urbanization improves the environment, with references to population and economic development?

    Well, one valid point is that urbanization does concentrate people into smaller land areas, leaving more land undisturbed.

    The UN published a major report some months ago all about increasing urbanization. There may be a lot of useful info there:

    Maybe others will come up with some other ideas/links.

    Good luck!

  4. Aseem,

    Although urbanisation (Australian/UK spelling) often brings many environmental harms, another argument in favour of urbanisation is that it allows for effective public transport and mass transit options.

  5. Thank you John, the point of concentration of population is quite good, will incorporate that in my speech, fpa has lots of information, will go through all of it and if i have any further doubts, will send you a message here.

  6. Great summation of carrying capacity, John.

    BTW, On ScienceBlogs they have created a topic called “Basic Concepts.” John Wilkins maintains a master list and I’ve suggested this post of yours be put on it. (For the purposes of the Basic Concepts list, they don’t care if you are part of ScienceBlogs or not.) See here.

  7. I’ll echo the congratulations, John. It’s a succinct but rigorous description.

    You mention in point 6 that our use of fossil fuels has allowed us to stay in overshoot longer than would otherwise have been possible. There’s another way of describing that effect, one that clarifies the ecological significance of Peak Oil. “Our use of fossil fuels has enabled us to mask the ecological erosions caused by our overshoot.” This implies that as the masking effects are removed by the decline of oil and gas, the consequences of that erosion will have more and more impact on our species. This is how I phrased it in my original WEAP paper, “Trends to 2100.”

    Of course those are just two formulations of the same idea. We wouldn’t have been able to stay in overshoot for long if the impacts had been fully and immediately felt. It seems to me that the difference between them is that “enabling overshoot” focuses attention on the current situation, while “masking the effects” is more concerned with the future (i.e. what happens during the unmasking).

  8. Trinifar,

    Thanks for suggesting it for the list at ScienceBlogs. I wonder if they’d see it as focused narrowly enough on carrying capacity. Still, maybe they could find a place for it.

  9. Paul,

    Thanks. Yeah, “masking the effects” does make sense and does point better to things to come.

    I may refine the essay a little in the near future, and will try to include that idea. The other thing I’d like to add is something to head off criticisms to the effect, “You overlook the gross disparity in consumption rates between industrialized and developing countries. That overshadows concerns about carrying capacity.” I tried to address that in the second footnote, and point #6 should help a reader with that as well. But I have a hunch there may be a way to build in a response to that in a more integral way.

  10. This story about dwindling mineral resources adds to footnote #2:

  11. Magne Karlsen

    Time takes a cigarette.

    – —

    “The findings support the expanded social dilemma framework in which environmental issues represent a social conflict (individual vs. collective interests) as well as a temporal conflict (short- vs. long-term interests).” [2006]

    “Members of the routine public did not perceive environmental issues to be a problem because they favored economic development over concern for the environment. The fatalistic public reported watching television news about pollution and held a pro-environmental attitude.” [1993]

  12. Magne Karlsen

    “Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world’s scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.”

    – —

    Ten years? Er, what? Hm.

  13. Brian P Woods MSc

    The politicians DO NOT want to ‘hear’ what you are telling! You, and others of like mind are too few (at this time) to be anything other than a set of pesky doomsayers. Besides, you are neither sufficiently wealthy, prominent nor politically influential to bother about. Get real kids; if you want to get the attention of the pols you MUST threaten their vote base and be ready to be vilified 24/7/365. The pols take no prisoners – and neither should you. Either go for the jugular or stay in bed. Tzu wrote the manual, Machiavelli the guidebook , and Musashi the means. Nice guys get sent to the graveyard!

    B P Woods


    “Believe me when I say to you, I hope the Russians love their children too.”

    – Sting

  15. This essay was today published on The Oil Drum as well. Readers here may be interested in that discussion:

  16. Thank you. I come here to read sanity.

  17. John, this is not an intellectual disagreement. It is a conflict of agendas. It is my opinion that the ultimate destiny of mankind is to grow beyond the earth by harvesting non-terrestrial energy and resources. This will eliminate the problem of finite resources which is the foundation of your views. There’s nothing to “get”. You pretend to be pushing science, but you are actually just pushing cowardice and myopia.
    I’m very eager for this subject to heat up further, so I can debate people like yourself more publically.
    In this corner, we have the stick-in-the-mud contigent of people yourself who say we have to limit our current financial, economic, technological system, and basically return to the past.
    In my corner, we have those offering the grand vision and riches of continuous growth, and the glamor of the future and the next frontier.
    Your view is a vision of darkness, depression and defeat. My view is one of hope, optimism and conquest. It’s obvious which side the financiers, politicians and public at large will sign on to. You people are LOSERS.
    “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” — Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

  18. JD, I beg to differ. This is an intellectual (and moral) disagreement. You say, “It is my opinion that the ultimate destiny of mankind is to grow beyond the earth by harvesting non-terrestrial energy and resources. This will eliminate the problem of finite resources which is the foundation of your views.”

    Where is there any support for your science fiction view of the future? John is perhaps to polite (or intelligent) to reply to your point of view, but I find it too common and too dangerously naive to let your comment stand unchallenged. It’s as if you were standing on the Titantic and castigating the crew for lowering the lifeboats by yelling, “You’re just being pessimists!”

  19. John, I’m glad to see your post made it to Oil Drum and you’ve been doing a bang-up job responding to people there. Keep it up.

    Have to say, though, the level of dialog is not very high. Sadly, that’s the most important group of people to address, those that try to deny the most basic facts of the situation. So take heart and keep engaging. It’s important work.

  20. Thanks Trinifar and Nunya. And thanks for the links Magne. I’ll look them over.

    Trin, I hadn’t even read JD’s comment till just now, but I couldn’t have responded better to him (just assuming it’s a him).

    JD, your comments about “a vision of darkness, depression and defeat” further hurt your argument, BTW, as anyone knows who considers that pointing out a problem and developing a solution need not be dark, depressing or defeatist.

  21. I’ve always thought that there is a middle ground here, and avoiding it obstructs the unity needed to motivate action. Very early in this piece, there is an assumption that the environmental footprint of a human being is some sort of fixed value. That crucial assumption is profoundly untrue. How we live is at least as important as how many of us live when it comes to sustainability.

    The “all growth is good crowd” are obviously foolish because they make no effort to differentiate between conventional economic activity and real value. Without even calling for an end to economic growth, sweeping improvements to humanity’s environmental profile could be made simply by working with a more meaningful definition of growth. So much of today’s pointless churn makes GDP scorecards as if it were constructive, and so many truly constructive activities are undervalued or unvalued by existing paradigms.

    A much more sensible alignment of economic value with real value could refocus human endeavors in ways that would simultaneously improve quality of life and minimize pollution, resource depletion, etc. Whether or not it is judged to be unreasonable, many people cannot be swayed from the position that it is good to leave the next generation with more wealth than was available to the current generation.

    As I see it, the flaw in that thinking has less to do with hope for a better future than it has to do with a twisted and archaic concept of “wealth.” The greenest of the green and the most conservative of the conservative all desire a better future for the world and its inhabitants. I believe condemning economic growth increases divisiveness as pertains to those desires. On the other hand, redefining economic growth can open up a constructive debate and pave the way for genuinely helpful changes in the future.

  22. Demonweed,

    Worthwhile points. I just want to mention that I pushed the essay in the direction of pure population numbers at the expense of how we live (consumption) purposely. There are too many people out there today, by my observation, who are strongly focused on the latter, but completely dismiss the former.

    I wanted to point out that if we look at some very basic ecological science, it makes some key points about population which we’re wise not to disregard.

    On the economics topic, I hear your point, but at the same time I see value in the work of people like Brian Czech who pushes the steady state economy, emphasizing the “fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.” Having someone coming out and saying it that bluntly helps to open up the debate and get people questioning long held assumptions.

    Again, though, I do see merit in what you’re saying. Your comments sound in line with those of the Redefining Progress folks and maybe even the “Gross National Happiness” of Bhutan.

  23. John,

    You’ve posted some great responses to some tough questioning on TOD!

    I see you’ve encountered Mr. Pitt. He’s hard-nosed and hard core – nothing but peer reviewed numbers are good enough for that man! Reading his comments on your thread has convinced me that he hasn’t yet thought deeply about the effect fertilizer prices in the context of declining natural gas supplies and increasing regional economic disparities, though. I think there are some quantitative surprises waiting for him down that road.

    Good for Prof. Goose for continuing to beat the carrying capacity/population drum. He’s put up a remarkable number of articles dealing with the topic. Yours is one of the better ones, succinct, thoughtful and to the point.

  24. Trinifar: “Where is there any support for your science fiction view of the future?”

    The recent (Oct. 2007) report by the National Space Security Office is a good place to start:


  25. Magne Karlsen

    Congratulations, John, on a job well done at The Oil Drum. From what I can read into the 144 comments to your article over there (so far), it is becoming ever more clear to me that there are very important psychological components to this whole environmental degradation debate; an issue which can hardly be overlooked for much longer. I mean: What is this whole environmental mish-mash debate doing to us, as individuals persons as well as social groups — smaller and larger? I’m afraid. —

  26. Yes, it does appear more and more people are beginning to awaken, finally, thanks to the coming of each new day, to something that is new and unforeseen about the world we inhabit.

    We have only become awakened a few days earlier than those who are now about to be released from their slumber.

    When they perceive what we are discussing, it will be as if they are seeing the world God blesses us to inhabit for the first time, I suppose.

    Many more people are soon going to be able to see that while nothing about the surface of the Earth has changed, not really; everything is different.

  27. I remember reading somewhere — I just don’t remember the source of this information — that we’re already producing food enough to feed 12 billion people or so. But a large quantity of this food is being used to feed animals (pigs, sheep, cows, cats, dogs, ducks, geese, hens, etc.), and another large quantity of the farm produce goes to waste, especially as simple thrash or litter here in the western world and northern hemisphere. To put it simple: I’m not ready to just sit down and accept the idea of overshoot. It’s a question of distribution, first and foremost, and everyone knows this.

  28. Thanks Paul. At this point I’m feeling pretty satisfied that there’s no fundamental flaw in the line of reasoning I laid out in the essay, though I admit I didn’t do anything to prove the fossil fuel-population link. The main objection of Pitt’s that interested me was that to my point #3 – that much of today’s ecological degradation indicates that, living as we do (to use Al Bartlett’s phrase, which I can’t seem to improve on), we’re in overshoot. I think I finally nailed the logic of it with this:

    Recall the definition of carrying capacity:

    The maximum number of animals that a specific habitat or area can support without causing deterioration or degradation of that habitat.

    Now, if we agree that increasing CO2 concentrations are in large part the result of our burning fossil fuels, then we know they are a reflection of our total consumption of those fuels. Since total consumption = population size x per capita consumption, then if we agree that the growing CO2 levels constitute “deterioration or degradation,” we can say that, living as we do (per capita consumption), our numbers are in excess of carrying capacity.

    It’s even easier to make the point with something like species loss, I think.

    The responses point, though, to the importance of eventually finding more support (if it’s there) for the contention that solving energy will not, alone, be enough to bring us back to within carrying capacity. Hmmm, I also could have mentioned the point that a smaller population has more resiliency. Next time…

    Any links, Paul, on the fertilizer issue you mention?

    I’ll tell you, it’s nice to get something posted on TOD, but as one who feels compelled to defend his arguments against over-the-top criticisms, it’s a lot of work! 😕

  29. Magne,

    From what I’ve read you’re right that the problem with food is currently distribution. There are concerns though about the future — water issues, soil issues, climate change induced drought concerns, etc. And other things already underway, such as mass extinction, could eventually impact food. So, yeah, we need to solve the distribution issue, and then work to prevent the convergence of other issues from making true food shortage a real problem.

  30. Great work…….just splendid work. Keep going.

  31. JD,

    See this post I wrote back in February for my take on a different large-scale, space-based project.

    As for the report you mention, I read it and it comes off as exactly what it is: a wishful proposal by a couple of junior Air Force officers. (That is, in so are as the authors can be identified at all.) There is no science in it. It’s just a collection of unsupported claims. Take a look at their blog here on WordPress, especially this post about criticisms of the project.

  32. I came over from the OilDrum to see what you had.
    I think much of the problem lies in some basic rules of Life that are ignored by humans in the name of profits and laziness. The first rule is that we need to contribute more to Nature than we consume, either via protecting the planet from things it cannot normally compensate for, or simply improving the way soil is built for future generations. All the talk about environmentalism is usually reactive reductions in some form, or limited pretense of action. Nobody seems to ‘get’ the idea that we need to be useful to the universe, not just to ourselves. Perhaps when we figure that out, the aliens will allow us to participate….;-)
    Growth for the sake of growth is just wrong. Growing the resource base of our planet is what every other species does, why should we be allowed to negate that through consumption, growth or not? The RATIO between creativity and consumption is the important bit, even though the consumption side of the equation has been so over-spent that we don’t have much choice except Descent until we can stabilize a Net Creative level of existence.

  33. auntiegrav,

    Yep, I agree.

    Related to forgetting those basic rules of life is forgetting that we’re a part of nature. A few of the commenters on TOD have come precariously close to saying “Humans are not a part of nature, not subject to its laws and limits.” (I actually saw a guy on reddit say that once. 🙂 ) They haven’t come right out and flatly said that, I suspect because they realize it sounds absurd, but they’ve pretty much implied it.

  34. Magne (and others) – this climate denial blog may interest you. UK-based, and you guys sound like you’re mostly on the other side of the Atlantic, but still relevant. Ignore the book-plug at the top.

  35. Magne Karlsen

    Yes, that’s a good blog; thank you very much. I’m quite obsessed with “observations and anecdotes about our weird and disturbed response to the problem.” Or rather: the lack of response. Because the idea of responding leaves us with social and cultural dilemmas which aren’t all that easy to overcome.

  36. As a long time student of the “world problematique” the population problem was understood in the 1970s. The “Limits to Growth” model (World 2/World 3) clearly showed that “collapse” would happen before the end of the 21st century. The fact that we are still talking about these things today reveals the power of cultural denial exercised within a political (economic) system that has its roots in The Enlightenment, which is the source of our modern failings. You don’t need to read a dozen books to get the big picture. In fact, just a handful will do. Catton’s book “Overshoot” is certainly required reading. To that I would add two books by William Ophuls…”The Politics of Scarcity” and “Requiem for Modern Politics”. For those really determined I would also recommend Georgescu-Roegen’s “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” and H.T. Odum’s “Environment, Power and Society”. Note that the most recent of these books (Requiem for Modern Politics) was written 10 years ago. Three of them were written in the 1970s and one of them (Catton’s with written in the 1980s). I personally feel that all efforts now should be directed towards radical energy conservation, abandonment of “market-driven” consumption and preparation for survival. The politics (economy) cannot be fixed. The collapse will occur, I’d just like to have as much time as possible to get prepared. The next 3-5 years will be critical.

  37. Pingback: Ecological logic « Sailing to Byzantium

  38. richard jones

    i have come over here having read JF on the BBC site.
    Surely there is an easy figure to come up with as to the carrying capacity of the earth for human beings? I am sure it has been done for colonies of ants/bees etc within certain areas; why not human beings? I can’t believe one of you guys out there hasn’t crunched the numbers somewhere.
    I have been working through a compulsorary euthanasia solution for some time now in my mind. Highly unpopular, unfortunately highly unlikely to ever happen but I’d like to see a more effective and more swift solution to what is ultimately a question of averting a major world conflict over water shortages and/or a catastrophic plague (drug resistant TB?).
    It’d work AND if you gave people the facts, pretty much all mothers and fathers would agree to it.
    It’s too late to change the way we live in the western world and now India and China; consumption is king… it’s not too late to change the way and the WHEN we die.
    My Grandparents are in total agreement.

  39. The issue of development is complicated by the fact that there are many regions which need to improve their standard of living in order to meet the minimum level for a decent lifestyle, while at the same time there are places (especially the US) where excess is the rule.

    Most ideas for how to correct the excess boil down to some sort of sacrifice. This can be indirect (say by improved efficiency) or direct by just consuming less. This latter option is off the table for the bulk of the US population and the pols reflect the popular sentiment.

    What they preach is a psychologically comfortable version of the “rising tide will lift all boats” theme. We won’t have to cut back on consumption because growth, technology or the magic or marketplace will solve the problems.

    As Pogo said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    I’ve got more detailed discussions of the conflicts between “want” and “must” in some of the essays on my web site.

  40. It’s painful to read this thread. I became aware of overshoot when the bug-in-the broth phenomenon was presented as a gedanken experiment in a cell physiology course I took in the summer of 1962. I had the intense insight that population growth was a cancer on the face of the earth for what is cancer but uncontrolled growth? All my adult life I’ve encountered resistance and denial whenever I mention the disasters that inevitably await us as we heedlesly expand our population. To speak of them too much is to become a social outcast and pariah. Even here on your blog we see pathological denial and insane optimism in the face of obvious reality. I assess the situation as hopeless but wish you well.

  41. Jean, I’ve felt the same way all my life and heard Magne (another frequent commenter here) and others express similar feelings. Speak of overpopulation and constant growth as a problem and many assume you are some kind of loon.

    However, the situation is only hopeless if we cling to notions of what could have been and retreat into isolation. It’s vital to continue to work to preserve as much of the planet’s richness and move human society to an understanding of how to live sustainability. To offer a dangerously pessimistic analogy: even members of the orchestra on the Titanic continued to do what they could in the final hours and many on that ill-fate ship survived to tell the tale.

  42. Magne Karlsen

    “It won’t be easy, but it is time for a president who asks Americans to be patriotic about something other than war.”

    – John Edwards

  43. Some very thoughtful comments. I’ll try to respond more later, but with the article on the BBC up I’ve been swamped with emails. Just a quick link for Richard Jones who asked about carrying capacity estimates:

    It’s a pretty good overview. A search should turn up some of the work from Pimentel and others as well.

  44. All humans will eventually die. Whether we die sooner than we planned for or later is just a matter of timing. Any one of us might be run down by an automobile tomorrow. Or a metorite might strike and wipe us all out.

    If the population is too high, then Mother Nature will take care of reducing it. We don’t have to plan. We don’t have to worry about the future.

    Those who worry too much about lack of energy are projecting their own personal lack of energy, or impotence onto the world. Those who worry that the world is dying or about to die are projecting their inner death or fears of death. Those who worry that the world has gone down the wrong path are projecting their sense that they personally have gone down the wrong path in life.

    Nothing any of us can do will change the course of humanity significantly, other than in a terribly destructive sense (a single person, if they were president of the US or Russia, could bring about nuclear winter, for example). 100% of the fossil fuels will be burnt. If this implies massive global warming, then massive global warming is what we will get. If this implies a human population crash, then a human population crash is what we will get. Big deal.

    To accept what is inevitable is no more defeatism than it is defeatest to accept that the leaves of summer will eventually wither and fall from the trees when autumn comes. Sanity means accepting the inevitable and trying to make the best of it.

    If people accuse some of you of being crazy, it is because you are crazy. Stop projecting your personal psychological problems onto the world. The next time you are tempted to say “the world is screwed up”, say instead “I’m screwed up”.

  45. Magne Karlsen

    Dear Fred.

    Some very few individuals — all belonging to the human race, and therefore a part of The Big We which most environmentalists are very keen on invoking — are, most probably, destined to enjoy their temporary stay within the premises of one or two of the space hotels which some ultra-rich entrepeneurs are planning to build. I mean: some people will always have the money to make their dreams come true. And one should not call them crazy, either: these people are just being totally, 100% realistic.

    “Luckily it’s easy to design basic accommodation in orbit – because it was already done in 1973(!) with the “Skylab” space station. Minimal living facilities require a cylindrical module with air-conditioning, some windows, and a kitchen and bathroom. But zero gravity allows you to build almost any shape and size, in almost any direction. So exploiting the full range of possibilities of zero gravity architecture will keep designers happy for decades! There’ll also be rotating (and tethered) structures giving artificial gravity.”

    – — 😀

  46. Fred writes, “Nothing any of us can do will change the course of humanity significantly…”

    Well, my first response is “bullshit.” That’s the same kind of reasoning people use when they don’t vote (what’s one vote among millions) or throw trash out the window of their car (the world is big, it’s just one candy wrapper). When Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine he affected the lives of millions, but even that isn’t really an example of one person changing the course of history. He was building on the work of countless others.

    Nearly everything we do as individuals in interconnected to the rest of the people in the world. All the good things we enjoy — from modern medicine to the fine arts and productive work — are a consequence of people interacting in ways that build constructively on one anothers efforts.

    New ideas and positive change in the way we live begin with people talking about what they see, expressing their thoughts, and trying to put forth valid and sound arguments for their ideas.

    I’m in a bad mood today and find Fred’s thoughtless comment an incredible example of bad and juvenile reasoning — just what we don’t need.

  47. ritu thapliyal

    It is a nice article.can u please provide me some information on the topic “urbanisation improves environment”.

  48. I’d like to point out that there is nothing contradictory about humanity going through the bottleneck of the coming dieoff and ultimately proceeding to a future inhabiting space and worlds beyond ours. There is enormous energy in the sun and cosmos that we can learn to tap, it’s just not likely that we will do so in time to avoid a population crash.

    I’d also like to point out that those who think they are going to solve the problem by giving more power to government are, IMO, more likely to make the problem worse.

    Across the bell curve of human personalities there have always been men who are attracted to power and who will outcompete men of lesser ambition for the reins. If power is in the church these men go to the church, if power is in the army – to the army they go, if power is in capital or government – they go there. Men who love power are not generally very altruistic, believe it or not.

    The varying opinions about the liklihood of a collapse and what to do about it should make it obvious (it does to me anyway) that it cannot be addressed without power. IMO, the thought that a world government would behave altruistically is hopelessly naive. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    It is quite likely that leaders who are “doing nothing” about the problem are convinced that a collapse is unavoidable and are simply jockying for position in order for their nation or group to survive it best. If one concludes that a collapse is unavoidable that is a quite rational reaction. Different people draw the group lines at different distances from themselves, some at family or neighborhood, some at national or cultural boundaries. There is not going to be room for everyone in the lifeboat Me, I’m in my sixties and don’t expect to be around, but I advise my children to keep their hands clean, their mouths shut and their heads down.

    We live in interesting times.

  49. ritu thapliyal,

    can u please provide me some information on the topic “urbanisation improves environment”.

    Just look up higher in this very string of comments! 🙂

  50. collapse2100 writes: The varying opinions about the liklihood of a collapse and what to do about it should make it obvious (it does to me anyway) that it cannot be addressed without power.

    Although more cleaerly stated, this sounds to me a lot like Fred’s position.

    Sure, power is needed to change, but it need not be top-down from powerful individuals or governments. We have all sorts of examples of power originating in grassroots movements causing large, positive change: civil rights in the 1950’s and 60’s, anti-Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s, the first environmental legislation in the 1960’s which was expanded in the 70′, India’s independence from the UK in the 1940’s, the end of aparthied in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc, etc.

    Large scale, dramatic social change does happen in a bottom-up fashion.

  51. Dear Trinifar,

    I wish that I did not agree with you about the “top-down” approach to making necessary behavior changes; but evidently that top-down approach will not work, at least not yet . If the top-down approach was going to work, it would have by this time. So formidable are global challenges before us. Even though the challenges are undeniable, our leaders have found effective ways of denying them.

    As an example, “The AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population” has been in existence since 2001. In that time, the point of it all was to gain the attention of the rich, powerful and famous. The strategy has not accomplished much, except that leaders “see” the human predicament but resolutely refuse to speak openly about it. Everywhere I have gone — from the Earth Summit in Jo’burg, World Water Week Conference, “This Tiny Planet” workshop, United Nations meetings, State of the Planet Conference, Annual Meeting of the Club of Rome to local town council meetings where I got one resolution passed — no action is taken by anyone with power. The people with power like things just the way they are. They have made this single point crystal clear through their deafening silence, which so many of them have ubiquitously adopted as way of dealing with humanity’s distinctly human-forced predicament.

    A “bottom-up” approach appears to be necessary with regard to making meaningful human behavior change in our time.

    What you may find more surprising is that a new approach to human problems is needed within the scientific community. By that I mean we need for more scientists to examine “big picture” problems. Now they mostly investigate little things. They prefer skillful examinations of “trees” to investigations in which the scope of observation is “the forest.” Please see my brief letter on this topic,

    If only we understood better what it is that serves as an adequate catalyst for “large scale, dramatic social change.” That would be a giant step forward.

    Personally, I am counting on blogs like this one to help us move forward by accessing the extraordinary, tsunami-like powers to be found in the grassroots. From all I have been able to learn about the human predicament we are witnessing, only grassroots power is sufficient to overcome the colossal, artificially-designed political economy, the soon to become PATENTLY UNSUSTAINABLE HUMAN CONSTRUCTION organized and managed now by a remarkably small number of masters of the universe, children of men…… all heirs of Ozymandias.




    “Might makes right” has been the unspoken, guiding principal for most societies throughout history. Many techniques have been used to disguise it: appeals to nationalism, religion, tradition or security have been the most frequent. In every case there is a small elite group that wishes to maintain its position of privilege and wealth. This elite group has the levers of power and wealth at its disposal. The threat of force, and the application of small amounts of wealth to buy the support of key segments of the population are very successful. History is replete with cases where an infinitesimally small group has controlled an entire populace for extended periods of time. The French aristocracy, the Chinese dynasties, and Middle Eastern sheiks are obvious examples.

    This situation exists today even in the democratic, enlightened, developed societies of the West. The power may not be as absolute as formerly, the imbalance of wealth may not be as great, but the control of social policy is just about as effective.

  53. I’ll soon be making a couple of minor revisions to the essay above. There were ultimately no factual or logical flaws identified by commenters here or at The Oil Drum, (As I indicated above, there were assertions of flaws which later proved to be in error.) But I want to make clearer the underlying logic in a couple of spots. If even some of the more astute TOD’ers couldn’t immediately see the reasoning behind point #3, for instance, that tells me it could be clearer.

    [Nov. 12, ’07 – Revisions posted]


    “In a world that will not accommodate four billion of us if we all become colossal, it is both futile and dangerous to indulge in resentment, as we shall be sorely tempted to do, blaming some person or group whom we suppose must have intended whatever is happening to happen. If we find ourselves beset with circumstances we wish were vastly different, we need to keep in mind that to a very large extent they have come about because of things that were hopefully and innocently done in the past by almost everyone in general, and not just by anyone in particular. If we single out supposed perpetrators of our predicament, resort to anger, and attempt to retaliate, the unforeseen outcomes of our indignant acts will compound fate.

    In precisely Mills’s sense, the conversion of a marvelous carrying capacity surplus into a competition-aggravating and crash-inflicting deficit was a matter of fate.”

    – William Catton

  55. Read Feeney’s article in BBC.

    I agree with all written there.

    Anyone interested my

    bla, bla, blah about it,

    see our English Forum,

    and party leader section

    of our Web site …

    My main focus is on

    “death control” and

    artificial selection …

  56. Robert Lucien Howe

    Very interesting site, its good to find people who are at least partly aware of the problem. One thing I notice though is that your graph is the wrong shape, it assumes that humans will behave as a natural species. I have looked at this in detail and unfortunately I think that we will fight the inevitable, also that the carrying capacity will behave differently when it is on an entire system scale. I don’t know what the actual shape will be but it will be chaotic. The truth is that hungry humans will scour the earth of every living thing and that carrying capacity may fall to almost zero. We are just to good at survival.

    Unlike others though I not totally pessimistic about the future, there are solutions – (I am a technologist and AI scientist first, I consider myself a deep green). Most of the environmental problems do have techno solutions. It may not be very pretty but terraforming systems can fix climate change and reverse the problems of carbon dioxide and ecological collapse – that is why gene banks are so important. If we are still stuck with huge human populations the enclosed space hab solution could work just as well on Earth – and cubic underground cities could hold (store) billions of people. Of course that is a defeatist solution. To me we are already well above the long term carrying capacity of the planet, and we need to reduce population .

    The energy crisis is technological and needs a technological solution but I believe it is something we have not found yet. I am interested in mid energy space travel and if we solve its problems we will solve the energy crisis for free.

  57. RLH,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Though I didn’t discuss it in the essay, I didn’t mean the graph to be taken too literally. It’s just an adaptation of one of the simplest overshoot scenarios, and so is almost surely an oversimplification with regard to the human future. It’s meant only as a visual indication that there is a carrying capacity, that we’ve overshot it, that while in overshoot we degrade it, and that ultimately our numbers will have to come down. You are of course right that if some level of die-off occurs, the actual shape will, in all likelihood, be something more chaotic. (Perhaps I’ll add a note to that effect if I revise the essay again.)

    I also barely touched the variability of carrying capacity as a function of human technology, though I tend to think there’s often too much made of that as our raising of carrying capacity so far has actually put us into overshoot and has, in any event, been a temporary achievement enabled only by our draw down of fossil energy.

    I’m hopeful about certain technical solutions, but am simultaneously leery of many. After all, so far, it’s not much off base to say, “But technology got us into this mess.” So while we definitely need clean energy, in many areas it seems we need to “advance” by going back to more natural practices. Agriculture is a key example.

    I agree with you that the real need is to address fundamentals such as reducing population.

  58. John; I like your discussion of carrying capacity very much. It was very clear and succinct.
    However, I doubt that the usual environmental approach to technological development will convince the technological enthusiasts until the entire discussion is framed differently. Like your respondent, JD, it is also “… my opinion that the ultimate destiny of mankind is to grow beyond the earth…” However, we must realize that in pursuing this ‘ultimate destiny’ we cannot destroy the planet that we originated on – at least not for several more millennia; until we have either found a way around Einstein’s ‘speed limit’ or are able to terraform Mars or some other planet. Ceasing activities destined to destroy our home is not synonymous with Ludditism or with ceasing to pursue our goal of journeying beyond our home planet. Only the most primitive of creatures purposefully fouls its own nest!
    Our present behaviour constitutes an uncontrolled experiment in reverse terra-forming – see, for example, the interesting paper by Brandon Carter “Five or six step scenario for evolution?” arXiv:0711.1985v1 [astro-ph] 13 Nov 2007. In his discussion of the sixth ‘hard step’ of evolution he says…

    “…The ensuing concentration of oxygen would have depended on the balance of this photosynthetic production against oxygen absorption by various sink mechanisms (including combination with iron during the Archaean eon, prior to what is listed above as the 3rd step) of which it seems likely that the most important was – and remains – combination with carbon to form carbon dioxide and carbonates such as chalk. According to an interpretation of the kind proposed by Schopf[14] the emergence of successively more advanced life forms would have increased the effectiveness of inhumation processes whereby some of the carbon was taken out of atmospheric circulation in unoxidised form. The most important example of this in recent terrestrial history is the conversion of buried vegetable residues to coal.
    Schopf has suggested that the augmentation of the proportion of oxygen to
    carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by such inhumation processes would have become particularly important as a convenient by-product of combigenisis (the development of sex), counted as the 4th in the chain of 6 steps listed above, and as the first of the pair of hardsteps to be associated with the long Proterozoic eon (the other –signalling the completion of the Proterozoic – being the arrival of the metazoans). The efficient propagation of genetic material made possible by this innovation would (as described elsewhere [1]) have greatly increased the potential rapidity of evolution, thereby enabling occupation of new ecological niches by many specialised life forms of unprecedented diversity. The presumption is that these would have included kinds whose life style would posthumously produce substantial carbon inhumation and ensuing oil production.
    It is to be remarked that an inconvenient [18] by-product of the rise of civilisation, counted as the 6th step in the chain, is the reversal of this process, by conversion of coal and oil back to carbon dioxide….”

    Now that we are (slowly) becoming aware of this “reverse-terraforming” effect of human activities it is neither “cowardice” nor “myopic” to modify our activities such that we stop converting our home planet into another barren world. Rather, it is simply the rational decision of a species that really wishes to have the opportunity to realize our ‘ultimate destiny’.

  59. Well I think you’re quite right, Tim. Some make the mistake of suggesting issues such as carrying capacity are not a problem since we can just move on to other planets.

    The problem with that, of course, is that if we don’t seriously attend to those issues such as carrying capacity, we’ll never have the chance to consider migration beyond earth. Not by a long shot.

    And I certainly agree there’s nothing myopic or cowardly about recognizing that. On the contrary, turning a blind eye to our ecological problems by assuming we’ll soon leave them all behind to go and trash other planets may well spring from the fear of confronting those very problems.

    I should add that while such migration may one day happen, I don’t particularly see it as our destiny. We could choose to remain here, living in harmony with the earth and, for a long time to come, that would be fine. But sure, it may happen.

  60. “First beyond our planet, then beyond our solar system, as we venture, slowly but inexorably, in tiny lifeboats afloat on an infinite sea, to live forever among the stars.”

    – —

    Dream on. 🙂

  61. Forgot about the link:

    An interesting read, actually. Not only for those who are upset, like I am, at the very idea of space invasion. I think the individual members of all possible extraterrestrial species dread the idea of human expansion into other solar systems. –

  62. Dr. Ben Darvill

    Well, you’ve made my day but also ruined it at the same time.

    The latter, because I’ve spent all afternoon reading page after page of your website instead of working, but the former because I finally feel less alone in what felt until now like a very personal struggle.

    I’m an ecologist by profession, studying on a day-to-day basis problems which are, one way or another, anthropogenic. Fundamental to everything I believe in is the central concept (which as you so rightly highlight seems to be politically taboo) that the root cause of the problems we face is overpopulation. Addressing the issue of sustainable development without recognising the concept of global carrying capacity is (as you put it) madness! The solution of course, as many of your articles and essays highlight, is far from straightforward, given the nature of global governance, or lack thereof.

    What strikes me is the need to redefine ‘sustainable development’. Here in the UK the term seems to be much in vogue, but the emphasis is placed on the development. The assumption is that economic growth is essential and inevitable, so we’d better try and do it in a sustainable way. I would argue that sustainability is essential (and ultimately inevitable, in the long-term), so we really ought to ensure that economic (and population) growth are within sustainable bounds. As things stand, it seems likely that we’re way out of bounds already.

    What saddens me, as an ecologist, is that the economic arguments lauding the role of innovation in increasing carrying capacity place no ‘value’ on biodiversity. I agree in essence that, when resources become critically depleted, necessity will probably be the mother of all invention, but at what cost? Perhaps the whole issue is fundamentally ethical, in which case economic arguments are of little value.

    Anyway, I look forward to participating in whatever way I can in the future.

    Best regards,


  63. Sorry for being a bit off topic here John but I think that Dr. Darvill’s concerns about “the need to redefine ‘sustainable development’” should be directed to redefining another word instead of that phrase.
    Wikipedia suggests that a definition that captures much of modern economics is that of Lionel Robbins in a 1932 essay: “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” (Robbins, Lionel (1945). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited. ).
    It seems to me that if this definition is generalized by replacing the phrase ‘human behaviour’ with ‘group behaviour’ is accepted then there is no real difference between ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’; provided we use group in the inclusive sense to mean ‘living things’: (Accepting that we are a part of the group). Then “economic arguments lauding the role of innovation in increasing carrying capacity” would indeed be valid. The assumption that economic growth is essential and inevitable would imply that it is always done in a sustainable way.
    Nature’s innovations have altered the carrying capacity of this planet from time to time, as is amply demonstrated by the fossil record. Being simply a component of nature it is not impossible, therefore, for us to also introduce innovations that will alter (decrease or increase) the carrying capacity of the planet. Our current difficulties arise, primarily, from our anthropogenic insistence as humans to define ourselves as creatures that have some sort of ‘special status’. The real problem lies not in human ambition or innovation or technology: it lies in our self image as being special: i.e. it lies in our religions and their claims that we are somehow more valuable than other components of the universe.
    In response to Magne Karlsen comments I suggest that, to ourselves as a species we are, of course, pre-eminent and are constrained by evolution to do everything possible to assure our survival: including attempting to avoid extinction by any of the natural and/or self induced disasters that might befall us. If we shed the perverted view of ourselves that is imposed by our religions, then species survival demands that we behave in a sustainable way while we are on this planet: it does not demand that we confine ourselves to this planet. Indeed, accepting that nature periodically alters the carrying capacity of the planet in catastrophic ways, the imperative of species survival demands that, having the means, we disperse ourselves within the universe as quickly as is possible.

  64. Hi Ben,

    I see that like John, you’ve been in the BBC News as well 🙂 — assuming this is you.

    Of course you’re right about how it’s the “development” in sustainable development that’s usually emphasized. I go back and forth on my reaction to the term — often just content that sustainability is being mentioned at all. But the time is coming when “sustainable” is going to be recognized as the overriding concept and that can’t happen too soon.

    And regarding biodiversity, when I went to write about that a while back I found little information compared to climate change, peak oil, and population. I settled for quoting E. O. Wilson — not that he’s a weak source! Just that there seems to be only a small amount of public discussion accessible to the layperson. (If you can point me to on-line resources I’d appreciate it.)

  65. Hi Ben,


    The assumption is that economic growth is essential and inevitable, so we’d better try and do it in a sustainable way. I would argue that sustainability is essential (and ultimately inevitable, in the long-term), so we really ought to ensure that economic (and population) growth are within sustainable bounds.

    Well put. In his writings on sustainability, Al Bartlett does a good job of getting to the gist, pointing out that “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron, and so on. This is s good one:

    I think you hit on an excellent point, as well, about biodiversity. The insistance that technology has previously raised carrying capacity and will do so again does seem completely to ignore biodiversity. Just look at how it’s been impacted by those technologies so far. And those technologies have, of course, not just increased carrying capacity, but have pretty clearly caused us to overshoot it. It occurred to me recently that that is one reason I think too much is made of the human ability to increase carrying capacity. At what point were we simply increasing it, and when did we overshoot it? (assuming a definition of carrying capacity such as, “The maximum number of animals that a specific habitat or area can support without causing deterioration or degradation of that habitat.”) At any rate, I don’t think we raised carrying capacity as much as some would like to think.

    I look forward to hearing more from you!

  66. Tim,

    I’d definitely be all for redefining economics in terms of sustainability.

    It seems to me that if this definition is generalized by replacing the phrase ‘human behaviour’ with ‘group behaviour’ is accepted then there is no real difference between ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’; provided we use group in the inclusive sense to mean ‘living things’. . . Then “economic arguments lauding the role of innovation in increasing carrying capacity” would indeed be valid. The assumption that economic growth is essential and inevitable would imply that it is always done in a sustainable way.

    Yep, that could make sense. I’m not sure, though, what economists would resist more, the redefinition you have in mind or the one Ben mentioned. 😕

    I agree with your comments concerning our insistence that we have some special status. This was an effort of mine to wrestle with that some months ago:

  67. Dr. Ben Darvill

    Thanks to all for the warm welcome,

    In relation to carrying capacity and technology – I have to agree with John. In many instances technology, rather than increasing carrying capacity, has just increased our ability to exceed it. The commercialisation of fishing and logging are prime examples, illustrating that short-term over-harvesting of even renewable resources is not only unsustainable, but actually reduces the sustainable yield that can be harvested in the future. This equally applies to numerous other ‘resources’.

    The scenario chalked-up at the start of this page plots the likely course of humanity, unchecked. The sad reality is that alongside the ‘crash’ in human population size, we’ll doubtless see a simultaneous drop in species diversity (put simply, a mass extinction). That process has already started – but sadly conservationists (like me) are limited to putting off the inevitable – holding back the flood if you like – in the hope that civilisation will realise the reality of the situation before its too late.

    I’m fascinated when I hear people talking about the ‘destiny’ of the human race to out-grow the earth and spread to a new planet elsewhere. Doesn’t it remind you of the way that a virus goes about its business? Anyway, how could something which evolved very logically from a blob in the primordial soup possibly have a destiny? It’s almost inconceivable that humans will ever have the capacity to colonise a planet elsewhere, given the enormous scale of the universe. I’m sure the inhabitants of planets elsewhere are relieved to hear that, given our track record here.


  68. Are we witnessing something odd and unfortunate: an unforeseen loss of courage in the family of humanity that is reflected in both the absence of a sense of urgency by our leaders and the lack of an insistent expression of outrage by the public regarding the human-forced predicament in which we find ourselves in these early years of Century XXI?

  69. Ben said:

    [The loss of species diversity] has already started – but sadly conservationists (like me) are limited to putting off the inevitable – holding back the flood if you like – in the hope that civilisation will realise the reality of the situation before its too late.

    A key statement, if you ask me.

  70. Steve,

    I think a big part of it for our leaders is “politics,” as hinted at by Bill Clinton.

    As for people in general, I think it’s easy to lose touch with how low awareness of these issues really is. Just bring up in conversation something like “peak oil” or the “sixth extinction.” In my experience, a great many people still have little awareness of such terms. I think it’s just beginning to change, maybe, but there’s still a long way to go.

  71. April 4, 2006: “Global Warming: What, Me Worry?”

    “It’s a good thing the phrase “tipping point” became a cliche just in time to help us describe global warming. Just a few years ago, we were more or less cruising along on global warming, with maybe 50 years or so to Do Something about it. Suddenly, the only question is how soon to push the panic button, and 10 minutes ago appears to be the right answer.”

    “As the Earth drifts toward crisis, our president [as well as all of his colleagues, worldwide] does not yet seem capable of grasping even the First Rule of Holes. We’re in one, and it is time to quit digging.”

    – Molly Ivins

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  73. Magne Karlsen


    It was a slow day
    And the sun was beating
    On the soldiers by the side of the road
    There was a bright light
    A shattering of shop windows
    The bomb in the baby carriage
    Was wired to the radio
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    This is the long distance call
    The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
    The way we look to us all
    The way we look to a distant constellation
    That’s dying in a corner of the sky
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
    Don’t cry

    It was a dry wind
    And it swept across the desert
    And it curled into the circle of birth
    And the dead sand
    Falling on the children
    The mothers and the fathers
    And the automatic earth
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    This is the long distance call
    The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
    The way we look to us all
    The way we look to a distant constellation
    That’s dying in a corner of the sky
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
    Don’t cry

    It’s a turn-around jump shot
    It’s everybody jump start
    It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
    Medicine is magical and magical is art
    The Boy in the Bubble
    And the baby with the baboon heart

    And I believe
    These are the days of lasers in the jungle
    Lasers in the jungle somewhere
    Staccato signals of constant information
    A loose affiliation of millionaires
    And billionaires and baby
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    This is the long distance call
    The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
    The way we look to us all
    The way we look to a distant constellation
    That’s dying in a corner of the sky
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
    Don’t cry

  74. Congrats on receiving the award, John. Well done!

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