Theory of Change

This is the theory of change I developed when I was working on my PhD. The primary theories of social change that inform my dissertation include: a) behavioural economics, b) sociology and psychology of radical change, and c) resilience theory and transitions. This is a part of a larger series of posts from the PhD.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts.

Behavioural Economics

In standard economics the individual consumer is thought of as a rational unit for analysis, who makes one-dimensional consumer decisions based on minimum cost and maximum effect. In real life, humans are complex. They don’t always make optimum decisions because they weigh risks and make mistakes. Behavioural economics is an attempt to deal with the issues of a complex individual, and is the study of how people make decisions, why the individual does not always act selfishly, and why someone might make an economically disadvantageous decision. Behavioural economics signifies the unifications between economics and psychology. Behavioural economics is centered on the idea that:

“the conviction according to which an increased realism of the psychological bases of economic analysis will improve the economic field in its terms – by generating theoretical perspectives, by developing better predictions of actual realities and by suggesting more appropriate policies.”

(Camerer and Lowenstein 2004, p. 3)

Behavioural economists have found several factors that influence a person’s decision-making patterns: people are afraid and want to avoid loss or regret, people are influenced substantially by their peers, preference for immediate satisfaction, and emotional confusion.

Research in behavioural economics can be classified in two categories: 1) the process of judgement and 2) the process of choice. The process of judgement is influenced by experience, environment/context and risk aversion. The process of choice is influenced by an individual’s evaluation of the product or good.

Behavioural economists have made many contributions to understanding human decision-making, most notably the inclusion of attitudes and beliefs into rational choice theory. Behavioural economists modify the standard view of homo-economicus assumptions of rationality by considering human physiology and acculturation. Polanyi’s notion of the disembedded rational actor, cut loose from relational ties and traditional roles becomes progressively more reality congruent. The field emerged around the same time as Freud was discovering the field of unconscious motivations and economists applied this to counter rational choice theory. In a paper exploring motivations behind willingness to pay, Spash et al. 2009 argue that attitude-behaviour models and the theory of planned behaviour from social psychology could improve how economists understand human behaviour. These theories put forward three initial determinants of human intention:

  1. Behaviour is moderated in relation to favourable or unfavourable self-evaluations or appraisals of said behaviour;
  2. Social pressure to perform specific behaviour and;
  3. The ease or difficulty of performing the behaviour.

These three determinants of behaviour explain why people want to be ‘environmentally friendly’ (it’s a good thing to do and there is social pressure to do so – numbers 1 and 2) but don’t behave accordingly (their actions are too inconsequential, so it is too difficult to make any impact – number 3). This makes it difficult to assume how anyone might behave because everyone evaluates these differently.

In a traditional economist’s ideal economic world, decisions would be based on rational consideration of costs and benefits resulting in optimal and predictable purchasing decisions. In 1976, Gary S. Becker outlined this as ‘rational choice theory’ which assumes human actors maintain stable preferences and will make logical and maximizing choices. While economists still use rational choice theory, it is fiercely opposed by many, most eloquently by Pierre Bourdieu who argued that social agents do not behave rationally, but according to their “feel for the game”[1]. Behavioural economists point to a set of ideas that interfere with a person’s supposed rational choice, such as mental accounting, the psychology of price, salience, status quo, time discounting, trust, and reciprocity (relational goods).

The popular economic historian, Sowell, said that a society’s opportunities are not what determines an individual’s options for behaviour. Rather, the culture in that place is the determining factor. Of this, Williams says:

“…this is because individuals begin to experiment with new ways of doing things when they perceive the existing set of cultural norms as inadequate to guide decision making. So for some individuals behavior has changed. The discrete acts of individuals are insufficient to alter generally held beliefs. However, a group level crisis of shared beliefs does emerge when a critical mass of individuals begin experimenting with new strategies. A new equilibrium system of shared beliefs is achieved when beliefs about the consequences of pursuing new strategies becomes widely disseminated”

(Williams 2007, p. 250).

Berger and Luckmann expand on this saying that activities then get institutionalized as a result of repeated patterns of behavior that evoke shared meanings among the group (1967). Despite these nuances of culture, meaning, and social change modeling remains a typical practice in behavioural economics as some try to predict these behaviours. Given that individuals make one decision in a certain context and an entirely different decision in another suggests that the use of predictive models is only useful in specific contexts for learning about the general behaviour of a system. Despite their drawbacks, models can still be useful for developing an overall sense of the world and how variables may impact known system dynamics. One useful model, built from previous models in behavioural economics over time, comes from Williams (2007).

William’s model for individual and group behaviour from Williams 2007

William’s model is useful for thinking about social change because he has built the model from an interdisciplinary perspective using methodological pluralism in consideration of culture. Williams model pairs easily with my framework for ecological economics, given that he has clearly assigned importance to culture. It is important to me to pair the outcomes of my research and implications for the social sphere with an accepted behavioural economist’s model for behaviour change as the intention of my research is to suggest pathways for change based on research outcomes. These outcomes should relate and translate across academic disciplines as much as possible, without losing their initial purpose.

In William’s model, he suggests that an important part of understanding how individuals consume is to look at the structure of cultural institutions and systems of shared beliefs. When the costs of the larger system begin to exceed the benefits of social capital, there is a cognitive disequilibrium in the group and a ‘perceived inadequacy of action choices’. Arguably, this is where Western society is now – many are aware of growing issues but there is little anyone is willing to do about it. Some are beginning to experiment with new ideas, the next stage of William’s model, which eventually shows an alternative which can contribute to a crisis of shared beliefs outside of the mainstream system. Once sufficient numbers transition to this experimental and crisis stage, then there can be a shift to a new culture or new system of shared beliefs. This process is similar to two of the theories of social change I am going to explore later in this chapter: prefigurative politics and resilience theory. Prefigurative politics are those who establish alternative political or cultural systems that become opportunities for system transition. Resilience theory is the study of how social systems go through these transitions.

Williams model is interesting in relation to the case studies I present because it indicates that if there is a sufficient number of individuals who can come together and contribute to a crisis of shared beliefs in response to the cognitive disequilibrium spawned by the excessive pressure being put onto social and environmental capital, then there could be a transition to a new widely shared system of beliefs that can push the overall system towards transition. Williams model hits at the tensions and challenges of this, mainly that the strategic choice, social obligation, and taken for granted norms of the existing culture will change when the system shifts to a new culture. He doesn’t go into the implications of this, or even acknowledge that this is a problem.

Sociology of radical change

Some sociologists use two dimensions to demarcate four paradigms of thought, two of which are part of the sociology of radical change. The two dimensions are the nature of science (subjective or objective), and the nature of society (regulation or radical change).

Four paradigms of sociological thought

Ardalan goes on to summarize the four paradigms using globalization and culture:

“The functionalist paradigm views globalization and culture as universal, the interpretive paradigm views ideology as particular, the radical humanist paradigm views globalization and culture as a domination ideology, and the radical structuralist paradigm views globalization and culture as causing conflict between classes. … While each paradigm advocates a research strategy that is logically coherent, in terms of underlying assumptions, these vary from paradigm to paradigm.”

This four-way split relates to the problem of structure/agency and philosophical materialism/idealism, which is a debate on the extent to which human ideas and consciousness are structured/determined or conditioned by social conditions (structuralist) or are free-floating and autonomous. I will focus on the two paradigms within the sociology of radical change.

The radical structuralist paradigm focuses on structural relationships and emphasises that radical change comes from the very nature and structure of society. Radical structuralists argue that society is characterised by conflicts which generate radical change through crises, a concept I apply as one of my theories of social change. This materialist account suggests there are limits to the kind of change that can take place in society because the society itself is the incubator for said change.

The radical humanist paradigm emphasises the importance and dangers of overthrowing limitations of existing social arrangements. An underlying notion of this paradigm is that the consciousness of human beings is structured and dominated by ideological superstructures, an idea central to this dissertation. Radical humanists seek to change the social world by altering modes of cognition which is very difficult, or maybe impossible. If, for instance, we’re looking to change the ideological superstructure such as consumerism and individualism, there may be little flexibility in doing so. There are limits to how much cognitive change can take place because a person’s cognitive function is a product of their environment. The unity of the human species and our common plight is made available through reflection, psychoanalysis and education, which applies to later discussions on terror management.

My dissertation falls close to the line between these two paradigms; however more importantly, most environmental approaches, even those within ecological economics, are much more interpretive and functionalist, such as those measuring one’s willingness to pay for nature or trying to measure our success of a species in numerical terms. Most of the critiques on challenges for implementing degrowth economics focus on institutional and technical difficulties rather than on social preconditions that make change difficult. Ecological economics started as a radical change theory but has since been watered down by economists to become more palatable within mainstream institutions. There is now greater research and development in the functionalist paradigm within ecological economics rather than within a paradigm more centered on theories of social change, as discussed in the previous chapter.

Joutsenvirta states that this “is unfortunate because we cannot escape the fact that non-growing economies have to be built from existing institutions” (2016, 24) and therefore requires a deep understanding of how those existing institutions can be influences and how they may respond to change. Daly made a similar point in his popular book Steady State Economics: “a realistic discussion of a transition cannot assume a blank slate, but must start with the historically given initial conditions currently prevailing” (1991, 190). Therefore, ecological economists need a better understanding of a) historical sociology and b) the limitations presented by looking at society as messy and complex slates rather than a blank one. This is exemplified in a quote from Marx in 1852, while reflecting on the possibilities of the future of the Communist League:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

– Marx 1852

Terror Management Theory

Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death (1973) which offered a “broad and powerful conceptual analysis of human motivation based on the notion that the awareness of death, and the consequent denial thereof, is a dynamic force that instigates and directs a substantial portion of human activity” (Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 1998, p. 10). Becker identified important similarities between humans and animals to understand human behaviour. He attributed a human’s recognition of mortality as a primary motivator for human behaviour. While the advancement of this cognitive awareness of mortality was evolutionarily advantageous it allowed humans to reflect on their mortal condition. Becker remarks:

“Man emerged from the instinctive thoughtless action of the lower animals and came to reflect on his condition. He was given a consciousness of his individuality and his part divinity in creation, the beauty and uniqueness of his face and his name. At the same time he was given the consciousness of the terror of the world and of his own death and decay. This paradox is the really constant thing about man in all periods of history and society; it is thus the true “essence” of man”

Becker 1973

In response to this recognition of finitude, humans have developed mechanisms to cope with death anxiety. A primary method of this is via cultural worldviews, which provide a sense of meaning. Cultural worldviews are “shared meaning systems that provide a theory of existence, which gives meaning to life, and standards of value, which are guides for appropriate behaviour and yardsticks against which people’s value can be assessed” (Pyszczynski and Kesebir 2012, p. 76). Humans develop mechanisms for “civilizing, spiritualizing, and ultimately denying their fleshy mortality” (Rowe 2014, p. 2) so as to see ourselves as “enduringly significant contributors to a meaningful reality rather than as mere transient animals groping for survival” (Greenberg, Solomon, and Arndt 2008, 116).

While cultures vary greatly, Becker argues they all provide the same psychological function: insulating us from the fear of death. However, these cultural worldviews are insufficient. Becker went on to propose that humans take on prescribed social roles to acquire a unique sense of significance and see themselves as an individual of value to the world and to prove that they “count more than anything or anyone else” (Becker 1973, p. 4) and to bolster their self-esteem. 

Becker’s work was largely dismissed by academics but reinvigorated in the 1980s by Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski in the form of Terror Management Theory (TMT): “The idea that much of our basic identity and motivation function to assuage deeply rooted anxieties emanating from the awareness that, ultimately, no matter how you slice it, we are doomed to the grave” (Arndt and Vess 2008, p. 910). Arndt and Vess went on to argue that TMT would be “of no use to any psychologist, alive or dead”. Since then, TMT has led to over 500 studies in more than 20 different countries offering a “distinctively integrated account of social psychological phenomena that includes prejudice, altruism, conformity, terrorism, aesthetic and political preference, and interpersonal relations” (Sanitti, 2017, p. 5).

One of the most researched themes in TMT is mortality salience (MS) which states that “if a psychological structure functions to buffer awareness of death, inducing people to think of their death should increase their need for this psychological structure” (Hayes, Schimel, Arndt, and Faucher 2010, p. 701). Janis Dickinson argued that because of this, when environmentalists remind the public that climate change is imminent, they resort to the lowest-common-denominator of self-esteem: consumerism to form identity and status (2009). Relatedly, researchers have demonstrated that death primes impact social allegiances and can create intergroup conflicts based on cultural differences such as race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality (Sanniti, 207, p. 9) leading to in-group (those who validate one’s cultural worldview) and out-group (those who challenge it) evaluations (Greenberg, Koole, and Pyszczynski 2004).

One consequence of modernity is that individualism, cultural relativism, and secularisation have undermined cohesive, culturally-sanctioned and shared “hero projects”. Identities and methods for developing self-esteem that were once clear have been made murky through the process of modernity, especially as consumption developed into the most common route for the development of self-esteem. For example, being a good mother is no longer simply about ensuring your child is loved and fed. Instead, mothers are bombarded with a host of expert information to help make the ‘best’ decisions regarding every decision they make and are constantly questioning their abilities. This has led to higher instances of mothers feeling depressed, uncertain, and confused.

Consumerism helps to navigate this confusion and uncertainty. Consumption, personal style, and making the right consumer choice are markers of prestige and self-worth. Mothers feel better when they choose the highest safety rated product and will share this decision with others. Consumerism serves a double function, first to distract people from their doubts and mortality while secondly, providing a visible façade to the rest of society to proclaim success and prestige.

This partially accounts for why people continue to passively consume even when they are aware of associated negative impacts: the self-esteem gained through consumption may overwhelm any moral quandaries. Therefore, if those interested in advancing the green political action hope to counter everyday consumption – one of the main drivers of environmental deterioration – they need to provide alternative sources of meaning and self-esteem (such possibilities include family, community, or using their hands to make). This means taking on a clear agenda on a vision of morality, virtue, and ‘how best to live’ through more ecological and community-oriented hero/immortality projects. However, such an agenda may contradict the ‘equity’ pillar of ecological economics or may challenge the liberal definition of ‘equity’ to focus on smaller, and more insular, community contexts. The ecological economic agenda continues to focus on things such as valuation of ecosystem services, environmental policy, cost-benefit analysis, and other functionalist approaches to change rather than taking a clear stance on how to navigate the challenges of environmental psychology.

Resilience and Transition

Discourses on resilience and transition are rooted in systems theory. My approach to understanding systems change is premised on the adaptive cycle. The adaptive cycle is an element of ‘panarchy’, which refers “to the framework for conceptualizing coupled human-environment systems” (Gotts 2007, p. 1).

Panarchy has two integral pieces to it: 1) the resilience framework and 2) the adaptive cycle metaphor. Characteristics of the resilience framework include: a) multiple possible regimes rather than a single equilibrium; b) an emphasis on episodic change given that systems may switch rapidly when thresholds are passed; c) resilience, which Holling and Gunderson define as “…the magnitude of disturbance that can be absorbed before the system changes its structure by changing the variables and processes that control behaviour” (2002 p. 28); and d) multiple scales with cross-scale interaction that make a multiscale hierarchy. The adaptive cycle metaphor is characterised by a) a four-phase cycle, b) panarchy, and c) three distinct kinds of change. Holling and Gunderson argue that most socio-ecological systems follow a four-phase cycle:

1) exploitation (r); 2) conservation (K); 3) release (Ω); and 4) reorganization (α).

The first and second phases come from ecological theory in which “an ecosystem’s r phase is dominated by colonizing species tolerant of environmental variation and the K phase, by species adapted to modulate such variation” (Gotts 2007 p. 2). The third phase, a rapid phase such as a forest fire or insect outbreak that frees nutrients from biomass, is sometimes referred to as ‘creative destruction’ because as the adaptive cycle moves into the release phase, power and resources that were once tightly consolidated within the dominant basin of attraction are freed up and made available for use by other actors, including pre-existing alternatives. It is within this space of creative destruction that prefigured political ideologies can coalesce around an emerging attractor, deepening the alternative basin . In the fourth phase, “resilience and potential grow, connectedness falls, unpredictability peaks, and new systems entrants can establish themselves” (Gotts 2007 p. 2).

The adaptive cycle is a metaphor to be used when generating hypothesis but the exact interpretations of resilience, potential, connectedness and how the system will react are system dependent. Panarchy refers to the idea that socio-ecological systems form nested sets of adaptive cycles. Larger cycles that move slower often contain smaller and faster moving cycles. There are three distinct ways that change happens within panarchies: a) relatively predictable and incremental change in the r and K phases; abrupt change from K through α; c) transformational learning with change happening among several levels. While the adaptive cycle has received criticism in its application to ecosystems, it is a useful way to conceptualize how change can happen in complex systems over time, particularly in it’s contribution to the metaphor of the gravitational landscapes, which helps to conceptualize the process of transition. This metaphor has been applied over the past two decades to ecological systems in the sub-discipline of resilience studies (Walker and Salt 2006).

The gravitational landscapes metaphor focuses on three key concepts of a system: a) a system’s resilience, b) a system’s thresholds, and c) the ‘basin of attraction’ in which the system lies. Within this field of study, resilience refers to a system’s ability to adjust, rebound, or avoid crossing a threshold. If a system passes a critical threshold, it falls into a new “basin of attraction,” with its own distinct structure and patterns of feedback. The more difficult it is to pass the critical threshold, the more resilient the system. From Walker and Salt:

“The threshold is the lip of the basin leading into an alternate basin where the rules change…the system in the new basin has a different structure and function. The system is said to have crossed a threshold into a new basin of attraction – a new regime. These differences can have important consequences for society and so some basins of attraction are deemed desirable and others not” (2006, p. 55)

Once the system reaches, and passes, the critical threshold, there is a gradual or sudden breakdown of order moving the system toward collapse and reorganization. This is the peak moment for opportunity to implement change strategies for transformation. When I refer to ‘collapse’ I am pointing toward the decline or reorganization of the current variety of capitalism and globalization toward a new political economy. However, given the interconnectedness of systems, this implies significant restructuring of society and serious trade-offs.

Using very simple cup and ball diagrams (such as this), such a transformation, represented by a ball, tends to ‘fall’ towards a stable equilibrium or ‘attractor.’ The resilience and stability of an attractor is represented by the shape of the cup or “basin of attraction,” with deeper cups representing more resilient systems (and stronger attractors).

This metaphor is especially utilized in resilience thinking. Resilience thinking is “an approach, part philosophy, part pragmatism” that seeks to answer questions such as “what are the important qualities of a system that need to be maintained or enhanced for a system to be sustainable?” (Walker and Salt 2006, p. 8). While resilience is a term often used in socio-ecological studies, the larger implications of the landscape metaphor are rarely explicitly explored as a way to draw attention to the challenges of environmental change. Once established, an attractor may be highly resilient and stable – with a deep basin of attraction, such as the basin of consumer capitalism in which we are currently trapped. The gravitational landscape metaphor also implies that across a landscape of possibilities there are multiple possible basins of attraction into which the dominant system could fall – with some being more accessible than others.

The basins of attraction occupied by contemporary society is reinforced on two fronts: 1. The possibility of transitioning into a new basin of attraction is highly associated with collapse and discomfort. Undermining the current basin means potentially undermining the welfare state, social services, and all of the socially beneficial institutions that have emerged alongside environmental degradation. 2. The enormous variety of existing ideologies, political movements, or social movements makes it difficult for any single new movement to gain traction. As the ecological crisis worsens, and death anxieties are increasingly primed through climate-related events and news, this is likely to become even more of a problem. It may be that any change needs to be authoritarian and quiet, waiting for the right moment to emerge.

The cultural and psychological dimensions of this study may act to reveal some elements of a new environmentally friendly basin of attraction that would strengthen it as an opportunity for the future. This study is meant to explore an existing social movement that may offer possibilities that, taken together with other social movements, could tip us toward a new basin or an alternative green modernity emerging from existing green radical agendas. This is the basis for ‘prefigurative politics’, which is the development of “shadow networks” (Westley et al. 2011) of alternatives that could rapidly expand their reach in the wake of nonlinear systems change.

Prefigurative politics consist of social movements which create or embody the ontologies and structures they envision for a transformed society “by structuring their own practice according to the principles they want to see govern the whole society” (Leach 2013, p. 182). For social movements working toward radical change, prefigurative politics is a way to enact new patterns of social relations that can be imagined from within the current system, but that diverge too much from the mainstream to gain widespread traction under existing conditions. Most social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries such as those for women’s rights, the environment, peace, anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, economic equity, and Indigenous rights have included prefigurative elements.

Breines argues that the crux of prefigurative politics lies in the substantial task for individuals to live the practice of their movement so that relationships and political forms of the desired society are already in action. John Holloway argued that for those seeking to fundamentally transformation society the solution is simple: “Refuse-and-create” (Holloway 2010, p. 50)! The route to overthrowing capitalism, Holloway argues, “lies in the proliferation of small-scale rebellions against capitalist logic” (Young and Schwartz 2012, p. 221) envisioned by “a multiplicity of interstitial movements” (Holloway 2010, p. 11) all with the same unifying thread: to overcome the alienation characteristics of capitalist labour and replace it with work and activities that are fulfilling, voluntary and socially useful (p. 198).

While a lot of current literature on prefigurative politics focuses on how activists should build social movements, the “original concept of prefigurative politics involves a politicization of everyday life” (Williams 2017), so to capture the full spectrum of prefigurative politics we need to see changes in everyday life as radical acts of resistance – such as making, parenting, and being with family.

Bringing them together

A strong theory of change emerges when these pieces are woven together. Behavioural economics tells us that people are driven by non-rational drivers and that cognitive, evolutionary, and cultural influences are very important for influencing individual decision making. Applying a radical humanist paradigm, we know that culture is not the only key, but that the base-superstructure (production-culture) relationship is paramount in discussions of how change happens over time and in discussions of nonlinear implications of change. Radical structuralists also approach change with the assumption that culture is vital but add that crisis events are vital areas of opportunity to cultural shifts. This is supported by resilience theory, given that the collapse phase of a system is usually followed by a process of reorganization, characterized by widening and greater availability of opportunities. This also harkens back to William’s model of social and cultural change as he indicates that a crisis of shared belief is required for a system transition – a social threshold needs to be passed while simultaneously building cohesive social practices to inform reorganization. TMT suggests that in capitalizing on this opportunity for reorganization, cultural change must be done in such as way as to bolster self-esteem. TMT predicts that people will always engage in hero/immortality projects. Given the characteristics of the current basin, the current lowest common denominator project is a diverse consumer society. Thus, the goal is to engender shared alternative and compelling ontologies and hero/immortality projects to counter the ease and pervasiveness of consumer culture. This means that the response to collapse cannot be a wide call to the world from environmentalists that we are in danger and must act quickly; instead, people need to be offered something new that helps to deliver hope through a crisis. This highlights the strategic importance of identifying prefigurative political options that already exist so as to gently nudge individuals and groups forward as crises unfold.

For example, if ‘Maker Culture’ does bolster self-esteem and aligns with an environmental lifestyle, then an ecological economic approach to change would be to suggest that a municipal government open and fund a Makerspace that holds strategically timed workshops – such as a “DIY candle making and personal space warmer” workshop after a large power outage in the winter. Or to recommend that a municipal government promote a local currency workshop after a large recession. These solutions a) focus on a wider cultural approach of empowering individuals, b) include both realms of culture and production (base and the superstructure), c) take advantage of a crisis, and d) can be quietly cultivated as prefigurative politics within a municipality until the right time emerges.

These theories of social change embodied the core of my research question and approach during my PhD. If we are indeed at a time for reorganization, what kinds of prefigurative politics should ecological economists look for to promote cultural reorientation? Can Maker Culture function as a method with mass appeal for changing people’s consumptive behaviour, while bolstering self-esteem? What lessons can we learn from Makers that might inform an approach within ecological economic problem solving to help us with ‘the nudge’?

[1] By ‘feel for the game’ Bourdieu is referring to the habitus of individuals or groups within the ‘field’. A field is the setting in which agents are located. The use of the term ‘field’ is meant to widen his analysis from class to any historical social-spatial area in which individuals compete for resources.

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