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For better or worse?
For Better or Worse?
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
[For: The Social Question. Proposed collection edited by Chris Deeming, Paul Smyth]
A crucial reason why the world drags its feet about the transition to environmental sustainability is that it is widely thought to depend primarily on a reduction in living standards. It looks not only as if reducing carbon emissions will mean tightening our belts and consuming less, but also having to make do with substitutes for what we prefer – having to give up eating meat, stop flying, use less plastic and replace private cars with public transport. In the public mind that inevitably makes facing the climate emergency a pretty dismal prospect, to be avoided for as long as possible.
To counter that perspective some have argued that it is possible to transition to sustainability while at the same time producing higher standards of human wellbeing. This perspective is based primarily on three considerations. First, that in high income countries, continued increases in material standards no longer lead to higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Second, that sustainable societies could satisfy fundamental human social needs very much better than high income societies do now – for instance, by strengthening community life and reducing status competition. And third, that societies using renewable sources of power and electric public transport systems will be cleaner and quieter and will produce higher health standards. These views link the transition to sustainability to large scale socioeconomic restructuring. Proposals span everything from replacing economic growth with maximising human wellbeing as the central objective of government policy, to the much more radical demand for the abolition of capitalism itself.
The demand to replace GDP with wellbeing as the main objective of government policy has led to a small academic industry devoted to developing wellbeing measures. Few of these, however, have been supported by research identifying determinants of wellbeing. Even when governments have adopted measures of wellbeing, as a few have, that does not mean that wellbeing will increase, nor does substituting wellbeing for the growth of GDP per head mean that the drivers of growth will lose their force. Not only is economic growth probably propelled by more fundamental forces than government policy, but it is likely that the same is true of wellbeing.
That governments are not in control of the economy is shown by the many examples around the world where governments have failed, despite their best efforts, to achieve desired increases in economic growth rates. For example, Japan has had little or no growth since the early 1990s and successive governments in Britain have not only failed to achieve more than very slow growth but have also failed to halt the business cycle.
Nor is this a superficial issue of getting policy right. It is often said that a minimum requirement for economic growth is a government sufficiently functional to be able to provide stability and enforce the rule of law. In the absence of effective administrative institutions, it might be said that it makes little difference what policy governments aim to implement – whether they are intended to be pro-growth or not. Although there is cross-sectional evidence that economic growth is associated with measures of overall government effectiveness, it is less clear which way round that relationship works. A study that looked at changes over time found that government effectiveness is unrelated to subsequent rates of economic growth. It concluded that the relationship probably goes from better economic performance to more effective government.
We suspect that, rather than being primarily dependent on policy, growth is more likely to be an expression of the simple fact that most people want to maximise their incomes and consumption and most businesses want to maximise sales and profits. For these and other reasons, many, including Marx, have regarded growth as inherent to capitalism itself. Like these money making pressures, economic growth preceded explicit government concern for GDP growth (probably by at least two centuries) and is likely to continue even when governments have shifted their focus. Unless we find ways of addressing these income and profit maximising pressures, they are likely to continue to drive growth even if we persuade governments to abandon growth as an objective.
With the strategic objective of making a sustainable society more attractive, people (ourselves included) have tried to present the transition to sustainability as a transition to a maximally attractive ‘good’ society. But the slow progress towards reducing world carbon emissions means that it may now be seriously misleading to suggest that we still have the possibility of creating a better world. It looks increasingly likely that the future will be dominated by attempts to respond to a never-ending series of environmental emergencies – floods, storms, droughts, crop failures, food and water shortages as well as increasing numbers of armed conflicts and refugees fleeing these threats. As Attenborough suggested, it may be too late to make things better: perhaps all we can do is to make them get worse more slowly. A recent warning, signed by 11,000 scientist in 153 different countries, pointed to the continuing increases in world population, in world GNP, in meat consumption per head, in deforestation and air travel – all contributing to a continuing rise in greenhouse gas emission, in global temperatures and in sea levels. The paper warned of “potential irreversible climate tipping points…that could lead to a catastrophic ‘hothouse Earth’, well beyond the control of humans”, and emphasised that to “avoid untold suffering” we need “an immense increase of scale in endeavours to conserve our biosphere”. Failing that, temperatures are predicted, on current policies, to rise by close to 3o C by the end of this century with catastrophic consequences. Another report, based on questionnaires sent to 222 scientists in 52 countries, found that more than one-third of them thought there was a real danger that interlinked emergencies “might cascade to create global systemic collapse”.
Under such circumstances, what happens to human wellbeing would have little to do with current attempts to devise new measures of it. Wellbeing might instead be a question of ensuring adequate emergency supplies of food and shelter, of the creation of standing emergency relief teams and on systems for evacuating people from danger and providing emergency relief.
A crucial determinant of how populations come through the hazards of climate change would be the extent to which people respond with mutual support rather than simply fending for themselves. The danger is that the rich, and anyone who can afford to, would use their resources to establish themselves in protected safe havens and abandon others to their fate. Recent experience suggests that the political response is likely to be further complicated by hostility to increasing flows of refugees from environmental disasters. The scale of migration we have already seen is small in comparison with what is likely to result from the advancing climate crisis, but the public reaction has, nevertheless, already had a profound effect on politics in many of the recipient countries, contributing to populism, racism and nationalism, and effectively diverting political attention even further from the urgency of policies to counter the climate crisis.
But the future is not set in stone. While it is always inherently unknowable, there are possibilities for the future which might make the picture we have outlined a lot better or worse. For example, the forecasted temperature rises do not include the effects of highly plausible major changes in natural feedback effects which could seriously exacerbate climate change leading to runaway global warming beyond any human means of control. There are also possibilities of major technical developments which would make it much easier to reduce global carbon emissions. For example, as some – including George Monbiot – suggest, current developments of laboratory grown alternatives to meat may lead to massive reductions in numbers of cattle and their methane production. There might also be major breakthroughs in battery technology making it easier and cheaper to store electricity so hastening the conversion to renewable power and electric transport. Nor do we know the longer term effects on material consumption of the digital and information economy which may be as profound as Jeremy Rifkin described in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society.
We cannot however rely on these or any other possibilities rescuing us from the disastrous implications of the climate emergency. There can be little doubt that the most predictable part of the picture is that continuing increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will lead to further environmental destruction.
So where does that leave us? Above all, we need to work out what kind of society will give us the best chance of surviving whatever the future brings. There are four key criteria. First, our societies need to be highly cohesive and adaptable: they must become willing and able to make the almost continuous changes in our way of life necessary to minimise our impact on the environment – changing our diets, reducing our need for transport, developing renewable power sources and changing our technology – in order to achieve the long transition to sustainability. Second, we need to think what kind of societies will best provide the mutual support and aid to areas hit by ever more frequent threats, crises and environmental disasters.. The increased level of CO2 already in the atmosphere means that climate disruption will undoubtedly get much worse even if we cut emissions as fast as possible. Third, we need to find out how to convert the production and consumption maximising leviathan that the market economy has become, back into a waste minimising system which would enable a sociable human society to live within its planetary boundaries. And fourth and lastly, although with the difficulties they face it is unlikely that our societies will achieve new heights of wellbeing, we can at least remove some of the things which most obviously reduce the wellbeing of large sections of the population – things such as poverty, lack of education and lack of political voice.
There is now very little doubt that the extent of inequality (income and wealth) is much the most powerful determinant of which societies will survive these tests and which will succumb to processes of social breakdown. In the following sections we will show that more equal societies – those with smaller income differences between rich and poor - are more cohesive, more adaptable and perform better in almost all areas of social functioning.
Cohesive and Adaptable Societies
Many studies show that the larger the income differences in a society, the weaker local community life is. With more inequality, people are less likely to belong to local organisations and voluntary groups, they are less likely to take part in community activities and less likely to know their neighbours. Research also shows that people are not only less likely to feel they can trust others in more unequal societies but also that violence (as measured by homicide rates) becomes very much more common in more unequal societies. Together, the studies confirm what many people have recognised intuitively over the centuries: that inequality increases social divisions and weakens social cohesion. And as inequality increases, the social bonds of reciprocity and sense of community which, in more egalitarian societies, knit neighbourhoods together, give way to self-interest, status competition and a drive for self-advancement.
The causal process seems to be that bigger income differences make the divisions of class and status more powerful, increasing the idea that some people are worth much more than others. As a result, we come to judge each other’s personal worth more by status and, at the same time, worry more about how others judge us. Insecurities about our own self-worth increase so we feel more anxious about social comparisons and less at ease with other people. In short, social relationships become increasingly marred by the social awkwardnesses and fears which accompany considerations of superiority and inferiority. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Inequality of income takes the broad, safe, and fertile plane of human society and stands it on its edge so that everyone has to cling desperately to her foothold…”
This in turn has serious implications for people’s willingness to take action on common problems – including environmental ones. It makes people much less able or willing either to act together or even to discuss shared problems. That is nicely described in a book by Edward Banfield called The Moral Basis of a Backward Society which describes the effects of a lack of social capital on life in a village in southern Italy. He explains how despite the village having obvious needs – such as to repair the road – there was no concept of people coming together to work on projects for the common good. Apart from a nepotistic loyalty to their families, people regarded themselves and each other as motivated only by self-interest. The lack of trust and suspicion of anyone who tried to do anything in the public interest made cooperative activity almost impossible and placed a severe limitation on the possibilities for progress in the village.
Because inequality leads to the decline of community life, self-advancement takes over from concern for the common good. As taking action on the environment is so dependent on how public-spirited people are, more unequal societies tend to do less for the environment. An international survey of business leaders found that those from more unequal countries attached a much lower priority to international environmental agreements. The same tendency can also be seen at the household level: the data shows that people in more unequal countries recycle a smaller proportion of waste materials. They also bicycle less, have higher CO2 emissions per $100 of GNP per capita and get less of their power from renewables.
For the same reason, in more unequal countries there is likely to be both less pressure from public opinion to get governments to take decisive action on carbon emissions and more danger of public opposition to any such action.
Inequality is relevant to how we adapt to deal with environmental problems because it also increases consumerism – a major obstacle to sustainability. The more that money is seen as a measure of a person’s worth and the goods we buy are used to enhance people’s impression of status and success, the more avaricious we become. As a result, studies show that people living in more unequal areas spend more on status goods. Indeed, the pressure to keep up appearances through consumption is so great that borrowing goes up in periods when inequality is high. This means that if we are serious about the transition to sustainability, we must reduce the inequality which ramps up status competition and consumerism.
Given the historical lack of far-reaching action to combat climate change, it is hard not to fear that levels of public spiritedness and concern for the common good among the general population are too weak to support the action necessary to combat the climate emergency. This dilemma has similarities to one faced by Britain during the 2nd World War when priorities had to be changed to serve the war effort. Richard Titmuss, in his essay War and Social Policy, described the thinking that went into the government’s approach. He described their reasoning like this: “If the cooperation of the masses was thought to be essential [to the war effort], then inequalities had to be reduced and the pyramid of social stratification had to be flattened.” As a result, the war was marked by far reaching policies designed to make people feel the burden of war was fairly shared. Income differences were rapidly reduced by taxation, essential goods were subsidised, luxuries were taxed and rationing was introduced for food. Action on the climate emergency now needs a similar raft of bespoke egalitarian policies: without them governments everywhere may face movements analogous to the Gilets Jaunes’ opposition to the French government’s plan to raise fuel taxes.
In the future, much will depend on the ability of societies to withstand successive climate emergencies and disasters. Recovery from short-term crises should be much more rapid and less traumatic if we not only have robust and well prepared systems of support, but also a strong ethos of mutual aid. The decline of community life, the focus on self-advancement, the decline in trust and the rise in violence – all fostered by inequality – are clearly inimical to that. That is shown not only by the increasing numbers of homeless people on the streets in more unequal societies, but also by academic studies using survey data that show people in those societies are also simply less willing to help each other.
The anti-social effects of inequality can be seen from the top to the bottom of society. At the top, among governments, the level of overseas development aid given by governments of more unequal countries falls further below the UN recommended standard of 0.7 percent of national income than it does in more equal societies. At the other end of society come the results of studies of bullying among children. Using data from different sources covering children between 8 and 14 years old, research shows a powerful tendency for bullying to be much more common in more unequal countries. Instead of finding their peers ‘kind and helpful’, conflict becomes much more common. Part of the explanation is likely to be that parents pass on their experience of adversity and conflict to their children – perhaps partly through epigenetic imprinting.
The evidence that inequality has such widespread anti-social effects is too well established to doubt either the basic pattern or the causal processes. The first peer-reviewed papers showing that health and violence were worse in more unequal countries came out in the 1970s and there are now hundreds of papers looking at these relationships in different ways, using different methods and controlling for possible ‘confounders’. Indeed, in the technical jargon, there are even meta-analyses of multilevel models looking at the effects of changes in inequality over time and studies which show the lag periods between a change in inequality and its effects.
Understanding the causal links between inequality and its effects is fairly straight forward. It starts with our sensitivity to the character of social relations – to friendship on the one hand and social hierarchy on the other. Because individual members of the same species have the same basic needs, there is almost always the possibility for repeated conflict between them – for food, shelter, territories, sexual partners and so on. One way – but not the best – of avoiding endless conflict over access to each thing is simply for members to know who is strongest, to know who would win a fight for access. If you know who is strongest, you can predict the outcome, so the weaker can give way to the stronger without the need for actual conflict. Essentially that is the basis of animal dominance hierarchies: the stronger are recognised as dominant and the weaker as subordinate and the ranking system tends to be a hierarchy graded by strength (sometimes moderated by support from trusted allies). Everyone has to know his or her position in the ranking system and how to behave in relation to superiors and inferiors – when to give way and when not to. In effect, subordinates eat last. Getting it wrong is likely to result in injuries which may sometimes be life threatening. Being as far up the hierarchy as possible is a huge advantage, not only in terms of access to food and other necessities, but also for reproductive opportunities and better survival chances for offspring. Hence there have been powerful selective pressures behind our concern for social status. This is the prehuman origin – among our ape ancestors – of our evolved sensitivity to social status. But the dominance hierarchy was essentially a bullying hierarchy, ordered by fear and consequently highly stressful.
That however is only half the story. The other half is in sharp contrast with our desire for dominance and is made up of our highly developed ability to be each other’s best source of help, cooperation, love, learning and assistance of every kind. In essence, we have the potential not only to be each other’s worst rivals and greatest threat, but also to be each other’s best source of cooperation, support and security. But how is it that we can contain the potential for two such opposite social characteristics?
There is widespread agreement among anthropologists that the hunting and gathering societies of our human pre-history were, with few exceptions, highly egalitarian – marked by cooperation, food sharing and reciprocity, with no sign of the pattern, common among animals, for the weakest to eat last or to be excluded when food was scarce. Within these egalitarian societies, people with more pro-social characteristics, who were less selfish, better at sharing and reciprocity, were more likely to get selected as sexual partners and as collaborators for cooperative activities. These societies have been described as not only consciously egalitarian, but sometimes as ‘assertively’ egalitarian. Indeed, the evidence suggests that people who were implacably anti-social were excluded and cast out of the sharing group – a treatment that amounted almost to a death sentence. And the best way of ensuring that you remained a secure member of the cooperative group was to have skills and to perform tasks which others valued. That propensity has become enshrined in our evolved psychology in our capacity to get pleasure from doing things which others appreciate and in our desire to be valued by others.
In a nutshell then, while the egalitarian social environment of our hunting and gathering human prehistory selected people for pro-social characteristics, the dominance hierarchies of our pre-human existence had selected for the anti-social strategies of self-advancement most consistent with self-preservation in dominance hierarchies. And it is not difficult to imagine how the advantages of cooperation could have become crucial.
We are left then with a psychological legacy containing both of these very different tendencies and we of course use social strategies rooted in both all the time. With friends – usually chosen from among our near equals – we use egalitarian social strategies of sharing and reciprocity, we treat them as equals and we are careful not to put people down or give the impression we think we are better than them. But in settings where social status is important, we know how to act snobbishly, to stand on our dignity, to name drop and attempt to set ourselves apart from those we regard as our social inferiors. Indeed, snobbishness has been described as driven by the desire for what divides people rather than for what unites them.
Crucially important however is that which strategy we use is strongly influenced by our experience of the social environment. The bigger the differences in income and wealth, the more visible the differences in class and status become, and the more external wealth is seen as if it was a measure of individual worth.
Essentially these are the two opposite ways people can come together. At one extreme, scarce resources are allocated according to power differentials in the service of self-interest, while at the other, the allocation reflects the mutual recognition of each other’s needs, sharing and cooperation. The contrasting nature of these social relationships makes inequality a major social stressor and people have of course lived in every kind of society from the most hierarchical and tyrannical to the most egalitarian. Because these contrasting systems of relationships require such different behavioural strategies, we are very likely to discover that there are epigenetic switches, controlling gene expression to prepare our cognitive and emotional development either for a world in which we must fight for what we can get and learn not to trust others because we are all rivals, or for a world where we depend on gaining each other’s trust and depend on mutual cooperation and reciprocity.
This interpretation of the effects of inequality fits well with what we know about the extraordinary sensitivity of human beings to the nature of social relationships. It explains why both low social status and wider status differentials are such powerful health damaging stressors, and why friendship is so highly protective of health.
The effects of inequality have, as we have seen, very major implications for the health and wellbeing of populations. They are all the more important because they are a key to redressing the imbalance in high income countries between the unprecedented material living standards and the threadbare quality of the social fabric.
This contrast has been shown many times. Although higher material standards are needed in low income countries where many do not yet have access to necessities, in middle and high income countries there are sharply diminishing gains to wellbeing associated with economic growth – so much so that among the richest countries further increases in material standards seem to do nothing for health or wellbeing. The predictable implication is that having more and more of everything makes less and less difference. Whether you look at measures of happiness, life satisfaction or life expectancy, the picture is the same. Wellbeing rises rapidly among poorer countries with economic growth but then levels out among the richer countries. The same basic story is also told in analyses that use measures of economic wellbeing such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. Despite the failure to tackle serious relative poverty in high income countries, those societies have reached what should be recognised as a saturation point in terms of their material development.
This contrasts with the evidence of huge deficits in emotional and psychological wellbeing among the populations of high-income countries. In 2018, the Mental Health Foundation reported that almost three-quarters of all adults in the UK felt levels of stress which left them feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost a third of adults had suicidal feelings as a result of stress and half that number had self-harmed. In each case the rates among younger adults (18-24 years) were even higher. Although the available survey measures differ, figures for other rich countries look broadly similar. Almost 80 percent of Americans feel stressed each day and 57 percent say they are paralyzed by stress. One in five adult Americans have a mental illness that meets diagnostic criteria.
It is clear that further improvements in the quality of life in high income countries depend on switching attention from the material to the social environment. As we showed in our book, The Inner Level, reductions in inequality are key to improvements in psychosocial wellbeing across whole populations. At their core, the causal processes involve the effect of inequality on our fears about how we are seen and judged by others, status anxiety, social comparisons and insecurities about self-worth.
The scale of relative poverty is another very major force that dramatically lowers wellbeing and, as it is defined as living on less than 60 percent of the median income, it would almost inescapable be reduced by greater equality. Relative poverty has particularly serious consequences for children, affecting their education, health and development: it blights their future. The Resolution Foundation has forecast that 37 percent of British children will, by 2023-4, be growing up in relative poverty.
It is also clear that since 2010 wellbeing has been seriously reduced by cuts in public services resulting from government austerity policies, so much so that death rates in some population groups have risen and life expectancy for the population as a whole has ceased its long historical decline. Worst affected are women over 85 years old - the section of the population most in need of public services. But in the period 2011-16 death rates among the whole population under 50 have ceased to decline and among those in their late 40’s they have actually risen. Nor do these adverse trends mean we have reached the limits of human life expectancy: not only does it continue to increase in some countries where it is already several years longer than in the U.K., but adverse trend in the UK is most marked among the least well off where life expectancy is anyway lowest.
No serious attempt to improve population wellbeing can ignore the injustice of huge differences in life expectancy. People living in the most privileged 10 percent of areas can expect to live close to 20 years longer in good health than people living in the most deprived decile of areas in the UK.
Measures of Wellbeing
Although it is not a lack of wellbeing measures that prevents governments from tackling the most glaring issues that stop people flourishing, new measures may, nevertheless, be helpful - helpful in taking stock of where we have got to, in providing targets, and making comparisons between countries easier.
A search engine used by the International Society for Quality of Life Studies has apparently found 894 different measures of aspects of wellbeing, the quality-of-life, happiness and life satisfaction. They include things such as positive and negative affect, emotional well-being, self-actualization, a sense of meaning, life satisfaction, satisfaction with different aspects of life, mental health and stress. Key aspects of this large and complex field have been well summarized in a review by Ahuvia. It ends however by saying that people’s self-reports of happiness do not seem to guide their decisions. That suggests either that their self-reports are mistaken or that people fail to make the decisions which would maximise happiness.
Almost all the measures are self-reports of subjective states. But at least when it comes to international comparisons, important evidence is often overlooked that suggests that subjective measures are unreliable. People’s reports of their own objective or subjective state are strongly influenced by culture. What makes that particularly important in the present context is that it varies systematically with inequality. This can make the associations between inequality and national differences in self-reported states highly misleading. The evidence comes from two sources. First, self-reported health which is usually assessed with a question such as “in general, would you say that your health is excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor?” Although within a country it is quite a good predictor of mortality and morbidity, it breaks down when you compare it between countries. Objectively, a country’s death rate may be high or low, but that seems to have no relation to whether or not people say their health is good. Among a group of rich developed countries, the country which had the highest life expectancy had the lowest proportion of people who rated their health as good, and there was a weak inverse tendency for countries with the best self-rated health to have lower life expectancy.. So although life expectancy was better in the countries with smaller income differences, self-reported health was not. The second example comes from a study of what its authors called ‘self-enhancement bias’ or ‘illusory superiority’ – a tendency to exaggerate your desirable qualities compared to other people.  The study showed that there was a much stronger tendency for people in more unequal societies to do this.
The reason why people in more unequal societies have a greater tendency to exaggerate their positive characteristics is that – as research has shown – inequality increases people’s status anxiety. In more unequal societies there is a systematic tendency for people at every income level – from the poorest all the way through to the richest tenth – to worry more about what others think of them than people in more equal societies do. As a result they try harder to make a positive impression on others. If you live in a society where some people seem to be regarded as supremely important while others are treated as if they were almost worthless, we end up using status as a measure of worth and worrying more about how others judged us. That has, as we saw earlier, been shown to lead people living in more unequal societies to spend more on status goods – on flashy cars and clothes with expensive labels as a form or self-enhancement. In effect, inequality makes people more narcissistic, and indeed measures using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory have shown that narcissism has risen in the United States while income inequality increased.
We call this the ‘happiness-inequality paradox’. Greater inequality makes people feel they have to hide signs of weakness or vulnerability in favour of projecting an image of successful independence and self-reliance. We suspect that for an American to answer a survey question on happiness by saying he or she is unhappy, may feel like lowering their guard and an admission of failure, but for someone in a much more equal country to say they are happy might feel almost like complacency or bragging.
If researchers and policy makers are not to be blind to the benefits that greater equality brings to wellbeing, it is crucial that they understand this paradox. Otherwise they could find themselves imagining that reducing inequality had no impact on happiness even though it reduces violence, improves objective measures of physical and mental health, strengthens trust and community life, improves child wellbeing and more.
Although the last decade has seen impressive progress in recognising the importance of reducing inequality, much less progress has been made in actually reducing it. Despite the fact that many international organisations, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, OECD and Oxfam, have all emphasised the need for greater equality and it is now enshrined as the tenth of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, effective government action has rarely been forthcoming. There are important parallels here with the huge rise in awareness of the climate crisis and yet the lack of adequate action. And while there are clear signs that opinion is beginning to switch from thinking that wellbeing rather than economic growth is the proper focus of government policy, only a tiny group of governments (including the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand) have actually made that switch. Too often academics and policy makers seem to act as if action to improve wellbeing must await better measurements – as if we were unaware of all the components of deprivation, from poverty and inequality to housing shortages, which are overwhelmingly the most important limitations on population wellbeing.
Whether or not it would take the end of capitalism to dethrone economic growth, it is clear that greater equality would at least reduce consumerism and ease the transition to environmental sustainability. And it would do so while also improving the social fabric, physical and mental health and the quality of our lives.
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