Integral Ecology and the Ecological Virtues in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’

Several weeks ago, I made a conscious decision to refrain from reading too much secondary literature on Pope Francis’s impending encyclical, Laudato Si’. And by noon on the day of its release, I was almost depressed. A flood of commentary on the encyclical was already up online, yet I knew that it would be weeks before I would have the time to finish reading the lengthy text.  Well, it has now been a month since the encyclical’s publication, and after many hours of reading and meditation, I finally have the satisfaction that comes with reading something great through to the end.

After finishing the encyclical, I started to peruse the blogosphere and, unsurprisingly, encountered a wide range of reactions. There were those on the left who cheered the Church for finally having gotten with the times, and accepted the human causes behind climate change. And there were those on the right who dismissed the entire document, moved by their skepticism regarding this same claim. It turns out, however, that the question of climate change holds a minor place within the scope of the encyclical, and it is largely irrelevant to Francis’s overarching message. In other words, the text is not “an encyclical on climate change,” as some have called it. It treats a number of other scientific issues and much, much more besides that. In this piece, what I would like to do is to offer a reflection on what I take to constitute the heart of Francis’s vision for an “integral ecology” and the “ecological virtues” demanded by it.  In so doing, I will assuredly touch on certain themes that others have treated, but I also hope to add some nuances that have not been addressed in the various commentaries currently circulating in the blogosphere.

Francis’s Vision for an Integral Ecology
If there is one theme that runs throughout Francis’s encyclical, it is his repeated insistence that everything in the world is “interconnected” or “interrelated.” This thought is expressed dozens of times throughout the text, and it is probably the most concise way to capture the core conviction undergirding the pontiff’s vision for an “integral ecology.” According to Francis, the problem is that we have forgotten that we ourselves are the dust of the earth. Echoing St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, the pontiff does not shy away from speaking of all creatures as our brothers and sisters. But in invoking this turn of phrase from the Franciscan tradition, Francis is, by no means, denying the uniqueness of man and his place in the cosmos—far from it, as we shall see below.  Rather, the thrust behind this expression is to emphasize that the natural environment, and man’s social environment, are really two sides of a single reality in crisis today. This is expressed well in the following paragraph:

When we speak of the “environment,” what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature, and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves, or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it. … We are faced, not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and, at the same time, protecting nature (§139).

This paragraph is of paramount importance, especially for some traditionally-minded Catholics who have claimed that the environment is a secondary issue, and that the Pope has more important things he should be talking about. On this score, we should recall that Francis inherited his office from predecessors who thankfully did do a whole lot of talking on the subjects conservative Catholics want to hear about. Francis’s own view on the matter is perhaps best expressed in his first major interview as Pope:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.1

Thus, this encyclical, which is not focused on your typical pro-life issues, but on care for mankind’s common home.

The irony is that some people get caught up on the climate change question and miss the fact that Laudato Si’ is, in fact, a deeply pro-life encyclical that ought to be applauded by conservatives. Specifically, Francis’s insistence upon environmental issues offers an exceptional backdoor entry into issues concerning human dignity, and what the Church’s social doctrine tradition calls “integral human development.” To be sure, Francis is not simply using environmental issues as a means to talk about thorny social problems, but since we are inextricably connected with the rest of nature, to talk about how to treat the environment is also to talk about ourselves—how convenient!

An example of this can be seen in what Francis has to say about cruelty toward animals. While we certainly ought to respect God’s creatures, and see in all of them a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness, Francis emphasizes that the abuse of God’s creation is “contrary to human dignity” (§92; 130; cf. CCC §339; 2418). In other words, regardless of whether Francis is right on every last scientific point in the encyclical, it is, in the first place, bad for us to treat the environment the way we often carelessly do. As in the Catholic moral tradition, so here, it is largely about the habits we are creating in ourselves. Francis wants us to ponder these questions: In a world where people have grown accustomed to disrespecting the natural environment, why should we expect them to respect man’s nature? Or, conversely, in a world where we habitually manipulate our own bodies without any concern for their nature, why should we expect people to respect the nonhuman environment around us?

Pro-life Implications of an Integral Ecology
To draw out the implications of his integral vision, Francis builds on a little understood concept introduced into Catholic social teaching by Pope John Paul II, and reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI: human ecology (or, if you prefer, ecology of man). In a 2011 address to the parliament of Germany, Benedict pointedly stated:

The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature, and we must answer accordingly. Yet, I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man, too, has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it, and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.2

In his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the emeritus pontiff wrote in a similar vein:

There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is, in fact, closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one, places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society, and its good relationship with nature …

If there is a lack of respect for the right to life, and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in, not only the environment, but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person, considered in himself, and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties, while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society.3

I find this to be a remarkably fresh and brilliant way to discuss pro-life issues today in the public square: We begin by recalling that man is part of nature. And every school kid these days is told he needs to respect nature. But then it must be asked: how can we be expected to respect non-human nature if we do not even respect our own human nature? Francis invokes this argument several times in his encyclical:

When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected (§117).

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable, and creates difficulties? (§120)

In the absence of objective truths, or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale, or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary (§123).

On the other hand, it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos (§136).

The upshot of these comments is that pro-life Catholics, rather than dismissing Francis’s teaching, ought to take away from it a key to carrying the pro-life movement forward in this generation.  This key consists in pressing our interlocutors on the contradiction inherent in the practice of advocating for the environment, while failing to apply this concern to the most vulnerable humans within that environment: namely, the poor, the disabled, and the unborn. On a more positive note, it also involves joining others, where appropriate, in the important work of environmental stewardship. This does not mean that we should stop praying at abortion clinics, but it should be noted that the environmental sphere offers a unique way to initiate a fruitful “dialogue of action” with those who would never otherwise join our efforts to save the lives of unborn children.

Furthermore, Francis brings us right to the heart of this contradiction in arguing that the refusal to acknowledge man’s special place within creation is incompatible with the insistence that we ought to be responsible for the environment:

There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism,” for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems, and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom, and responsibility are recognized and valued (§118).

If human beings are not special among God’s creatures, then why should we be expected to behave any differently toward them than they would toward us? Why can we not just invoke the survival of the fittest principle, do whatever we want since we are strongest, and be on our merry way? The answer, of course, is that even though the Catholic Church is open to the scientific theory of evolution, we also profess that human beings have a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained in evolutionary terms (§81). Thus, the ecological imperatives so championed in our culture today are groundless in the absence of a deeply anchored anthropology. It so happens that an outstanding basis for such an anthropology can be found in the Christian tradition, wherein man is the image of God charged with the command to “keep” (preserve) and “till” (make fruitful) the earth (§124; cf. Gn 2:15).

Towards an Integral Ecology: Cultivation of the Ecological Virtues and an Ecological Spirituality
If you read this encyclicalor Francis’s prior apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudiumoddly enough, one of the things that stands out most is its footnotes section. More than any pontiff before him, Francis grounds his teaching by citing liberally from bishops’ conferences throughout the worlda distinguishing feature of his governing style, marked by an attempt to exercise greater collegiality and synodality. In §88 of the encyclical, Francis echoes the Brazilian bishops’ call for the cultivation of “ecological virtues,” a category that does not fit neatly within the categories of traditional moral theology, but which Francis develops in various ways throughout his text. Along the way, he also comments extensively on vices which are prevalent in our culture and contrary to the development of ecological virtue. The easiest way to lay this out is in bullet points:

Vices Opposed to the Ecological Virtues

  • Consumption, greed, and wastefulness (§9).
  • A throwaway culture in which many resources we could recycle are discarded and reduced to rubbish (§16, 22, 43).
  • Obstructionist and evasive attitudes—pretending that nothing will happen if we ignore the present ecological crisis (§14, 59).
  • Building cities where people—often the poor—are inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature (§44).
  • Letting the great sages of the past go unheard amid the noise and distractions of information overload (§47).
  • Confusion caused by being inundated with a mere accumulation of data—“mental pollution” (§47).
  • With the rise of internet communication, real relationships with others are treated as commodities to be chosen and eliminated at whim (§47).
  • Contrived emotion is produced through this means of communication, leading to deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, and a sense of isolation (§47).
  • Fragmentation of knowledge, and the isolation of bits of information, often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon; it can actually become a form of ignorance, unless integrated into a broader vision of reality (§110, 138).
  • A culture of relativism wherein the culture itself is corrupt, and objective truth, and universally valid principles are no longer upheld (§122-123).
  • Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence (§110)
  • Frenetic activity makes people feel busy, and in a constant hurry, which, in turn, leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. Nature is filled with words of love, but we cannot listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances (§225).

The Ecological Virtues and Ecological Spirituality

  • In a culture of relativism, remembering that political efforts, and the force of law, are not sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment; when the culture itself is corrupt, and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions, or obstacles to be avoided (§122-123).
  • Ecological education aimed at creating an “ecological citizenship” that instills good habits.  Laws and regulations are insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct, even when effective means of enforcement are present. If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and be personally transformed to respond. Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless, ecological commitment (§211).
  • Replacing consumption, greed, and wastefulness with sacrifice, generosity, and a spirit of sharing (§9).
  • Cultivating an asceticism whereby we learn to give, and not just to give up, moving away from what I want, to what the world needs (§9).
  • Taking time for physical contact with nature—to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle, and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us, and surrounds us (§44, 49, 225).
  • Cultural ecology: not tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment, yet not always more attractive to live in; rather, development should come through incorporating the history, culture, and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity and protecting the cultural treasures of humanity (§143).
  • Development and welfare, not only of individuals and society, but also of intermediate groups; applying the principle of subsidiarity wherein problems are treated at the most local level possible by those who know their communities’ needs best; foremost among these intermediate groups in need of development is the family, “the basic cell of society” (§158).4
  • Fostering an ecological spirituality and conversion with respect to our stewardship of God’s creation (§216).
  • Practicing the “little way” of St. Therese in matters ecological, with simple daily gestures that break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness; there is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle  (§211, 230). Some examples mentioned by Francis:
    • A person who could afford to spend and consume more, but regularly uses less heating, and wears warmer clothes;
    • Avoiding the use of plastic and paper;
    • Reducing water consumption;
    • Separating refuse;
    • Cooking only what can reasonably be consumed;
    • Showing care for other living beings;
    • Using public transport or carpooling;
    • Planting trees;
    • Turning off unnecessary lights;
    • Reusing something, instead of immediately discarding it.

According to Francis, all the above examples, and any number of similar practices, reflect a generous creativity which brings out the best in human beings. When done for the right reasons, these can become acts of love which express our own dignity. To be sure, we must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world, but they do benefit society in ways often unbeknownst to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread  (§211). This point is all the more powerful if we recall that every one of our actions has an effect, for better or worse, on the entire Mystical Body.

Finally, it is significant, once again, that Francis insists upon an ecological spirituality, not only for the sake of the environment, but, above all, for what it means for us. He reminds us that true freedom, peace, and joy come through conversion of heart, not only in big matters, but also in small ways, when we give up our obsession with consumption, and learn the lesson that “less is more”:

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life, or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more, and live better each moment, are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the lookout for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person, and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things, and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all, when they cultivate other pleasures, and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer (§222-223).

In short, Francis is calling for a return to the Gospel simplicity of learning how to moderate our desires, and be happy with little, to appreciate the small things of life, to be spiritually detached from what we do possess, and not be sad for what we lack (§222).

Conclusion: Francis’s Integral Ecology as the Virtuous Mean
For those who have ever been involved with environmentalist groups, or know someone who has, perhaps you may have noted that conservationist movements sometimes almost take on the status of a religion. Think about what a religion does. It directs us outside of ourselves, toward some higher purpose. It encompasses all of our life, involving moral precepts, liturgies, and feasts. It has an eschatology, one that is often apocalyptic. It is evangelical, eager to gain converts, and confident in its truth claims, even as this confidence easily begets self-righteousness. I bring these examples up because environmentalism can easily become a quasi-religion, something which is both good, and bad, in different respects. In reading Laudato Si’, one can see that Francis, too, is aware of this phenomenon, and eager to offer a balanced response that recognizes the good of environmentalism, while cautioning against its excesses.

On the one hand, Francis’s condemnation of the dominant technocratic paradigm is abundantly clear throughout the encyclical. As the pontiff teaches, we ought to act as the earth’s stewards, rather than its omnipotent masters, and we should not move forward blindly with new technologies just because we have the power to do so. The world around us is not just “stuff” to be manipulated and exploited at will. Rather, creation is exalted because it has been willed into being by God himself, and is not just the product of chaos or chance (§77). In this regard, I think Wendell Berry was correct in writing that the indictment of Christianity by anti-Christian conservationists is, in many respects, warranted. Neither the Church, nor the Bible, endorses this sort of dualism, but unfortunately, Christians sometimes have the idea that the only holy place is the Church—and that the natural world is “just matter” which we must despise for Heaven’s sake.5

On the other hand, Francis’s integral ecology also staunchly opposes the sort of substance monism common among those who deny the importance of man’s place in the cosmos:

This is not to put all living beings on the same level, nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth, and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it, and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us. At times, we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure (§90).

This argument is not something new in the pontificate of Pope Francis.  He is drawing this teaching in large part from Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, whose parallel section merits to be cited in full:

But it should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism, or a new pantheism—human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense. This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.6

It is significant that Benedict uses the terms “neo-paganism” and “new pantheism” to describe the dangers of an environmentalism that easily turns into its own religion. Francis, for his part, recalls that pantheism (the belief that all is god) was part and parcel of the pagan worldview, to which the biblical view of creation arose as the antidote. While continuing to admire the grandeur and immensity of creation, the Judeo-Christian tradition demythologized nature. In doing so, Francis argues, our tradition emphasizes, all the more, our human responsibility for nature. In light of divine revelation, we know that creation is not divine, and not immortal; thus, we have a grave responsibility to protect it (§78).7

According to the Pope, the correct view of creation’s relationship with God is expressed in the Catholic mystical tradition:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. … Saint John of the Cross taught that all the goodness present in the realities and experiences of this world “is present in God eminently and infinitely, or more properly, in each of these sublime realities is God.” This is not because the finite things of this world are really divine, but because the mystic experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings and, thus, feels that “all things are God” (§233-234).8

Unlike many major religious traditions throughout history which consider the created world to be divine, Christianity has always held there to be a distinction between creature and Creator, between human nature and the elevation of man to God through his gift of grace. As the ancient Christian formula has it, the son of God became man so that the sons of men might become God. But this process of theosis is not something that occurs in us automatically by virtue of our coming into existence. How, then, are we to achieve it?

In a sublime move toward the end of the encyclical, Francis points toward the sacraments as a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to impart supernatural life to us. Once again drawing upon Benedict XVI, the pontiff writes that in the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself” (§235). 9 Or, as Ratzinger writes elsewhere, “The transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the christological fullness. … (T)he Eucharist provides the movement of the cosmos with its direction; it anticipates its goal and, at the same time, urges it on.”10 Yet again, Ratzinger once wrote that man’s divinization through Eucharistic Communion is part of God’s plan for “the resubstantiation of the whole of earthly reality”11

If St. Paul is right in teaching us that all of creation is some day to be set free from decay, and obtain the glorious liberty of the sons of God (Rom 8:21-23), then the miraculous transformation of matter into God that we witness in the Eucharist ought to be a source of motivation directing us to be stewards of all creation. The material world has been created good by God, and he has graced it with the dignity of being capable of transformation into himself. But, for Francis, this does not mean that we ought to leave the earth alone, and never touch it. On the contrary, the pontiff teaches us that developing the created world in a prudent way is the best way of caring for it. In other words, by participating in God’s own providential care for the world, we become instruments in the hands of God to bring out the potential which he himself has inscribed in all things (§124).12

The question that remains is: what are we going to do with the gift Pope Francis has given us in this encyclical? To echo what the pontiff said about his previous major document, “I fear that these words, too, may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect.” Let us prayerfully and generously consider how we can carry forward Francis’s vision for an integral ecology in our own homes, schools, parishes, and local communities.13

  1. Francis and Antonio Spadaro, S.J., “A Big Heart Open to God,” America online (September 30, 2013).
  2. Benedict XVI, Address to the Bundestag (September 22, 2011); cf. Laudato Si’ §155. Emphasis added.
  3. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate §51; cf. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus §38-39. Emphasis added.
  4. For a deeper understanding of the doctrine of subsidiarity, see especially John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus §48, as well as Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate §57.
  5. Wendell Berry, 94, 109. Berry describes this substance dualism as “the greatest disease that afflicts us.” According to Berry, by denying spirit and truth to the nonhuman creation, we have legitimized a form of “blasphemy,” a “rape” of the earth. Ibid., 104-105. Francis certainly does not use such charged rhetoric in his encyclical, but I think that the blasphemy charge merits a good deal of reflection for Christians living in the industrialized world today.
  6. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate §48.
  7. For an excellent short book (itself a collection of homilies) that deals with this demythologization of pagan religion achieved in the biblical creation accounts, see Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
  8. It is fascinating that, in addition to John of the Cross, Francis cites the Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas to impress this point. Citing a Muslim source approvingly is hardly a mainstay of the Catholic Magisterial tradition, but it accords perfectly with the aim of this particular encyclical, whose audience is, not just Catholics, but men of all faiths, as well as those who claim to have none.
  9. The citation is from Benedict’s homily for the Mass of Corpus Domini (June 15, 2006).
  10. Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 29.
  11. Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 78; cf. 118.
  12. As one who works at a Benedictine institution, I appreciated the nod Francis gives here to St. Benedict and his “revolutionary” move of seeing manual labor as spiritually meaningful. Rather than leaving the earth alone, through the past two millennia, Benedictine monks have been developing the earth’s potential in fruitful, even civilization-saving ways.
  13. A good place to start is the USCCB environmental justice website: The Archdiocese of Washington also has a helpful list of parish resources on the encyclical:
Dr. Matthew J. Ramage, PhD About Dr. Matthew J. Ramage, PhD

Dr. Matthew Ramage is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He earned his MA from Franciscan University and his PhD from Ave Maria University. He is author of the book Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas (2013, CUA Press).


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