The Sustainability Conundrum

Sustainable This, Sustainable That; Green This, Green That. What exactly is the point? The “sustainability” meme seems to have gone culturally viral. Promoters use it to give any action or proposal at all a sheen of environmental respectability. But what does it actually mean?

I am afraid that “sustainability” has come to mean nothing at all, other than functioning to evoke a politically correct gloss over whatever the speaker (or advertisement) is promoting. It has gone the way of “green” as an emotionally evocative signal that everything will be just fine, as long as you do not look behind the curtain, behind which you may find the shocking truth. (One notable exception is “The Green New Deal.”)

Talk is cheap

Most “sustainability” talk is constrained by assumptions it deeply embeds in the very same extractive industrial consumer culture and practices that can no longer be sustained. “Sustainable” usually implies that a practice can continue indefinitely because it relies on renewable resources, energy and/or “responsible” methods of extraction, harvest, or production.

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Open Pit Mining ~ Tanzania

However, industrial-consumer economies cannot sustain current levels of extraction, production, and consumption without forcing extreme levels of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and resource depletion. The industrial-consumer economy will no longer be able to sustain the overgrown populations that depend on it. The limits of growth have arrived; economic growth itself is no longer sustainable.

Words and Deeds

The global industrial-consumer economy can sustain some practices for a long time, yet contribute significantly to climate chaos, ecological destruction, and eventually societal collapse. More broadly, the “technosphere” itself (the techno-industrial complex that sustains and is driven by the endless growth economy) is not sustainable simply because it is destroying the core living Earth systems upon which we all rely for survival.

Physics is not negotiable. Faith in technological innovation and economic growth as the drivers of human progress is no longer a viable belief system. Physical Earth System parameters constitute impassible boundaries to reckless techno-industrial economics. Those who live in the ephemeral world of such utopian dreams hold to their untenable beliefs, but cannot persuade the Earth System to passively accept the plunder and pollution we have put upon it. We have set in motion self-amplifying processes that we have little if any remaining ability to control.

Deadly Decisions

Continuing on our present path of impossible endless economic growth will force the collapse of society itself following both the destabilization of the complex dynamic living Earth systems on which it all depends. Also, the internal major sub-system breakdowns we have already experienced, such as in the 2008 global financial meltdown, all indicate growing system instability leading to an accelerated collapse.

A New Great Transformation, vastly more complex than the industrial revolution that started the now-dying industrial era, is upon us. Yet, we have done little to mitigate or adapt to the catastrophic disruptions of economy, ecology, and climate that it has caused.

The dominant concept of “sustainability” fails to consider the limits of extraction-production-consumption and waste on our finite. The globalized corporate economy has overshot the Earth System’s capacity to carry the ecological load of a

ecological-community-18

population of industrial consumers. What is actually sustainable is so different from the pseudo-sustainable industrial-consumer practices still promoted, that it is hard for most to imagine. Survival of the human species will depend on our ability to shape new local/regional ecological communities that embed their economies within and harmonize with the ecosystems they inhabit.

Asking how to assure “sustainable development,” or worse, “sustainable growth,” is a way of denying the fact that the current trajectory of political economy is itself unsustainable.

Trade Wars and Climate Chaos

It is as sad as it is fascinating to observe the complete disconnect between the assumptions behind current emerging trade wars and those behind the current pretensions of nations to taking climate action.

On the one hand, news reports of steps taken on either side in the escalation of Trump’s trade war with China assume that human progress depends on extensive international trade. They portray such steps as damaging imports and exports and therefore “the economy” itself. That, of course, results from the near-universal belief in the value and necessity of expanding the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy.

Perpetuating the Impossible

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International Shipping sustains the Technosphere

On the other hand, it is eminently clear from the overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence that the global economy is the primary source of the disruption of ecosystems around the world. Industry not only destabilizes local and regional ecosystems by aggressively extracting materials for production. That global system of extraction, shipping, manufacture, more shipping, promotion, sales, consumption, and waste – what Dmitry Orlov calls the “technosphere” – is the driving force behind climate chaos and destabilization of the entire Earth System. Yet, global economic and political elites continue to deem it necessary and good.

Of course, while China and other nations recognize the existential threat of climate chaos for their societies, the U.S. remains hog-tied in a political struggle. The know-nothing, anti-science, fossil-fueled corporatists battle the climate activists who respond to the scientific facts of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and impending societal collapse. Even as China begins to turn away from coal as a major source of energy production by reducing the number of new coal-fired power plants, the sheer momentum of its growth adds significantly to global carbon emissions. Despite the international agreement to limit carbon emissions to achieve global warming no greater than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is itself an inadequate goal – global carbon emissions continue to grow.

System Dynamics in the Real World

Everyone who pays attention to the growing body of scientific evidence understands the destructiveness of the trends, especially in the self-amplifying feedback mechanisms that accelerate climate chaos. The two obvious examples are: 1) methane release from melting tundra adds to the warming that caused it (an arctic expedition recently discovered that tundra-melting is already 70 years ahead of recent predictions), and 2) greater heat absorption by deep blue arctic waters than by the reflective arctic ice that is melting into the seas. The evidence is now clear that even if we were to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is increasingly unlikely – significant climate chaos will result.

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Sea Rise and Urban Collapse

The sad fact is that no government in the industrial world has made any serious effort to curtail emissions to an extent anywhere near the level required of all nations to avoid societal collapse within the next couple of decades. To reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” will require dismantling the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy and replacing it with local and regional ecological societies that embed economic activity within the parameters needed to restore ecosystems and restrain climate instability. The implications for social change are nearly inconceivable.

Societal Transformation for Survival

Clearly, pulling off such a New Great Transformation of societies is a long shot. Nevertheless, it is the only chance we have to avoid extreme destabilization of climate and the destruction of ecosystems and species upon which humanity depends for survival. Global, regional, and local collapse of societies will follow as ecosystems and climate further destabilize. Fighting or resolving trade wars, in this context, is the global equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Forget international trade, except for limiting it to exchanges that assist devastated nations to survive. The industrial and industrializing nations must abandon the entire culture of industrial consumerism and the extraction, production, and trade that it perpetuates. Unfortunately, national governments and the corporations that control them continue in exactly the wrong direction. Trade wars are part of the old global industrial-consumer political economy, which dominates national governments and their policies. That is why it is now up to the people to find a new path out of the death dance of extractive industrial consumerism.

Two Views of the Climate Emergency: David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben

Acknowledging the Climate Emergency opens one up to all sorts of intellectual struggles with a reality that confounds even great minds. The industrialized nations and most of their intellectuals seem either unwilling or unable to face the magnitude of the hard facts. They do not know how to take action to ameliorate the immediate and extreme existential threat to humanity inherent in growing climate chaos.

One peculiar but not entirely surprising result is the bickering over what goals to seek, not what we must do to achieve them. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction. Another is the problem of how consistently experts have underestimated the growing impacts of climate chaos and overestimated the impact that climate action may have.

Extreme Realities

Accusing those who promote “extreme” climate-action of fascist tendencies results from adhering to the illusion of a non-existent democratic political process that is really what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” — that is, “inverted totalitarianism” in democratic sheep’s clothing. Extreme emergencies usually call for extreme measures to counter catastrophe. However, the corporate state refuses to acknowledge the emergency, treating the global emergency as just another “issue.”

Neither our corporate-state nor the laws of physics are democratic, even though the solution to the climate crisis if we can actually pursue it, will most likely arise from DIRECT DEMOCRACY initiated by people in local/regional contexts. Necessary climate action derives not from traditional political pluralism but from understanding the physically DETERMINATE processes of the complex dynamic systems of ecology and climate.

climate chaos is globalDavid Wallace-Wells’ wakeup call, “Time to Panic,” in the New York Times, argues persuasively for immediate climate action. His new book, Uninhabitable Earth, piles on the latest evidence fully justifying existential fear and immediate action. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first public warning of the impending climate crisis. In his new book, Falter, he urges greater collective resistance to the fossil-fueled corporate state. He argues for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and divestment from fossil-fuel related investments. He also points out the futility of individual action alone. Recycle all you want, but the problem is that so much recycling has become necessary.

Extreme Emergency requires Extreme Action

Useful and important in substantiating the emergency, neither McKibben nor Wallace-Wells addresses any clear vision of major climate action beyond civil resistance and technological replacements. I am sure they endorse the Green New Deal as a starting point, since it is a significant departure from existing national gradualism and denial, though a political longshot. Looking at the whole thing sociologically, the big barriers become clear.

Resistance may bend the neo-liberal corporate state somewhat, allowing some moderate “green” reforms, which in the U.S. will depend on who controls the Senate and presidency after 2020. However, time is our enemy now. Neither resistance alone nor eventual political victory can result in the kind of precise strategic action we need from national governments now. Also, no amount of technological replacement will suffice within the neo-liberal corporate global political economy, which is incapable of a massive reduction of carbon emissions. Achieving resilience is really a matter of how well we restrain the endless growth economy, which most ideas of mitigation and adaptation fall short of doing. See https://thehopefulrealist.c…

Optimism is a flat out illusion; so is pessimism. They both traffic in fatalism. The facts offer no basis for optimism while pessimism excludes the possibility of concerted action to reduce the existential threat that now confronts us ever more directly. However, my hope will die when I do.

Action is always possible until we can no longer move. Moreover, we cannot predict exactly how well extreme climate action can mitigate surging climate chaos until we take such action. But the evidence overwhelmingly confirms that extreme action now is necessary for the survival of a much smaller ecologically integrated human population after industrial civilization collapses.

As Ugo Bardi points out in relation to the early dismissal of the findings of Meadows, et al (1972) in The Limits to Growth, that it is folly to treat forecasts, regardless of the quality of data, as predictions — actually, they are WARNINGS. Because we know a lot about the diverse trends implicated with carbon emissions and global warming, we CAN forecast approximate outcomes depending on how those factors play out.

The Time is Now.

HOW AND TO WHAT EXTENT HUMANS TAKE ACTIONS to counter the destruction that WILL prevail IF we do little or nothing, will determine our survival. To what extent will we alter the parameters that determine whether, in the case of climate chaos, the planet heats to 1.5 degrees C., 2.0 degrees C., or more? That is the key question because we know with certainty that failure will lead to more ecological and climate tipping points beyond which societal collapse is inevitable and survival is threatened.

The underlying problem is not solved by trying to convert to renewable energy (though that does help) to power the continued extreme extractive-industrial-consumer global economy. The real problem is how to stop that economy in its tracks while rapidly transforming society to operate on a vastly lower level of energy consumption. At this point, that will not result from government or corporate policy change, nor civil resistance to their current failures.

As difficult as it seems, the only viable way to “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it, is through direct local/regional RESTRUCTURING of communities to align their economic behavior with the requirements for restoring the ecosystems upon which they depend. That is possible only by a massive turning away from the globalized growth economy.

Decision to Land

In aviation, it is all about making the right decisions and executing them with precision and exact timing. From what I have learned about the incident when Captain Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after a flock of geese took out his engines, the man is a consummate aviator. He rapidly assessed his dire situation and made the best possible choice, which was outside the normal procedure.

Facing Reality

One of the big human tendencies in aviation that gets people killed we call, “get-there-itis.” All sorts of pressures, mostly social, keep some pilots on a course that circumstances demand they abandon. A former FAA weather briefer reported in a webinar having briefed a pilot determined to get to Reno for a Thanksgiving dinner. He was just not listening to her warnings of severe turbulence and thunderstorms along his flight path. The briefer heard his children in the background boarding his airplane. In desperation, she said, “Sir, do you want your children to live?” “What?” She finally had his attention. “Well, if you proceed, they very well may not!” The father’s pilot-ego stood down.

I cannot help but consider the “get-there-itis” syndrome as an ironic metaphor for the present course of humanity toward climate catastrophe and societal collapse. Power elites, in their deep cultural denial, keep insisting we find (wildly inadequate) business-as-usual “solutions” to global warming, which will keep us on that terminal path.

Abort!

On our way to the Negrito airstrip in the Gila National Forest a couple of years ago, the fuel pressure indication began acting up again. I felt that the likely cause was in the fuel pressure sensor. I could not imagine how the fuel pump could cause such high pressure. By the time we were within 20 minutes to our destination, the fuel pressure indication had gone up and back down to normal several times. It was getting disconcerting.

Now, over the remote Gila National Forest, with fewer and fewer roads and meadows appeared below us. I remembered reading of a pilot who had ‘crash landed’ his Glasair Sportsman in the trees and walked away. The Sportsman has a tubular steel cage as its superstructure, similar to that of an Indi racecar, making it relatively “crash-proof” compared to an easily crushable aluminum airframe. That’s nice, but who wants to crash? I had no interest in pushing the boundaries.

IMG_1560 (1)When the fuel-pressure indicated over 100 psi, I made my decision. I pressed the ‘Nrst’ button on my GPS, already aware that the nearest airport (TCS) was at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I turned to follow the magenta line on my primary flight display, the shortest path to the airport.

Safe Landing

I contemplated for a second the broader irony of the name of my new destination. We landed without incident, beginning a new phase of our “inadvertent adventure.” Rather than risk an engine fire and a 100 octane flaming crash in the forest, we would miss the camp-out. We spent the next few days finding a mechanic, diagnosing the problem, waiting for a $40- sensor, and installing it in about 10 minutes. We took off at dawn the next morning and enjoyed an uneventful flight home, before dangerous thunderstorms built up as forecasted for the afternoon.

Humanity is at a turning point. We must make a major course-change in our unrelenting adventure and achieve a balance with nature. Can we land in a livable climate by drastically changing direction? We have no time left to contemplate that decision since we must act now to abort our flight of fantasy. It may be hard to turn away from the imaginary destiny of our utopian dreams, but we must. The risk has become extreme.

The Best (only viable)Adaptation is Mitigation

A policy of adaptation to climate change as the primary response to climate change would not only be self-defeating. It would tax all human and material capital on the planet in pursuit of an impossible dream. It is fundamentally failure-bound because climate chaos would easily overwhelm it. That is why the Green New Deal is such an important cultural turning point for the American people.

That is also why the failure of politicians to adapt to the new conditions recognized by a citizenry that is awakening to the extremity of the emerging climate reality is so offensive. The politicians are not prepared to face actual constituents who know what is going on and expect them to do something about it. Frankly, they serve the short-term financial interests of the big fossil-fueled corporations that continue to disrupt the Earth System at its very core as if there were no tomorrow. There will be no captain once the ship sinks.

Well, as time goes by, tomorrow becomes today, but the time for major climate action was yesterday. To anyone not bought off or just ignorantly out of the loop, only the most extreme climate action now has a chance to limit climate chaos from spiraling entirely out of control. The Green New Deal is a conceptual starting place. Even it is not enough if implemented, because so much more is involved in transforming a society from fossil-fuel addiction to ecosystem restoration. Yes, recycling more and buying a Prius while going about your industrial-consumerist “lifestyle” just won’t cut it.

Feinstein’s Folly

And that is why the old guard in Congress is so upset with smart political upstarts such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth of the Sunrise Movement. They refuse to mince sunrise.movementwords about the dangers ahead or accept platitudes in place of action. Politicians either dodge them completely by leaving their office by the back door or dismiss them out of hand. They patronize intelligent committed youth, most of whom know far more about the science of climate chaos than Senator Diane Feinstein, for example. She was so offensive when the Sunrise kids went to her seeking climate leadership instead of the same old BS. Well, they got the same old BS.

13-Dianne-Feinstein-2.w700.h700“I’ve been doing this for thirty years…[blah, blah, blah]…” Yes, and that is exactly the problem. For thirty years, the establishment politicians have kicked the can down the treacherous road to climate catastrophe. And now that we are at the brink, they want the rest of us to sit down and shut up because, in Feinstein’s words, “I know what I’m doing.” No, WE know what you are doing and it is too close to zero and too late to tolerate.

The Urgency of Now

Unless humans initiate major interventions now, toward reversing the trajectory of global warming, no amount of adaptation to the catastrophic consequences of global warming will be enough. Although it is hard to determine precisely, the tipping point toward full climate chaos is very close at hand. So many self-amplifying processes produce accelerating ecological destruction and may lead to human extinction unless humans act now to radically restrict our carbon emissions.

As Earth’s climate spirals toward a Jupiter-like atmosphere, intolerable conditions will extinguish most life on planet Earth. No human adaptation would be adequate unless it is a response to the conditions that we have already made less severe by taking extreme climate actions to mitigate the carbon emissions we continue to cause. And they are shocked because they think that the Green New Deal is a radical proposal that we somehow cannot afford. It is not nearly enough, but it points in the only direction we can afford. We must get reasonable politicians who can follow facts to begin leading a mobilization that made the transformation of American society to fight World War II seem like a spring picnic.

Beyond Resistance

Resistance seems necessary, though clearly, it is not sufficient. What will resistance get us, really?

A slower unraveling of American Democracy? Maybe, but not much slower. Democracies die not so much by military coup but by slow erosion of crucial institutions such as the courts and the press. The anti-democratic forces of the corporate state have gathered unprecedented power and the awareness of the people remains dominated by the ideology of industrial-consumerism, reinforced by the rise of extreme demagoguery. We are in the perfect anti-democratic storm.

Perhaps one or two less weather weirdings next year? Probably not. Any slowing of climate chaos is a long-term project requiring massive action now. That is just not happening. The stronger the scientific evidence – even accelerated intensified draughts and epic rainfall, tropical storms, arctic ice-melt, and rising sea level happening now – the greater the political denial. Prior modest U.S. governmental efforts to reduce carbon emissions rapidly wind down as I write.

So Much to Resist, So Few Tools

Maybe resistance can ease the splitting of our society into the extremely rich and the rest of us? Perhaps, but again, such a project faces centrally organized power, massive institutional momentum, and highly leveraged financial control. The concentration of wealth and the plunder of the planet continue unabated. Street protests are mostly catharsis, yet bring on escalated military police arrests and violence.

Maybe resistance could achieve a slight improvement in the deteriorating health of our people due to abridged access to healthcare by the Corporate State. Well, that is not likely in the short run, since it will take a lot more than empty rhetoric by Corporate Democrats if they regain control of Congress. The Dem’s are still beholden to the Wall Street financial elites who want to keep their free ride while the people suffer. What incentive do the Dem’s have to overthrow the monopoly of medical insurance corporations and Big Pharma that feed their campaign coffers? Wall Street and K Street keep them flush, after all.

Well, at least we might hope for a concerted effort to accelerate climate action, right? But again, Mr. Big Corp is likely to be running more hi-tech R&D programs, chasing illusions of “geo-engineering,” possibly the greatest hubris of all. The corporate elite is not likely to accelerate deployment of ready-to-go no-patent-monopoly distributed power generation and energy conservation strategies. Climate-appropriate technologies and policies do not offer monopoly power or vast corporate profits. Those would involve some degree of community control replacing endless corporate-state intermediation assuring further central control and human suffering.

Something Very Different

No, we need something very different now. “But you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?” That is exactly the point today. Humanity has entered uncharted waters and we don’t even know our ship that well. Furthermore, our ship was not rigged for these waters. We are in the Anthropocene and few have even heard the term. Most do not grasp the fact that things really are different now. No political authority has even come close to acknowledging this reality.

Well, I can tell you one thing. What we need even more than resistance is replacement of the industrial-consumer economy and rapid restoration of local and regional ecosystems worldwide. Only then can we create the human resilience that we cannot achieve quickly through national politics or street protests before full-on climate collapse accelerates hyper-weird weather, large scale crop failures, forced migrations, escalated violence and imminent societal collapse.

So, resistance must transform itself if it is to extend its meaning and value beyond mere protest, even massive political protest in the streets. Momentary disruptions of the authoritarian illusions of the political-economic elites (whose denial of reality serves their short term interests) will not measurably improve our chances of re-stabilizing the Earth System as we enter the Anthropocene.

Resistance to the environmental and human destruction of the global industrial-consumer economy can only succeed by transforming itself. Resistance must take the form of positive concrete actions to restore local ecosystems, and by extension the whole Earth system. We must resist by creating viable zero-emissions community economies. In doing so, we will naturally withdraw participation in the giant technosphere that now deeply intermediates all human action in the material world, damaging all life on the planet.

We must take direct community actions to re-establish harmonious relations with our local and regional ecosystems. For example, viable farm-to-table food systems, by their very establishment, resist and diminish giant corporate systems of global intermediation and centralized control of localities. We must eliminate the complex institutional intermediation of every aspect of our lives. Creativity and innovation within communities may become the greatest form of resistance.

Why Trump Does Not Matter, and Why He Does

It is so easy to ridicule a buffoon. I have done so more than once in various blog posts on this site. I referred to Trump as an empty clown suit because of the vacuous nature of his essentially false and tragically comic-book persona. He could easily pass for Batman’s “The Joker.”

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The Joker in Chief

But really, isn’t the focus on the peculiar personalities of politicians a large part of what is wrong with American politics? We tend to focus on personality and image rather than issues. The Republicans are better at that, using as they do, core patriotic imagery and buzzwords to frame their position in debates and win support for their corrupt exploitation of the commonwealth.

In that regard, the Democrats always seem to be tag-along copycats. The analytics and lofty yet detached liberal rhetoric is to most voters just boring and hollow. The allegiance of the Democratic ‘leadership’ to corporate and financial elites is clear despite being not quite as strong as that of the Republicans. Their lofty ideas rarely lead to action.

Then, along came Bernie with his old-style New Deal social-democrat ideals and specific proposals that suddenly caught the imagination of old and young alike. It was clear that Bernie simply is what he is. Not perfect, but real, the unabashed ethical Grandpa, corny humor, caring and all. Well, that certainly clashed with the goals of the DNC and the corporate Democrats who run the party.

From Russia with (Laundered) Cash

Of course, Trump, the false outsider, a caricature of McScrooge, is nothing if not unreal. I could go on indefinitely about that. Many have. But to what end? Does it matter that Trump is the epitome of the politics of dishonesty and a hollow persona of personal greed, reflecting a deep narcissism and sociopathy? Do the fact-checking counts of the endless lies and distortions really matter? Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, Trump really is a buffoon open to endless ridicule for his complete lack of presidential demeanor and his gross life-long personal corruption. On the other hand, however disgusting or embarrassing, that is not the deeper problem he represents. That problem runs even deeper than his possibly traitorous but certainly corrupt dealings with Russian oligarchs so close to the Kremlin.

Internationally, he is clearly an embarrassment to our nation. Domestically, he could not act with much less civility or inspire much more racist, neo-fascist, or misogynist reaction to the world as it is. The damage he sows to national unity is real.

However, the press obsession with whether and to what extent his climate denial is real or just posturing for his “alt-right” violence-prone base, like his other disgraceful behaviors, diverts media attention from the real and growing crises we cannot avoid no matter who resides in the oval office. It is his appointments of barbaric executioners to kill all protectors of the public interest in health, safety, and security for the people, who cause the deeper destruction and pose the greatest danger to the nation and the world.

The Nation Is as Trumpery Does

The rise of Trumpery is, in fact, the extreme expression of the underlying problem of a nation’s elite destabilizing the society it dominates, along with most ecosystems and the global climate, in order to gain even more power in the short term. It is not only a matter of Trump’s dance with the devil. Trumpery is a death-dance to which we are all invited.

We will soon reach the tipping point leading to unstoppable climate chaos, ecosystems collapse, and global financial bedlam. Are you worried about population growth? No need to. Under rapidly deteriorating global conditions, population decline is inevitable and will not be pretty.

The processes of destabilization and destruction were well in place before the political rise of Trumpery, which continues to accelerate the rush to societal as well as ecological and climate collapse. We desperately needed a great turnaround. We got just the opposite. What matters about Trump is that he may have prolonged and accelerated the downward slide of the nation and planet into such deep chaos that the living Earth systems upon which humanity depends will disintegrate beyond hope.