Overpopulation is a Myth: Q&A with Misconception Filmmaker Jessica Yu

"Are we asking the right questions, or are we still in this old mindset where we think it's all about overpopulation? Because it's not," says Jessica Yu, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind the new documentary Misconception.

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Yu at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York to discuss her film and the subject it covers: global overpopulation. Yu says that after making the documentary Last Call at the Oasis about the so-called "water crisis," she faced a barrage of questions about overpopulation.

"At every screening in the Q&A, someone in the audience would stand up and say, 'Why are we even talking about conservation when we can't control population growth?'" says Yu.

Yu began researching the question and planned on making a film to address the topic when she stumbled upon the work of Hans Rosling, an eccentric Swedish statistician and doctor whose data undermines the notion of a population bomb about to explode, pointing to falling fertility rates in industrialized nations. Yu began to rethink her entire approach.

"The biggest turn that happened in my mind, and it was something I tried to replicate in the film... was this idea that it's not about adjusting the numbers and making people conform to the numbers, and that's how you solve people's problems. It's the exact opposite," says Yu.

Watch the video above for discussion of failed government population control policies, how empowering individuals to make their own choices solves social problems, and more. Approximately 10 minutes. Interview by Zach Weissmueller. Shot by Jim Epstein.

Scroll down for downloadable versions of this video, and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel for daily content like this.

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  • Azathoth!!||

    Finally, something that suggests that the panda is not a good role model.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I fucking hate pandas. They are an evolutionary dead but someone decided they were cute, so suddenly they become the symbol of the conservation movement. Fuck pandas.

  • Sevo||

    "they become the symbol of the conservation movement"

    I'm not seeing that anymore; now it's polar bears.
    And the pandas are at least a profit center for any zoo that wants to rent 'em.
    Way back when, the SF zoo built an enclosure, got a pair of them, and made enough to pay off the enclosure and a good bit of the operating costs for a year or so.
    Not so WRT condors. Those suckers occupy millions of acres of land and don't bill a penny. Shoot 'em!

  • ||

    Rosling's talks can't be overhyped IMO. The West has built itself narratives to both put itself at ease and manipulate itself. He does a good job of dispelling them with simple, but deep, infographics.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Rosling's talk is excellent. I can feel the progressives in the audience squirming.

  • OldMexican||

    "Overpopulation is a Myth: Q&A with Misconception Filmmaker Jessica Yu"


    You don't have to tell me, sweetheart. I already know it is a myth. "Overpopulation" is an illogical, self-contradictory term, as it is assumed in the concept that there has to be a universal population constant that should not be passed over lest there be locusts and frogs raining on us.

    No, the trick is to turn this into a cool Mythbusters episode.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    We can thank Paul Ehrlich...the wrongest man in the Galaxy.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Overpopulation is a polite Western Intellectual Liberal way to talk about how many too many brown people there are in the world, and how they must be controlled For Their Own Good.

    In other words about the same racist claptrap that the Democrats have been peddling since before the American Civil War.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    The way that was "accounted for" when I was in college was that Western (American) babies use 17x the resources of "Brown" babies over their lifetimes. So people like my professor, and everybody listening to her, needed to adopt a planet healthy 3rd world lifestyle. This was in the early 1980s and she is still teaching there.

  • Sevo||

    "So people like my professor,[...] needed to adopt a planet healthy 3rd world lifestyle."

    And I'll bet she immediately stopped eating any packaged foods and started scraping the lichen off rocks for dinner, right?

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    If she did it was outsourced.

    She used to do some kind of research on a tiny Latin American island and complained about the retired rich Americans living there, not paying the locals "proper" wages. Eventually she revealed that she paid the local prevailing wage to locals she hired to tromp around through the jungle. She gave the "reason" as not wanting to disrupt the local economy.

  • Sevo||

    (tips of the fingers of the right hand touching the forehead; eyes focused downward):
    I'm seeing "Warren". I see an "E". Ellen? Elizabeth?
    Do I have a hit? Or have I simply started on the list of hypocrites?

  • granite state destroyer||

    There are plenty of countries where the majority of the population consists of Subsaharan Africans. I suggest you visit one. "Overpopulation" is not a problem per se, but a significant shift in global demographics towards predominantly sub 100 IQ populations is simply going to increase the power of statists everywhere

  • JoeTheLesser||

    Oh hey there Jason Richwine, almost didn't see you there.

  • ||

    It's not just the "over-population crisis" that's a myth. There are many other Malthusian crises based on hype and false assumptions. Matt Ridley covers a lot of them in his Rational Optimist writings, but I stumbled across this page many years ago that tackles most of the common myths.

    PROGRESS AND ITS SUSTAINABILITY-John McCarthy
    "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense."

  • Matrix||

    I always hear some from both the left and the right bemoaning "overpopulation". "There are too many people," they whine. They want governments to implement ways to reduce the population. I always suggest that these people kill themselves. "Be part of the solution, instead of continuing to be part of the problem." The rest of us who remain will manage. Unsurprisingly, no one has taken my advice.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    The Chicago environmental terrorist gang RISE spoke of this in the early 1970s. They thought that their handful of members needed to live to take care of the earth, and everybody else needed to die. They wanted to create a "Master Race of Environmentalists." Somehow they got labeled "Rightwing" in studies and reports.

  • Restoras||

    Under-population could be more of a problem in our future.

  • Rich||

    RACIST!

  • Matrix||

    Indeed, especially aging populations. Fewer able bodied and younger people to take care of the handicapped and the elderly.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    I have the toughest time convincing people of this idea. They talk about retirement savings as if money will make stuff appear even if there's no one to produce it. I can get through ...sort of... by taking the money out of it and saying if it takes 1000 farmers to produce enough food for themselves and 1000 elderly, then what happens when it shifts to 500 farmers and 1500 elderly? Half rations: everybody's quality of life declines.

  • Juice||

    The robots will take care of us.

  • Paul.||

    You mean the drones.

  • ||

    Lucy Liu Sex bots?

  • Paul.||

    Where do I order one?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Only if we continue to allow (largely) White Western Intellectual Leftists to interfere with the coming of the Industrial Revolution to the rest of the world. It may not be the only way to make everybody so rich that they have something more intellectually interesting to do than make babies, but it is the only one that has worked to date.

  • Voros McCracken||

    As P.J. O'Rourke put it: "Over-population: Just Enough of Me, Way Too Much of You”

  • Zeb||

    That's where I'm at. I think there are too many people. But that's just because I don't want to deal with them or have them live close to me.

  • JW||

    Hey man, back up. You're crowding me.

  • Juice||

    Are they saying that it's a myth that humans will overpopulate the Earth or are they saying that it's a myth that it's even possible? I would say that it's hypothetically possible, but that it won't happen in the next century or so since all models point to the global population to plateau at around 9 billion and then start slowly declining.

  • ||

    In a free economy, people would actually feel the pinch with scarce resources and would be incentivized to stop having large families.

    The problem is government insulates people from economic reality and has a track record for promoting and celebrating poverty.

  • Zeb||

    Evidence seems to indicate that other things cause people to have smaller families well before any population related pinch is felt. A little bit of prosperity and disposable income seems to do it in most places.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Check out transitional demographics and read The Rational Optimist.

  • Rhywun||

    Sure it's hypothetically possible, maybe after a nuclear war or if aliens wipe lots of us out. But if the world continues on its current path of most rising prosperity - no way. Not gonna happen.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Juice,

    Are they saying that it's a myth that humans will overpopulate the Earth or are they saying that it's a myth that it's even possible?


    The concept itself is self-contradictory, Juice. If you have a population, it means it is composed of living people, so how can there be overpopulation? There's exactly the quantity of people that can there be at any time, no more, no less.

    What is happening is that some doomsayers tend to identify density (crowding), which happens a lot in big cities, with overpopulation, making them believe, by extrapolation, that the whole Earth is busting at the seams. Cities are but a very tiny area on the surface Earth, the rest being quite unpopulated.

  • some guy||

    If the world population is decreasing, then you could say that it is over-populated. Right now it is increasing, so clearly we are under-populated.

    Our goal is to maximize the number human-years lived, right?

    /s

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    The goal is to maximize the number of my human years lived...in style with concubines, etc.

  • Zeb||

    Well, yeah, ultimately population (like most things) is self regulating. And population seems to have feedback that slows growth well before disaster happens.

    "Overpopulation" sort of makes sense if you think that there is some population beyond which some sort of disaster is inevitable. But the people who believe that seem to always just extend current trends indefinitely and ignore the fact that people are always adapting to changing conditions.

  • Paul.||

    Uhm, isn't Overpopulation kind of 1990s? Haven't the lefty-environmentalist wing moved onto other things?

  • some guy||

    Yes. It's called Climate Change.

    The Left is consistently disappointed that mankind stubbornly refuses to destroy the world, so they keep thinking up new ways that it might happen.

  • Christophe||

    You'd be surprised. Just because the more level-headed environmentalists have moved on to things that haven't been proven wrong yet doesn't mean shit for the vast majority of them.

    Many seem to pick their pet bugaboo (overpopulation, peak oil) and refer to it in the context of other crises. Like: "the way to fix global warming is to ban fossil fuels, that way we'll also avoid peak oil. It's a twofer!"

  • ||

    "'Why are we even talking about conservation when we can't control population growth?'"

    That's what all this boils down to. Overpopulation hysteria didn't start to spread until interest in global warming started to wane, which would have given progressives the complete and utter dominance over the serfs.

  • Zeb||

    Pretty sure Malthus was around well before anyone thought anything about global warming. Overpopulation hysteria has been around for a long, long time.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    That's because overpopulation hysteria and global warming hysteria boil down to exactly the same thing; the horrible fear felt by a self-selected elite that the rest of us won't do what we're told by our betters.

    It's the same thing that was felt by the Church Hierarchies and the Aristocracy when the Reformation happened; "Migod! The Peasants are THINKING FOR THEMSELVES. This. Must. Be. Stopped!

    A painful and puss-running pox on the lot of 'em.

  • ||

    I said started to spread, not didn't exist.

  • Zeb||

    I'd say it started to spread with Malthus. But whatever. We've got no major disagreement.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Malthusian catastrophes were rendered obsolete by the Industrial Revolution and the concentration of energy sources vis a vis arable land. Of course, now we have Enviro-idiots who want to avoid a Malthusian disasters by making them more possible...growing our fuels.

  • ||

    fucking tags.

  • poloniusium||

    The modern millenarianism about overpopulation is direct from Malthus, though people tend to frame it in ecological terms, rather than strictly agricultural output. It's what environuts fall back on when more hyped disasters aren't looking as threatening.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    "people tend to frame it in ecological terms, rather than strictly agricultural output"

    That's because the agricultural output worry blew up in their face.

  • Rich||

    Meh. One good supervolcano eruption or asteroid strike will push the reset button.

  • some guy||

    I think we'd be pretty robust against such things. It'd hurt, but we'd survive. Theories about dinosaur extinction are now trending towards it being caused by multiple catastrophes in a short time frame, not one big event. Organisms are very good at adaptation and mankind is the King.

  • Zeb||

    Something big enough to cause world wide crop failures would probably kill an awful lot of people. But mankind would go on, I'm sure.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    And best of all, the ones most likely to die would be western Intellectual types with few practical skills and a pathological distaste to guns.

  • Sevo||

    C. S. P. Schofield|5.21.14 @ 3:01PM|#
    "And best of all, the ones most likely to die would be western Intellectual types with few practical skills and a pathological distaste to guns."

    One problem: They don't have a pathological distaste for guns, just a pathological distaste for dirtying their hands. They LOVE guns; handled by the hired thugs.
    I've mentioned this before: The French didn't kill any Jews in WWII. Not on your life, they didn't! They shipped them off to the Krauts.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    I think there is a line from Dr. Zhivago that goes something like this "Besides, I've executed better men than me with a small pistol."

  • ||

    Human, meet cockroach. I'm fairly sure that cockroach will outlive human by several epoch.

  • Sevo||

    Not sure.
    The have the advantage on most all the non-controling species. It might be that humanity ends up farming the little suckers for dinner.

  • albo||

    Human intelligence is a renewable resource. Somewhere there's a baby who's going to grow up to do groundbreaking work on fusion or space travel or agriculture. And he or she may be an Indian or Chinese who wasn't aborted or tossed down a well because his parents could only have one child.

  • poloniusium||

    Someone mentioned Matt Ridley up-thread and this is his suggestion. Overpopulation and carrying capacity are based on the idea of static technology, which is obviously a false premise.

  • Zeb||

    That's the big one. It probably is true that if agriculture never advanced past what it was in Malthus's time bad things would have happened. Maybe you can excuse people from that time for thinking that technology is fairly static, but anyone who thinks that way now is a dope. People will innovate.

  • The Last American Hero||

    And if they don't innovate, the population will still self-regulate.

  • some guy||

    Once we figure out fusion power the environmentalists won't be able to complain about carbon any more. I wonder what they've got in the hopper...

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    By strict scientific principles, they don't have anything to bitch about NOW. The fear of carbon is based almost totally on hype. So I expect they'll pull something out of their collective ass when the time comes.

  • Christophe||

    - Peak Deuterium
    - Helium pollution in the atmosphere
    - Fusion-sensitivity (like electrosensitivity)
    - Fusion power plants cause cancer

    There's a sneak peak for ya.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I'm sure the position papers are already written.

  • granite state destroyer||

    Human intelligence is not distributed equally among population groups. If we want more geniuses we should be encouraging a higher birth rate in places like Northern Italy, or among Jewish populations.

  • JoeTheLesser||

    Or maybe do things that actually raise the IQ levels, assuming IQ measuring isn't total garbage, like increase prosperity, provide education and slowly eradicate poverty?

    Or we can just keep promoting a 1920s eugenics agenda. That too I guess.

  • creech||

    I remember reading that the whole world's population could be dropped into Rhode Island and there would still be room for each one to extend their arms and not touch anyone else. Maybe one of you math wizards could prove it.

  • Paul.||

    Yes, back in the 90s during the overpopulation scare, the sierra club posted a world population calculator that proved that all of humanity could fit in like one county in Texas. Sierra Club quickly took the calculator down.

    Yep, found it:

    http://brian.carnell.com/artic.....s-part-ii/

    Folks ridiculed people for suggesting that the entire world population could fit in Texas, but at the density level the Sierra Club was advocating, all 6 billion people in the world today would be able to fit in an area just 2 percent as large as Texas. The state could hold upwards of 300 billion people at that level of density.

    Responding to criticism, the Sierra Club quickly took the page down and retooled it, defining efficient urban density as only 100 households per acre. But that’s still a population density of 153,600 people per square mile, or a density high enough to put every single man, woman and child in Texas almost 7 times. Forget Texas, the entire world population could fit in Virginia!
  • Rhywun||

    still a population density of 153,600 people per square mile


    Which is more than double the population density of Manhattan. How grossly inefficient they live.
  • Rhywun||

    Oops, quote fail.

  • some guy||

    Not quite. With an armspan radius of about 1 meter each person takes up "pi" square-meters of space. So 7B people take up about 22,000 square-kilometers. That's about the size of New Jersey.

    Now, if you could stack them into an appartment complex 80 stories high you would only need about 275 square-kilometers, which would easily fit inside many major US cities.

    Imagine 7B people in Omaha, NB. Imagine it!

  • Zeb||

    Similar to the alarm about landfills.

    I think Bailey had an article about it a few years ago. I can't remember the exact numbers, but something like 100 square miles could take all the world's garbage for a long, long time.

  • Atillahn||

    Nonsense, to put it politely. Anybody with a brain knows that fertility rates are falling everywhere. Iran has gone from 11 10 years ago to less than 4 today. All over the world the population is young, but aging. It was 18 years a few years ago and is slowly getting into the 20s now. By mid century the world population will all be in the 50s and 60s if the trends hold. Then a widespread human die off if the world is very lucky. A stable human population of less than 1/2 of todays would make everything so much better for the future. It may be the best news that humanity has ever had. Fingers crossed for a more equal and sustainable world where there is room for everybody and all the other life that share this plane with us.

  • Paul.||

    Then a widespread human die off if the world is very lucky.

    Do we choose who dies by lottery?

  • Jordan||

    Hopefully those who advocate the deaths of others will lead by example and throw themselves off a cliff.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Gods, think of the mess!

  • Sevo||

    We've got bulldozers; no problem.

  • JW||

    I better get a fucking Viking send off.

  • some guy||

    As our population ages, economics will do the choosing as it usually does.

  • Jordan||

    A stable human population of less than 1/2 of todays would make everything so much better for the future.

    [Citation needed]

  • Zeb||

    I have no citation either, but my instinct is that that would be true in the long run. But it will suck for a while if that happens.

    Of course Atillahn is making the same stupid assumption that the overpopulation worriers make that current trends will continue indefinitely.

  • JW||

    It's right. A growth rate of technological progress and living standards, cut by half, should be very enticing to anyone.

    Wait, no, that's not right. It's a moron.

  • Zeb||

    I'm not convinced that there is a linear relationship between world population and the rate of innovation or technological progress.

    And who knows what sort of interesting biological evolution might happen given a period of more death and turmoil.

    I should emphasize that attempting to bring such a thing about would be evil. But if it happens, it happens and something interesting will probably come of it. I think people are adaptable and clever enough that there won't be any precipitous population decline, barring some huge natural disaster.

  • JW||

    I'm not convinced that there is a linear relationship between world population and the rate of innovation or technological progress.

    I fully accept the premise that people are resources, not burdens. I'm not suggesting something so simple as a linear relationship, since into every generation, the vast majority of people won't accomplish anything significant, at least in the way of changing the world. They still contribute functionally to the overall picture and add value in their own way.

    Still, into each generation is a number of people whose talents, risk and/or brilliance change the world in ways we couldn't have ever imagined. I know I can't predict who that will be.

    Simpletons like the troll above just want to take people whose last names start with M-Z and shove them into the showers.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, doing that would probably cut innovation in half. But in a disaster situation, I expect that the survivors would probably include a disproportionate number of the more clever and resourceful people.

  • Paul.||

    Also, why you can never win with progressives, which informs me on where I think the next human die-off should happen:

    Slumping Fertility Rates in Developing Countries Spark Labor Worries

    Progressive douchebags: The population is growing too fast! We MUST stop it!

    Us: Actually, fertility rates are dropping.

    Progressive douchebags: *huddle to create new talking points* Fertility rates are dropping, social welfare Ponzi schemes hardest hit!

  • some guy||

    Are you sure it isn't the capilatist libertarians complaining about dropping fertility rates? I will not tolerate a spike in the wages of monocle polishers. I'll automate the job first!

  • Paul.||

    Are you sure it isn't the capilatist libertarians complaining about dropping fertility rates?

    Yes, I'm sure. The first time I read handwringers about dropping fertility rates was from EU zones worried that they weren't bringing in enough new workers to pay the pensions of the outgoing.

    Plus, it is an entirely progressive notion that the purpose of your relationship to the state is primarily to supply blood and treasure to the state machine.

    Yes, there are corporate structures where captains of industry worry about 'productivity', but you'll often find the biggest titans of industry have similar concerns or those concerns are directly intertwined with those of the state.

    Once reacting to a 'lost productivity' editorial, I quipped that I owed NO productivity to society or the state, whatsoever. The first person to object to my suggestion was a reliable progressive.

  • some guy||

    For future reference, any mention of a monocle means we're joking.

    Once reacting to a 'lost productivity' editorial, I quipped that I owed NO productivity to society or the state, whatsoever. The first person to object to my suggestion was a reliable progressive.

    Of course. The key point to progressivism is that we all owe a debt to "society" that can never be repaid.

  • Paul.||

    For future reference, any mention of a monocle means we're joking.

    For future reference, I know.

    However, I thought that the monocle polishing quip was a snark tag added to what you believed was a serial progressive gripe-- that only Kochporashuns care about dropping fertility rates because there would be a child labor shortage.

  • some guy||

    Yeah, I guess I mixed up my mocking methods on that one. Too meta.

  • Zeb||

    Libertarian Hipsters.

  • The Last American Hero||

    The Eurozones are less worried about productivity and more worried about what they perceive to be icky brown people moving into their countries.

  • Sevo||

    "A stable human population of less than 1/2 of todays would make everything so much better for the future."

    Tell us about life expectancy when the world had that population. Also, what was the average income.

  • MJGreen||

    Fingers crossed for a more equal and sustainable world where there is room for everybody and all the other life that share this plane with us.

    Except for the billions that "luckily" die off.

  • Res ipsa loquitur||

    Proggies probably do consider Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, The Kim's "Lucky"

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    There is room for everybody NOW. What there isn't room for is sentimental twaddle about how wonderful it is to live a "natural" life. Natural, for great apes like us, is sitting in trees, picking parasites off of our relatives and plotting to off the alpha male so we can murder his children and rape his females. Natural is overrated.

  • Rhywun||

    You mean we won't all become New Soviet Man after half of us die off? Damn :(

  • Erasmus vs. Luther||

    So my progeny should use the inheritance I sire them to invest in a funeral parlor. Thanks for the investment advice.

  • Ortzinator||

    What's up with the Youtube channel? Every video's comments section is full of morons. Yeah, typical Youtube comments section, but it didn't used to be that way on Reason's channel.

  • Paul.||

    More people are viewing them. You really shouldn't read Youtube comments. They are the worst.

  • Marshall Gill||

    I think we can all agree that while we might call Nicole the worst, really youtube comments are. It is a black hole of utter stupidity, nothing intelligent can escape.

  • Zeb||

    Sometimes it amazes me that people can be as illiterate as most YouTube commenters and still manage to operate a computer.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Tom Clancy had a good suggestion for what to do with the overpopulation nut jobs in Rainbow Six.

  • Atillahn||

    Thank God, Mary, and Joseph for the brilliance of conservatives! The Duck People shall inherit the Earth and all the men will have really cool beards, all the women will have faces like horses, and everybody will talk about Nam like Si. Hallaluya! Amen, and don't be messin with my guns and my Medicare! we don't need no skeenkin overpopulation with Jesus and white people back in charge. Burn them gays and breed up them white babies!

  • Zeb||

    Who the fuck are you addressing here?

  • Jordan||

    Is this Shriek's new handle?

  • Sevo||

    Atillahn|5.21.14 @ 4:18PM|#
    "Thank God, Mary, and Joseph for the brilliance of conservatives!"

    And if we didn't have lefties to laugh at, how much fun could you have?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    You really need to check your meds, before the clowns steal your pants and the scarlet spiders start crawling all over you.

  • Erasmus vs. Luther||

    Do you not realize that on this board,you'll find conservatives, Christians, and Medicare supporters few and far between? They're out there, but never do they advocate all three. Be intellectually honest and lurk a bit before making blanket statements about a board you clearly haven't researched.

  • Sevo||

    ..."Be intellectually honest"...

    Tell that to any one of 6 or 8 lefty twits posting here; not a chance!

  • ronalk77||

    its awesome,,, Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out www.Fox81.com

  • LindaRosaRN||

    Just because governments have had failed policies doesn't mean that the earth can support the huge population numbers we have now. We are in a time of mass extinctions, largely due to habitat destruction.

    Yu is setting up a straw man. Society lionizes and rewards large families. Overpopulation is hardly spoken of today. It's not PC to do so, as it may be seen as an attack on the many religions that are keen on being "fruitful and multiplying." Hollywood films mirror society and continue to have those classic feel-good endings with the birth of a baby or two.

    I am frankly suspicious of a film company that produced the Michael Moore-like "Food, Inc."

  • ElDuderino||

    I actually had a co-worker suggest that America needs to have a one child policy. I kindly let him know that its not nice to interfere with people when they are having sex.

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