Survivalism is a movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists or preppers) who are actively preparing for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international. Survivalists often acquire emergency medical and self-defense training, stockpile food and water, prepare to become self-sufficient, and build structures (e.g., a survival retreat or an underground shelter) that may help them survive a catastrophe.
Anticipated disruptions may include:
- Clusters of natural disasters, patterns of apocalyptic planetary crises, or "Earth Changes" (tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, solar storms, severe thunderstorms, floods, tsunamis).
- Anthropogenic disasters (chemical spills, release of radioactive materials, nuclear or conventional war, oppressive governments).
- The general collapse of society caused by the shortage or unavailability of resources such as electricity, fuel, food, or water.
- Financial disruption or economic collapse (caused by monetary manipulation, hyperinflation, deflation, or depression).
- A global pandemic.
- Widespread chaos or some other unexplained apocalyptic event.
The origins of the modern Survivalist movement in the United Kingdom and the United States include government policies, threats of nuclear warfare, religious beliefs, and writers who warned of social or economic collapse in both non-fiction and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.
The Cold War era Civil Defense programs promoted public atomic bomb shelters, personal fallout shelters, and training for children, such as the Duck and Cover films. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has long directed its members to store a year's worth of food for themselves and their families in preparation for such possibilities. The current LDS teaching advises a three-month supply.
The increased inflation rate in the 1960s, the US monetary devaluation, the continued concern over a possible nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, and the increasing vulnerability of urban centers to supply shortages and other systems failures caused a number of primarily conservative and libertarian thinkers to suggest that individual preparations would be wise. Harry Browne began offering seminars on how to survive a monetary collapse in 1967, with Don Stephens (an architect) providing input on how to build and equip a remote survival retreat. He gave a copy of his original Retreater's Bibliography to each seminar participant.
Articles on the subject appeared in small-distribution libertarian publications such as The Innovator and Atlantis Quarterly. It was during this period that Robert D. Kephart began publishing Inflation Survival Letter (later renamed Personal Finance). For several years the newsletter included a continuing section on personal preparedness written by Stephens. It promoted expensive seminars around the US on similar cautionary topics. Stephens participated, along with James McKeever and other defensive investing, "hard money" advocates.
In the next decade Howard Ruff warned about socio-economic collapse in his 1974 book Famine and Survival in America. Ruff's book was published during a period of rampant inflation in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. Most of the elements of survivalism can be found there, including advice on food storage. The book championed the claim that precious metals, such as gold and silver, have an intrinsic worth that makes them more usable in the event of a socioeconomic collapse than fiat currency. Ruff later published milder variations of the same themes, such as How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, a best-seller in 1979.
Other newsletters and books followed in the wake of Ruff's first publication. In 1975, Kurt Saxon began publishing a monthly tabloid-size newsletter called The Survivor, which combined Saxon's editorials with reprints of 19th century and early 20th century writings on various pioneer skills and old technologies. Kurt Saxon used the term survivalist to describe the movement, and he claims to have coined the term.
In the previous decade, preparedness consultant, survival bookseller, and California-based author Don Stephens popularized the term retreater to describe those in the movement, referring to preparations to leave cities for remote havens or survival retreats should society break down. In 1976, before moving to the Inland Northwest, he and his wife authored and published The Survivor's Primer & Up-dated Retreater's Bibliography.
For a time in the 1970s, the terms survivalist and retreater were used interchangeably. While the term retreater eventually fell into disuse, many who subscribed to it saw retreating as the more rational approach to conflict-avoidance and remote "invisibility". Survivalism, on the other hand, tended to take on a more media-sensationalized, combative, "shoot-it-out-with-the-looters" image.
One of the most important newsletters on survivalism and survivalist retreats in the 1970s was the Personal Survival ("P.S.") Letter (circa 1977–1982) published by Mel Tappan, who also authored the books Survival Guns and Tappan on Survival. The newsletter included columns from Tappan himself as well as Jeff Cooper, Al J. Venter, Bill Pier, Bruce D. Clayton, Rick Fines, Nancy Mack Tappan, J.B. Wood, Dr. Carl Kirsch, Charles Avery, Karl Hess, Eugene A. Barron, Janet Groene, Dean Ing, Bob Taylor, Reginald Bretnor, and C.G. Cobb. The majority of the newsletter revolved around selecting, constructing, and logistically equipping survival retreats. Following Tappan's death in 1980, Karl Hess took over publishing the newsletter, eventually renaming it Survival Tomorrow.
In 1980, John Pugsley published the book The Alpha Strategy. It was on The New York Times Best Seller list for nine weeks in 1981. After 28 years in circulation, The Alpha Strategy remains popular with survivalists, and is considered a standard reference on stocking food and household supplies as a hedge against inflation and future shortages.
Interest in the first wave of the survivalist movement peaked in the early 1980s, with Howard Ruff's book How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years and the publication in 1980 of Life After Doomsday by Bruce D. Clayton. Clayton's book, coinciding with a renewed arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, marked a shift in emphasis in preparations made by survivalists away from economic collapse, famine, and energy shortages—which were concerns in the 1970s—to nuclear war. In the early 1980s, science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle was an editor and columnist for Survive, a survivalist magazine, and was considered influential in the survivalist movement. Ragnar Benson's 1982 book Live Off The Land In The City And Country suggested rural survival retreats as both a preparedness measure and conscious lifestyle change.
Interest in the movement peaked again in 1999 in its second wave, triggered by fears of the Y2K computer bug. Before extensive efforts were made to rewrite computer programming code to mitigate the effects, some writers such as Gary North, Ed Yourdon, James Howard Kunstler, and Ed Yardeni anticipated widespread power outages, food and gasoline shortages, and other emergencies. North and others raised the alarm because they thought Y2K code fixes were not being made quickly enough. While a range of authors responded to this wave of concern, two of the most survival-focused texts to emerge were Boston on Y2K (1998) by Boston T. Party, and Mike Oehler's The Hippy Survival Guide to Y2K. Oehler is an underground living advocate, who also authored The $50 and Up Underground House Book, which has long been popular in survivalist circles.
2000 to present
The third wave of survivalism began after the September 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London. This resurgence of interest in survivalism appears to be as strong as the first wave in the 1970s. The fear of war, avian influenza, energy shortages, environmental disasters and global climate change, coupled with economic uncertainty, and the apparent vulnerability of humanity after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, has once again made survivalism popular. Preparedness is once more a paramount concern to many people who seek to stockpile supplies, gain useful skills, and develop contacts with like-minded people to learn as much as possible.
Many books have been published in the past few years [2008-2012] offering survival advice for various potential disasters, ranging from an energy shortage and crash to nuclear or biological terrorism. In addition to the 1970s-era books, blogs and Internet forums are popular ways of disseminating survivalism information. Online survival websites and blogs discuss survival vehicles, survival retreats, emerging threats, and list survivalist groups.
Economic troubles emerging from the credit collapse triggered by the 2007 US subprime mortgage lending crisis and global grain shortages have prompted a wider cross-section of the populace to prepare. James Wesley Rawles, the editor of SurvivalBlog and author of the survivalist novel Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse was quoted by the New York Times in April 2008, stating: "interest in the survivalist movement 'is experiencing its largest growth since the late 1970s'". In 2009, he was quoted by the Associated Press as stating: "There's so many people who are concerned about the economy that there's a huge interest in preparedness, and it pretty much crosses all lines, social, economic, political and religious. There's a steep learning curve going on right now."
The advent of H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009 piqued interest in survivalism, significantly boosting sales of preparedness books and making survivalism more mainstream. Events such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami have revitalized the survivalist community.
These developments led Gerald Celente, founder of the Trends Research Institute, to identify a trend that he calls "neo-survivalism". He explained this phenomenon in a radio interview with Jim Puplava on December 18, 2009:
"When you go back to the last depressing days when we were in a survival mode, the last one the Y2K of course, before the 1970's, what had happened was you only saw this one element of survivalist, you know, the caricature, the guy with the AK-47 heading to the hills with enough ammunition and pork and beans to ride out the storm. This is a very different one from that: you're seeing average people taking smart moves and moving in intelligent directions to prepare for the worst. (...) So survivalism in every way possible. Growing your own, self-sustaining, doing as much as you can to make it as best as you can on your own and it can happen in urban area, sub-urban area or the ex-urbans. And it also means becoming more and more tightly committed to your neighbours, your neighbourhood, working together and understanding that we're all in this together and that when we help each other out that's going to be the best way forward."
This last aspect is highlighted in The Trends Research Journal: "Communal spirit intelligently deployed is the core value of Neo-Survivalism".
Preppers gained unwanted attention after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. This was in part because the debate that ignited over the Second Amendment revealed much of their mentality concerning what they perceived to be growing oppression in the United States and the potential for armed resistance against a tyrannical government.
Outline of scenarios and outlooks
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Survivalism is approached by its adherents in different ways, depending on their circumstances, mindsets, and particular concerns for the future. The following are characterizations, although most (if not all) survivalists fit into more than one category:
- Safety preparedness oriented
Learns principles and techniques needed for surviving life-threatening situations that can occur at any time place. Makes preparations for such calamities as structure fires, dog attacks, physical confrontations, snake bites, lightning strikes, car breakdowns, third world travel problems, bear encounters, flash floods, home invasions and train wrecks.
- Wilderness survival emphasis
Stresses being able to stay alive for indefinite periods in life-threatening wilderness scenarios, including plane crashes, shipwrecks, and being lost in the woods. Concerns are: thirst, hunger, climate, terrain, health, stress, and fear. Prepares with: knowledge, training and practice. Survival kit often includes: water purifiers, shelter, fire starters, clothing, food, medical supplies, navigation, signaling gear, and a heavy-duty survival knife.
- Self-defense driven
Concerned with surviving brief encounters of violent activity. Focus is on personal protection and its legal ramifications, danger awareness, John Boyd's cycle (also known as the OODA loop—observe, orient, decide and act), martial arts, self-defense tactics and tools (both lethal and non-lethal).
- Natural disaster, brief
Lives in tornado, hurricane, flood, wildfire, earthquake or heavy snowfall areas and wants to be prepared for the inevitable. Invests in material for fortifying structures and tools for rebuilding and constructing temporary shelters. May have a custom built shelter, food, water, medicine, and enough supplies to get by until contact with the rest of the world resumes.
- Natural disaster, prolonged
Concerned about weather cycles of 2–10 years, which have happened historically and can cause crop failures. Might stock several tons of food per family member and have a heavy duty greenhouse with canned non-hybrid seeds.
- Natural disaster, indefinite/multi-generational
Possible scenarios include: global warming, global cooling, environmental degradation, warming or cooling of gulf stream waters, or a period of severely cold winters caused by a supervolcano, an asteroid strike, or large scale nuclear proliferation.
- Bio-chem scenario
Concerned with the spread of fatal diseases, biological agents, and nerve gases. Examples: swine flu, E. coli 0157, botulism, dengue fever, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, SARS, rabies, Hantavirus, anthrax, plague, cholera, HIV, ebola, Marburg virus, Lhasa virus, sarin, and VX. Might own NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) full-face respirators, polyethylene coveralls, PVC boots, nitrile gloves, plastic sheeting and duct tape.
An increase in human population affects available fresh water, food, health-care, environment, economics, consumerism, and spread of diseases. Some[who?] warn that this will result in a Malthusian population crash.
- Monetary disaster investors
Believe the Federal Reserve system is fundamentally flawed. Newsletters suggest hard assets of gold and silver bullion, coins, and other precious-metal oriented investments such as mining shares. They are preparing for paper money to become worthless through hyperinflation. As of late 2009 this is a popular scenario.
- Biblical eschatologist
These individuals study End Times prophecy and believe the Savior is going to return soon, and that the final battle with Satan on the Plains of Megiddo might occur in their lifetime. Most believe that the Rapture will follow a period of Tribulation, though a smaller number believe that the Rapture is imminent and will precede the Tribulation ("Pre-Trib Rapture"). There is a wide range of beliefs and attitudes in this group. They run the gamut from pacifist to armed camp, and from having no food stockpiles (leaving their sustenance up to God's providence) to storing decades' worth of food. A small subset are Messianic Jews.
- Peak oil doomers
Followers of James Wesley Rawles, the best-selling author of survivalist fiction and non-fiction books. Adherents often prepare for multiple scenarios with fortified and well-equipped rural survival retreats. Most are politically conservative. Nearly all place an emphasis on both being well-armed as well as being ready to dispense charity in the event of a disaster. Most take a "deep larder" approach and store food to last years. They emphasize practical self-sufficiency and homesteading skills.
- Medical crisis oriented
Has a complete medical pack in house and car. Donates blood and is active in the Red Cross. Has taken CERT, EMT, and CPR courses, knows vital signs, and stockpiles medicines. Concerned with vehicle accidents and emergencies involving injuries. Focus is on helping family, friends, and community survive medical emergencies.
Common preparations include the creation of a clandestine or defensible retreat, haven, or bug out location (BOL) in addition to the stockpiling of non-perishable food, water, water-purification equipment, clothing, seed, firewood, defensive or hunting weapons, ammunition, agricultural equipment, and medical supplies. Some survivalists do not make such extensive preparations, and simply incorporate a "Be Prepared" outlook into their everyday life.
A bag of gear, often referred to as a "bug out bag" (BOB) or "get out of dodge" (G.O.O.D.) kit, can be created which contains basic necessities and useful items. It can be of any size, weighing as much as the user is able to carry.
A "72-hour kit" may be assembled, which contains essential emergency items. In most community emergency situations, it will take at least three days (72 hours) for help to arrive. Therefore, there should be three days' worth of food, water, and personal items for each member of the family. The 72-hour survival kit also includes a first aid kit, important telephone numbers and papers, as well as plans for outside contact and rendezvous. There are also 72-hour isolation kits that include using a 5-gallon bucket as a toilet, tablets for water purification, and personal hygiene supplies.
The American Red Cross recommends keeping such a 72-hour supply of essential items in case evacuation is needed. They recommend a 2 week supply of such items, including water, in order to ride out a disaster in the home. Suggestions for building these kits are available from the Red Cross website.
The most ardent survivalists aim to remain self-sufficient for the duration of the breakdown of social order, or indefinitely if the breakdown is predicted to be permanent (a "Third Dark Age")—a possibility popularized in the 1960s by Roberto Vacca of the Club of Rome. Some survivalists[who?] allow for the contingency that they cannot prevent this breakdown, and prepare to survive in small communal groups ("group retreats") or "covenant communities".
Changing concerns and preparations
Survivalists' concerns and preparations have changed over the years. During the 1970s, fears were economic collapse, hyperinflation, and famine. Preparations included food storage and survival retreats in the country which could be farmed. Some survivalists stockpiled precious metals and barterable goods (such as common-caliber ammunition) because they assumed that paper currency would become worthless. During the early 1980s, nuclear war became a common fear, and some survivalists constructed fallout shelters.
In 1999, many people purchased electric generators, water purifiers, and several months or years worth of food in anticipation of widespread power outages because of the Y2K computer-bug.
Instead of moving or making such preparations at home, many people also make plans to remain in their current locations until an actual breakdown occurs, when they will—in survivalist parlance—"bug out" or "get out of Dodge" to a safer location.
Other survivalists have more specialized concerns, often related to an adherence to apocalyptic religious beliefs. Some New Agers anticipate a forthcoming arrival of catastrophic earth changes and prepare to survive them.
Some evangelical Christians hold to an interpretation of Bible prophecy known as the post-tribulation rapture, in which Christians will have to go through a seven-year period of war and global dictatorship known as the "Great Tribulation". Jim McKeever helped popularize survival preparations among this branch of evangelical Christians with his 1978 book Christians Will Go Through the Tribulation, and How To Prepare For It.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an official policy of food storage for its members. This is a hedge against unemployment and prolonged sickness, and is focused more on self-reliance than survivalism. The policy is referred to as "Provident Living" in official Church publications. It has existed throughout the Church's history, and has evolved to reflect changes in threats to personal independence. The current food storage minimum for LDS members is one year, but at one point the minimum was 7 years.
The 2012 phenomenon has mystical or religious underpinnings, or both.
Mainstream emergency preparations
People who are not part of survivalist groups or apolitically oriented religious groups also make preparations for emergencies. This can include (depending on the location) preparing for earthquakes, floods, power outages, blizzards, avalanches, wildfires, terrorist attacks, nuclear power plant accidents, hazardous material spills, tornadoes, and hurricanes. These preparations can be as simple as following Red Cross and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommendations by keeping a first aid kit, shovel, and extra clothes in the car, or by maintaining a small kit of emergency supplies, containing emergency food, water, a space blanket, and other essentials.
Mainstream economist and financial adviser Barton Biggs is a proponent of preparedness. In his 2008 book Wealth, War and Wisdom, Biggs has a gloomy outlook for the economic future, and suggests that investors take survivalist measures. In the book, Biggs recommends that his readers should "assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure." He goes so far as to recommend setting up survival retreats: "Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food," Mr. Biggs writes. "It should be well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson. Even in America and Europe, there could be moments of riot and rebellion when law and order temporarily completely breaks down."
Survivalists tend toward using military acronyms such as OPSEC and SOP, and terminology common among peak oil adherents and gun culture. They also use terms that are unique to their own lexicon—some key survivalist terms and acronyms include:
- Alpha strategy: The practice of storing extra consumable items, as a hedge against inflation, and for use in barter and charity. Coined by John Pugsley.
- Ballistic wampum: Ammunition stored for barter purposes. Coined by Jeff Cooper.
- BOB: Bug-out bag.
- BOL: Bug-out location.
- BOV: Bug-out vehicle.
- Contrapreneur: Someone who foolishly invests in a declining market. Coined by James Wesley Rawles.
- Crunch: A general term for a major, long-term disaster.
- Doomer: A peak oil adherent who believes in a Malthusian-scale societal collapse.
- EDC: Everyday carry. What one carries at all times in case disaster strikes while one is out and about. Also refers to the normal carrying of a pistol for self-defense, or (as a noun) the pistol which is carried.
- EOTW: End of the world
- Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) - an extreme level of electromagnetic energy sufficient to burn out computer chips that may be caused by solar flares or by atmospheric nuclear explosions. Such an event would disable the Internet, telephones, computers, and devices that rely on computer controls, including automobiles, the electrical grid, and household appliances.
- Goblin: A criminal miscreant, coined (in the survivalist context) by Jeff Cooper.
- Golden horde: The anticipated large mixed horde of refugees and looters that will pour out of the metropolitan regions WTSHTF. Coined (in the survivalist context) by James Wesley Rawles.
- G.O.O.D.: Get out of Dodge (city). Fleeing urban areas in the event of a disaster. Coined by James Wesley Rawles.
- G.O.O.D. kit: Get out of Dodge kit. Synonymous with bug-out bag (BOB).
- Pollyanna or Polly: Someone who is in denial about the disruption that might be caused by the advent of a large scale disaster.
- Prepper: A synonym for survivalist that came into common usage during the late 1990s. Used interchangeably with survivalist much as retreater was in the 1970s. Refers to one who is prepared or making preparations.
- SHTF: Shit hits the fan. A term used generically by survivalists to describe disaster situations.
- TEOTWAWKI: The end of the world as we know it. In use since the early 80s.
- WTSHTF: When the shit hits the fan. A term used generically by survivalists to describe disaster situations.
- WROL: Without rule of law. Describes a potential lawless state of society.
- YOYO: You're on your own.
Despite a lull following the end of the Cold War, survivalism has gained greater attention in recent years, resulting in increased popularity of the survivalist lifestyle, as well as increased scrutiny. A National Geographic show interviewing survivalists, Doomsday Preppers, was a "ratings bonanza" and "the network's most-watched series", yet Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times declared it an "absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule," noting, "how offensively anti-life these shows are, full of contempt for humankind."
Gerald Celente, founder of the Trends Research Institute, noted how many modern survivlists deviate from the classic archetype, terming this new style "neo-survivalism"; "you know, the caricature, the guy with the AK-47 heading to the hills with enough ammunition and pork and beans to ride out the storm. This [neo-survivalist] is a very different one from that"
In popular culture, survivalism has been associated with paramilitary activities. Some survivalists do take active defensive preparations that have military roots and that involve firearms, and this aspect is sometimes emphasized by the mass media. Kurt Saxon is one proponent of this approach to armed survivalism.
The potential for societal collapse is often cited as motivation for being well-armed. Thus, some non-militaristic survivalists have developed an unintended militaristic image, and the term survivalism has been used to signify unrelated right-wing reactionary paramilitary activities.
Government preparedness efforts and training
The government of Switzerland with its long-standing militia system, mandatory construction of fallout shelters in all newly-constructed multi-unit housing, and its network of reduit fortresses is one of the best prepared. An earlier civil defense effort in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s fell into disrepair by the 1970s. These preparations included the designation of structures as official fallout shelters, and duck and cover drills in schools. A booklet released by the Executive Office of the President of the United States shortly after the start of the cold war called Survival Under Atomic Attack depicts the nature of the early civil defense initiatives.
The U.S. government civil defense program was minimal during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, despite efforts by Christian writer Gary North to lobby the government to resume civil defense efforts and build fallout shelters. Gary North co-wrote a book Fighting Chance to advocate for the return of the civil defense program. A renewal of U.S. government interest in preparedness and training did not happen until after the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Katrina. This renewed interest is typified by Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) organizations.
Individual survivalist preparedness and survivalist groups and forums—both formal and informal—are popular worldwide, most visibly in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany (often organized under the guise of "adventuresport" clubs), Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Adherents of the back-to-the-land movement inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, sporadically popular in the United States in the 1930s and 1970s (exemplified by The Mother Earth News magazine), share many of the same interests in self-sufficiency and preparedness. Back-to-the-landers differ from most survivalists in that they have a greater interest in ecology and counterculture. Despite these differences, The Mother Earth News was widely read by survivalists as well as back-to-the-landers during that magazine's early years, and there was some overlap between the two movements.
Anarcho-primitivists share many characteristics with survivalists, most notably predictions of a pending ecological disaster. Writers such as Derrick Jensen argue that industrial civilization is not sustainable, and will therefore inevitably bring about its own collapse. Non-anarchist writers such as Daniel Quinn, Joseph Tainter, and Richard Manning also hold this view.
Survivalism and survivalist themes have been fictionalized in print, film, and electronic media. The survivalist genre was especially influenced by the advent of nuclear weapons and the potential for societal collapse in wake of a Cold War nuclear conflagration.
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The text of some classic survival books and other writings from the 1950s through the 1980s can be found online:
- Fallout Protection (1961). Read at the Space and Electronic Warfare Lexicon.
- Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson Kearny (1979, updated 1987 version). Read at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine.
- The Alpha Strategy (PDF) by John Pugsley (1980). Download (PDF).
- Textfiles.com archive of articles that circulated online during the BBS era, includes several Kurt Saxon articles from his old newsletter. Read at T E X T F I L E S (textfiles.com).
- Survival Preparedness Index - A collection of survival manuals, guides, and handbooks in PDF format. Ranges from Wilderness & Urban survival to US Army Manuals to Natural disasters.
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