Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cosmic Apocalypse Now

The Amazon 'burning season'.

In a previous posting in this blog is an image of cosmic evolution, in which sentient conscious observers (in the figure it is Charles Darwin) form an interactive sigma limit of complexity on the cosmic equator, mid-way through the life of the universe, as fundamental in nature as the alpha of the cosmic origin and and the omega of its eventual demise.

This picture implies that conscious life, although seemingly an insignificant fragile phenomenon on a small planet in a peripheral solar system in a physical universe dominated by violent forces of creation and destruction, from the big-bang to black-holes, is the supreme inheritor in interactive consummation of the cosmological processes which gave rise to the universe in the first place.

Life has existed on Earth for over a third of the universe's existence
(click image for blowup).

If we look more specifically at planet Earth over cosmological time scales, we find that life has existed for most of Earth's history and that it is a phenomenon spanning cosmic time-scales. All the more significant that we come to terms with the fact that the emergence of humanity culminating in our cultural explosion and a major ecocrisis for planet Earth is a unique catastrophe liable to face any habitable planet as a pivotal point of transition in its emergence from biological diversity into planetary consciousness.

Religious Apocalypse and Archetypal Unveiling

Our understanding of apocalypse is an 'unveiling' - the covers being thrown off reality. The apocalyptic epoch emerged out of the idea of God acting in history and was championed by the Zoroastrian concept of a cosmic renovation at the end of time in which the forces of darkness and ignorance would be purged and the forces of light of Ahura Mazda would prevail. This then became absorbed by Jewish apocalyptists and by the time of Jesus had become a major motif combining the political tumult in Israel with the idea of the Day of Judgment, a final reckoning in which the sinners would be damned and the righteous saved, leading to the Essene apocalypses and Jesus claiming in the synoptic gospels to be a messiah who would return on the right hand of Power to establish the Kingdom of God.

Subsequently, writers, from John of Revelation to Muhammad, have penned fire and brimstone descriptions of a cosmological tumult, which in the case of Revelation involves a triage of all living beings, as the stars fall out of the 'flat earth' sky amid the bitter waters of Wormwood and scenes rife with the fall of Rome combined with mythical visions of the demiurge of God on a white horse, the woman standing on the moon, the seven headed beast and the great whore of Babylon.

Eden Chagall

But there is a deeper current woven into this matrix running back to Eden and before the to the African rift valley and human emergence itself. The Fall from Eden is a fall from a paradise of natural harmony. In a deep sense, it is a portrayal etched in the collective consciousness of our loss of relationship with nature, apparently precipitated by a falling out of trust between woman and man. The Garden of Eden, (and with it older variants, such as the Sumerian Hullupu Tree and the Temptations Seal), is thus an outstanding archetype of our retreat from intimacy with nature and our sense of falling out with the natural world and between the sexes as the tumults of urbanization, patriarchal dominance and warfare came to wrack human life.

Sumerian 'Temptation Seal' shows motifs of the serpent,
woman and man, and the tree of life.

Of course religious traditionalists see the Fall from Eden in terms of a betrayal of God in which Adam, as man, is seduced by Eve, as woman, into deviating from God's design, in eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which the woman though to be life-giving wisdom, rather than divisive knowledge. Note that this feminine Wisdom cries our from everlasting as the primal consort of God in the Proverbs. The forbidden fruit brings us back again to the Tree of Life hidden since the foundation of the world, which reappears at the End of Days in both Jewish and Christian apocalypses confirming the intimate relationship of nature to our ultimate destiny.

Both Revelation's and Enoch's End of Days
involves the return of the Tree of Life

As religious and social thinking moved from the agrarian ideas of natural cycles of regeneration to the strategic notion of a society, or of God, acting in history, so the religious imagination closed in on the End of Days as a final hard landing of our dysphoria with both God and nature, embodied in the dire tumult of an Armageddon-style violent apocalyptic unveiling. This is reflected firstly in Zoroastrian then Jewish and particularly Essene eschatologies, then taken up by John the Baptist, and after him Jesus, and much later, in the shadow of the Jewish tradition, by Muhammad.

The Pope as Apocalyptic Anti-Christ

Affairs of the time of Jesus were certainly apocalyptic in this tumultuous sense. The Roman siege of Jerusalem was said to have ultimately killed over a million people or perhaps one in fifty of the people alive on the planet at the time. The Sea of Galilee ran red with the blood of the Zealots and the Jews were scattered over the face of the Earth in the Roman diaspora. It is easy to see how devout religious believers in the decades leading up to this crisis conceived of it in terms of a cosmic catastrophe, in the way writers like Zechariah described, and why these conflicts still rumble on in the wild visions of the book of Revelation.

However the Fall is a deeper collective awareness of future shock, running all the way back to our emergence out of Africa and the accelerating changes we have experienced, as we made the transition from a gatherer-hunter way of life, in which women and men had complementary roles in maintaining survival and fertility, intimately intertwined with nature, into burgeoning urban societies, in which military coalitions, and the ensuing patriarchal dominance, gave rise both to prescriptive religions reinforcing male reproductive imperatives over women, and increasing competition and violence in war and the rumours of war between competing cultures and empires.

Dürer Apocalypse: The Stars falling out of the Sky

Central to the Eden myth is a sexual falling out, which, rather than declaring woman is the fallible sex which distracted man from his relationship with God, attests to a cultural transition to patriarchal dominance overthrowing the complementary sexual relationships of the gatherer-hunter life, in which women provided the majority of the diet, and retained a degree of strategic autonomy over their lives. In turn, the strategic paradox of our highly asymmetric human reproductive investments promoted super-intelligence and our explosive cultural emergence. Thus it is the rise of patriarchal dominance and imposition of the male reproductive imperative that has led to the Fall, and all its tumults, from the destruction of nature, to population explosion, genocide and war.

Fra Angelico Day of Judgment:
Verdant paradise versus scorched-earth hell.

The term apocalypse means 'unveiling' and its meaning naturally applies to a sexual marriage, so that we need to come to terms with the fact that to resolve the falling out of the Fall, we need to unveil the reunion between woman and man in terms of mutuality and complementarity rather than domination. Kabbalistic accounts of the End of Days contain precisely such a sexual motif in the sparks of the Shekhinah, the feminine face of divinity, which retreated from concord in the Fall and later through all the follies of mankind, returns as shattered 'sparks' coming together to redeem the epoch of paradise in reunion in matrimonial concord.

These motifs are etched in archetypes in the human stream of consciousness, as successive generations have tried to come to terms with an ever-accelerating future shock, amid the tumults of war and the rise and fall of empires, famine, exile and diaspora. Along with the archetypes of the Mother Goddess and the heroic messianic Lord the archetypal fall from paradise represents a valid imprint on the collective stream of consciousness summing up our cultural explosion and head-long change into a planetary crisis which has become also, in physical terms, a cosmic apocalypse of planet Earth.

Smokeball Earth: clear skies (left) are replaced by a smoke-hazed planet
during a bad Amazonian burning season (centre).

Cosmic Planetary Apocalypse

We who stand in this generation can see that a cosmic apocalypse is upon us, which dwarfs even these historical times, in an irreversible transformation which is throwing the covers off reality and changing the face of the planet in a way which never can be repeated unless humanity destroys itself in the process, rendering our species extinct.

Not only have we opened the flood gates of knowledge, reaching towards the ultimate understanding of cosmogenesis, unveiling the forces of nature and the ultimate origin and destiny of the universe, but we have discovered the details of evolution, organismic and molecular biochemistry, unraveled the genetic code, and at the turn of the millennium decoded the entire human genome.

As long as Earth lives into the millennia and millions of years to come in future, this explosion of knowledge and the ensuing global impact of a single species remains a unique transition, happening only once in the four billion year history of the planet.

On the dark side, we have crossed a series of perilous bridges leading to genocide and mass extinction. We have discovered ultimate weapons of nuclear mass annihilation, invested in a forty times planetary overkill in a knife edge strategy of mutually assured destruction. Added to the arsenal are biological weapons of potentially uncontainable pestilence.

More directly, through a combination of unrestrained venture capital exploitation and an attitude of dominion over nature, we are causing increasingly catastrophic impacts on the whole planet's biosphere and climate, spanning wide scale habitat destruction felling the great forests, over fishing the oceans, distorting the atmosphere through increased carbon dioxide, and other contaminants damaging the ozone layer. The result of this is a rapid phase of global warming, which is increasingly likely to melt major portions of the polar ice caps and could cause a rise of the ocean by 1.6 m this century,a s well as disrupting the majority of habitats of living species. These impacts are causing a mass extinction of the diversity of life which has taken tens of millions of years to recover from the last great extinction of the dinosaurs.

All in all then, it is clear that this transition is both one which is tumultuous and accompanied by a genocide of life, paralleled only on scales of tens to hundreds of millions of years, and which, if we survive it, will constitute a unique transition from biological evolution to planetary consciousness, which can happen only once in the planet's four billion year history, if we don't destroy our selves in the process, leaving an opportunity for a 'second coming' of planetary consciousness by another species later, although even this is debatable if we trash the planet in becoming extinct. This is thus a cosmic apocalypse and one we should rightly comprehend and address in such terms.

Rape of the Planet and Genetic Holocaust

Rape of the planet has become something we take for granted. It has become a central figure of speech and an assumption about the existential condition, as if such actions are an implicit part of human nature. But the very metaphor indicates that patriarchal sexual prerogatives are driving human impact. Rape is, by its nature sexual, and intimately connected with male violence. It is brought into an altogether unseemly conjunction with our deep cultural emphasis on the Earth as ‘mother’, becoming at once an original sin of mankind - the rape of Mother Earth.

Patriarchy and Population Boom and Bust

Historically the human population grew only very slowly from about 2.5 million at the beginnings of urbanization to some 50 million around the time of the black plague of the middle ages. It is only with the industrial, scientific and medical revolution and the colonial expansion of Western powers, that the world population has climbed to dizzy heights. During the 20th century, the world's population increased almost fourfold, from 1.6 to 6 billion. Until very recently there were fears that in the next century, world population would explode to some 12 billion people, leaving little room for wilderness areas to preserve wildlife and putting extreme pressure on food production, water and non-renewable resources.

At a time when there has been a manifest need to curtail runaway population growth, the leaders of the world’s great patriarchal religions have, almost without exception been ordering their populations to continue to multiply making frontal attacks on any effective form of contraception and family planning. The leaders of both the Christian and Islamic world share an agenda of male reproductive right and a calculated determination to multiply the faithful by advocating unrestrained fertility even in the face of the manifest damage such policies have caused.

The attitude of world leaders has also been irresponsible and self-serving. While leaders of major western powers push for ever greater gross national products, honing their economies as if there was never an end to increasing production, 9/10ths of the world population sinks further into poverty, losing educational, resourcing and livelihood opportunities.

Fortunately 2002 figures showed a drop in fertility. Current trends suggest a population in 2050 around 9.2-9.3 billion (UN, Population Research Bureau BBC 18 Aug 2004). To everyone’s surprise in 2002 a very significant drop was detected in the fertility rates of a broad spread of diverse countries spanning the developed and developing world comprising half the world’s population and with little in common between their governments and social attitudes.

Top left: Historical population trends. Centre: Falling fertility rates in 2000. Top right: Falling predictions 2002 may see the world population peak at about 8 billion by 2050 although many predictions still anticipate 10 billion. Increasing use of contraception (lower left) and improved female education (lower right) both correlate with falling fertility rates and reduced population pressure.

There are some notable exceptions. Conservative Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan still have some of the highest birth rates on the planet.

By any standard of ecological biodiversity conservation, all these population figures are vastly too high to preserve existing ecosystems. More than a third of the planet’s land surface including its most productive land is now commandeered for human monoculture.

World frontier (virgin) forests as they originally stood and as they stand in 2000. There are additional areas of secondary growth and other regeneration , but these tend to have predominant weedy species and not the climax diversity of virgin forest and jungle (World Resources Institute).

Mass-extinction of Biological and Genetic Diversity

Nowhere are the disastrous effects of the patriarchal view of dominion over nature and winner-take-all exploitation of resources more clearly expressed than in the destruction of Earth's major ecosystems, the felling of our great forests, and the mass extinction of the living species of the planet with its consequent loss of genetic diversity, which could haunt us for millions or tens of millions of years.

The Earth is entering the sixth great mass extinction recorded over evolutionary time (Leaky and Lewin). All previous mass extinctions of biodiversity were precipitated by huge astronomical disasters. The dinosaurs were wiped out by one or more asteroids which plunged the Earth into a ‘nuclear’ winter after causing global flash fires burning up much of the natural cover, setting off volcanic activity in its wake opposite in India, followed by a dark cool period and then sudden global warming, leaving oxygen levels semi-permanently reduced by a third. But this is just a blip on the map of biodiversity compared with the Permian extinction in which 90% of living species became extinct, amid what is believed to have been an even greater impact which first caused the oceans to recede by perhaps a third and then rise again in an oceanic flood. Such extinctions always been caused by massive interventions, cometary or asteroid impacts, supernovae, massive volcanic intrusion or solar flares.

What is absolutely unique about the sixth extinction is that it is not being caused by any such disruption, but simply by the explosive exploitation by a single species who ought to know better and that it is completely unnecessary and deleterious for this species’ own survival. It is estimated that over 25% of living species will become extinct in the next 25 years unless radical world-wide efforts are made for collective conservation on a genetic, species and ecosystem-wide basis. Long term prediction by the end of the century could see more than half the living species disappear.

Decline in species populations reflects a world rate 100 to 1000 times greater than normal and predicted to rise to 10,000. 90% of large predatory ocean fish are already gone from overfishing. Loss of biodiversity will result directly in human poverty and hunger. (See http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx 2005).

This mass extinction is being caused by a host of factors, but habitat destruction and the islandization of the great tropical forests and their diversity hotspots into unsustainable fragments, which cannot sustain species diversity are pivotal and systematic overfishing of the oceans to exhaustion. Logging, poaching, release of exotic species and pollution all play a serious part, as well as burgeoning threat of precipitate climatic change.

Paradise Lost? History and Projected Future of Life’s Diversity

No matter how grandiose our technological pretensions, humanity depends on living species as foods, medicines and the key to our commercial products to survive. Yet at the same time as we are mindlessly tearing down the remaining biodiversity hotspots, having only characterized about a tenth of the living species, or the medicinal or life-enhancing properties they may contain, we are also busy reducing the genetic diversity of the species we do depend on. The use of monoclonal hybrids, on a world-wide monocultural scale, genetically modified varieties, genetic cloning and the choice of varieties which have no hope of surviving in the wild are reducing the innate viability of the species on which we depend and hence our own viability to a vanishing equation. Our food production and distribution systems are becoming ever more dependent on high technology, while the naturally viable ‘heritage’ seeds from which we derive our commercial varieties are given no viable habitat, are stored in gene banks where a power failure could render much of our genetic heritage ‘dead-in-the-water’ overnight and the patenting of wild varieties by large agrochemical companies such as Monsanto ( who recently tried to buy the rights on virtually all wild Chinese soya varieties at the same time as marketing round-up ready soya) thus taking these very species out of the human orbit altogether.

The innate robustness of the biosphere which brought us here is being reduced to a fragile human technical fantasy. When the triple-witching hour of natural catastrophe arrives, we could be a defenseless blip on an ever more precipitous and accelerating boom and bust chart. Given the unremitting exploitation of nature and the consequent instabilities to human survival, the human species may become extinct (Leakey and Lewin R403). This is clearly an issue of patriarchal short-term, winner-take-all, boom-and-bust exploitation of the Earth with no long-term nurturing strategy to compensate. It raises huge questions about the role of Western democracies and corporate capitalism as entrenched institutions of patriarchal power and exemplifies the way sexual dominion can lead to an irrational and wholly damaging situation which escapes our civilized control.

Trends in global warming as of 2000 from the Cambrian to the present.

Climatic Chaos and Human Hubris

As shown in the above chart, during its history, the Earth has seen major shifts in temperature, often accompanied by changes in the level of carbon dioxide or CO2. These have generally been accompanied by major changes of an astronomical nature, such as changes in solar brightness, or volcanic changes to the carbon dioxide content, and major evolutionary changes in the biota such as the advent of photosynthetic cyanobacteria in the ocean and land plants.

The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the biota and other geological cycles are involved in a form of homeostasis which helps to maintain Earth’s environment in a stable atmospheric state, however there are also clear examples of processes which can instead bifurcate and flip into a new stability pattern locking us into a runaway warming. Venus for example has a runaway greenhouse effect which has driven the surface temperature to 400 oC. Carbon dioxide which is an almost universal output of our carbon-based economy is the major chemical contributor to atmospheric global warming.

There are already signs of major disruptions to both the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets which seem to be accelerating. Changes in global temperature may also be linked to a more chaotic climate with more frequent costly and damaging storms and changes in the North Atlantic conveyor which powers the Gulf Stream and keeps the north from extreme winters. However by far the most serious effect is the potential destruction of genetic and species diversity. The above map shows the regions of the planet which would remain stable to several current predictions of global warming. Most areas are expected to go through such climatic shock that neither the plants nor animals endemic to the areas will find themselves in a viable climatic habitat. The pace of global warming is so rapid that there is no time for plant species to spread by seeding and whole ecosystems are predicted to die out. Global warming is thus one of the potentially most major contributors to mass extinction.

Life zones remaining stable in four different global warming models.

Per capita emission of CO2 in metric tons per person per year. Green coastal areas are threatened by rising oceans. Sample figures: Qatar 16.9, USA 5.2, UK 2.63, China 0.42, India 0.21 illustrating the excessive emissions by developed nations. The US produced 23% of world emissions. Over 80% of Brazil's emission came from forest burning. Sumatran peat fires contributed as much CO2 as Western Europe (King redrawn from 1996 data).
This is a clear case of the principal world superpower acting as a rogue nation in the interests of competitive exploitation of economic advantage over the rest.

Predicted state of the Amazon by 2020
New Scientist 15 Oct 2005 35-39.

In addition to significant indications of melting in Antarctica and at the North Pole, there is also evidence that because of massive influxes of melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland that the North Atlantic conveyor, which carries energy equivalent to a million power stations, is failing because of the distruption of circulation caused by the mass of cold fresh water dumped into the Arctic. This is likely to cause severe winters in Northern Europe despite an overall warming and significantly increase ocean levels. The average sea level is predicted to rise by up to 1.63 m by 2100. This would be caused by the thermal expansion of the upper layers of the ocean as they warm and from melting glaciers. The most dramatic such change, the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would lead to a catastrophic rise in sea level of 6 meters, is now considered unlikely during the 21st century.

Mutually Assured Destruction

By far the most direct and troubling manifestation of the nightmare of unbridled patriarchal dominance is the endless gravitation towards a paranoid scenario of final conflict in a highly patriarchal Armageddon type apocalypse between the forces of light and dark epitomized by the ‘evil empire’ be it Hitler, Soviet Communism, Islamic fundamentalism or Saddam Hussein and his illusory weapons of mass destruction, or the President of the United States claiming if you are not with us you are against us.

We also need to be mindful that it was the allies who developed nuclear weapons as a final solution, to counter Hitler’s ‘holocaust’, sparked by the scientific genius of Jews whose relatives had been incarcerated or killed in the Nazi death camps, and that the first detonation at ‘truth or consequences’ took place in the name of the Christian Trinity. Oppenheimer even cited Bohr's vision of ‘complementarity’- that although the Bomb might be the greatest disaster to have befallen humankind, it may well be a great blessing, ‘a turning point in history’.”

Left: The Trinity bomb. Right: The Trinity test at 300 ms. Hiroshima: Humanity gains the ultimate powers of mass extinction of life. A transition to the prospect of mutually assured destruction in patriarchal combat.

Michael Ortiz Hill (R315) describes the godly patriarchal ‘climate’ as follows:

“It is impossible to ignore or to diminish the religious element that turns up again and again in the accounts of the Trinity blast. ... It was named by Oppenheimer, invoking by way of John Donne the mystery of the martyred and resurrected God: ‘As West and East In all flat maps - and I am one - are one. So death doth touch the Resurrection.’ ‘That still doesn't make a Trinity,’ Oppenheimer confessed - and then speculated that perhaps he was influenced by a better known poem, one of Donne's Holy Sonnets, beginning, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you As yet but knocke, breathe, shine and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend Your force to breake, blowe, burn and make me new’. After Trinity, Thomas Farrel wrote: ‘The effects could well be described as unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying.... The lighting beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.’ ... Other observers were more explicitly religious in speaking of the event. ...It is striking that, following Oppenheimer's lead of naming the site of the first nuclear test “Trinity,” Weisskopf and Laurence - both Jews - saw in the Bomb the glory of Christ. ... William Laurence wrote that it was like being ‘privileged to witness the Birth of the World-to-be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: ‘Let there be light’. He compared the experience to witnessing the second coming of Christ. ... Ferenc Szasz notes, “Others whispered, more in reverence than otherwise: ‘Jesus Christ’. Another striking theme that repeats again and again ... is birth and paternity. William Laurence called the rumblings of the Trinity explosion the ‘first cry of a newborn world’. ... Teller sent a telegram to Los Alamos saying simply, ‘It's a boy’. ... one notices a vivid absence of the feminine amidst all this imagery of birthing.”

Debate continues about the wisdom of unleashing the world’s first nuclear war on Japan and the fallout that has continued since. It is clear that actually carrying out such an act is the clearest provocation possible to the Soviet Union for its own defence to immediately embark on a program of nuclear weapons, leading directly to the nuclear Cold War and the build-up of enough nuclear weapons to lay waste to the planet 40 times over.

This situation dramatically reduced the viability of the human race to one small accidental error, amid the continuing strategic jockeying for the capacity for a unilateral first strike, in which a variety of circumstances, including unusual cloud cover and miscommunicated weather rocket launches several times nearly caused and accidental nuclear mobilization. This philosophy of MAD mutually-assured destruction became a psychic and social deadlock that overshadowed much of the 20th century, leaving many people uncertain whether to have offspring because of root uncertainty they would have livable lives to lead.

Left; Ground zero from satellite during the fire. Centre: Chernobyl radioactive.
Right: The global extent of the radioactive contamination cloud.

It was only with the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, fifty times as polluting as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its name “bitter grass” echoing the resonances of the Biblical ‘Wormwood’ and its bitter waters (Kravchanka 1990), that the spell of this gaze of fatal nuclear attraction was shattered and people on both sides of the dissolving ‘Iron Curtain’ realized that things had gone too far. We however need to continue to be mindful that, despite a closer dialogue with Russia, we are still in a state of 15 times overkill and that the nuclear threat is becoming ever more subtle and complex as the impossible ‘war on terror’ itself a contradiction terms, motivates smaller groups to mount a counter-cultural act of asymmetric warfare.

Genetic and Reproductive Apocalypse

At the same time our own natural human viability is being compromised by runaway biotechnology including IVF, routine Caesarians, the drive for often cosmetic germ-line engineering and male-driven eugenics, including artificial wombs, and ambitions for cloning, from religious and utopian movements and their leaders. All it would take is a small astronomical mishap to bring on a mass extinction of humanity from a complete failure of the food distribution system. Even a small asteroid impact on a brittle culture in a damaged biosphere, dependent on computer planning, highly technologized food-distribution to urban centres dependent on agro-tech, and foodstuffs, made using genetically engineered agricultural species which have no natural viability, with a human population propped up by extreme medical technologies, could cause almost certain demise of humanity, from the very brittleness of the society we have generated, to natural disruption.

Fluorescent mouse pups genetically engineered with jellyfish gene.
GE iridescent fish are now becoming a fish collector's dream.

While these technologies, used for the right purposes, have great potential to do good, it is natural diversity upon which we depend to survive and diversity we should foster. Without a clear ethical consensus from society at large to protect genetic diversity, the gene technology industry stands to burst the bubble of living diversity while playing scientific and financial ‘he-man’. We urgently need to heal these wounds to our viability through an appreciation for the sustainable evolutionary endowment we possess as a species.

Mouse growing a human ear for transplantation
illustrates an 'unnatural' application of biological technology.

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