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Robert Theobald's Y2K articles

(Theobald says: "Feel free to forward or to print. If you print please let me know."


Our potential strength and current weakness.


Robert Theobald
For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
For the want of a horse, a message was lost,
For the want of a message, a kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a nail.

As everybody who is keeping up with the Y2K issue knows, there are hugely
different perceptions about what its consequences will be. There are many
reasons for this divergence in views. Some come from different readings of
the technical problems. Some come from optimism or pessimism about the
flexibility of the systems which must deal with the problem. It seems
possible that the most critical reason for radically different perceptions
is the degree to which people are conscious of the ways in which our
economy and society are dynamically interlinked.

I have quoted a piece of doggerel at the beginning of this piece to remind
us that the problem we currently face is not new. Systems have always been
dependent on their weakest link. Small failures at one point in a system
inevitably have the possibility of cascading so that they cause
catastrophes. The underlying reality is not new.

The dangers of our time in history are however radically enhanced by the
approaches we have chosen to develop in the last century. Computer
technology is everywhere. We now have mechanical and social systems that
depend on the correct functioning of computers and computer chips. Probably
the best known example is the automobile. Not so many years ago, it was
possible to mend one's own car and, if necessary, to make imaginative
adaptations. The capacity to keep cars running in Cuba, despite the
American embargo, is a clear example of the resilience of earlier
generations of automobiles. Today, however, it is all too often impossible
to mend cars without the complex diagnostic machinery of the modern garage.
The owner has become dependent on service provided by others.

This difficulty is frustrating enough but the real dangers lie at another
level. We have chosen to create systems which depend on completely smooth
functioning. Storing inventory has become a cost that nobody wants to
incur. So systems are set up to ensure that needed parts arrive "just in
time." Interruptions create immediate and serious repercussions: a pattern
shown in recent General Motors strikes where two plants can close down
essentially all production. Another example developed with the United
Parcel Service strike that showed how vulnerable America was to disruptions
in delivery service.

But there are other supply issues that are rarely discussed. World food
stocks are at historically low levels. Any significant disruption in
transport, or because of climate changes, could rapidly lead to famines in
many parts of the world. In addition, markets respond to shortages with
major price movements which can be extraordinarily disruptive.

And this brings us to the final area of concern that I can treat in this
short piece. We live in an immensely speculative universe. In the last
twenty years, we have moved from a world in which most money transactions
were connected with production and consumption decisions. Today, on the
other hand, almost all financial transactions are designed to make money.
Speculators flock into countries and abandon them as changes in perceived
realities take place.

All of these factors create immense vulnerabilities that cannot be
understood in advance of actual events. I know of no competent analyst who
argues that all Y2K date glitches can be fixed in advance even if we work
truly creatively in the 18 months that are left to us. How the consequences
of failures of equipment and systems will cascade is therefore inherently

The absolute necessity, therefore, is that we create resilient human
systems that can cope with events that by the very nature of the realities
we confront cannot be foreseen. The current tendency toward panic and
survivalism will get in the way of building resilience at the
sub-neighborhood, neighborhood and community levels. We need to spend less
time working out what will happen on what dates and more being prepared to
deal with whatever arrives.

The best image I have is running the rapids. One does not expect to be able
to predict every aspect of a river, even if one has run it before. If one
is on a new river, all one can do is make sure that the most competent
people are choosing the best course as new dangers appear.

This is what we must do if we are to flourish in the conditions which are
now emerging. We must create networks that will be able to respond to
developing realities. This means that we must abandon the bureaucratic
styles that have served us well in more stable times and create learning
institutions, learning communities and learning societies. We know enough
to do this. Will we have the nerve to shift sufficiently rapidly to be
ready for the challenges that are coinciding with the movement into the
twenty-first century.
-- Robert Theobald has been working on fundamental change issues
for 40 years; his latest book is Reworking Success (New Society). He is
currently creating media approaches which will permit people to come to
grips with the issues explored above. Contact him at if
you want to know more.

Reweaving Community Resilience

We have been aiming to create systems that never go wrong
rather than systems than respond well when things do go wrong,
as they inevitably will.


Robert Theobald

Y2K is a reminder that our communities, and the broader systems in which
they are embedded, have become dangerously brittle. The directions in which
we need to move are no different, however, than those which have been
proposed by future-oriented thinkers for years and decades.

This brief piece suggests a way in which communities can start to organize
the work which will reweave community resilience. This can be valuable for
all sorts of disruptions ranging from economic recessions now emerging in
many parts of the world, climatic instabilities which are growing more
intense and Y2K itself. I am personally convinced that we shall accomplish
more if we see Y2K as a trigger for change rather than concentrating our
efforts only on computer issues.

The steps which will work in each community will vary widely. Those living
in the Southern Hemisphere of the tropics face significantly different
issues than those who could face winter without heat and without the
ability to grow food at this time of year. The common element, however, is
the need for a structure which will divide up the tasks and permit
significant activity to take place. Here is one model which emerged from
work at the First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, WA: the catalyst for thought
and action will inevitably vary from community to community.

The first step is to inform communities about the issues in a way which
maximizes the possibility that people will see the benefits of working
together. There are two primary dangers: one that people will panic and the
other that they will move toward individual survivalist tactics. Spokane is
planning a community awareness week very early in the autumn. This will be
the first step of an Education working group.

A sub-group will work to see how we can broaden communication channels.
They will contact the media in town and see which of them are most open to
understanding the scope of the emerging changes. They will then route the
most important knowledge about developments to them. This will help provide
an alternative framing for the news and break through the current emphasis
on maximum economic growth and technological invention.

Another sub-group will aim to link community leaders. Spokane has a broad
group of leaders from many parts of the society but they are not
effectively linked to each other. An effective program can only be
developed within a network structure which keeps the whole community on
board rather than serving the already privileged. Events will play out
quite differently if communities see difficulties as unavoidable, like an
icestorm, or if they see it as a catastrophe brought on by uncaring power

The second challenge is to mobilize the technical skills available in the
community. Everybody who has equipment which may be affected by the Y2K
issue needs to be helped to recognize the issue and to have access to the
technical resources required to resolve it. Two groups can be involved
which would normally be left outside our thinking. First, there are many
retired computer people whose knowledge is particularly relevant to many of
the problems. Second, many younger people now in school and university
could spend the next eighteen months working to resolve real problems
rather than in classrooms.

The third challenge is how to prepare for disruptions. This issue raises
two levels of problem. First, we do not know now, and may not ever know,
how large the problems will be. The essential difficulty is not the
specific breakdowns in equipment but the intricate interconnections between
systems which can have cascading results. Second, there need to be
preparations at all levels from the individual, to the sub-neighborhood and
neighborhood, to the community. The appropriate mix is yet to be discovered.

In 1996, I was invited to give a series of talks on Canadian radio. I
entitled them Reworking Success. The thesis was that we would only prevent
disaster if we changed our vision for the future. Y2K has moved up the
timetable for learning this lesson. It has not changed the nature of the
challenge. A group of us are now working to create a series of satellite
television shows that will enable people to see the opportunities we now
have and what leadership will be most effective. You can contact me for
more information.

-- Robert Theobald has been working on fundamental change issues
for 40 years. He can be reached at 202 East Rockwood Boulevard, Spokane, Wa
99202, USA or His latest book is Reworking Success.
Audio-tapes suitable for broadcast are also available.

Robert Theobald is making plans for dialogues about resilience.

Alternative scenarios for Y2K:

Will we break through to a new era of collaboration?


Robert Theobald.

Even the most radical scenarios for Y2K seem to assume that there will no
fundamental discontinuities. This is perhaps most noticeable, and most
startling, in the case of survivalist visions. The basic assumption on
which they are based is that it will be necessary to get out of the cities
because law and order will break down. And yet it also seems to be assumed
that those who stock food and other necessities will be left in peace to
enjoy them. In actual fact, of course, those people who are prepared to be
the most violent will simply seize the resources which others have prepared
for them.

The hardest reality to convey at the current time is that the stability,
and increasing wealth, that people in the rich world have enjoyed during
this century will not be sustained. It may be climatic instability that
breaks this trend. It may be the growing shortage of fossil fuels. It may
be the failure of our social systems that have been undermined by current
economic beliefs. It may be Y2K and the technological hubris of our time.

Successful continuation of the human journey requires the greatest
transformation in thought and action that has ever occurred. We have seen
shifts from hunting and gathering to agriculture and from agriculture to
industry. These both created significant shifts in behavior but they were
all along a single continuum: a belief that human being could and should
dominate each other and nature.

It is this belief which is now being challenged. Our new understandings of
physical science, expressed in chaos and complexity theories, require us to
relate to each other and ecological systems in radically different ways.
The new scientific understandings are highly convergent with the core of
all the world's religions which propose that we should live on the basis of
honesty, responsibility, humility, love and a respect for mystery.

We are faced with humanity's next "exam." There are three possible outcomes
of the exam. One is that we shall try to avoid taking it at all. We shall
continue to assume that the currently dominant ideas will continue to work
into the future. We shall act as though maximum economic growth strategies
and a commitment to international competitiveness should remain our core
strategies. We shall continue to believe that technology holds the key to
the solution of all problems.

We may be able to put off the day of reckoning through this approach -
although even this is not certain. I currently believe that the only way in
which it is possible to avoid the worst consequences of the Y2K issue is to
develop a global cooperative process. This would be designed to ensure that
the most serious problems were dealt with wherever they were located
throughout the globe. This approach is simply unthinkable in our current
competitive universe. The chances of this happening are further decreased
by the current legal culture which ensures that institutions cannot be open
and honest for fear of incurring liabilities.

The longer we persist in our current directions, the worse the eventual
collapse will be. If we were to decide to change our course now, and to
recognize that our real crisis is a spiritual one, it is still possible to
limit the pain and suffering in the world. The longer we persist in
ignoring the evidence around us, the less we shall be able to shape the
direction of the new society we so urgently need. The pattern of events in
the old Soviet Union should be a harsh warning to us. Communism collapsed
and there was nothing ready as a substitute. Conditions are so bad that
life expectation has declined dramatically.

We have misinterpreted the meaning of the collapse of the Soviet Union. We
have seen it as the triumph of capitalism over communism. We would do well
to heed the meaning of Willis Harman's question: "If capitalism were
collapsing, would we see the warning signs?" I believe that the evidence is
all around us: we are confronted by signs of economic, social, moral and
ecological crises.

Fortunately, an enormous amount of work has already been done to describe
the systems which could replace those based on economic and technological
emphases. Even more importantly, there is abundant evidence that people are
ready to support change that moves toward a higher quality of life rather
than an emphasis on more goods.

Our challenge is to recognize that a new culture is already being born
around us. I am amazed, and excited, by how many people are ready for new
directions. We need to provide people with opportunities to engage in
conversations about these issues so they can think through, and then act
on, their emerging understandings. I am currently developing both audio and
video tools to support these processes: these will hopefully be available
broadly in the fall and winter of 1998 through various broadcast systems.

-- Robert Theobald was listed as one of the most influential
living futurists in the Encyclopaedia of the Future. His latest book is
Reworking Success. Contact him at