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A Call for a Progressive Y2K Agenda

See also Karen Nyhus' Y2K Letter to Pacifica Radio
and From Ideology to Dialogue: The Left and Y2K by Kenoli Oleari
and The Y2K Political Action Project
and the Y2K Environmental/Sustainability materials page
and Y2K Questions for Campaigning Politicians and Elected Government Officials

Late June 1998 (still a work in progress)

If you are already convinced that the Year 2000 "computer glitch"
problem deserves attention from progressives, skip to the section
If you aren't convinced, read the next several paragraphs
to decide if you want to read further.

I'm frustrated that the dialogue about the Year 2000 problem/crisis (Y2K) has been virtually monopolized by the voices of individualism ("save yourself!"), money ("buy this solution!" "invest here!" "sue them!") and political gamesmanship ("who's to blame?!"). With a few rare exceptions (like the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility [CPSR]), the voices of progressives are absent. This needs to change. Partly because the Year 2000 problem is as much an opportunity for social change, as it is a problem.

But before I begin, let me address the "It's not a problem; it's going to be solved" argument. My three months of studying Y2K have shown me ample evidence that it IS a problem already; that it is going to get more so over the next 18 months; and that it is going to have a massive impact on our society before and after January 1, 2000 -- for better and/or for worse. What we do now will make a tremendous difference in what that impact is.

At the same time, I am fully aware that we don't know -- and can't know -- exactly how this Y2K thing is going to play out. It is a judgement call. I recommend you do your own research. The web contains thousands of documents on the subject, including hundreds of them from relevant professional journals and conferences (like the impact on banking from bankers, the impact on utilities from utilities professionals, etc.). Most of this stuff doesn't get into the mainstream media. So what else is new?! Those of us who've been activists for a few decades know that the media don't tell the real story. So get on the Web. Start with my site or CPSR's or a search. Be as skeptical as you want, but for God's sake don't assume you know until you've done at least a couple of hours investigating.

And after you're "done" investigating, realize that you still don't know. And then consider this:

(a) IF Y2K is going to be a big problem, then preparations need to start early. An awful lot of work needs to be done, regardless of what approach one takes to preparation, largely because of the intrinsic uncertainties of this problem. We can't afford to wait until late 1999 to find out how big this is going to be, because by then efforts to prepare will be futile.
(b) Powerful social forces are going to be released by what people believe is going to happen. If millions of people think Y2K is going to be a big problem, mass behaviors will manifest (and are already beginning to manifest), and billions of dollars will be spent (and are already being spent) that will generate social realities. Will those behaviors, expenditures and social realities promote or undermine the things we want to have happen in the world?

-- will they centralize or decentralize power?
-- will they harm or help the vulnerable?
-- will they damage or heal our environment?
-- will they enhance or impede our ability to make a difference in the world?

At this point, if you don't think that Y2K is worth paying attention to, I'm not going to try to convince you (although you could read some of the good articles on the subject on this site). You believe -- and who knows, you may well be right -- that you have better things to do with your time than read this. But if you want to explore the relevance of Y2K to the progressive agenda, read on.

Viewing Y2K through progressive eyes

I've done lots of very focussed thinking on this, but I'm very aware I'm still a beginner in understanding the implications of Y2K for progressive agendas. More dialogue on this is needed and welcomed. This is what I've come to so far:

The potential for social change in the Year 2000 is closely related to prospective infrastructure damage caused by the Y2K problem. To the extent people expect major breakdowns -- and to the extent such breakdowns actually happen -- people will be open to new social/cultural/technological forms. Power-holders will also respond to Y2K based on both expectations and actual events.

In this regard, we need to explore the implications of two overall Y2K scenarios for the progressive agenda:

-- If Y2K results in a massive breakdown, it will likely undermine the infrastructure of centralization -- both centralized power (government and corporations), centralized resources (energy, food, water, telecommunications, bumperstickers, chocolate, drugs, etc.), and centralized sources of order (police, military, media). What will populations and powerholders do in response to both the expectation and the actuality of this?

-- If Y2K results in a serious but not total breakdown, massive centralization may become more likely in an effort to enhance control and/or public health and safety. What will populations and powerholders do in response to both the expectation and the actuality of this?

Both of these prospects have the same antidotes:

a) Local community and regional preparedness, strength, and resilience
b) Workable grassroots communication systems

To the extent these things are in place, the chances of violence and oppression -- either state-sponsored or local -- will be reduced. If we don't help create these things, we abdicate our creative role in Y2K outcomes, and can expect the worst. If we do help create these things, we will have advanced the cause of a just and sustainable society, no matter what happens with Y2K.

Another broad dimension of this problem/opportunity is that the prospects for severe disruption could inspire public dialogue about social change and cultural transformation -- especially if activists organize it. Dozens of unexamined assumptions and institutions in our society could be suddenly opened to question. Will we take part in framing the debate? Regardless of what happens on January 1, 2000, will we have taken the opportunity to turn people's doubts and frustrations into awareness that our society could be more sustainable, just and joyful?

Y2K and Traditional Progressive Issues

Here I will take a number of traditional progressive issues and sketch out ways I think Y2K relates to them. This is only a beginning, of course. Much more can and needs to be said about each one. But this will hopefully give you the sense that Y2K could be a powerful common ground for our many important agendas.

SUSTAINABILITY - To the extent the infrastructure collapses, communities will have to fall back on local eco-technologies. Solar power, organic gardening, passive heating/cooling, biopurification of water, alternative waste disposal, straw bale and adobe houses, elbow grease, etc. "Off-the-grid" may become the rule rather than the exception. Green companies should be promoting this, consumers buying it and learning it, and investors investing in it. We should push for government promoting it, but we can't count on that. (See also: Why the Year 2000 Problem is an Environmental Issue; On the social/environmental implications of Y2K; and The Year 2000 Problem: An Opportunity to Build Sustainable Community A Guide for Y2K Study Circles) (In Y2K and Our Big Bet, Larry Shook provides exciting evidence that we can establish decentralized, sustainable agriculture and energy systems throughout the U.S., if we just decide to do it in time.)(And see all the other articles on the Y2K Environmental/Sustainability materials page.)

LOCAL/COOPERATIVE ECONOMICS - The high chance of Y2K problems with the global financial system creates an opening for local currencies and barter networks to emerge. Co-ops, with their participatory, shared-fate spirit, are also powerful tools for survival. Pre-Y2K charting of the wealth that flows in and out of the community -- and efforts to keep more of it local -- can strengthen local economies against post-Y2K disruptions (and other likely economic and ecological disruptions we might expect). Communities can assess their community assets -- all the things its individuals and groups can do or offer -- and start linking them (see Will We Use Y2K and Local Currency to Find Our Way Back to Each Other?). Y2K may create a political climate where governments would be willing to support this sort of effort. (See also: Why the Year 2000 Problem is an Environmental Issue and other articles on the Y2K Environmental/Sustainability materials page on this site.)

JUSTICE - If our post-Y2K society doesn't have the tools to enforce order, order will have to come from the partnership of people -- or from the oppressive force of new local powerholders (gangs, mafia, etc.). Injustice undermines the partnership we need. Efforts to correct injustices before the year 2000 -- and to ensure the equity of government and community approaches to Y2K -- will strengthen those partnerships. (In case of collapse, some scenarios include surrounding the cities with soldiers to prevent raiding parties on the suburbs. Who will be the voices against that approach during the coming year?)

FEMINISM - The centralized, monetized, patriarchal system gave us this problem -- and also the systemic vulnerabilities that could make it catastrophic. Can the feminist vision of human partnership and community with each other and nature resolve this mess? We need to ask: What is the impact of our actions on the social fabric, on those in need of care, and on future generations? Feminists might also recall that, in times of crisis, domination usually rears its ugly head. In economic depressions, alcoholism and spousal abuse increase, as does authoritarianism. The time to prepare is now.

TECHNOLOGY - At its most obvious level, Y2K is a techological problem. But the problem is less with the technology, as such, as it is with the role of technology in our democracy (or lack of it), and the role of our democracy (or lack of it) in technology. (cf. Richard Sclove's Democracy and Technology).

Y2K brings all these issues to the surface, opening up the possibility of a new social relationship to technology.

NUCLEAR ISSUES - If the alarms and cooling systems and electricity go off in a nuclear power plant (thanks to Y2K, this is a real possibility), what happens? If all the Russians missile silos go off-line because of Y2K, how can we reassure the Russians that they aren't under attack? If the infrastructures of control are wiped out, how will we control the spread of nuclear materials? Doesn't Y2K demonstrate to us how risky it is to have this technology around at all? (see Y2K, Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power -- a series of informative [and occasionally hair-raising] articles and the Y2K Toxics/Nukes page.

(I will try to fill out the rest of the issues listed below -- and any others you suggest -- during the coming weeks. I do have things to say on all of them, but am very short on time to write those things. But I didn't want to delay; I wanted to put what I've got so far up onto the site. And if anyone seeing this wants to take a whack at filling these out, send me your results by email to If I like them, I'll use them here, or place them elsewhere on the site. -- Tom Atlee, June 30, 1998)

PEACE - See The Case for Non-violent Responses to Y2K Disruptions; Abolition: Daring to Hope for a World Without Nukes


NATURE PROTECTION - See Why the Year 2000 Problem is an Environmental Issue, Y2K Toxics/Nukes, and Information Links to Composting Toilets

MULTINATIONAL CORPORATE POWER/TRADE - See: Why the Year 2000 Problem is an Environmental Issue; Y2K and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments; and The Corporate Charter Revocation Movement

DEMOCRACY - See The Corporate Charter Revocation Movement




TOXICS - See Why the Year 2000 Problem is an Environmental Issue; the EPA's Feb 1999 alert about the danger of Y2K related toxic releases; and Y2K Toxics/Nukes; see also Information Links to Composting Toilets



SPIRITUALITY - See "Using the Y2K challenge for individual and collective psychospiritual growth."