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How to Think about Y2K

For those who realize it is going to be a pretty big deal and who've always wanted a better world

The first things you probably noticed about Y2K were:

a) It is unbelievably stupid.
b) It is unbelievably scary.

I mean, think about it for a minute: How could a bunch of geeks pull the rug out from under the most powerful civilization in the history of the planet -- and do it by accident, no less?! And how could such a bizarre catastrophe of potentially mind-boggling proportions be happening in the middle of your otherwise full and frustrating life, when you can't even find a few spare moments to think clearly about it?! It isn't fair!

I feel thoroughly confident in observing that this is not the life you signed up for.

But while you're doing the rumba with your overwhelm and denial, don't overlook the most obvious and powerful secret about Y2K: It is going to seriously mess up business-as-usual. If you look closely at this fact, you may notice a very big blessing inside that monstrous curse -- some intense gilding around that thunder-pumping storm cloud. Think about it:

Business-as-usual has two functions:

a) to keep most of us relatively comfortable and functioning and
b) to keep The Establishment established.

When business-as-usual is messed with, both us and The Establishement get messed with. To the extent business-as-usual comes apart because of Y2K, most of us are going to find ourselves notoriously uncomfortable and non-functional. And The Establishment is going to find itself pretty thoroughly disestablished. We're going to end up with a lot of seriously unhappy people immersed in a playful little vortex of chaos. It's enough to make Antidisestablishmentarianists out of all of us.

So how do we think about this?

As we contemplate the seriousness of our plight, most of us have one of two reactions:

a) I don't like this one bit: I want to go home now.
b) I don't like this two bits: I want to wake up.

Unfortunately, we're already home and this isn't a dream. We're kind of stuck here.

As water was flooding the Titanic's engine room, a passenger told the ship's designer, "But the Titanic cannot sink." The designer replied, emphatically: "It can. And it will."

Realizing, at last, that we're not going to be able to get up and leave the theater, we resolve to get practical. In a moment of clarity, we say to ourselves:

a) I'm heading for the hills!!
b) What will become of my mother/ job/ dream house/ career/ cat/ and everything else precious to me...?!!

Well, since everyone else that runs into this particular wall (Y2K) has exactly the same thoughts, we can rest assured that the hills are going to be filled with all those folks we're trying to get away from. The first wave will be the rich folks who will drive up the rural real estate prices. The next wave will be the stragglers like most of the rest of us who will make all those country farmers edgy and overwhelm the capacity of small towns and forests to support the incoming crush of humanity. The final wave will be the hungry marauders, arriving to gather up all the resources that drained out of the cities months before.

"Shit," we think. "That's not going to work very well."

Same for our mothers and cats and hopes for a golden retirement. They're all in the same soup with the rest of us. I mean, this is a pretty big wave. Lots is going to get washed away. (An interesting image, when combined with the soup metaphor, isn't it?)

Anyway, I'd like to take this opportunity to suggest that all this "How To Save Yourself and Your Loved Ones and Prosper At the End of the World" is just real old-fashioned thinking. It obviously won't get us very far. I'd like to suggest that it is time for something new. It is time to Think Big.

The new question -- the Big Question -- is "What Does It Mean To Be A Human Being Alive At This Enormous Moment In History?"

This isn't a time for figuring out how much you can stuff into your backpack before the thousand mile hike (you won't be able to carry it all, anyway). This is a time for figuring out how to change the rudder of civilization. This is a once-in-a-millenium opportunity: Everything is coming apart. What shape is it going to come together in? That is the question we'll be answering with our lives.

This is a time to imagine your great grandchildren looking back and saying: "Wow! My Granddaddy/ Grandmommy was alive then, and they were part of making that incredible stuff happen!!"

This is like the American Revolution -- but much, much more so. We have the fate of humanity in our hands, for real this time. What happens in the next few years will make all the difference in the world, I assure you. Don't twiddle it away trying to figure out how to hide until the storm's over. The storm may not be over for some time. And if it gets you, wouldn't you rather have died making a difference instead of crouched in a tiny corner of the background scenery??

Think about it.

Go ahead. Take a break and think about it.

(But of course, you're not going to do that. You're going to continue reading. I always do...)

One needs to think not only about survival, but survival of what.

- Mary Catherine Bateson

So now let's talk about what's really worth living for.

A sustainable, just world made up of resilent, vibrant communities.

That's not what we have now, and it's not what we're going to have in the Year 2000, no matter what happens. But in the Year 2000 a lot of what keeps us from realizing that vision is probably going to come undone. We won't have to TAKE it apart. It will just stop working. At that point we'll have a chance to turn the rudder of our civilization -- or at least TRY to do so -- so that when the motors start up again, the ship is headed in a different direction -- towards a sustainable, just world made up of resilient, vibrant communities.

I'm choosing my metaphors carefully here. This isn't something we're going to build and then have. This is a turning of the rudder, a changing of direction. What can we do so that, the further into the future our civilization goes, the more it becomes a sustainable, just world made up of resilient, vibrant communties? That's what we have a chance to influence -- in a big, ugly, one-time-only, going-out-of-business-sale way.


But first off, we need to face two Y2K realities:

a) Most people are going to be trying to survive. They're not going to be trying to change the world. The world will be changing fast enough around them, thank you, without any effort on their part.
b) Total collapse will favor negative directions rather than positive ones. If things get bad enough, we're all going to end up in gangland, with local warlords doling out the goods to their loyal followers, and everyone else is food. (cf. Douglass Carmichael's scenarios.)

These two realities suggest a pretty clear strategy:

We will use community survival preparations as the carrier wave for the change in direction that we want to see.

Here are some examples of how that might play out (see also Protecting Ithaca from Computer Chaos by Paul Glover):

How far can we get in any of these realms? That depends to a great extent on how quickly we wake up to the unbelievable opportunity we have. Right now it is falling out of the sky into our laps. The universe is saying to us: "You want a revolution? You want transformation? You want a new world? Well, I've done your dirty work for you. It's time for you to get off your duffs and get the show on the road! YOU have to make whatever good is going to come of this. I gotta tell you: It was hard coming up with this idea, and it took a lot of effort to keep it under wraps until it was ripe. I'm not sure I can pull off another chance like this for you. So grab it while it's hot!"

Which brings us right back home to us and what we do with our lives.

The choice goes like this:

a) We can step out of our own personal business-as-usual so we can respond really creatively to this situation. OR
(b) We can wait until the situation is worse and we have less time, fewer resources, and more chaos and barely enough time and energy to keep our heads above water.

That's the carrot, and that's the stick.

My personal conclusion -- just for me, mind you (you'll have to figure out what's right for you) -- is that it is time to pour all the life energy I can muster into this one, starting yesterday. I've spent my whole life trying to change the world for the better, usually with little result. And from where I sit, it seems to me that the carrots and sticks don't get much bigger than this. Massive change is on the launching pad, and the countdown has begun. I see no better investment of me, anywhere. I realize there are no guarantees, but I'm determined to do the best I can.

How about you?