The Co-Intelligence Institute // CII home // Y2K home

Some 11th Hour Y2K Thoughts

by Tom Atlee

September 14, 1999

Reissued December 10, 1999,
changing only the second word, and adding a PS on nukes.


For twenty months I have spoken out strongly for working with Y2K to move beyond business-as-usual to resilient, sustainable communities, social change, and personal and cultural transformation. Thousands of people have heard this message and progress has been made. But the hour is late and business-as-usual reigns supreme, so it is time for me to change my tune.

I should say right at the start that I don't believe business-as-usual will survive till the end of the year 2000. On the other hand, I fear we may have lost the time we needed to create an orderly transition to something better. I think we are in for a wild ride.

Back in March 1998 a friend named Mary Ann Gallagher opened my eyes to the systemic effects of Y2K. I think of her as my Y2K mom. She now predicts that we will ALL be surprised by what happens with Y2K -- the doomsayers and the 'no problem' people alike -- and all the rest of us, as well, no matter what we think about Y2K.

Douglass Carmichael is the man who introduced Mary Ann to the systemic effects of Y2K. So he's sort of my Y2K grandfather. Back in 1998 he predicted that, as we approach the millennium, expert opinion about what was going to happen would actually diverge, and that evidence would exist for totally opposite perspectives on Y2K.

I think both of them are right. By now (the fall of 1999) most legitimate experts admit that no one knows what is going to happen with Y2K. However, my sense is that by the end of 2000 the vast majority of people will agree that a tremendous amount of very significant change has happened in their lives and societies. I actually think we'll recognize that an historic turning point has been passed. But we probably won't know how much of it to attribute to Y2K. The complexity of overlapping problems -- and some real incentives to hide Y2K troubles (such as political gamesmanship, security considerations and insurance that covers only non-Y2K related business failures) -- may prevent us from ever knowing what was a "Y2K effect" and what wasn't.

However, the ambiguity surrounding Y2K does not ameliorate in any way my sense that the year 2000 will contain more disaster than most of us in the West are used to.

This hunch is strongly influenced by the state of Y2K preparedness. While more preparation can and will be done, I have a sense now that we can't make up for lost time. Lack of systemic thinking, fear of public panic, political calculations and inability to think outside the business-as-usual box have deprived us of the leadership necessary for timely society-wide preparedness. Further preparation will be done in an environment of increasingly scarce resources and, at some point, could become self-defeating (as in last minute runs on the stores or banks). I pray that we will avoid catastrophe, but fear that it may be a close call, at best.

I actually can't believe the impact of Y2K will be minor, no matter how well we in the U.S. prepare. As a speaker at a banker's Y2K conference said last year: "The good news is that the U.S. is way ahead of the rest of the world in Y2K preparations. The bad news is that the U.S. is way ahead of the rest of the world in Y2K preparations." America's business-as-usual is held up by a million tiny chains connected everywhere around the world, each of which could break at just a few links....

I now believe that Y2K (regardless of the level of disruptions it ultimately causes) will converge with other threats in ways that will force a change (not necessarily for the better) in our business-as-usual. When global warming seriously undermines our food supply, we'll notice. When our centralized, technology-dependent infrastructure is hit by toxic code (be it Y2K or hackers or "information-warriors" or something else), we'll notice. When our fiddling with the structure of atoms and genes creates significant, unstoppable and unpredicted effects, we'll notice. When the wealthy wall themselves off from the increasing poverty of the majority -- and use high technology to control that majority -- we'll notice (the top 1% of Americans now have a greater "net worth" than the "bottom" 95% and the gap is rapidly widening). When the threat of terrorism, the daunting complexity of public issues and the concentration of social power have made democracy a wistful memory, we'll notice. When the fantasy casino of financial markets (which grows daily more distant from the production of real goods and services) begins to unravel, we'll notice. When the right tyrant of a miserable population uses high technology (nuclear, chemical, biological, digital, nanotechnology, etc.) to take on America's arrogance as the only superpower, we'll notice.

I suspect we'll see a lot of action on all these fronts -- and more -- in the immediate future. I had hoped that it wouldn't be necessary for us to drift into this level of disruption. I had hoped that we would wake up in time to renew our democracy and exercise our collective, collaborative intelligence before all these trends collided in a major mess. But I now suspect that such a major mess may be necessary to wake us up. As saddened as I am by the likely suffering and collective risk implicit in this scenario, it has made me turn my attention to helping develop and promote the tools we'll need when we finally do wake up. That's why I'm going to be putting less attention on the Y2K section of the website site and work more on the co-intelligence side. I will focus on letting folks know that there are wiser, more creative, more fun ways to maintain a civilization than the one we're using.

So what do I think now about using Y2K preparation efforts to make a sustainable society? Well, it may be too late to create gardens that could feed a city in case food supplies are disrupted before next spring, but more people can still learn how to garden, and that will help. It may be too late for every school and every tenth house to have solar or wind power in case electrical systems go down in January 2000, but any further alternative energy -- or even awareness of it -- is a step in the right direction. It may be too late for every city and town to be organized for self-reliance, but it is never too late for the people in any given block or neighborhood to get to know each other and work together for mutual benefit, whether or not that has anything to do with Y2K. It may be too late to establish a national citizens consensus council to study Y2K and make policy recommendations to the government and the public about it -- but it is never too late for a community to organize co-intelligent conversations like open space conferences and world cafes, where citizens can explore their thoughts, feelings and options together and choose directions for action.

And there are perennial efforts that are always valuable, no matter what. For example, it is never too late for caring, for learning, for personal growth, for prayer, for authentic dialogue, and for sharing anything we know that might help us all make a better world.

So as we move into the new-millennial months, this is my offering: It's time to replace business-as-usual with life. That's where the juice is -- for each one of us and all of us. And that's also the path to a juicy, wise civilization. It is never too late to start -- and each and every day gives us new ways to do that. The sooner each of us gets started -- each and every day -- the further along we'll all be tomorrow.


PS for Dec 10 re-issue: As we approach the rollover more people are recognizing the greatest potential danger, which is our nuclear capacity. The good news is that more people are demanding that nuclear power plants be shut down and back-up energy sources to cool down those plants be beefed up, and that nuclear weapons be de-alerted. Risk of Y2K-related accidental nuclear war has been decreased by the establishment of a US/Russian collaborative early warning monitoring center, but is increased by recent increasing tensions between the US and Russia. Furthermore, most nuclear governments are not exhibiting adequate Y2K caution regarding their own (and others') nuclear power plants. Although time is running out, I would still advocate a final push on all nuclear fronts, using guidance available from HTTP://WWW.Y2KWASH.ORG . This one piece of unpreparedness could wipe out all other forms of preparedness in a matter of hours.