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Tom Atlee testimony before the California State Senate

(See also excerpts from Tom Atlee's Response to Senator Vasconcellos' Office Regarding Testifying Before the California State Senate Committee on Y2K)

Prepared testimony of
Tom Atlee
President of the Co-Intelligence Institute of Oakland, CA
before the
California State Senate Oversight Hearing on Year 2000 Preparedness
Wednesday, February 24, 1999

My name is Tom Atlee. I am president of the Co-Intelligence Institute, a nonprofit organization researching collaborative approaches to social problems. I have been focusing on Y2K for ten months and maintain the leading website for making positive use of the Y2K situation. Among other issues, I advocate community preparedness, government support of community preparedness, and a participatory democratic approach to dealing with Y2K. Thank you for inviting me to share my perspective with you.

Last April the SUN HERALD of Australia reported a Y2K rollover test of the water storage facility at Coff's Harbour. That test revealed that the system that regulates purification of the water would have dumped all the purification chemicals into the water on 1/1/2000 causing a mix toxic enough to kill the entire population of it's supply area. Luckily this was a test; no one was killed. But it makes us wonder: How many municipal water systems in California have been tested? Does anyone know? Is there any function in the California State government that even ASKS this question?

The People of California, like people everywhere, live in communities. Y2K is going to affect the People of California, right in the communities where they live. While thousands of people are asking how Y2K is going to effect various businesses, or the economy, or the government, or the operation of PCs, VCRs and ATMs -- hardly anyone is asking how is Y2K going to affect communities. I assure you, our communities are where we will be experiencing the effects of Y2K most vividly, if those effects are more than the most minor disruptions.

Water, power and other vital utilities are regional community systems. When they go down, people suffer collectively, together -- in their communities. If these utilities are disrupted to any significant degree, for any length of time due to Y2K, California's communities will be very hard hit. A community without water for weeks -- or with poisoned water even for a few days -- would not be a pretty sight.

But, you say, fresh water could be brought from somewhere else. Perhaps. But perhaps not. We are talking about a problem involving profound uncertainties and global scale, potentially affecting every system we depend on. If ten percent of California's water systems have problems, and there are no other problems, we can handle that. But if 80% of California's water systems have problems, or if there is no gasoline for transporting the water (since Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are among the least Y2K-prepared countries in the world) and there are extensive problems with other utilities, with food distribution, with public order, and so on, what then?

You may not believe such bad scenarios could come about. You may be right. But, then again, you may not be. The question is, are you going to bet the lives of millions of Californians on hopes and beliefs, or are you going to put structures in place to ensure that essential water, power and food will be available NO MATTER WHAT? You may already know that the federal government has clearly stated that we are on our own in this. The second in command of our nation's Y2K efforts, Janet Abrams, said in a December 17th speech that "local officials [are] going to have to take care of these problems on [their] own."

So I suggest that perhaps the most important function of any government during this year will be to ensure that the most basic survival needs of its communities -- water, sewage and basic energy and food -- will be cared for. This usually involves closely monitoring the Y2K status of vital infrastructure systems as a top priority, and ensuring timely contingency plans in every system that MAY not become Y2K-compliant in time. If Californians don't have safe water, sewage, and at least minimal energy and food in the midst of foreseeable disruptions, they will have good cause to complain. That's as gently as I can put it.

However, I want to stress that a government's job on behalf of communities during Y2K goes beyond monitoring vital infrastructure. It involves at least three other responsibilities: (1) preventing toxic releases, (2) ameliorating panic and (3) enhancing the capacity of communities to care for themselves and help each other.

Ray Skinner, the director of OSHA in South Houston, recently said that the specter of fires, explosions, and toxic releases at petrochemical plants is "not a hoax. It's a real issue and something that's very, very important." Similar warnings are coming from experts and professional associations throughout the chemical industry. And a behind-the-scenes debate is raging over the safety of nuclear power plants during Y2K. One thing we can be sure of: these industries ARE Y2K vulnerable and major toxic or radioactive releases could undo all other preparation efforts. Does the State of California have any impartial body to monitor this? Is there any way to get around the understandable desire of chemical companies and nuclear power plants to look good, even when their Y2K readiness is actually not very advanced? What responsibility does the State of California have in the face of this threat, and this uncertainty? What can you do to ensure the safety of our state's citizens during the next 18 months? I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that we need to find them soon.

And now to the sixty-four million dollar question: How does a government ameliorate public panic? I would suggest that it does it using the same approach it uses in times of war -- engaging the public in a team effort with government and business to deal with the problem. The approach used by most American governments today -- either ignoring the very real dangers of Y2K or issuing PR statements that everything is going to be OK -- will most likely backfire in the midst of widely-available information from both reliable and unreliable sources that everything will NOT be OK. For better and worse, the public listens to other sources than the government, as you are well aware.

Governments need to make it clear that preparedness is important, and that they are doing their part by preparing vital infrastructure and toxic facilities, as well as preparing their own systems. They then need to call on citizens to educate themselves and each other about the issue, to discuss the issue publicly and to help each other with responsible individual preparations (such as buying a bit of extra canned food each week and setting aside some water and medical supplies). Governments need to call on neighborhoods, religious institutions, community groups and other grassroots organizations to find out who among their populations has special needs, who among them has special resources, who is willing to receive special training or help out in difficult times. All this is healthy public policy REGARDLESS OF Y2K -- especially here in earthquake country.

And it makes sense for Y2K because there is no way any government can provide all its citizens with the breadth and depth of support Y2K demands. There is no way that top-down approaches to community Y2K preparedness can work. The problem is too vast. The time, money and resources simply don't exist. And people aren't machines: they will have their own emotional responses, their own opinions, their own quirks that may get in the way of getting the job done. Those individual difficulties can be handled by neighbors FAR better than they can be handled by bureaucrats. This is a job for the bottom up, for the grassroots, for the people in their communities. But that grassroots job simply won't get done unless the government plays its role as leader, inspirer, and provider of highly leveraged resources to prime the pump.

If the whole task of preparedness is left to the people, themselves, we will see an expansion of what we have now. First, a smattering of grassroots Y2K community-preparedness organizations -- there are more than 200 around the country right now -- a handful of whom have good working relationships with their local governments. Second, we'll see a larger group of individual survivalists who are stocking up their personal homes for catastrophe, and even moving to rural areas or buying guns. Finally, there will be the vast majority of less Y2K-informed citizens who will grow increasingly anxious as the crisis develops during this year and, left to their own devices and stirred to mass activity by press reports or unpredictable incidents, will suddenly try to get their money out of the bank or food from the stores, leaving the banks closed down and the stores empty and panic the dominant emotion of the day. This is not what you want. This is not what I want. This is not what anyone wants.

The only way I can see to prevent widespread panic is for government to provide leadership in bringing communities together and getting people to start preparing -- steadily, responsibly and as soon as possible -- for mid-range disruptions lasting, hopefully, only a few days or a few weeks.

Action needs to be taken soon. Positive options are disappearing each day. The spring planting season -- the best time to grow the extra food the public will demand for Y2K stockpiles -- will soon be over. Surveys show that rapidly-growing numbers of Americans are planning to withdraw significant funds from their bank accounts because of Y2K. It takes time to educate people, to produce generators or solar panels, to shift priorities, to work through emotional responses. There is no chance of attaining certainty with Y2K. The problem is too complex and too many institutions are determined to hide their Y2K status, fearful of losing market share, investment, public support, and so on -- or because they don't want to trigger panic. The information we need is simply not readily available and is not likely to be readily available soon. We have no choice but to act on the very real possibility of significant disruptions, to make preparations even as we gather the further information we so badly need. To fail to act soon, despite the uncertainty, virtually guarantees that we will hit the iceberg.

I want to close by saying there is more I would like my government to do, but that I suspect it cannot do because of ideological and political constraints. I think there is a non-trivial chance -- perhaps between 2 and 20% -- that significant disruptions will last longer than a couple of weeks. If that happens, the strategy of stockpiling vital resources will begin to fail. Less and less food, water, gasoline, medicine, and patience will be available. At that point, those communities will fare best who have strengthened their bonds of mutual support and allied themselves with their natural surroundings by using solar power, organic gardening, community supported agriculture, alternative forms of transportation, etc. If the grid goes down, those least dependent on it will do best.

Perhaps you are among the many who find the prospect of infrastructure collapse unimaginable. It may seem to you as unlikely as one of us here suddenly being struck by some rare, deadly disease. In that case, I would suggest that the issue of Y2K emergency preparedness is comparable to buying medical insurance. If we remain healthy, we may not need the insurance. But if we become ill, that medical coverage will make all the difference in the world.

I want to carry this metaphor a bit further. There is an issue beyond insurance, beyond preparedness: The best strategy for each of us is to live a healthy lifestyle, which drastically reduces our vulnerability to all diseases and enhances our quality of life. The same is true for our collective well-being: we would be wise to build the strength and resilience of our communities. I hope at least a few of you have the courage and vision to include sustainable technologies, revitalized communities and self-reliant local economies in your Y2K preparedness strategy for California. If you do, we will all be better able to handle not only the slings and arrows of Y2K, but earthquakes, recessions, and the many other crises we will surely face. In the process, we could create a truly good society.

I appreciate that yours is not an easy job, especially now. I thank you for listening, and I wish you good luck and much courage.

* * * * *

Appendix (from the Co-Intelligence Institute website

The Big Picture: Mapping out a creative political perspective for Y2K

The current public discourse on Y2K is focused on three things:
1) the impact on business (and economic fortunes)
2) the impact on governance (and political fortunes)
3) the impact on individuals (and their pursuit of
individual survival)

We aim to add a fourth focus to the list, which we believe is the most important one of them all:
4) the impact on communities (the welfare of populations
where they live.

We observe that public officials and others involved with communities evolve through a number of stages regarding Y2K:
1) Ignorance: "What's Y2K?"
2) False security: "This is a technical problem being handled by
the government's technical people."
3) Government coping: "We won't get all our government
systems compliant, so we need to do triage and focus on
mission-critical systems."
4) Waking up to the big picture: "Other organizations (businesses,
governments, nonprofits, countries) are not going to be
compliant, and this will impact our community/agency."
5) Waking up to the needs of the community: "We need to make
sure that actions are taken to prepare our community to survive."
(At which point people start advocating one or more of these.)
a) action by higher levels of government
b) action by their own level of government
c) action by the community itself
6) Identifying specific programmatic approaches to support community survival:
a) "austere infrastructure mitigation" (i.e., getting vital infrastructure
b) contingency preparation (stockpiling and emergency response scenarios)
c) community resilience development (includes sustainable
technologies and the revitalization of citizenship)
d) legal modifications to encourage Y2K information-sharing
among companies and other entities
e) bipartisan effort to cease the blame game
f) conscious use of media to educate and orient populations to
pro-social responses
g) simulations to "practice" for Y2K-crisis

Most officials are currently at either stage (1) or stage (2). They need to move as rapidly as possible to stage 6, and to move public dialogue and political discourse into "which aspects of 5 and 6 should we focus on, and how should we accomplish that?"

Note that 6a-6c involve systems and resources that are vital for community survival. This is, oddly enough, a grey area. What systems and resources are considered vital is not only a technical question, but a controversial political one. We believe that certain systems are basic enough that consensus will be found to address them IMMEDIATELY while the other systems are being researched and debated. These first-priority systems include:
A) water (primarily potable)
B) sewage
C) basic food (in terms of calories and minimal nutrition)
D) heat (in areas where it is dangerously cold in winter)
E) public health (epidemic prevention + some basic individual health care,
esp. vital medications)
F) security and public order (basic community and national)
G) toxics/nuclear control
H) basic inter-community communications

It is noted that 6a, 6b, and 6c (infrastructure mitigation, contingency preparedness, and community resilience development) all imply different and potentially complementary approaches to meeting each of these needs. Take water, for example: Austere infrastructure mitigation may involve ensuring the Y2K compliance of certain water utilities. Contingency preparation may involve families and communities stockpiling fresh water. Community resilience may involve building the capacity of neighborhoods to catch drinkable rain runoff. A different mix of these may be appropriate in different communities. Communities that prepared for resilience will be best suited to survive disruptions lasting more than a few weeks.

The next level of things to attend to, about which there is less agreement and therefore require more political discourse to establish priorities, includes:
I) corporate survival and welfare
J) welfare of the poor and otherwise vulnerable
K) functioning financial systems
L) maintenance of global commerce
M) welfare of other countries
N) transportation
O) full energy availability
P) full telecommunications and mass media services

Again, there are diverse approaches to these, supported by diverse interest groups. In things like finance, welfare, transportation, energy and telecommunications, a mixed approach (of, for example, rationed provision plus community self-reliance) may be better than a one-solution-fits-all approach.

Overall, we see three basic approaches to dealing with the Y2K crisis:
1) Trying to sustain a holding pattern (emergency management) and
getting back to business-as-usual as soon as possible.
2) Using whatever force is necessary to push solutions and public order
(call out the National Guard!).
3) Supporting participatory local responses which will leave
communities more resilient and self-reliant after the dust settles.

We expect that different mixes of these will work best in different areas, and will be advocated by different interest groups. Most community-oriented groups, experts, and activists favor (1) and/or (3) as their central strategy. We advocate the utmost restraint and care in applying force (2) to deal with this problem.

When I was first asked to testify about community preparedness before the California Senate, I was not sure I was the best person for that role, nor was I optimistic about how the Senators would respond. I wrote the following note to the Vasconcellos' Chief of Staff. When he still insisted they wanted me to testify, I agreed. Although I ended up having only five minutes to give oral testimony (Heaven knows what I said), the statement above was submitted as my formal written testimony. -- Tom Atlee


If I am asked to testify, I expect I would be telling the committee things like the following:

a) individual preparedness is a dead-end street without community preparedness

b) I believe community preparedness must be DONE COLLECTIVELY FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL (which means those who have more will need to contribute more)

c) I believe community preparedness must focus on basic human needs (air, water, food, warmth, security) as a priority over shoring up the status quo (business, government, individual lifestyles)

d) I believe community preparedness will probably not get very far with either top-down or bottom up approaches; that it requires integrated action from both sides in ways that have seldom if ever been tried (as explored in some of my co-intelligence writings)

e) I believe that community preparedness cannot deal with long-term disruptions unless it is based on sustainable methods and technologies By long-term disruptions, I mean disruptions lasting more than about 10 days, at which point stocks of supplies (both individual and communal) will start to be less than needed to meet people's perceived needs and tensions will probably start to rise regarding who gets what when. Also if disruptions last this long, there will be increasing uncertainty about how long it will take to fix things, resulting in even tighter rationing of stocks and more conflict over their use. Sustainable approaches (like gardening, community supported agriculture, self-reliant local food preparation and storage, solar power, water catchment, closing down all toxic operations) which are AUGMENTED by stocks, can greatly reduce this source of social conflict. But there is precious little time to do this, so really focused action is needed soon.

I can give good reasoning for all of this. But I am not a great person to cite current statistics and examples (so-called evidence) on why Y2K will be as bad as I think it will be. I did that last year and have monitored the dynamics (not the facts) since then. The dynamics have not changed radically enough to make me think we have a better chance than we did last year. But the committee will probably want FACTS. I doubt they think systemically enough to be convinced by dynamics.

What do I imagine they want? The details of HOW a community needs to prepare -- the actions that need to be taken by whom, the ground that needs to be covered. These are not things I can speak to authoritatively. In fact, I don't really believe in this linear approach. However, if anyone in-state can speak authoritatively to this, it would be William Ulrich (out of state, there are more, possibly better witnesses). He can speak really well to (a) and (b) and more, without unduly upsetting the apple cart. I'm not sure that the Senate is ripe for (c), (d) and (e), which implicitly upset the apple cart.

If asked to testify, I would often speak in generalities, in theory, and at a radical level many people are not willing to confront. I would talk about what's at the heart of our dilemma as I see it: that we are addicted to an infrastructure that tears us away from our neighbors and the natural world of our bioregion in the name of independence, power, comfort, etc. -- and that Y2K has the potential to force us out of that addiction, temporarily or permanently, probably at great pain. If we willingly step out of that addiction into a cultural recovery program early enough, we won't have to hit bottom. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is learn how to talk with and work with our neighbors, especially those who are different than we are. I, myself, barely know how to do this. What we face is a vast experiment, a shared exploration. It is not something we can plan and expect results from. No one knows how to do what has to be done. We are entering a time of radical uncertainty, which requires radically stepping out of our business-as-usual ways of thinking, acting, and relating.