February 4, 2000
Four people have now sent me the following column written by you, which I had earlier decided not to forward to my list, or even critique. But the interest in it seems sufficiently intense that a response seems required. I would have written you personally, except that your column was public and so demands a public response (even though I can reach only a tiny percentage of those reached by your column).
First of all, I want to be clear that you are without question my favorite columnist. I know of no one who is clearer and more down-to-earth and to-the-point on sustainability issues. More than half of your columns that I have read elicit a "Wow!" from me, and I own a book of them. Even this column, with which I so profoundly disagree in so many ways, articulates some of my own sense of the fragility of our techno-socio-economic systems.
So it is with great puzzlement and sorrow that I have to say the following column seems to me to reflect a serious ignorance of the Y2K issue and to indulge in a bit of unnecessary disparagement of those of us who were justifiably concerned. I find myself speechless because I know you as a systems thinker who must, therefore, yourself, have had to wrestle with uncertainties, or to advise caution (for example, on global warming or toxics) based on your understanding of systems dynamics rather than on any uncontestable current evidence -- and thus find yourself under attack because you're operating outside the simple mechanistic cause-and-effect logic of the dominant culture. It is therefore incomprehensible to me that you would then turn your sarcasm on fellow systems thinkers who by all signs have studied the Y2K problem more deeply than you have.
Knowing who you are, and your well-earned reputation, I feel I need to be more specific about this:
- Your saying that Russia and Asia were not "gullible enough to pour massive sums into Y2K corrections" implies that gullibility is the primary explanation for why so many institutions spent money on Y2K. You act as if the giant corporations and governments who DID spend such money were inexplicably and sloppily wasting millions of dollars on something that gained them no market advantage or political favor, just because those running them were "gullible". You act as if these major institutions are simply fools, which they demonstrably are not. The best explanations I've heard so far for the low-impact rollover in less developed countries are that their major infrastructure systems were not as computer-dependent (and had more analog and manual control systems) than previously thought (even by the CIA and State Department; did you have more dependable sources of information on this subject?), and that their preparations were enhanced by lessons learned from early preparers, who shared information. Although I suspect that even these explanations are inadequate (and I do not have an explaination I feel fully satisfied with), "lack of gullibility" seems to me to be an uncharacteristically shallow level of analysis for you.
- You say, "The whole thing was a hype." I don't even know how to respond to this. It is like saying "Global Warming is a hype" because the rise in atmospheric temperatures has not matched the rise in surface temperatures. It is like saying that "Concern about bioengineering is all hype" because no documented, well-publicized disasters have yet occurred in this field. In the last several years numerous experts from widely diverse, relevant fields, many of whom put their credibility on the line, publically stated that Y2K COULD create profound disruptions in our society. The fact that there were other experts who disagreed in no way invalidates the legitimate concerns of the Y2K-concerned experts; such disagreement is common in all fields of expertise, as you well know. To say that those concerned were just "hyping" the subject is irresponsible, and opens you up to similar demeaning attacks on yourself. I feel like you are taking potshots from the safety of hindsight. I truly hope that you are honestly unaware that some of us who were seriously concerned were concerned exactly BECAUSE OF the very issues you expound -- such as toxics and nuclear threats, and the implications for sustainability. Really, Dana, what could you possibly have meant by the statement, "The whole thing was a hype"?
- "Personally I think the Y2K bug was just an amusing millennial panic." At least I have to be grateful that you've owned this pop-analysis as personal opinion. However, the "amusing" and the "just" are such demeaning terms that I can't imagine them coming from the pen of anyone who's given the subject any serious research or deep thought. Many of us pointed out that the problem had nothing to do with the millennium; it was a century problem. If we'd had computers at the 1900 rollover, we probably would have had two-digit troubles then. We were not panicked; we advised a level of responsible preparedness (once known as prudence -- a respected practice before the mid-20th Century) -- usually in ways that tried to bring our fragmented communities back together. There was a spontaneous and unprecedented outpouring of heartfelt community activism from thousands of previously uninvolved folks, who wove themselves into a remarkable self-organized movement over the internet. Furthermore some of us advocated using the energies around Y2K to move our society towards sustainability. I fail to see how all this adds up to "just an amusing millennial panic." That really hurts, Dana, and I don't understand why you are saying it, unless you are simply ignorant of all that was going on and why. Of course, there were Y2K-concerned people for whom the word "panic" is fully descriptive. But they were only a tiny minority, typically magnified into an archetype by dramatic, shallow media coverage. Again, you seems oblivious to the complexity and sophistication among Y2K-concerned citizens. I wish I could say that you're just plain uninformed. But your blithe dismissal of so many of us, and your uncharacteristic mouthing of mass media platitudes (like "millennial panic" and "Y2K glitch" and "just hype"), makes me suspect that you were and are somehow unable to emotionally confront the complex realities and nuances of Y2K -- including its radical uncertainty. As unsettling as this conclusion is, I don't know what else to think.
- "The Y2K glitch was simple; we even knew the exact moment when it would appear." Again, I can't imagine anyone informed on this subject writing such a sentence. First of all, Y2K was not just a glitch -- and even as a glitch, it showed up in so many places (chips, hardware, software, documents, databases, and the complex interconnections between them) that one could never call it "simple". It was an incredibly complex techological and social syndrome of intertwined factors. To act as if Y2K was only about a glitch is the most common error of popular thinking on this subject (something I would never have dreamt you were capable of). System dynamics and human responses were as much factors as the technological realities. Furthermore, "we" did not (and do not) know "the exact moment when it would appear." I assume you are referring to the century-end rollover. However, major scenerioists (including the Gartner Group and the Naval War College) suggested last year that it was quite possible that an insignificant number of observable Y2K disruptions would occur AT the rollover. It was already known that Y2K problems had been happening for years PRIOR to the rollover, and they are STILL being logged, with some experts saying that we won't know for sure whether or not major disruptions will occur for several months yet. I can't comprehend how anyone who has studied this issue in any depth at all could possibly make the statement at the beginning of this paragraph.
- You say: "The scare was plausible. Programmers, CEOs, engineers, those who work at the heart of the technical beast took it very seriously." This seems a contradiction to all the other statements noted above, until you clarified what you meant: "The Y2K threat was plausible because a lot of us harbor a lurking suspicion that our world is some sort of disaster waiting to happen." While there is no doubt in my mind that this factor played a significant role in the overall Y2K dynamics, it is clearly reductionist to say that the "Y2K threat was plausable BECAUSE" so many of us are uneasy with the resilience of the systems we depend on. No. The Y2K threat was plausable because a vast amount of prior evidence (from computers and chips malfunctioning because of Y2K problems, to the incredible dependencies on computers in systems like just-in-time inventories, to the long history of late and buggy programming projects) suggested it was a real threat. Not a certain catastrophe but, as you say, a plausible scare. Although I DO suspect, in a very generic, intuitive sort of way, that our systems are vulnerable, that amorphous concern would have never been enough to convince me to put aside my life's work for two years to focus on Y2K. What convinced me was REAL EVIDENCE and REASONABLE PROBABILITIES, given the specific nature of the systems involved, and a strong community of expertise that was tracking and analyzing these two factors. In your essay below, you are using Y2K to make a point. I heartily support that, and urge you to do it in the future without the use of demeaning reductionism. Again, I truly hope that you didn't realize how many colleagues and fellow sustainability and resilience advocates you were shooting down with the language you used here.
- You say: "The most honest and helpful Y2K comment I have yet seen was posted on the Internet by a Y2K alarmist named David La Chapelle of Juneau, Alaska. He said, 'Waiting for the demise of a system in order to improve it was a failure of spirit on my part. I wanted the material world to provide the magic bullet for change....'" Well, having been frequently inspired and enlightened by the writings of David La Chapelle, and knowing the deeper dimensions of life at which he works -- particularly his deep ecological sensibilities and systems thinking -- I am deeply shocked by the way you reduce him to a "Y2K alarmist." He is a powerful ally of yours. Why are you doing this to him? I feel certain that you have been called such things ("alarmist") because of your vocal concern about the environment; I would think you would empathetically shunn such a degrading term. I am confused.
My respect for David La Chapelle transcends my uneasiness about the very statement which you cite. Both of you seem to imply that dramatic changes in social and material conditions do not play a major role in furthering social change. This is so demonstrably false that I can't imagine why you are asserting it. Without World War I, the Russian Revolution would have never happened when it did. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had a profoundly negative effect on the nuclear power industry. Neither of these events BY THEMSELVES created social change. Both were prepared for, for years, by well-organized groups, even though they didn't know exactly what trigger event would kick open the door for the changes they sought. While I agree with David La Chapelle [and, implicitly with you] that "There is no substitute for the persistent and heartful attention necessary for personal and cultural transformation," I think that part of that attention is attention to what is happening in the larger world around us, where carrier-waves and trigger events may be building which can greatly magnify the potency of our efforts. Perhaps David ceased his "persistent and heartfelt attention" during his Y2K work and became totally dependent on the mechanics of history to do his work for him, but you'd never have guessed that from his writings during the last two years. And I certainly didn't turn over MY activism to Y2K. Rather, I feel like I co-created change WITH Y2K. I believe that personal work, relational work, community work, political work, cultural work, and all the other forms of work are all appropriate vehicles for change, the more the better. AND I believe that they can all be enhanced by a strategic sensibility to the changing problems and opportunities in the world around us. Some contexts advance, and some impede, the changes we seek and the means we have available. We'd be fools to ignore them, and act as if our change efforts can proceed in an orderly linear fashion without taking them into account, or as if we can transform systems and cultures only through self-oriented activities. Those of us who used Y2K for change succeeded in some ways and failed in others; we paid attention in some ways and were ignorant in others; we were right in some things and wrong in others. But there was nothing at all wrong in our efforts to use the changing currents of the times to make a better world.
So I'm sorry, Dana, I disagree with you. And I am profoundly disappointed with how you have chosen to make your legitimate points about the vulnerability of the complex systems we live in.
At the same time, as I close this letter, I realize the limitations in my own response to you, my own inability to be more empathic and creative, my own tendencies towards self-righteousness. I cannot legitimately cast out the mote in thine eye when I cannot get this old growth behemoth from my own. And yet the issues must be raised. And so I send this out into the world in the hopes that the collective wisdom of our movement and our culture can ultimately sort it out.
And I hope that someday we will learn how to respectfully work together -- all of us.
In the meantime, beyond it all, I still honor you tremendously for the great work you have done and are doing for the world, with your whole life -- with your mind, your heart, your hands, your spirit and your connections. I wish you the best, truly.
_ _ _ _ _ _
January 27, 2000
Donella H. Meadows
P.O. Box 174
Hartland Four Corners VT 05049
Civilization did not collapse into computational confusion
Year's Eve. The worst Y2K glitch I experienced was finding all my
email files suddenly dated 1944, and that was easily fixed.
What happened? Or rather, what didn't happen?
There is a self-congratulatory answer to that question: we
clever and fast and rich enough to stave off disaster. Companies
and governments shelled out billions to scrap old computers and
rewrite code. Emergency crews pre-tested power plants and
navigation systems by running their clocks forward artificially. We
were dumb enough to create the problem, but smart enough to catch it
That answer lost all credibility on New Year's Eve, as midnight
rolled through Asia and darkest Russia, places advanced enough to
have computers but not rich or coordinated or, perhaps, gullible
enough to pour massive sums into Y2K corrections. Their lights
stayed on, their trains ran, their nuclear power plants did not melt
down, their Websites didn't blink. Some watchers, I suspect, were
No place had serious Y2K problems. The whole thing was
a hype. The
conspiracy-minded can even suspect a plot to make everyone hire
programmers and buy new computers. (Why did no one sue the software
companies for the cost of correcting this glaring defect in their
Personally I think the Y2K bug was just an amusing millennial
But I do see a deeper lesson in this story. The scare was
plausible. Programmers, CEOs, engineers, those who work at the
heart of the technical beast took it very seriously. They were
wrong about the criticality of that particular computer flaw. But
the fact that they were so worried reveals a general jumpiness, a
simmering distrust of the resilience of the industrial-information
system. If not Y2K, then maybe something else could bring down The
World As We Know It.
Or maybe not, some of my friends are now saying. Maybe
economy is less interconnected and vulnerable than we thought. The
amazing inventions that sustain our lives and comforts are pretty
robust. Small failures are routine, says one on-line analyst, so we
have had to evolve multiple levels of self-correction, including the
ability to foresee and take action even against threats that turn
out to be exaggerated. As the nuclear industry said after Three
Mile Island, yes, the reactor went crazy, but look, we're all still
here. The system worked.
Don't worry. Be happy.
The dedicated worriers among us point out that one patch of
water safely navigated tells us nothing about what's around the next
bend. The Y2K glitch was simple; we even knew the exact moment when
it would appear. The failure that will really expose our fragility
will be the one that comes as a surprise. If not a computer bug,
then a financial panic or climate change or an oil shortage or an
Ebola virus or a slow, insidious pollutant or a fast, spectacular,
accidental or purposeful detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
Let's face it, the Y2K threat was plausible because a lot of
harbor a lurking suspicion that our world is some sort of disaster
waiting to happen. We know how helpless we are when the electricity
goes off. Many of us remember the chaos of the 1973 oil crisis,
when the faucet that controls world oil flow was cranked down by
just a few percent. A system dependent on long-distance transport
of a few critical (and nonrenewable) resources, a system full of
vital machines that the average person has no idea how to fix, a
system where memory is wiped out if electrons stop flowing through
power lines, a system with millions of very rich and very poor
people living right on top of each other -- that system is brittle.
It could break.
There's even a widely shared sense, at least among my friends,
the coming crash, whatever causes it, will be somewhat deserved and
something of a relief. They speak of it with a strange combination
of dread and excitement. That's because their logistic critique of
the system's physical vulnerability is combined with a moral
critique of its materialism, violence, wastefulness, pride,
injustice, soullessness. Sodom and Gomorrah. Time for something to
come along and smite this wickedness.
I agree with both the logistic and the moral critique, but
always cringed at the assumption that a collapse will force human
improvement. I understand the frustration that leads to such a
perverse hope. But I can't share the hope.
The most honest and helpful Y2K comment I have yet seen was
on the Internet by a Y2K alarmist named David La Chapelle of Juneau,
Alaska. He said, "Waiting for the demise of a system in order to
improve it was a failure of spirit on my part. I wanted the
material world to provide the magic bullet for change. I
short-circuited the true evolutionary process. There is no
substitute for the persistent and heartful attention necessary for
personal and cultural transformation. The task before us is to
reach deep into the substance of our being and bring forth the truth
we wish to become."
(Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College
director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.)