The Co-Intelligence Institute/Y2K Return to Y2K home RETURN to CII home

The Transformational Dance Between Communities and Y2K

by Tom Atlee

(written for Communities Magazine, a journal of intentional community)

(Footnotes at bottom are not yet linked to text. Please scroll.)

The Year 2000 technology problem (Y2K) will almost certainly disrupt our individual and collective "business as usual" to some degree. [1] While knowledgeable authorities agree that disruptions are likely, they differ on how serious those disruptions will be. Possible infrastructure failures MAY leave many Americans without easy access to the basics of life -- water, food, heat, shelter, health care, freedom from toxics and crime, etc. Nuclear incidents are a real possibility. Increased unemployment is extremely likely. We may well experience social disruptions such as riots, migrations, bank runs, or martial law. Y2K-related death and suffering will almost certainly occur, although the extent is unknowable.

It is frustrating that no one in the world can dependably predict whether we face a few bothersome glitches, on the one hand -- or the meltdown of civilization, on the other -- or some scenario between these extremes. Not only is access to information about Y2K from governments and companies seriously limited, but our socioeconomic systems are intrinsically too complex to predict which small problems might cascade into something larger. We're left to make our own best judgements against a background of radical uncertainty. My approach is to seek out what I call "metadata" -- intimations of systemic megatrends and dynamics.. Here are a few examples:

>> As of June, 1998, with 19 months to go before 2000:
The vast majority of the largest corporations had either not complied with 1/98 federal orders to report their Y2K status or were still in the assessment phase of Y2K remediation. [2] This means their remediation projects were barely beginning. [3]
75% of small businesses had done nothing about Y2K. [4]

>> Historically, the majority of businesses suffering temporary disasters go out of business permanently. [5]

>> Most businesses depend on dozens, if not thousands, of other businesses as suppliers. A few missing parts can halt an entire automobile assembly line (a weakness utilized by the UAW). Failed businesses not only lay off workers, but force their customers to find new vendors. What would happen if even 10 or 20% of businesses went under simultaneously in January 2000, all over the interdependent global economy? Would it start a chain reaction of closures?
Another aspect of this interrelatedness is the ever-increasing paperwork being generated as companies (a) try to learn the Y2K status of vendors they depend on and (b) answer inquires about their own Y2K status from customers. These tasks often distract Y2K Project Managers from their daily remediation work.

>> Hundreds of large law firms are already handling Y2K-related disputes. Corporate lawyers are advising their companies to withhold vital Y2K information from customers and investors, fearing lawsuits. Legal experts expect Y2K-related litigation and settlement costs to run into hundreds of billions of dollars, rivalling breast implants, asbestos and tobacco. [6]

>> Insurance companies are busy making sure their existing policies do NOT cover Y2K related problems. [7]

When the lawyers are circling and the insurance companies are getting out, it is time to pay attention.

The Y2K combination of dire possibilities and radical uncertainty is generating a growing public anxiety. As it leaches into the groundwater of our public consciousness, it mixes with less tangible millennial fears and hopes. Increasingly, people are looking for security wherever they can find it. Most will live with denial and official assurances as long as they can. Some are hoarding food and buying more guns and ammo. Some seek solice in spirituality and religious movements. Some follow charismatic leaders, ideologies or political movements.

For better (and worse?) a growing number are choosing to cast their lot with community, in one form or another.

In communities people share experience, familiarity, culture, and a sense of common fate -- to some degree. The more these things are shared, the closer and deeper the community. But most of us Americans have traded dependence on each other for dependence on technology, money, and powerful infrastructures of transportation, communication, commerce, utilities, governance, etc. -- which generate the illusion that we can be free agents of our individual destiny. At the ssame time we're hungry for a sense of belonging and communion that cannot be supplied by the marketplace.

So if the infrastructure collapses and people realize they've been betrayed by the technological status quo, isn't it reasonable to assume that they will respond communally -- like they do in earthquakes and floods? Not necessarily. No other catastrophe in human history has happened to everyone at once on one single well-publicized day. If the crisis is serious, there may be no "outside world" to come help, as happens in all natural disasters and many wars. The bonds of fellowship and mutuality may blossom only briefly. Old resentments and disparities may combine with our culture of violence to generate some very unpleasant urban scenes. And when real hardship sets in, people tend to turn to whoever can "deliver the goods." In the absence of relative justice, strong community and the traditional institutions of orderly society, certain people will start accumulating resources violently, and then exchanging them for loyalty. Instead of fellowships of mutuality, we may see a blossoming of competing fellowships of domination -- mafias, gangs, warlords. History has shown this to be the most likely path along which a thoroughly collapsed society re-organizes itself. We see this in many post-Soviet societies.

This prospect brings a perennial question to the fore: What is the role of those of us who value community? If we are here to change society in the direction of greater communion with each other and the larger natural and human worlds, then Y2K presents a powerful motivation and opportunity to make progress in that direction, or else risk sliding back to earlier, more violent forms of society. The same thing is true if we are motivated by a desire to build better lives for ourselves: In this case, the dynamics of Y2K call us to expand our enlightened self-interest further, to build community in ever-widening circles around us, because the smaller our island of peace and prosperity in the midst of violence and want, the more attractive a target we become.

This is the challenge of Y2K. We couldn't ask for a bigger carrot or a bigger stick. It is time for the community movement to move.


Y2K has special implications for intentional communities. I encourage you to engage with each other around the issues listed here -- and to look for others I may have missed.

· INTENTIONALITY: All communities -- from rural communes to inner city neighborhoods -- will need to become more intentional if they are to weather this storm. Those who leave things to chance and try to continue their business as usual may be forcibly dragged out of that lifestyle into something considerably more messy, which they will find themselves ill prepared to handle. Community preparedness will likely become a watchword of 1999 -- although that may mean different things to different people. But all community preparedness will require a sense of collective intentionality, and some way to exercise it.

· RURAL CROWDING: Modern cities are dependent on vast and brittle infrastructure systems vulnerable to Y2K breakdowns. Many educated urban people of means are concluding they don't want to be in cities (especially northern cities like Chicago) when things stop working in the middle of winter. Hundreds are moving to the country. Probably tens of thousands, if not millions more will follow during the coming year. Rural communities will likely become more crowded, with all that entails: nature will be damaged, rural real estate values will go up, ecosystems and infrastructure will be stressed, urban culture and expectations will grind against rural culture, and so on. Cities may be drained of human resources and wealth needed to navigate through Y2K, resulting in the evolution of malevolent power centers rather than nascent ecocities. In the face of these possibilities, what should community-oriented people do?

· NEW INTEREST IN COMMUNITIES: People will want more information about communities and how they work. More people will realize they can't go it alone, and also that they don't know how to live and work well with each other. It seems natural to expect a growing demand for information and training about community in 1999. Who is going to supply it?

· NEW MEMBERS/APPLICANTS: People who live in poorly organized or threatened communities (such as many city neighborhoods) will want to join existing intentional communities -- in the city, in the country -- in order to increase their chances for survival or to transform their lives into something more meaningful. What does it mean to welcome new members -- or to reject them -- in this new era?

· NEW COMMUNITIES: Diverse people who feel threatened by Y2K will want to set up (and are setting up) new communities with those who share their values, assumptions, interests, lifestyles, etc. If the number of intentional communities in the US doubled, tripled, or grew 50-fold, what would happen? Is this something we should prepare for? Encourage? Discourage? Is this a "wave we can ride"? What does it mean for the future, and our role in creating that future?

· SUSTAINABILITY: There is already increasing interest in sustainable lifestyles, technologies, communities, ideologies, paraphernalia. When centralized survival supply lines are disrupted, people need to become more self-reliant. This is the essence of sustainable community, of mutual aid, of bioregionalism, of indigenous cultures, etc. In a Y2K crisis, many things may have to be done locally because there isn't enough gas to transport people or goods very far. Organic agriculture may become more widespread simply because there aren't chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Recycling, reuse and reduced consumption would become more common simply because goods may be more scarce and precious than they were before. Local economics and local waste management may become as natural as walking and biking, all because people don't have any choice. In broad crises such as America's Great Depression and Cuba's embargo shortages, people move naturally (if reluctantly) towards bioregionalism. This process can be facilitated and deepened by advance public education and preparation (e.g., ensuring the seeds, bikes and knowhow are widely accessible) and building strong local relationships to which people can turn in crisis. Should we be playing a role in all this? What is there time to do? What will happen if we don't?

· POSSIBLE VIOLENCE: In a serious collapse, people who need resources or want power may use violence to get it. In such circumstances, those who have resources or orderly communities become targets. The deeper and longer the crisis lasts, the more likely such predation becomes, and the further it will likely reach into more isolated regions. What kind of defenses are we willing to use? To what extent will we hunker down -- or rise to a higher level of engagement with those who threaten us? How much will we invest in preparing ourselves to practice our best responses? Personally, this dynamic makes me believe the only real solutions are society-wide, even world-wide. This has always been true, but could easily be ignored before now. This insight -- the mutuality of our destiny -- lies at the heart of the community movement. How fully are we willing to live this ideal?

· PUSHING THE ENVELOPE: The principles of community -- mutual aid, familiarity, communication, tolerance, shared experience and destiny, answerability, etc. -- will need to be applied on all fronts. Hardship can bind people together or break them apart. And so we are called to build stronger community (a) among our immediate friends and associates, (b) among our wider circles of support, (c) with our geographical neighbors, (d) with the people and groups near our geographical neighborhoods, (e) with others in our bioregion, (f) with others of like mind or intention in distant places and (g) with anyone else who influences (or could influence) our lives. In times of hardship especially, the further out we can draw the line between those who are "us" and those who are "them," the better off we will be. Ultimately, as my friend Jeff Schwartz remarked to me, "We're all we, although some of us don't know it yet."

· PSYCHOSPIRITUAL CHALLENGES: I expect that Y2K will continually challenge us to open our hearts, our doors and our larders. Normally we can open up or shut down without serious consequences. During major social breakdown -- in the face of intensifying human suffering and violence -- both opening up and shutting down have greater consequences. As the ante gets raised, so does our opportunity for personal, group and collective growth and evolution. Those with conscious spiritual practices -- or conscious group processes -- will most likely recognize and utilize these opportunities sooner. But all of us will feel the pull, one way or the other, and will experience the consequences of the choices we make.

· VISION AND MISSION: And so I find myself thinking that communities (and the vision of "community") will inevitably play a major role at this juncture in our culture's evolution. If we are conscious and intentional about it, that role COULD be pivotal -- a rudder that turns our entire culture towards new, more wholesome ways of functioning. In their book CREATING COMMUNITY ANYWHERE, Carolyn Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen call "visionary residential communties" the "R&D Centers for Society." The Y2K crisis could be our Manhattan Project of social reorganization towards greater humanity and sustainability. Of course, pursuing such a mission requires that most of us step out of our own business-as-usual, one way or another. Time is also a factor. If we rush, we will mess up. But if we delay, and spend too much time on the runway, the plane will not get off the ground. Let's face it: There IS a deadline here. We've got about a year. However, we don't need more TIME as much as we need good quality attention, communication and commitment being invested in whatever time we do have, individually and collectively. If we do THAT well, there will be ample time to have a significant impact.


1) SELF-ORGANIZATION: With few exceptions, there isn't time to get new well-managed activities off the ground. But there are millions of existing activities, groups and potentials that we can invite into creative Y2K-related work -- from the National Council of Churches... to the Chambers of Commerce. From psychologists... to farmers. From people's passions and skills... to their connections with potential allies. Let's engage all of those, work with them all. And, when we find ourselves in meetings arguing over what WE should do, let us face the fact that there are many WEs among us, wanting to do different things. Let's not fight reality. Let's engage with that diversity, work with it, use it. As much as possible we should encourage people to (a) do things that matter to them and (b) stay in touch with each other. We can set up structures -- online networking facilities, self-organizing "open space" conferences, etc. -- to help people clarify their passions and connect with each other. As collaboration pioneer Marvin Weisbord said: "I used to ask what's wrong and how do I fix it. Now I ask what's possible and who cares."

2) COMMUNICATIONS AMONG US: We need to be able to find each other and share information and wisdom in a timely manner. This article is being written in September, to be published in December. Although this is a valuable forum, the Y2K landscape and possibilities are changing MUCH too fast to depend on months-long communication lines. Ironically, the best Y2K work is necessarily linked to the Internet -- especially email and the Web. Since I can't predict where things will be by December, I urge you to check in at my website [1] for the latest news and resources. Or you can check the other two Y2K websites that are currently most relevant to community-oriented people --

Furthermore, we may want to prepare to communicate with each other if mass telecommunications go down. One approach is to get involved in the ham radio network to be capable of solar or generator-powered short-wave radio broadcasting and receiving. This will also help us serve our broader communities' communications needs (increasing our security by making us valuable to others). Are there other forms of long-distance communications we should practice for? -- perhaps low-tech bioregional modes like phone trees, relay runners, bike messengers, horses, flag signals, public bulletin boards, etc.? (Might it not be healthy and fun to practice these anyway, just to develop a bioregional, self-reliant spirit?)

3) SEEDING THE FIELD: In addition to our direct work of preparing communities for January 2000, those of us committed to a better world need to keep our big-picture perspective. How can we spread the vision and resources for a better world so broadly that they will be able to take root anywhere there is fertile ground -- even if the mass communication system is destroyed (no internet, public libraries, national media, etc.)? A defunct group called TraNet once provided an inexpensive microfilm library on alternative technology to villages in less developed countries. They also began a project creating 4-page how-to guides for local alternative economic structures (barter systems, credit unions, co-ops, community supported agriculture, etc.). The time for such projects has arrived, but we'll have to restart them.

We also need to seed alternative-culture stories and imagery -- journalism, novels, short stories, movies, TV programs, ballads, drama, street theater, myths, etc. -- into the larger sea of cultural narratives and images we swim in. Stories and images take root readily in people's minds and can move them effectively into action and transformation. In particular, we need works of "imagineering" -- stories that are designed to become replicated into real life. One of the most fascinating examples is Edward Abbey's novel THE MONKEYWRENCH GANG, which provided the inspiration, rationale and know-how for hundreds of people to independently begin the activities that evolved into Earth First!.

I see Y2K as a gigantic force moving into position to transform the world. It is providing us with an enormous historic moment for learning and teaching. The stage is being set by the actions of billions of people, including yourself, right now as you read this. We are all co-creating the shape of the Y2K crisis, whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not. It will not go away.

May we co-create well-considered, timely initiatives to use these times for good, inspired by the insight of Laura-Lea Cannon, a Y2K community organizer in Boulder, CO:

"Community is the answer to every question Y2K raises."


[1] Evidence for most of the unreferenced claims in this article can be found on the Co-Intelligence Institute's Y2K-Breakthrough web site at . You will also find many related articles and hundreds of links to others who are doing good work on this subject.

[2] On January 12, 1998, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ordered publicly-held companies to report their progress toward solving their Y2K problems. On June 10, 1998, Steve Hock, president of Triaxsys Research in Missoula, Montana, testified before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee that his company had examined the SEC filings of America's 250 largest corporations. Mr. Hock told the Senate that 114 of the 250 companies had filed no Y2K information with the SEC. Of the 136 companies that HAVE filed Y2K information, 101 reported their progress on the assessment phase of the problem. Of these 101, 60% revealed that they have not yet completed their assessments of the Y2K problem.
If we assume that the 114 companies not filing are so behind-schedule they are embarrassed to report, the above data suggests that only about 41 of 250 (16%) of our largest companies have completed the assessment phase.

[3] Electronics engineer Harlan Smith -- a leading member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility's Y2K Working Group -- provides the following scheduling estimates for a Y2K remediation plan:
Inventory and Initial Assessment: (5 percent)
Impact Assessment and Conversion Planning: (20 percent)
Systems Conversion: (20 percent)
Unit and System Testing: (45 percent)
Implementation and Business Partner Links: (10 percent)
This should be followed by at least six months (and preferably a year) of full operational testing to "wring the bugs out."

[4] A survey of small businesses by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), reported June 1.

[5] "Research has shown that only 43% of businesses suffering a disaster ever recovered sufficiently to resume business, according to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Among businesses that do re-open, only 29% are still operating two years later. Even more ominous, is the fact that 93% of businesses that lost their datacenter for 10 days or more had filed for bankruptcy within one year of the disaster. And 50% of businesses that found themselves without data management for the same time period filed for bankruptcy immediately." American Power Conversion,

[6] "Year 2000 Bug Could Bring Flood of Lawsuits" by Rajiv Chandrasakaran, The Washington Post, May 5, 1998

[7] "The Insurance Services Office, a company that helps insurers deal with regulatory issues, has received permission from 46 states for insurance companies to deny Year 2000 claims. The four remaining states -- Alaska, Texas, Maine and Massachusetts -- are considering granting that permission." AP article 4 Aug 98 by Patricia Lamiell