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

Let's Use Y2K as a Doorway to Resilience and Renewal


by Tom Atlee


Taken from Just in Case: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Y2K Crisis, Edited by Michael Brownlee, Barbara Stahura and Robert Yehling. (Origin Press, 1999, $16.95) An up-to-date book with a transformational perspective. Covers the US and global scene as of the beginning of 1999 (including articles by Senator Bennett, Ed Yourdon, and Rick Cowles -- including 2 articles on health care), as well as 38 pages of transformational articles by Meg Wheatley, Tom Atlee, Gordon Davidson, and others.). Available from bookstores, 1-888-267-4446 and . This article reprinted with permission of the publisher.


It was a clear and warm first Sunday in July, 1998. Four of us drove up to the Point Reyes Permaculture Institute for their monthly open house and parked outside a wall of bushes. Practitioners of permaculture describe it as a design science for creating ecosystems that include and support humans. We wondered what we'd see.

Walking through an arched bush doorway, we entered a one-acre mini-Eden -- a vibrant green and flower-bedecked homestead occupied by chickens, ducks, fish and four people. Among the wonders were Hobbit-like houses, a grapevine-draped gazebo and some live saplings that had been woven into the form of a living chair. Each piece of land and each living thing had a story.

Our guide told us they'd started a few years ago with strawberries, because they all liked strawberries. When the strawberries were attacked by slugs, they didn't reach for pesticides. "We believe everything is good for something. So we had to find out what the slugs were good for." It turned out that ducks eat slugs.

So the first step in handling the slugs was to create a pond for the ducks. The big hole they dug was filled with the water from their sinks and baths, purified by a little marsh they built, complete with cattails and rushes. The water was fresh enough for goldfish and the two new ducks loved it.

Since permaculture folks try to recycle and use everything on site, they decided to use the dirt dug out of the pond to build a cob office. Cob is a mix of dirt, sand and straw which can be made into any shape. The permaculture people called a building party. As the music blared, friends, students, kids and ducks danced around in the cob mud, mixing in the straw and then building up the walls. The messy creativity soon produced a curvy Hobbit-office with unusually shaped windows made to fit pieces of glass collected from a junk yard.

Attached to the office, they built a cob oven in the shape of a dragon's head. The office became the dragon's body, its tail curving into a bench people could sit on to watch the fire in the dragon-oven's mouth. A copper wire from the oven's floor ran under the office to heat the occupants.

The wonders never ceased. A "chicken tractor" (a mobile wire chicken enclosure) helped clear and fertilize the land. A potato plant growing up through a straw-stuffed wire enclosure laid its potatoes high in the straw where they could be harvested with no digging. A pear tree shading a south-facing picture window obligingly dropped its leaves in the fall, like a seasonal venetian blind, to let the winter sun pour in. In a little spiral-mound herb garden, each plant was intentionally positioned to help the others....

We were there for hours, and still didn't feel we'd absorbed it all. The whole creation was aesthetic, peaceful, vitally alive, self-contained. All on a plot no bigger than the average, comparatively sterile suburban lot.

With Y2K in mind, I asked our guide if they could set up their little plot of land in a year and a half to satisfy all their material needs. Could they live without the grid, without grocery stores, without utilities? Without hesitation, she said, "Sure. But it would be much nicer to do it with neighbors. You see, like people, each plot of land has its own special characteristics and capabilities, so we could raise a greater variety of food, herbs, flowers and animals if we did it together. And there's more security and pleasure in having a community involved."

For these gardeners were no hermits. They were actively engaged in their community. Among their projects was a biannual community free-market, where everyone brought what they didn't want and took away what they liked. After hundreds of items passed through the village square, there was seldom more than one garbage can of recycling to handle.

These people were resilient. They were -- and are -- living in resilient systems they have created in partnership with the land and life around them. I learned about resilience from futurist Robert Theobald. Resilience means you can bounce back from hardship -- and if you can't bounce back immediately, you can at least survive well until you recover. Health and resilience have a lot in common. Y2K challenges us to bring more resilience to our lives -- and to our social, economic and technological systems, as well.

Resilience isn't a dry, mechanical thing. Real resilience is lush and abundant, like the Point Reyes permaculture site. The people there weren't in any way deprived. They were fulfilled and intensely engaged with life, with each other, and with their community.

From this perspective, Y2K shifts from being mostly a danger, to being an incredible opportunity to change our lives and our societies for the better. It is a wake up call alerting us to fuller, richer, more wholesome ways of living available now. We don't have to give up all our modern technology. But neither do we have to be as alone as we are now, and so totally dependent on giant complex economic and technological systems over which we have little influence -- systems which are looking more brittle and undependable with each passing month.

We need to take another look at the three worlds we live in -- the world of nature, the world of people and the world of technology.

Although we often forget it, we are totally dependent on nature. Without nature's sun, air, water, soil, plants and animals we simply could not exist. We also need other people -- friends and families, truck drivers and grocers, architects and doctors, academics and bureaucrats. Finally, and most significantly, our everyday survival is bound into our technological infrastructure -- the power plants, plumbing, cars, telephones, traffic lights, tractors and millions of computers in banks and factories and missile silos.

To a startling degree, this technological infrastructure has replaced our mutual relationships with neighbors and nature. This is sad, because neighbors and nature will be all we have left if the infrastructure is disabled by Y2K. In the final analysis, neighbors and nature are our primary sources of resilience.

What makes up this infrastructure? What are these things upon which we depend, which depend in turn on computers and microchips that could fail in the millennium turn-over?

-- all the water and energy utilities
-- all the waste removal systems
-- all telecommunications and mass media
-- all financial institutions
-- all the transportation systems
-- everything that makes global commerce possible
-- all the systems of governance and government services
-- our multifaceted health care system
-- all those buildings and systems for education, justice, manufacturing and security.

All these systems were constructed by brilliant, fallible human beings, piece by piece, and then pruned to deliver greater productivity and efficiency, with no one overseeing the whole show. Unlike natural systems, they didn't evolve as integrated systems through millions of years of trial and error and natural selection.

Designers and managers painstakingly removed what they thought of as unnecessary reserves (fat), duplication, human involvement and uncertainty, to make these systems automated, lean and mean. Unfortunately, this also made them totally dependent on everything around them working perfectly. The more successful the designers and managers were, the more brittle the systems they were working with became -- BECAUSE THEY WERE WORKING FOR EFFICIENCY, NOT RESILIENCE.

When the computers at an airline ticket counter went down, I and scores of other travelers couldn't get our tickets. A few months earlier, I was on a train whose computerized engine applied its brakes. It wouldn't release them and there was no way to release them by hand. We sat for seven hours in the desert until another train lent us an engine. A few months before that, a strike at an auto parts plant stopped production at several auto assembly plants because there was no warehouse of parts waiting available; everything had been delivered "just in time," on a computer-controlled schedule -- until the deliveries stopped.

These automated systems are EFFICIENT -- as long as all the parts are working. But they aren't RESILIENT, which is what you need them to be when things AREN'T working. Y2K helps us look more closely at resilience, because an awful lot of things may not be working in the Year 2000, and we are going to be paying the price. So let's take that closer look.

A resilient worker who loses a job, falls back on savings and then gets a new job within a few months. A resilient child stumbles on the sidewalk and, after a yowl, is up and running again.

A resilient community pulls together when a natural disaster or economic downturn hits. Even though their days may be difficult, their lives may feel richer as they help each other put their shared world back together. Resilient neighbors like this can roll with the punches and come out stronger at the end of hard times.

People who have strong social networks of friends and associates are healthier -- and recover more quickly if they do get sick -- than those who are socially isolated. People who exercise regularly, eat nutritious food and have a creative outlook on life also tend to be healthier and, when ill, recover quickly. Social networks and a healthy lifestyle make people more resilient.

Those permaculture gardeners have healthy food all the time. If there's an earthquake or economic trouble, they have food to fall back on. If they maintained stores of long-lasting food (grains, beans, dried or canned food), then they would be VERY resilient, no matter what happened. If grocery stores closed, they'd have their gardens and stockpiles. If bad weather ruined their gardens, they could eat from a full larder. If their stocks were running short, they could lean more heavily on their gardens. If their neighbors had stashes and gardens, too -- and if they were all on good terms with each other! -- then they'd be very resilient, indeed!

Many people worry about what will happen to them if the year 2000 computer problem knocks out their electricity. People who have lots of solar and wind-powered equipment, a fireplace, good insulation, and some candles and oil lamps don't worry about this at all. If their neighbors, local schools and churches are all similarly prepared, then the whole neighborhood is resilient. They can function well no matter what happens with the power grid. In good times, they could even produce energy FOR the grid!

A community that is totally dependent on banks, chain stores and multinational dollars is not very resilient. If there's a regional, national or global recession, they would topple like a rotten tree. However, if you add a few credit unions, diverse philanthropy, strong locally-owned businesses, co-operative enterprises (created by and for local citizens), a local currency or trading system, and a tradition of people giving to each other, hiring each other and helping each other out, then you have a resilient community economy. When the global economy and stock market start to quiver, the community falls back on its local resources.

A neighborhood or community can be resilient in many ways. Neighborhood patrols can reduce crime in cities and keep their area safer if police are unavailable. Church groups can look after the ill, elderly and less fortunate. High school students can do neighborhood surveys to find out where the special skills and resources are (and they are ALL OVER, in EVERY community). Volunteers can provide mediation services to reduce conflict among neighbors. Gardeners can teach gardening, and schools and landlords can provide space for community gardens. The more bicycles there are, the better the transportation system will be if fuel supplies were suddenly cut short. Community officials could ensure that community-service vehicles were especially fuel efficient (or even solar-rechargeable) to provide urgent transportation in a crisis. The more people who are trained in short wave radio, CPR, first aid, and other emergency preparedness skills, the more resilient the community will be in a ANY catastrophe. Environmentalists and technologists can work together to make sure that any computer failures do not result in dangerous toxic releases near their community. And people can use simple, effective group communication procedures (like passing a stick or stone around a circle, with each person holding it taking a turn to speak) which help them be more connected and coherent in their work together. My web site -- -- contains hundreds of approaches to community resilience, with more information on all the possibilities mentioned in this article.

Resilience applies to EVERY part of life. Individually and collectively, we can plan to bounce back and grow stronger through hard times. Prudent people prepare for hard times even if they've known only good times. But it is hard to be prudent -- or even to think clearly about Y2K -- when we have no experience with war, famine, economic collapse and pestilence in our own neighborhoods. And most of us Americans don't. The exceptions, of course, are those of us who lived through the Great Depression, or came from a devastated country, or are trapped in one of America's impoverished urban or rural enclaves. What most of us Americans think of as economic hardship would be considered royal affluence by billions of people in the world. Learning once again how to live well with less and how to depend on neighbors and nature will help us be more resilient. We'll be better prepared to face not only Y2K, but all the other economic, environmental and social challenges of the twenty-first century.

"So," you say. "Tell me again what makes a system resilient..."

Lots of things: Having extra parts and supplies around. Having many different ways to do everything. Having things set up so people can step in when the automated or mechanical systems don't work. Having everyone able to competently perform many different needed tasks. Having people knowing what others are doing, and how the whole system works. Giving people time to think, feel and communicate; the power to be responsible; and the freedom to be creative. Having people respect each other, the systems they work with, and the natural and human communities they operate in, so that they don't damage them, and so support will be available from them when it's needed. Loving life, acting on what we care about, and using some real long-term common sense -- that's what makes us resilient.

We've got our work cut out for us. Preparing for Y2K AND RESILIENCE could be the best thing we've ever done. We have a chance to bring new aliveness and lasting health to ourselves, our communities and our country. It's time to set aside business-as-usual and do it.