The Y2K Environmental Movement is Expanding
by Tom Atlee
We see Y2K as an incredible opportunity for communities to come
together to discuss and transition to more sustainable ways of living.
-- Rainforest deep ecology activists John Seed and Ruth Rosenhek
Handled adeptly, Y2K would assist us in replacing our brittle computer-based
systems with networks of community resilience.
-- K. Lauren de Boer, editor of Earthlight Magazine
We probably can't take the chance of massive, simultaneous, global failures
in environmentally sensitive systems [due to Y2K].... When the environmentalists
finally get up to speed on Y2K, they will play an immensely important role
in the public discourse.
-- Leading Y2K spokesperson Jim Lord
I think we should all be actively planning and working to prevent the worst
-- Environmentalist writer Susan Strong
Y2K looms large in our minds.
-- Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day
In the five weeks since I wrote my first major article on the environmental
implications of Y2K, much more has come into my awareness in this vital
- Y2K expert Jim Lord has written a provocative Challenge
to the Environmental Movement. Both I
and Y2K environmentalist Cynthia Beal wrote
- Earthlight Magazine (a vanguard in publishing positive
responses to Y2K) commissioned its second article about Y2K, pointing out
why it is so hard for the media to cover this issue.
- The Northern California Earth Institute, who do very effective workshops
on sustainability and voluntary simplicity, decided to design a workshop
on sustainable responses to Y2K.
- Cynthia Beal wrote to Earth Day 2000 and discovered that Denis Hayes,
founder of Earth Day, is very concerned about Y2K. John Baldwin, director
of the University of Oregon's Institute for a Sustainable Environment, also
sees clear connections between ISE's goals and the dangers and opportunities
- Howard Rheingold, one of the architects of Whole Earth, is organizing
in his neighborhood in preparation for Y2K.
- Donella Meadows has written two articles on the lessons Y2K has to
teach us about the economic, techological and ecological systems in which
- Real Goods, the merchant of tools and know-how for sustainability,
is now quietly marketing some of their energy systems to prepare for Y2K,
and they say many new customers are coming in because of Y2K.
- Rainforest deep ecology activists John Seed and Ruth Rosenhek have
been doing a tour that links Y2K, gold mining and rainforest destruction
- Investigative reporter and Y2K environmentalist Larry Shook, who did
exposes of Hanford nuclear power plant, has found that environmentalists
in Washington State suddenly "get" the Y2K issue when he points
out that many radioactive material control systems are dependent on computers
that could malfunction in January 2000. Another investigative reporter
told me that a number of environmental groups are organizing a campaign
to close down all the nuclear plants before the year 2000.
- Y2K scenario consultant Douglass Carmichael has suggested that so-called
"not mission critical" systems (which aren't being fixed) may
play significant overlooked roles in larger systems. Thus they could generate
some real surprises as Y2K unfolds. In that light, it is interesting to
recall that the Office of Management and the Budget reported that the Department
of Energy -- one of the least Y2K-ready agencies in the federal government
-- started the year with 468 mission critical systems and by February had
"determined that over 80 [of them were] not truly mission-critical."
Should we worry about what those 80 were, since they aren't being made
Y2K is not an easy issue for any of us to deal with, and environmental activists
are no exception.
- Y2K is inherently ambiguous; its possible consequences
range from minor inconvenience to the toxic meltdown of civilization --
and there is ample evidence to support either view and most views in between.
It is hard to know whether to ignore it or drop everything.
- Y2K offers no clear enemy to blame; the problem is
systemic, and has innumerable "causes." There is no obvious single
solution or target to focus on -- which is incredibly frustrating for activists.
- The worst case Y2K scenarios are so overwhelming
that even disaster-familiar environmentalists don't know how to psychologically
digest them. The impact of Y2K can seem as big as nuclear war (and could
conceivably trigger it). This potential catastrophe, combined with its
fixed and imminent date, invite denial.
- Y2K is unbelievably complex, covering the entirety
of the economic and technical systems in which we're embedded -- from the
broadest scope to the tiniest detail -- as well as the interwoven intricacies
of psychology and sociology (human reaction is a major factor here). No
one has the capacity to embrace it all.
It is easy to understand why Y2K is ignored. If there's no hope of nailing
it down or finding a simple way to address it -- and if it may turn out
to be insignificant -- then why pay any attention to it at all?
Under the circumstances I find myself deeply impressed with the heroic efforts
of people like Lauren de Boer (the editor of Earthlight) and
the board members of the Northern California Earth Institute. I have personally
joined them over the last month in their struggles to deal with this slippery,
toxic issue. All of them have come to a place of non-dogmatic clarity that
a strong, pro-active, timely response to Y2K is not only appropriate, but
urgent. These pioneers have made a space in their current activities to
include that vital response. They know that response is important now,
no matter what Y2K's outcome, no matter how ambiguous it seems. They've
realized that none of us can afford to wait for total clarity before we
act -- that we won't ever get total clarity -- that by the time we get even
a glimpse of clarity, it will be too late to prepare if we face major disruptions.
They also realized that we have a potentially fruitful partnership with
people who are concerned about Y2K, regardless of whether their concerns
prove warranted: If we share with them our knowledge about sustainability,
they will carry our agenda into the world.
An invisible, deadly connection: Y2K Destroys Rainforests
Rainforest deep ecology activists John Seed and Ruth Rosenhek have been
doing a tour that links Y2K, gold mining and rainforest destruction. They
point out that gold mining produces "cyanide mountains and mercury
rivers," destroying forests and communities from Venezuela to Indonesia.
They are "kicking off a boycott of new gold" to make gold mining
as unpopular as fur trapping. "The price of gold has dropped drastically
over the last couple of decades," they say. "If it continues
to drop, then it will become economically unfeasible for gold mining to
continue in many places."
But Y2K is countering their efforts, because people afraid of economic and
financial meltdowns are seeking security in gold, raising the price and
stimulating gold mining.
So John and Ruth are reframing Y2K so people can seek security in other
ways than through the earth-destroying pursuit of artificial wealth. "We
see Y2K as an incredible opportunity for communities to come together to
discuss and transition to more sustainable ways of living.... As we travel
around the country, we've seen various degrees of organizing around Y2K.
In Crestone, a town nestled in a valley of the Rockies, folks are looking
at a full gamut of sustainability issues with committees to address each."
Ruth is specifically working on the gold jewelry angle. "From 75-84%
of gold mined globally goes to gold jewelry," she explains, "and
in North America 50% of the gold jewelry is sold as class and fraternal
rings. So a youth campaign is in the making."
For real security, Ruth and John suggest we "sell gold, invest in biosphere
and community, neighbourhood Y2K meetings, solar panels, organic food, and
For more information, you can contact Ruth Rosenhek (RRosenhek@aol.com)
or visit the Rainforest Information Centre (http://forests.org/ric/)
More connections between Y2k and the Environment
excerpted from Cynthia Beal's email of September 8, 1998
ARE MANUAL BACK-UPS ADEQUATE?
"Leon Kappelman reminds us that it was a valve failure that led to
the Bhopal tragedy. Substandard gaskets failed and we had the Challenger
explosion. Three Mile Island had a few issues with manual back-up systems
- exactly what are being proposed for the contingency plans for automated
Y2k failures around the world. There's a reason why people don't operate
valves and levers that control things that flow and explode - we're just
not fast enough, and we can't do it right all the time. 'Oops' doesn't work
SOME Y2K IMPLICATIONS OF THE SIX FOCAL CONCERNS
OF EARTH DAY 2000:
* Wild Places and Endangered Species
"Y2k and other ... impacts on the economy may increase pressure on
large corporations to liquidate resource assets (forests, mines, etc.) in
order to meet financial obligations."
* Population and Consumption
"Y2k and related economic volatilities may change consumption patterns
dramatically." Prices will likely fluctuate, and relative values change:
necessities will become more expensive, disposables or luxuries will likely
decline in value - leading to reduced purchases - leading to layoffs, etc.,
which would cascade through the economy. Such socio-economic impacts could
easily "change how we interact with the environment, and material resources
may become more in demand, rather than less. An increased demand for food
that can be stored and shared appropriately ... will change what we do to
produce food, and may unfortunately also increase the use of artificial
production boosters like fertilizers, heavy equipment, irrigation, and pesticides."
"Populations may migrate unexpectedly as a result of Y2k. If cities
have significant problems in countries around the world, will the relatively
less-populated (with humans) rural areas gain an unacceptable influx of
people, at the expense of habitat, animals, current rural socio-economic
balances, and (often marginally) healthy terrain?"
* Human Health and the Environment
"....Communities that have opted to invest in 10+ year plans for converting
to sustainable technologies or wellness programs may have those projects
interrupted as the immediate issues generated by volatility from Y2k-related
impacts demand attention. Search the web for discussions about health impacts
on human populations during basic infrastructure interruptions, especially
if they're long term or unsupported by outside assistance. (Australia's
current challenges with natural gas are a case in point - while some say
'no problem, we're coping,' others do not like going for 15 days without
bathing, and there are plenty of schools that would suggest this may end
up being a health hazard. What are the best, safest, most non-invasive
methodologies for supporting people in these times? Will the CDC, the HHS,
the USDA, etc. give us what we really need? Or will chemicalized-food-safety
and irradiation suddenly become 'obvious' or the 'only option'?)"
* Banishing Weapons of Mass Destruction
"What is the impact of Y2k on weapons systems? If currencies grow unstable
and we continue to trend toward a resource-based economy; if raw material
resources are in high demand, either for use or to back floundering currencies;
if resources are in dispute; if weapons are used to commandeer or defend
resources; if weapons become inoperable after Y2k; if detection and defense
systems become inoperable after Y2k; if weapon systems trigger, or weapons
production becomes unsafe during or after Y2k; if the Cassini probe is not
Y2k compliant... these issues may escalate all weapons disputes and contentions.
Perhaps education about the alternatives is even more necessary now?"
* Livable Communities
"Discussion about the impact of Y2k on communities around the world
is taking place between people who have rarely seen a reason to consider
the real value of a locally powered light rail system, or green space that
was appropriately managed for local food production, or the most practical
water delivery system that is not reliant on outside chemical or power supplies."
Y2k-concerned communities are becoming fertile ground for sustainable alternatives.
* Sustainable Agriculture
"The potential here is incredible. The surge is on for non-hybrid seeds.
Many thousands of people in North America may soon suddenly realize the
audacity and stupidity of the 'Terminator' gene' [marketing hybrid plants
whose seeds won't grow another generation of plants]. Gardening will become
of paramount importance. Laws against selling produce out of your yard,
or growing edibles in front of your house, could be exposed for the disempowering
yokes against self-reliance that they are. And when people realize how hard
it will be to get wheat, the staff-of-life, out of their sod-mat, farmers
who currently have this life-grain rotting in the fields will be supported
once again, and CSAs [community supported agriculture systems] could flourish,
and a host of good things could grow."