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The Y2K Environmental Movement is Expanding

by Tom Atlee
October 1998

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 Y2K scenarios.
-- 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 area:
Y2K is not an easy issue for any of us to deal with, and environmental activists are no exception.
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 voluntary simplicity."

For more information, you can contact Ruth Rosenhek ( or visit the Rainforest Information Centre (

More connections between Y2k and the Environment

excerpted from Cynthia Beal's email of September 8, 1998

"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 anymore."


* 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."