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Jim Lord's Y2K Challenge to the Environmental Movement

A powerful article by Jim Lord has made me think even harder about the proper role of the environmental movement in dealing with the Year 2000 technology problem. Here are his thoughts and mine. -- Tom

Y2K and Environmentalism

By Jim Lord

Because of its embedded processor aspect [the microchips in diverse equipment, which may fail in January 2000], the Year 2000 Computer Crisis poses what is likely the greatest environmental threat in history. Embedded processors control countless industrial processes that produce or use pollutants, poisons, or toxic substances. The facilities in which these processes are common include,

Manufacturing plants
Chemical plants
Pharmaceutical plants
Oil and gas wells, pipelines and tankers
Oil, gas and ore refineries
Nuclear and fossil fuel power plants
Nuclear waste treatment facilities
Nuclear weapon facilities
Sewage treatment plants
Water treatment facilities
And many others

The April 1998 issue of World Oil Magazine says [in describing Y2K problem correction efforts],

"It is estimated that the average oil and gas firm, starting today,
can expect to remediate less than 30% of the overall potential
failure points in the production environment. This reality shifts
the focus of the solution away from trying to fix the problem,
to planning strategies that would minimize potential damage and
mitigate potential safety hazards."

This statement implies that:

The oil and gas industry won't finish in time.
There will be environmental damage and personal safety hazards.

The cold, clammy realization that we're not going to fix the embedded processor problem is sinking in. No matter how well we do in the United States, much of the world has little chance of fixing the embedded processor component of Y2K. The environmental implications are nothing short of staggering.

A critical question - where's the environmental movement. The answer is - nowhere to be found. At this point, they don't have a Y2K clue but that won't last long. Awareness of the Year 2000 Crisis is growing dramatically. Before long, the environmentalists will realize what's happening and when they do,

They're going to go stark, raving nuts.

They're going to want to shut down everything and here's the great irony - they're probably right. We probably can't take the chance of massive, simultaneous, global failures in environmentally sensitive systems. At a minimum, we need to start testing these facilities by turning the computers ahead to the Year 2000 in a carefully controlled and isolated fashion.

When the environmentalists finally get up to speed on Y2K, they will play an immensely important role in the public discourse. Theirs will be one of the loudest voices on the scene. With their potent, international political clout and their superb, global organization, their Luddite tendencies will rise to the surface.

The drama of this confrontation will be compelling and political leaders all over the world will be trapped in a fascinating corner. Save the world by shutting it down and ruining the global economy. Meanwhile, all those tens of billions of clock chips keep ticking, ticking, ticking.

(Just a passing thought - consider poor Al Gore. Both ends of his stick, technology and the environment are about to turn malodorous. It'll be fascinating to watch him as well.)

My Tip of the Week is to watch the environmental movement like a hawk. When they become fully engaged in this issue, they will put immense pressure on the politicians and could very well determine the nature of the broad political response to Y2K.

Good Luck!

September 8, 1998 - Westergaard Year 2000 Y2K Tip of the Week #54

Notes from Tom Atlee:

I find the above article on the environmental movement provocative in more ways than one. For example, although Jim Lord and I hold quite different political views, we're standing in the same spot on this issue.

A retired naval officer, Lord is an electronics and software professional and one of America's leading experts on Y2K. His writings laud technology, free markets and community self-reliance. He has obvious distaste for our large federal government and clearly doesn't think of himself as an environmentalist.

While I share his dreams of self-reliant communities, I favor democratic constraints on both technological development and corporate power, and I believe the federal government has a role to play in these things. I am also a passionate environmentalist.

So it intrigues me that -- unbeknownst to each other -- we were both working on major, remarkably similar Y2K-environmental articles at exactly the same time, almost down to the day. My article -- far more comprehensive but less focused and dynamic than Lord's -- can be found at

For those who may doubt Mr. Lord's motives or evidence, I want to stress that he is not talking through his hat. Here is a recent statement from Senator Robert Bennett, chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, about problems with embedded chips (microprocessors) in large toxic facilities:

"I read a story recently about a major oil company that tested one of its oil refineries. They found that the refinery had 90 separate systems that somehow used a microprocessor. Many of these were key systems. Of the 90 systems, they were able to come up with detailed documentation on 70. Of these 70, they determined that twelve had date dependent embedded chips. Of the twelve, four failed a Y2K test and will have to be replaced. Had any of the four failed on January 1, 2000, they would either have completely shut down the plant or would have caused a high level safety hazard which would have caused other systems to shut it down. What is really worrying the company's experts now is the other 20 systems. They don't know what functions the chips in these systems have and are leaning towards replacing them all. This happens to be a relatively modern plant."

Stories like this are beginning to crop up in many places. The respected environmental research journal RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY, in an article "THE Y2K PROBLEM, PART 1" in their issue #604 of June 25, 1998, cited ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH columnist Virginia Hick's interview* of well-known Y2K industrial consultant Peter de Jager (

".... De Jager talked recently with an executive of a company that makes a volatile gas --he would not identify the company more specifically --who told de Jager how his plant discovered the seriousness of faulty embedded chips.

"The plant found a chip that failed when the date was moved forward. When the chip failed, it shut off a valve that would have shut down the cooling system. A cooling system shutdown, the executive said, would have caused an explosion.

"That was great news," de Jager said. "Because they checked--there will be no explosion. They're replacing the chips."

"De Jager worries about the companies that are not checking," Hick wrote.

* Virginia Hick, "Expert Warns Computer World is Running Out of Time to Meet 2000; Code is Broken and Needs to Be Fixed Fast, He Says," ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH Nov. 19, 1997, pg. C8.

RACHEL'S also quotes an April, 1998, FORTUNE report describing the Y2K vulnerability of chemical systems:

"The precision and interdependence of process controls in chemical plants, for instance, make a Rube Goldberg fantasy contraption look simple. Let a single temperature sensor in the complex chain of measuring instruments go cuckoo because of a year 2000 problem, and you'll get a product with different ingredients than you need--if it comes out at all."

Gene Bylinsky, "Industry Wakes Up to the Year 2000 Menace," FORTUNE April 27, 1998, pgs. 163-180. Available on the web at

RACHEL'S editor, Peter Montague, "worked 5 years in the Computing Center at Princeton University" and said at the start of his article that "We've been hearing about this problem for some time now, but like most people we have been ignoring it.... [and have been] very suspicious of alarming predictions about the year 2000." After reviewing the evidence, however, he concluded that:

"If we lived in a community with one or more chemical plants, we would be asking our local government to hold public hearings on the Y2K problem, seeking public assurances from local plant managers that they really have this problem under control. What written plans do they have for assessing these problems, and how large a budget have they committed to solving them? What progress can they demonstrate? Does the plant manager have sufficient confidence in the plant's safety systems to be at the plant with his or her family at midnight December 31, 1999, to celebrate the new year?"

Another story comes from Australia. When engineers simulated Y2K tests of the water storage facility at Coff's Harbour, they discovered that the system that regulates purification of the water would have dumped all the purification chemicals into the water on 1/1/2000 causing a mix toxic enough to kill the entire population of it's supply area.

Although billions of dollars are being spent on Y2K corrections, there is mounting evidence that many remediation efforts -- even those involving "mission critical systems" -- will be far from complete when we roll over into the next century. This includes manufacturing plants, nuclear facilities, chemical storage facilities and dozens of other systems, both public and private.

Oddly enough, even the widely advocated focus on "mission critical systems" may prove problematic. Leading Y2K consultant Douglass Carmichael notes that, "There is the danger that what looks like a trivial program output may in fact be a critical piece of another program in another part of the system. The same for critical systems, where a minor system to some is critical to others.... We may be at the point where faster work on remediation, triage and focus on 'critical systems' is leaving the overall system of systems in worse shape than if we had done nothing, with a long legacy in the future of work to be done to fix the many problems currently being introduced through rapid and undisciplined or blind work." ("Y2k week - week 66" at

There is no way to know FOR SURE how bad Y2K problems will be until the accidents happen. Then, of course, it will be too late. Will there be numerous major catastrophes, or just a few minor toxic emissions? We COULD learn more about the Y2K status of toxic facilities, but NO ONE is currently monitoring this, worldwide. Without immense public pressure, it isn't likely any government will. Any grassroots monitoring that will be done -- and any pressure that will get official monitoring done -- will have to be generated by the environmental movement.

This is not something we have time for. It is disorienting to contemplate such a gigantic additional responsibility when our plates are already overfull with current programs which we have, with great pains, carefully selected over many other desperately needed efforts.

Unfortunately, we have to make the time, and soon. This predicament is faced by EVERYONE who faces Y2K. Y2K dissolves business as usual. All around us corporations and city governments are having to transfer millions of dollars from productive activities to deal with expensive Y2K compliance operations that don't do anything for them except keep them in business.

The prospect of dealing with Y2K is not pleasant. But it IS both necessary and urgent.

I personally don't think there is a higher priority on the environmental agenda. Furthermore, I think that perhaps 90% of environmental programs can gain energy by incorporating Y2K-related issues -- a point I emphasize in my environmental overview at

But this toxics problem is its own situation. If we don't handle this one, we may end up in very hot water, indeed.

So I'm going to volunteer as a willing messenger of Jim Lord's challenge. I'm going to suggest to all my environmental colleagues, right here and now, that we grab this bull by two horns... and ride it:

1) We can make sure that any potentially toxic facility that cannot demonstrate 100% Y2K compliance by November of 1999 is shut down and that contingency plans for public/environmental safety are in place well before that. Given proper motivation and guidance from us, we can count on a lot of grassroots activism to happen in local communities concerned with the threat of toxic releases from Y2K breakdowns. AT THE SAME TIME, we can make LOTS of noise about the need for environmentally-responsible business practices and technologies. With Y2K's help, we can point out -- graphically, locally -- just how unwise our toxic economy is, and how obvious the alternatives are. Thanks to growing awareness of the dangers of Y2K, the public mind is being prepared to hear our messages. If Y2K delivers a few Chernobyls and Bhopals (which is highly likely) -- and IF we have set the stage well -- we can expect unprecedented and (finally) successful public demand for a transition to ecologically benign, sustainable economies and technologies.

2) We can push very strongly for community responsibility, community empowerment, community resilience, community preparedness, community economics, community everything. Strong, sustainable, self-reliant communities are key to making it through whatever Y2K has to offer us. They are also the keystones of a sane, sustainable society. Y2K will be making this clearer than ever before. From community-centered agriculture to community-friendly corporate charters to the end of multinational trade empires, Y2K provides every society in the world with compelling motivation to do the locally-empowering things we've been advocating for so long.

It seems to me that with Y2K we have more to gain -- and more to lose -- than at any other time in our history.

Let's choose wisely.

Tom Atlee

September 28, 1998