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Community Preparedness: Y2K Insurance/Wise Investment


Apr 28, 1999
From: Michael Dowd
The Wisdom of Community Preparedness

Community Preparedness: Y2K Insurance/Wise Investment

by Michael Dowd and Larry Shook

By now, most people understand that the Year 2000 computer date change problem (Y2K) is a historic challenge. It confronts us with uncertainty and certainty at the same time. Uncertainty about what might happen. Certainty that the better prepared we are, the more able we'll be to manage whatever disruptions do occur.

Simply put, Y2K is a widespread programming condition that we can count on to cause unpredictable problems. That's because computers now regulate or impact just about every necessity we depend on. Electricity, food, water, medicine, sanitation, communication, transportation...If we use it, computers probably help us get it.

But will Y2K be a big problem or a minor irritation? Here's the rub: it's impossible to know ahead of time! Y2K represents the potential for many billions of errors and resulting problems in the world's computing, technology, economic and social systems. It's inevitable that some of those errors and their consequences will remain hidden until triggered by the tick of the clock. Meanwhile, intensive repair efforts are underway that will continue well after January 1, 2000. The success or failure of that work will have a direct bearing on Y2K's ultimate impact. Finally, individual and community contingency planning will play a major role in the way Y2K actually affects us. In other words, what we do between now and the Millennium could make a world of difference.

Some are suggesting that we should prepare for Y2K as if we were preparing for a bad winter storm. That's good advice as far as it goes, but in light of the recent U.S. Congressional report: "Investigating the Impact of the Year 2000 Problem this counsel seems quite risky to us. As Senators Bennett (R-Utah) and Dodd (D-Conn), the authors of the report, warn: Make no mistake, this problem will affect us all individually and collectively in very profound ways. It will indeed impact individual businesses and the global economy. In some cases, lives could even be at risk. Those who suggest that Y2K will be nothing more than a bump in the road, are simply misinformed. This is one of the most serious and potentially devastating events this nation has ever encountered. It deserves our top priority. Americans must be prepared

The reason that those in our government who are working on this issue most closely can say that the year 2000 problem represents "one of the most serious and potentially devastating events this nation has ever encountered is because Y2K is a interconnected systems problem. It's showing us how everything is connected to and dependent on everything else.

Take food for example. Even if all of the computer systems in Oregon are fixed in time and all date sensitive chips are found and replaced, could Y2K disrupt our food supply? Absolutely. The reason is that our food no longer comes from farmers and plows in nearby fields. It comes from a very large and complicated interconnected technological system. This system is like a giant chain-link web covering the globe. As with a chain, if one of the major links breaks, the whole chain could go slack.

In this case, the chain connects oil wells in Saudi Arabia, Angola, Venezuela, etc. with pipelines, trucks, trains, boats, planes, communication satellites, highways, rails, ports, airports, refineries, gas stations, electric utilities, transportation companies, hybrid seed companies, chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide companies, machine manufacturers of every kind (plus all of their suppliers), telecommunication companies and all of their suppliers, packaging companies and all of their suppliers, processing plants and all of their suppliers, agribusiness companies and all of their suppliers, government agencies and all of their suppliers, wholesale warehouses, food distributors, grocery stores, banks, stock markets...In fact, the chain that gets a single green bean from the field to your table is so lengthy no one could fully describe it. It has a galaxy of links: computers, embedded microprocessors, foreign political systems, etc.

Once upon a time, there were small farmers everywhere, and most of our food was grown near our homes. Now, less than two percent of the population feeds everyone else, and the average food product travels 1,300 miles to reach us. Not so very long ago, this country had months and even years of food stored and it was considered normal for a family to have a well stocked pantry. Now there's only three days worth of food in our cities and having a month or two of extra food is considered hoarding. In a fragile just-in-time system food is continuously re-supplied via the giant chain and its countless links, and most of us have become dangerously dependent on this system.

Our food system is far too complicated to test for Y2K compliance. Despite our best efforts -- and many people are working very hard -- we simply cannot know in advance if or where or for how long one or more of the major links in the food system might break. We won't know if seemingly minor disruptions will trigger major ripple effects that could last a long time. Thus, neighborhood and city-wide preparedness, as Y2K insurance and an investment in the overall health of our community, just makes good, common sense. And as Mayor Katz has pointed out, "It's a wonderful opportunity for us to prepare citizens for any kind of natural disaster.

The worst thing that could happen if we as a city are truly prepared is that Y2K turns out to be a non-event and we have a stronger, more resilient, more socially cohesive community as a result of our working together. Indeed, it's hard to imagine any area of our lives that would not be positively impacted as a result of pulling together and supporting each other during the remainder of 1999. Who knows, maybe Y2K is just a divine trick to nudge us to become more engaged as citizens and to help us better love our neighbor. Time will tell.


Michael Dowd is campaign manager of the Portland Sustainable Lifestyle Campaign: a partnership between Global Action Plan and the city of Portland to strengthen neighborhoods by empowering neighbors to support each other in living more environ mentally responsible lifestyles. He is also co-founder of the Portland-Metro Citizen Y2K Task Force. Michael can be reached at (503) 230-9474 or

Larry Shook is the principal writer of Global Action Plan's Household and Neighborhood Preparedness Workbook, All Together Now! and co-author of the book, Awakening: The Upside of Y2K. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife, Judy Laddon, and can be reached at (509) 747-8776 or