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The Year 2000 Problem and Sustainability:
Rediscovering Nature and Neighbors through Y2K

(version 1.1, November 4, 1998)

by Tom Atlee

assisted by
Gayle Parrish, Panther F. Wilde, Peter Ziegler,
Steve Moore, Larry Shook, Scott Worland,
Chris Roth and others

Although I am determined to help communities survive Y2K no matter what -- and although I think it wise for people to stock up on supplies over the next year to make it through the first weeks of Y2K -- I would be really saddened if we came out of Y2K back where we started. Even without Y2K, our society and economy are heading in some really troubling directions and, as an old Chinese proverb says, "If we don't change our direction, we're liable to end up where we're headed." I truly hope that we can use this opportunity to ask some hard questions and at least start making the deep changes we need to build a more life-friendly, resilient culture.

Recently I was discussing with an energy expert, Peter Ziegler, the application of renewable energy sources to local Y2K community readiness. I learned that solar panels that could power a few lightbulbs cost hundreds of dollars -- and refrigerators use far more than that. Private wind turbines are also expensive. It soon became obvious that renewables were prohibitively expensive for most of us -- at least if we're trying to maintain our existing way of life. Peter helped me to sketch out the direction we'd have to go to promote sustainable energy use through Y2K:

1) Affluent people could thoroughly retrofit their homes for off-the-grid energy.
2) Less affluent people could use off-the-grid energy by

a) installing SOME renewable home energy systems AND greatly reducing their energy usage
b) installing SOME renewable home energy systems AND sharing energy usage with their neighbors and/or
c) getting renewables set up in public institutions like schools, libraries, and community centers that could support community needs.

Individual renewable energy retrofits in homes and private organizations like churches could be encouraged with tax incentives (Peter said that right now Californians get 50% tax credits and Hawaiians 15%). Some Y2K community organizers could support their work by selling alternative energy systems. Socially conscious investors could provide the capital to ramp up production of renewable energy equipment. Renewable energy in public institutions could be promoted by expanding the existing federal program for a million solar roofs on schools. As citizens, we can demand sustainable energy policies and programs (tax incentives, solar roofs on schools, zoning changes, etc.) that promote the long-term well-being of our communities.

All these are important steps. Yet I found myself particularly intrigued by the implications of (b), sharing energy with neighbors. Peter pointed out that ten households could share the cost of setting up one person's kitchen with enough solar or wind power to cook food for all of them -- especially using energy-saving cooking techniques (such as crockpots or placing partially-cooked food into a highly insulated box, where it would continue to cook with no additional energy). Several households could share meals cooked in this way -- sharing meal preparations, or taking turns cooking for everyone, or cooking meals for individual households in the same kitchen, perhaps in shifts. Or a lot of rice (or another staple) could be cooked in one pot, that could be used by each family in a different way. Furthermore, much cooking could be eliminated by sprouting grains and beans. (Sprouts provide perhaps the simplest home-grown source broad-spectrum nutrients; while lots of potatoes can be grown in a small space to provide calories.) Sharing cooking and food could also reduce the need for refrigeration, by reducing leftovers.

In a few houses, rooms could be set up as reading rooms, with shared-cost solar or wind power systems adequate for lighting (the same lighting that serves one person, could serve several people at once). Other rooms elsewhere could be share-powered for the use of sewing machines, hand tools, or other equipment. Setting up one or two large, low, well-insulated rooms with efficient wood-burning stoves would keep many people warm together with minimal fuel use. Neighbors could sleep together in certain rooms on very cold nights, their bodies helping to heat the room. In preparation for Y2K, neighbors could organize a group of "home helpers" to insulate, weatherstrip, and renovate neighborhood housing to reduce energy demands. This and other actions to improve energy efficiency (such as the purchase of energy-efficient appliances) may even be subsidized by your local energy company.

Neighborly solutions could be found for each neighborhood energy need, thus reducing the overall need for energy by the whole neighborhood and making renewable, secure energy affordable to all. Energy needs -- and the people and spaces available to accommodate them -- could be surveyed door-to-door and mapped by volunteers or high school students. Another approach would be for people from 5-10 nearby households who want to share the cost of renewables to work out the details in meetings and potlucks in each other's homes during 1999.

What would happen if we did this? We would lose some independence and gain a lot of community, while greatly reducing our energy use, helping the earth and slowing global warming. We would be more secure against energy deprivation and other threats, because we were a cohesive a group. We would probably have to be more tolerant of differences than we are now, and more able to handle conflict. Recreation, meal preparation, household chores would once again become an occasion for sharing our lives, thoughts, feelings and stories. And we wouldn't have to face the problems of generators which, while they're generating energy, also generate noise, pollution and conflicts when one neighbor wants to watch a video and another wants to sleep. We'd know we could handle our energy needs forever, without generator fuel (which could run out) and without the grid (which could be disrupted). If this approach were taken by everyone, everywhere, we'd have a sustainable energy system.

Actually, I'm not advocating an end to the grid. I'm advocating an end to our dangerous addiction to it, so that if the grid goes down, we don't face disruption and death -- and if our own systems go down, we have the grid to fall back on. Ideally, most of us, most of the time, would produce energy FOR the grid, which could be used to handle occasional surges in demand. If we did that, both our communities and the grid would be more resilient.

What intrigues me about this approach is that it isn't really about energy at all. It is about community. To use this community approach to Y2K, we'd have to suspend some of our deepest habits and assumptions. As I explored these issues, I stumbled upon some fundamental insights about dependence. As if they had a will of their own, these understandings coalesced into an agreement, or covenant, for people who want to start creating a new world together, right now, right in their lives, right in the face of Y2K. Here's what emerged:

_ _ _ _ _


An interdependence covenant
for thriving through infrastructure disruptions

We have come to understand that our primary form of interdependence is with neighbors and nature. This fact has been hidden from us by our dependence on the technological industrial infrastructure -- the network of roads, stores, wires, pipes, buildings and institutions into which we are woven by the monetary economy, and which is so ubiquitous that we barely realize that it is one single complex system.

Y2K has made this system visible, and shown us our dependence on it. As we contemplate losing the daily support of this infrastructure, we realize we have become addicted to it. That addiction has shaped us into consumers, producers, managers and investors -- dessicating our lives as neighbors, citizens and practitioners of our full humanity and selfhood. Realizing this now, we are ready to recover our full lives.

We see how our infrastructure-dependent culture has degraded nature into "natural resources," "raw materials" and "the environment" -- rather than what it really is: our home in the family of Life. We have lost the wisdom, humility and self-reliance that come from informed kinship with the natural world. Our infrastructure addiction has led us to repeatedly harm each other and nature without even knowing we're doing it. Realizing this now, we are ready to recover our partnership with the world.

We recognize that our dependence on this infrastructure and on technology has been deceptively promoted and experienced as personal independence. But we aren't independent. Our unacknowledged dependence on this infrastructure camouflages our more essential, ongoing interdependence with nature and with each other. Realizing this now, we are ready to wake up to our real place in the world.

As awakening individuals, we are now ready to deal with our addiction to the infrastructure and its seductive illusion of independence. We are ready to build more meaningful lives, sharing gifts with our natural and human communities.

We seek together to progressively replace our unconscious infrastructure addiction with conscious interdependence and partnership with nature and neighbor. We seek to pursue our full humanity -- in our lives and in our communities. We seek to expand our roles as neighbors, bioregional and planetary citizens and whole human beings -- while decreasing our roles as consumers, producers, managers and investors in the mass economy. We realize we can only do this to the extent we help our communities do this, and that this will be an ongoing exploration together, forever.

_ _ _ _ _

This community approach, this partnership with nature and neighbors, has implications for other aspects of life, as well. Consider the realm of food. Stockpiling mass-produced food is fine, but what if our neighbors don't have any? Will we let them starve? Will we kill them to keep them from taking ours? Our stored food might run out. After all, we don't know how long to plan for -- a week? a month? two years? We suddenly realize that gardening is a more sustainable source of food. (Actually gardening and stockpiling, preserving or "putting food up" -- are complementary, and have been done together for centuries.) But how much food can we grow by ourselves? And is our garden secure if it's the only one around?

Once again, we find ourselves called back to community: individual growing and stockpiling of food are best done in a context of community growing and stockpiling of food. As I write this, food activist Carla Emery is trying to get communities to buy and store (for Y2K) the overabundant 1998 U.S. crop of grains and beans direct from the farmers who have no current market for them (thanks to the Asian meltdown). All this food is "rotting in the fields." This is a free-market tragedy that MAY turn into a community blessing IF citizens and communites, cities and governments act soon.

When I asked four practitioners of permaculture (a way of designing self-reliant eco-gardens) if they could set things up within a year to feed themselves off their less-than-an-acre plot, they said yes. But they also said it would work much better if they could join with a dozen or two neighbors, because different parcels of land have different advantages and can grow different things, making for more pleasant variety and for more resilience, should some crops fail.

Virtually every town and city has gardeners who can teach their neighbors. The internet, libraries, bookstores, community colleges and land grant colleges -- to say nothing of organic gardeners and many elders -- are great sources advice on how to garden without chemicals. (Not only are many of those chemicals toxic, but they may not be available in times of infrastructure disruption.) Every community has empty lots that could become community gardens, where neighbors can teach each other and get involved, sharing tools and facilities. Gardens can replace lawns and can flourish in boxes on sidewalks, on rooftops and under windows. There are vertical gardens that sprout from dirt-filled chicken-wire-and-tar-paper columns, and hanging gardens filled with lettuces and beans. People can grow their favorite herbs in their kitchens and trade or sell them. They can grow food out of season, indoors, without fossil fuels. (Gardening also reduces the need for refrigeration energy, since you can pick fresh produce straight from the garden.) Urban, biointensive forms of gardening can maximize the harvest per square foot. The two most productive farms in the US are in the Bronx and San Francisco. In World War II "victory gardens" sprouted up all over the American landscape. Also, if SOME transportation is available, local neighborhoods can support outlying farms to provide food they can't grow in the cities or towns. This "community supported agriculture" (CSA) movement is already growing rapidly around the world.

Books have been written about "edible landscape" -- about cities that plant fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and grape vines in place of inedible ornamentals and lawns. Give your local planning agency and governmental officials a proposal to replace existing landscaping with food plants. Organize a replanting effort. Contact nurseries for plant donations or volume discounts. Change zoning regulations that prevent homeowners and businesses from using edible landscaping plants and water-permeable surfacing. Set up rain barrels all over the community to store water from roof and landscape runoff. Plant things now that will take time to produce; dwarf fruit trees, berries, jerusalem artichokes, and other perennials. Discuss allowing urban dwellers to raise small livestock such as quail, rabbits, and chickens or ducks. With good maintenance, they need be no smellier or noisier than the average large dog next door.

Gardening and caring for small animals have been found to creatively engage and heal school children, criminals, gang members and the mentally ill, as well as most other people who are struggling in their lives. Every school, every church, every community center could have productive, healing gardens and small livestock. This serves the community's health and resilience in more ways than one.

Urban and suburban gardening greatly reduces the waste stream, as well. This always-significant factor would become crucial if garbage collection shut down. Consumption of fresh produce reduces the amount of food packaging to throw away. And the composting of kitchen scraps, leaves and yard clippings -- which can be easily done by households, neighborhoods, or whole communities -- turns garbage into fertilizer and then, through gardens, into food. With care, certain forms of wastewater can be put directly on gardens. Ambitious communities can even create their own versions of John Todd's "living machines" -- well-designed systems of marshes, ponds and solar-energized containers that have been proven to transform both human and toxic industrial wastes into pure, potable water. We as citizens can demand that our governments actively support such efforts.

Water is a vital issue in Y2K preparations. Perhaps the best preparation we can make is to accustom ourselves to radically reduced water consumption. At the very least, we can stop using fresh water to wash sidewalks and flush toilets. Whether we store bottled water, are provided by authorities with rationed water, or have to collect our water from waterways, rain and snowfall, our water will last a lot longer if we don't use more than a gallon or two per person, per day. We can re-learn how to take "sponge baths." We can build and use composting toilets or "worm toilets" to dispose of waste without using any water at all, working with nature. A community can develop large-scale cisterns/water storage tanks to trap rainwater and snowmelt.

A neighborhood or community may be able to get 20 to 40 households together to drill a common well with a PV/solar-powered well pump and adequate storage. The storage could be located within walking distance of the whole neighborhood or community, and hold enough water to last for the maximum "no sun" (no solar energy) period expected. A total cost of $8,000 to $10,000 would mean that 30 households would only have to contribute $300 each. Some may be able to contribute more, to pay the share of poorer families. Local government needs to approve such a system, but may welcome it as an emergency backup that will take some pressure off them in a crisis.

But we can't just focus on our gardens and our wells, individually or collectively. We have to look around us, as well. As environmentalist and natural grocery owner Cynthia Beal has noted, Y2K failures could trigger toxic discharges that endanger the land, air and water that our gardens and wells depend on. This demonstrates to us one way that we depend on nature and nature depends on us. A community needs to work together to look "upstream, upland, upwind" to discover what factories, retailers, laboratories or storage facilities have the potential to contaminate their area, and to make sure that THOSE establishments are Y2K-ready, with good remediation and contingency plans. If chemical or radioactive accidents happen, all our individual and community preparations may prove worthless. "You may find yourself a refugee, forced to leave your garden and your careful preparations behind," notes Beal, adding that we can only prevent this if environmentalists and technologists work together. "The environmentalists know how to look upstream, upland and upwind. Think of them as Contamination Trackers. The technologists know how to look at the machinery and find the things that might pop and must be shut off and re-started mindfully, if at all.... Between these two groups are the will and the skill to keep the bugs in the bottle."

Toxics, food, energy, water and the management of wastes are not the only important facets of community health in Y2K. Medical supplies and services may also be undermined. In this case, there may be few alternatives to stockpiling medications, something many needy individuals cannot afford. Collective pressure on insurance companies and service providers -- as well as community financial support -- can help remedy that. But if we are looking towards greater sustainability we should turn towards low-tech medicine as much as possible. The first principle here is to take care of ourselves in the first place. This we usually do better in groups, as fitness classes, weight loss clubs and 12 step programs attest. Y2K offers a great opportunity for people in local neighborhoods to get to know each other through activities that enhance their physical and emotional health -- from group jogging, to low-fat organic potlucks, to Y2K emotion-and-story sharing circles, to sobriety support groups. It would be a good idea for as many of us as possible to grow out of as many substance-addictions as possible before Y2K, when our "fixes" may be harder to get. Communities have a high interest in that, since addicts in need of a fix (from coffee to crack to cigarettes) tend to become more of a problem than a resource. This is definitely an issue to handle together.

Many herbs can be grown and processed locally to serve in the place of many mainstream drugs. Although herbal alternatives aren't always as fast or powerful, they tend to have fewer side effects, promote a broader spectrum of health and can be taken more frequently -- and, thanks to nature and neighbors, they can be available regardless of the condition of the infrastructure. Similarly, accupuncture and various forms of bodywork do not require much hardware or drugs, and thus provide useful health care modalities when medical paraphernalia are unavailable. First aid, CPR and some basic complementary medicine can be learned by as many members of the community as are willing to learn (and it can be spread by "each one teach one" peer training methods). The more people know these health care basics, the more able the community will be to take care of itself.

And then there are questions of fire and police service, which may be at risk from Y2K. Your neighborhood or community might decide to build a shared greywater cistern for firefighting purposes, and organize crews to build and maintain firebreaks. Organizing groups to prune or remove trees and brush in high fire-danger areas will help to protect the entire neighborhood. If people are cooking with unfamiliar fuels (wood, kerosene, propane, etc.), the chances of fire are greatly reduced if this is done communally. Participants can remind each other of safety considerations and can be more effective than single people at putting out any fires that occur.

Well-organized communities tend to be less prone to violence and crime than fragmented ones. Y2K security patrols can grow out of existing neighborhood security (e.g., "crimewatch") associations. Furthermore, those who care for their less fortunate or less capable neighbors are targetted less often than those known for their selfishness. Many cities have volunteer neighborhood mediation services, which could be established everywhere with minimal expense, reducing community conflict. Extreme efforts to secure individual household security can result in houses becoming voluntary armed prisons, producing a community much like a fearful, righteous, angry garrison. After reasonable household security precautions, we can better invest our attention and resources in strengthening our whole-community health and security, enhancing and opening up our lives instead of closing them down. (For those who want to explore a really powerful vision of grassroots security, read books by Harvard professor Gene Sharp, who researched the power of nonviolent approaches to "civilian-based defense." His historic researchs suggested that populations could become so well organized and tactically savvy that they would be ungovernable by any dictator or invading force, simply by massive, active, nonviolent resistence, non-cooperation and human outreach. This approach does, however, take LOTS of preparation. If we think long-term, there's no better time than now to start!)

Now let's consider transportation. It turns out that even transportation in the Y2K era has a "neighborhood dimension" to it. (Transporation always had a "nature dimension", since our gasoline/automobile culture is widely acknowledged to be environmentally destructive.) Petroleum supply lines are very prone to Y2K disruption, so we may be forced to face just how unsustainable mass automobile culture is. Horses and other large animals are a natural alternative, but they can't be established broadly in less than a year (although we could get started). Other sustainable transportation systems could be established quickly, particularly bicycles. Bicycles and bike trailers can be readily shared and maintained on a neighborhood basis. Several bikes could be rigged to carry heavier loads together. Some people are reviving century-old bicycle designs to ride on the thousands of miles of unused railroad rails. Fuel-efficient larger vehicles could be shared or reserved for major community tasks (such as bringing food from outlying farms). Local, state or federal governments could sponsor mass bike distribution, ensure Y2K-ready public transporation and/or subsidize the already-rapid development of what energy specialist Amory Lovins calls "hypercars" -- extremely fuel-efficient vehicles that can even be rigged to generate more energy than they use. Of course, the dominant transportation reality post-Y2K may be that we don't go very far from where we live. We remain close to our neighbors and nature because we have to, because there isn't cheap rapid long-distance transport. Slowed to the speed of walking and biking (or canoeing and rowing, or cross-country skiing and snowshoeing), we may suddenly SEE the world we're in, without the rush of TVs and freeways getting in the way. All these developments would move our culture toward greater sustainability and our lives towards greater meaning and pleasure.

But probably the most likely effect of Y2K, even without any utility failures, is global recession or depression in which many would be unemployed, the movement of goods would get sluggish, money would be harder to come by, businesses would go under. Closely related to that is the likelihood that large companies (who are more likely to be Y2K-ready) will gobble up small ones, or move into market niches left by smaller company failures. Few people realize the power that exists in each community to create a local economy that's resilient in the face of such challenges -- a resilience based on their preference for "neighbor and nature," instead of multinational consumerism. Wherever local people "hire each other, buy from each other, and want this community to thrive," that community WILL thrive. Wealth will be kept circulating in the community rather than flowing out to distant economic powers.

Two powerful tools exist for this. The first is a local complementary currency or trading system, of which there are hundreds around the world. The more members of a community spend such local money, the more economic power they circulate within their community -- and the less drains out into distant economic and political power-centers. Citizens in Ithaca, New York, spend millions of dollars every year in their "Ithaca Hours," sometimes even using it to pay rent and bank loans. The harder the times, the more people tend to lean on such a local currency -- partly because unemployed people are attracted to it (since they have more skills to share with their neighbors than they can sell in the global marketplace), and partly because local businesses become eager to use it to gain competitive advantage over multinationals trying to entice local customers. But even in times of "full employment," local trading systems can help a community find and share unrecognized skills and entrepreneurship. Starting or using a local trading system now will pay off big time when we really need it (which we will, sooner or later, from economic disruptions that may or may not be related to Y2K).

Co-ops are the other key tool for local economics. In this category I include any non-governmental economic activity or institution run by and for the benefit of those who use it -- or by and for the whole community. Any community can establish buying clubs, community supported agriculture, credit unions, co-op nursery schools (where parents take care of each other's children), car and equipment sharing efforts, community land trusts, resident-owned housing, worker-owned local businesses. Many models exist for every one of these. In the depression, co-ops and mutual aid societies sprang up around the country (and around the world), often augmented by local money. When neighbors decide to depend on each other, they make co-ops.

All this will happen to the extent we break our addiction to those global economic forces that act without regard to our neighbors and nature, that devastate communities and ecosystems at will in pursuit of cheap, mass-produced profit. Addiction is the only model that can explain why upstanding citizens would support such a thing in the first place. Although none of us needs to wait to "hit bottom" before we break an addiction, hitting bottom economically can certainly increases the numbers of us who are ready to become eco-sober, free of dependence on mass-culture goods, services and control. ("Eco," from the Greek word for "home," gives us "economics" -- the management of the home -- and "ecology" -- the study of the home. Eco-sober would be freedom from those addictions that cause us to ignorantly mis-manage and defile the human and natural homes in which we live -- our communties, bioregions and the earth, itself.)

The chances are, as times get materially harder, we will find there's a whole community there to heal and support us to the extent we do our part to heal and support it. The more we do that -- the more we collectively BECOME mutually supportive communities -- the more we'll realize that economics is essentially about organizing our interdependence with our neighbors and nature. That interdependence -- that economics -- is now out of balance, ill, and dangerous. It will be healed by our local partnerships with each other and with our bioregional home. It will be measured by the quality of our lives, not by the quantity of money we exchange -- because so much of our partnership, our interdependence, our quality of life comes as a gift or a given, not as an exchange. From that ground of local, caring quality of life, we can build partnerships with people around the world -- but AS NEIGHBORS. And we can build partnerships with distant ecosystems, but this time giving as much as we receive. And then we will have healed the global economy. This is perhaps the greatest gift Y2K has to offer to future generations.

Lastly, let's look at the issue of communication. We don't know if the phones will work, the news media will operate, the internet will function, or the mail will be delivered. Most of us have lost the old forms of neighborhood communication. But we can rebuild them. Handwritten notices posted in public places can be read by everyone, no matter what other communication forms have fallen.

And we'd be wise to take note of the fact that few corporate media have so far dealt with Y2K in ways that support community action towards survival, self-reliance and resilience. While we press for them to serve us better, we might notice that our grassroots networks, mostly over the internet, have served us well already. Increasingly, these networks are sharing information by email and website, and then filtering it down into face-to-face networks, groups and communities. This may be an evolutionary step towards our best model: a local sharing of locally-relevant information, insights and stories, which feeds into and off of a globally-relevant virtual network. Can this form of communication survive infrastructure breakdown? We don't yet know. But there are may things we can do to improve it's chances. We can develop diverse ways for it to function. Some people are experimenting with wireless solar powered internet transceivers which, while expensive, could possibly link lower-tech local relay systems. Some people plan to integrate short wave into internetworking activities, while others point out the possible resilience of cell phones. If we develop local face-to-face communities at the same time we research many modes of long-distance networking, the chances are high we will find approaches that will survive and work well. If we succeed, we will no longer be controlled by centralized media that doesn't have our community interests at heart. Chances are, the media coming out of Y2K will not be the same as the media that went in.

Beyond mere communication, we have a chance to build greater collective intelligence. We can learn to apply our collective wits more wisely to our common problems and opportunities. We need to do this at the community, regional, national and international levels, not just with Y2K, but across the board, on all major issues. For example, we need to reflect on how to empower democratic citizenship in a hyper-complex society governed by specialized experts. Richard Sclove of the Loka Institute has brought over models of citizen technology panels from Holland and Denmark, where randomly (or demographically) selected ordinary citizens study a technology problem, hear expert testimony, and then -- helped by professional facilitators -- develop a consensus statement of what public policy should be in that matter. Much to the surprise of observers, what results is radical common sense, not the sort of jerry-rigged compromises of elected lawyers under pressure from interest groups that we get from Congress. We have many such tools available -- self-organized "open space conferences"; community visioning processes like "future search"; cogent consensus processes like "wisdom councils"; simple, powerful forms of group dialogue like the Native American-inspired "talking stick circles." We can generate far more (or less) wisdom together than we can individually. In the face of unprecedented dangers and opportunities, it is time to practice how to be more wise together.

All this is possible. The choice is very much ours. I suspect that, if life is a journey to discover who we are, then Y2K is where we find out. Hopefully we'll come home to ourselves as neighbors, as citizens of our bioregion and our living planet, and as fully-human beings who find joy in our ongoing shared exploration of the possibilities of life.

We will try to maintain up-to-date information on the sort of alternatives described here, by revising this paper and linking to other articles and sites for further information. If you have ideas about what people can do in the time before December 1999 to move towards greater sustainability while preparing for Y2K, send them to The reference page connected to this article contains only the tip of a very big iceberg of sustainability resources. Send your own favorite sustainability references to for inclusion in our growing, more comprehensive list.