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We Don't Have to Stop Making a Difference


by Tom Atlee - 1/3/2000


I feel like the doctor whose patient has for months
been fighting terminal lung cancer, with a rapidly
growing and metastasizing tumor. I'm sitting at my
desk looking at the latest X-rays and tests. There are
no signs of cancer in either. I say to my patient, "I
don't know what to make of it, but your cancer appears
to be gone." My mind is wondering, "Is this a miracle?
Did we get a mixup of records?" The patient laughs in
my face and says, "I told you all your warnings about
smoking were a bunch of bull!" -- and pulls out his



I just came back from sitting on the walking bridge near our house, watching the Willamette River flow west towards the ocean, its heavy water dark grey in the stormy evening. The whole day was sun then rain, bright then dark; the temperature rollercoastered between 60 and 40 degrees, up and down, up and down. How does one label the weather of such a day?

How does one describe the unfolding of Y2K? I recall Mary Ann Gallagher's prediction: "The one thing that's sure is that everyone will be surprised." I think, in the end, she will be proven right. The fulfillment of that prophecy is starting with us.

I have already read a number of notes from Y2K activists who are stunned or disillusioned, including several who are in identity crises or who have made sudden, stark decisions about who they are in the world, desperately trying to disown the caring, engaged work they did with Y2K to help their communities and society.

My own gut sensibilities were thrown into such confusion by the benign passing of the rollover around the world, that I understand these responses by so many Y2K activists. But my mind has always known that it didn't know what would happen -- that WE didn't know what would happen -- and I'd forced myself to say that for a whole year, even as my gut told me otherwise. I think we don't yet really GET IT what uncertainty is all about. Uncertainty means we don't know. Radical uncertainty means we CAN'T know. Y2K was and is a phenomenon filled with radical uncertainty. Our desire -- our compulsion -- to know, is now making us jump to the premature conclusion that Y2K is over, that it was a "nothing event," that our efforts were misguided, that we must eat crow.

Let us be particularly mindful at this moment. Let us not fall back into old patterns. Let us not lose the precious freedom we have gained, to think outside the box.



First of all -- and this is being widely recognized -- there are at least two Y2Ks -- the TimeBomb/WreckingBall Y2K and the Termite Y2K.

The TimeBomb/WreckingBall Y2K was supposed to do its dirty work at New Years Eve midnight, sweeping around the world leaving a swath of vivid new-millennial disruptions in its wake. We all watched the clock tick, the ball swing. The fact that so little happened is a miracle. Although I suspect that we'll find that more happened than met the public eye, the fact remains that the deep and broad disruptions so many of us expected did not happen.

But the dramatic Y2K is only half of Y2K. Let us not forget the more subtle Y2K, the one about "supply chains" and "cascading effects" and "the increasing viscosity of life" -- the Y2K that happens over time, the one that could even end up being "death from a million cuts". That's what I'm calling the Termite Y2K. Termites eat away inside the wall leaving only a surface apparency of sturdiness that doesn't need a wrecking ball to punch holes in it. This Termite Y2K has barely begun its work.

The problem with the Termite Y2K is that it lacks the clarity and drama of the TimeBomb/WreckingBall. It doesn't happen all at once, spectacularly turning the world into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. It may surface in the first week, but it may just as well wait for months or years as it worms its way through the system. And it is a misty and often hidden shapeshifter: frequently we won't know -- especially if we're not directly involved -- whether a particular problem derived from Y2K or not. The systems are complex; the motives for hiding Y2K problems are significant; the nature of Y2K, itself, is ambiguous (e.g., is the failure of a system put in place because of Y2K a "Y2K failure"?).



I think it is good that the phrase "Y2K Crisis" has now been torn from our vocabulary by the unexpectedly benign rollover. After all, Y2K was only one aspect of our REAL AND INCREASING TECHNOLOGICAL VULNERABILITY which ranges from cyberterrorism to downed power lines, from nuclear power to genetic engineering. Instead of abandoning our positions we might expand our vision. Y2K is only the tip of an iceberg of systemic vulnerabilities. Preparedness is still an issue. Sustainability is still an issue. Democratic monitoring of technology is still an issue. The erosion of our rights and freedoms as a solution to terrorism is still an issue. We have momentum. Let us not throw it away.

As I wrote in a recent email: "The real issue ... is that our culture is becoming progressively less resilient and more vulnerable to serious disruptions, widespread suffering and even total collapse." Among the factors I believe play a role in this are (a) our addiction to profit, growth, speed, efficiency, etc., (b) our competitive assumptions, (c) our short-term thinking, and (d) our non-resilient dependence on technology, instead of nature, each other, and spirit.

"So whenever a technological breakdown causes disruption -- and it doesn't matter whether that breakdown was caused by Y2K, terrorism, violent weather, human error, computer viruses, or any other reason -- the resulting DISRUPTION was caused by our DEPENDENCE, by our lack of resilience. The fact that this dynamic is currently built into our society suggests that it would be wise to either (1) change the system to be more resilient and less dependent on technology or (2) decide that future disruptions are inevitable and put lots of attention on making households, organizations and communities more resilient with a constant high level of vigilance and preparedness."

There is no shortage of work to do, right in this territory we are already so familiar with.



My guts tell me there is "no way" that there could be as few disruptions as there apparently were on the rollover. Normally I would expect that someone's hiding something, but the really bad disruptions could not be hidden.

What do we do with this "impossibility" that became reality?

Those who never thought there was a problem in the first place, of course, don't see anything odd about it at all. But few of them showed real understanding of systemic interconnectedness, resilience, or the underlying patterns of complexity that were fundamental to Y2K and are so powerfully descriptive of where we are and where we're going as a society. I simply can't throw out all those understandings, just because of an uneventful rollover.

So I find myself being drawn relentlessly toward the idea of "miracle." Although I have been, among other things, quite spiritual in my approach to Y2K, I have not been one to think that it could be handled by prayer and trust. A number of my friends, and folks on this list who I don't know personally, do have such an abiding religious faith. Some even sent around recruitment letters for worldwide prayers and meditations for the new millennium. I didn't forward these on, knowing that there were many people on the list who wouldn't like these invitations. However, as Y2K moved into its "endgame" stretch (the last few months of 1999), I found myself talking increasingly in terms of prayer. As the World War II GIs used to say, there are no non-believers in foxholes.

I am aware of some research on prayer, mostly in health (cf., Larry Dossey's HEALING WORDS). And I have personally experienced the ability of focused intention to create changes in the physical world. Whether this is a psychic phenomena, the response of a personal God, or a realignment of probability fields at the quantum level, there's definitely something going on there. But I haven't been able to come to terms with the implications of that in my personal life and activism.

Cynthia Beal says of the rollover, "That was Grace, folks." I have to admit, that theory explains the observed phenomena!

The next question is: What will we do with the reprieve we've been given? It is hard for me to believe this is just about saving us from our co-stupidity so we can go back to business-as-usual. And it's even harder for me to believe that if we do go back to business-as-usual, we will get off so lightly next time.

And there will be a next time. Of that I feel sure -- in both my gut and my mind.

[On Jan 10th, I wrote the following: "I'm not fully comfortable with the tantalizing argument that it was grace.  Given the powerful, offhand destructiveness of our global economic engine, would a loving God intentionally help it slide through the rollover frictionlessly, further justifying its arrogance and pride, further reducing our ability to get it to reflect on its dark side and change it's ways?  It seems to me that real Love from on high would have given us a serious bump in the road, with minimal death and suffering, but leaving us with a good whack on the head and broad public agreement that we'd better slow down and drive more carefully." -- Tom] 



This is a time for reflection -- not just about lessons learned, but about realignment.

The Y2K movement is one of the most remarkable phenomena in history, a spontaneous, widespread, self-organized movement based on a deep caring and the ability to rapidly share information and wisdom through the Internet. Networks and friendships were woven, understandings and agreements were hard-won. Let us not throw out the Y2K baby with the Y2K bathwater.

The paths ahead are filled with unprecedented dangers and opportunities, begging to be addressed with the same caring, connection and wisdom that we have exercised for more than a year. How might we walk those paths together?




PS: When I got a diagnosis of possible heart disease several years ago, I was highly motivated to rework my diet, to exercise, and to meditate and rest. After eight months of this regimen and more intensive tests on my heart, my doctors told me they couldn't find any sure evidence of a heart condition. They couldn't rule it out, but they had no absolute evidence. My disciplined program dissolved INSTANTLY, even though I knew it would save me from all sorts of other medical problems later. I've been struggling for years to get it back on track.

I believe that a failure to act until a crisis hits shows a lack of intelligence, a failure of our innate ability to recognize patterns in our lives and use those patterns to help us take appropriate action. Since it is abundantly clear that we still have real collective problems we could apply ourselves to in the post-Y2K world, I wonder if we can exercise the collective intelligence to sustain our efforts without the dramatic focus of Y2K.

I would be truly sad if we couldn't.

Personally, I sense what my friend Marianne Morgan wrote to me a few days ago, that "now the real work begins."