The Y2k Opportunity

Would you be interested in an opportunity to move society more rapidly to sustainability? Say it's an opportunity that:

• teaches people that we are all interdependent – that there's no “there” to escape to, so we all might as well figure out how to live together.

• inspires people to become more energy efficient, plant a garden, reduce waste, take up composting.

• encourages people to get to know their neighbors.

• provides the need for people to work together in their communities – and gives those of us interested in justice and sustainability issues a community platform for discussing them.

• requires people to find out where there are manufacturers or industries producing toxins in their communities – and commits them to discussing their concerns with facility managers.

• provides a hard deadline, so there's no putting off for later all those steps we all intend to take ... someday.

Interested? I hope so. Because it looks like we have such an opportunity on our hands – whether we like it or not. What I'm talking about is the year 2000 bug, sometimes called the millennium bomb or the Y2K crisis.

You've probably heard about this. It has to do with whether computers and microchips will continue to work when their clocks tick to January 1, 2000. And if they don't work, what kinds of problems will this cause, and for how long? Imagine hospitals, banks, air travel, electric utilities, and the countless other systems without their computers.

And it's not just computers, but the microchips that are embedded in everything from your microwave oven to sewer system control valves to safety devices at hazardous waste facilities. There are up to 70 billion embedded chips around the world – some under water, some enclosed in concrete, some long forgotten. All you need is a tiny percentage to fail, and you could have big problems –toilets that won't flush, accidents at toxic waste facilities, electric utilities that can't produce or transmit energy.

Some call this a problem – others call it a crisis. One thing for sure, the millennium bug is getting a lot of attention and money thrown at it – and will get more as we get closer to the year 2000.

What caught my interest is the opportunity to use all this attention on the Y2K bug to build community and move toward a more sustainable world.

Our Chinese ancestors knew all about using crisis as opportunity – the Chinese word for “crisis” is spelled with the characters for “opportunity” and “danger” side by side. A powerful lesson of the Y2K bug is that those of us concerned with sustainability might want to be prepared with strategies to turn crises into opportunities for creating a more just and sustainable society.

Unfortunately, our future will include both natural and human-made crises. Consider two disasters of the last decade – Hurricane Andrew and the savings and loan debacle.

Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida. The sustainability opportunity was to conduct the clean-up in a way that would allow composting, recycling, and reusing of materials – and to rebuild structures with green building principles and communities designed to bring people together. What actually happened was terrible waste, massive community disruption, more sprawl, more encroachment on the Everglades, rebuilding for hurricane codes but not energy efficiency, and a lot of folks paying exorbitant prices for essential repairs.

The savings and loan crisis, entirely human-made, put homes and commercial buildings around the country into the hands of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC). In some communities, the RTC “owned” as much as 30 percent of the building stock. The RTC sold these off to private bidders, often for a song, at taxpayers' expense. The winning bidders could then turn around and make as much profit as possible on their purchases, no strings attached.

The sustainability opportunity was to attach some strings. For example, communities could have had a plan to put the homes into the hands of low income residents or community land trusts – real economc justice measures that could have played a major role in creating lower housing costs around the country. Or, communities could have required royalties from the rents on the commercial buildings and put them into community funds for sustainable development, requiring any renovation to follow green building principles.

These sustainability opportunities were lost in the case of Andrew and the RTC. Maybe next time, with the help of planning for Y2K, communities will be ready with sustainable solutions to tomorrow's crises.

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