*** TEOTWAWKI = The End Of The World As We Know It
Some while back I wrote that I felt that the Y2K thang was blown way
out of proportion, and sometimes by people who had commercial
> For example, water purifier, electrical generator, and bunker-food
> companies have always tried to make money off of people by scaring
> them with various potential catastrophes. But it wasn't till a group
> of very savvy Internet consultants engineered the Y2K scare--and
> wormed it into everyone's consciousness--that it generated a mass of
> commercial activity. That is, folks buying their Y2K rations....
And Gary Elliott replied:
>I always enjoy reading Misha's acerbic take on the supposed realities
>of modern life, but her take on y2k as a manufactured problem created by
>some "Internet consultants" has me shaking my head.
I didn't say there was *nothing* to the Y2K issue other than some
Internet consultants who wanted to establish themselves as experts on
it. What I said was that the technical reality of flawed code is
quite separate, in my mind, from the scare, and those who profit from
it. What I said was a cluster of people like Gary North were
responsible for creating and nourishing a very powerful meme--a
meaning- or belief-virus.
Given that the Day of Reckoning is close at hand, I wanted to revisit
these thoughts at some length. They're way connected to key issues in
What I see crashing down is something that scares people even more
than TEOTWAWKI: their belief in technology and a threat to their
dependence on it.
Sustainable ag is, at bottom, about appropriate-scale technology, and
technology's effects on the relationship between people, the
environment, and each other. We are living in a time in history when
it has become clear that any supposed, divinely-granted human
"dominion" over this planet has just one outcome: dominion over a
dead, rather than living, Earth.
Doing technology assessment is a big shift in human thinking in
technological societies, and to change behavior, people have to start
seeing the interconnections. Part of that involves risking the dark
understanding of what *could* happen if cascading failures occur.
So let's get specific.
As for the technical issue(s) of Y2K, Steve wrote in October:
>it is one of the most unique events with uncertain consequences we
>as humanity have faced in the last couple millennuims.
I'd say you (and others) are way overstating this problem. There were
a bunch of events in that time frame with uncertain consequences that
I believe will turn out to be much more impact-ful. For instance, the
invention of Christianity, the invention of Islam, the invention of
the stirrup and the war chariot, the destruction of midwifery and
traditional medicine, the invention of internal-combustion-based
transport, the invention of nuclear war/energy, the indiscriminate
use of antibiotics, the indiscriminate use of pesticides, providing
bacterial and viral communities access to new hosts through
transportation, the arrival of Eastern philosophy in the West, the
invention of the corporation, and the genocide of native peoples and
their belief systems.
Yes indeed, we don't know how this technical problem (flawed computer
code) will factor out. Yes indeed, it's unique. But that doesn't make
it the end of the world.
Steve, you suggested:
>Folks find comfort in companies stating "99%" y2k ready,
>but I sure won't drive a car that was 99% "ready". If that 1% of
>"unreadiness" represented the fuel pump, we ain't goin' nowhere! It can
>be fixed, but what if the parts store can't find the right fuel pump
>because of some other y2k problem in their system? You can soon see the
What would this two-digit date-programming error have to do with the
fuel pump on a car? Is there a car being manufactured that is
programmed so that if it gets confused about the date it--what,
explodes? Stops running? Makes the brakes fail? Heads immediately for
the nearest tree at 60 mph to put itself out of its misery? :^)
This is the kind of panic that people in the Y2K hysteria industry
managed to inject into mass and individual consciousness--it twangs
the big bass string of helplessness and victimization. It's an old
theme in science fiction--the day the machines turn on people and
destroy them. That isn't to say there can't be multiple, or even
cascading failures. But look at what you're saying, Steve.
If the parts store can't find the right fuel pump because of some
other Y2K problem in their system, what's the crisis? It's no
different really than if you, say, were very poor and couldn't afford
to have the car repaired. And, if you were poor, you'd find
alternatives because you'd simply have to.
Most of us on this list have alternatives for transport. We can walk,
ride a bicycle, take transit, take a cab, grab a ride with someone,
or ride a motorcycle that we can repair ourselves. We could even get
a horse or a mule or donkey. I don't own a car, since May, for the
first time since I was in my early 20s, and it's one of the best
choices I ever made. We may think that these other choices aren't
convenient--but that's because we externalize or underestimate the
impacts and costs of personal car ownership.
Ditto power failures. If my electricity goes out, everyone's will be
out...and there will be a bunch of people making do till it comes
back on. Otherwise it'll be a lot like the rolling brownouts that
have been part of being on the grid for as long as I can remember.
Ice storms have knocked out power in the Northeast and Upper Midwest
and elsewhere. Was it the end of the world? Did it lead to some
massive cascading failure? That people couldn't possibly recover from?
I've heard people talking about how frightened they are--"There are
date chips in EVERYTHING," one highly upset person told me at a local
cafe this past spring. "Even my toaster!" Yes, I replied, and so
what? Is your toaster programmed to blow up on 1/1/00? No, the worst
that can happen is A) it tells the wrong time (not likely because the
thing has a 12-hour clock--it doesn't need to know what year it is,
unless you're planning your bread-toasting months or years in
advance, in which case you really need to have your toaster blow up
on you) or B) it ceases to function and you eat untoasted bread or go
back to toasting it over a fire.
People can, if they have the presence of mind and spirit to do so,
substitute human ingenuity and community for technical solutions.
Jeez, weren't those technical solutions created in the first place to
address social problems?
If cascading faults shut "everything" down--people who are extremely
dependent on technology will have a higher risk of having their
dependence challenged. Some of them may be injured or die. I may be
one of them, so I'm not being glib here.
***But that's the nature of technology dependence.*** That's not
about an error in computer code, per se. Even if this Y2K thing
hadn't come up, there is danger of cascading failures.
Let's go back to the car example. Cars spew thousands of tons of CO2
and other pollutants into the atmosphere, at a time when it's clear
that that toxic gas is causing major problems on a planetary basis.
Why are people not panicking about the cascading failures in natural
ecosystems? From that perspective, a shutting down of power plants,
cars, and other polluting technologies might be the best thing that
Who wants to believe that people can't rise to that challenge? Who
wants to believe that there's either dependency, or chaos and
destruction? Why do some people believe that any threat to the fabric
of our technological dependence is a threat to us personally? And how
is that any different--for us in sustainable ag--than for those
"conventional" farmers who, say, cannot imagine life after
organophosphates? Or the alcoholic or smoker who can't break away
from his or her addiction?
Even here in San Francisco--where I look out my window and see
nothing but roofs between here and the ocean-horizon--I believe that
if All Hell Broke Loose, people would find ways to retool. If people
decided to go nuts and tear things up--well, dependent people are
indeed capable of doing that when the thing upon which they're
I believe that the real cascading failures we should be worrying
about have nothing to do with anything as simple as a finite
programming error. The ones I see unfolding have to do with natural
systems, that we've tinkered with, and propose to and continue to
That leads me to Roberto's mention of how Y2K mirrors the
frustration/concerns with GMO. The difference I see is that
microchips don't self-replicate. (Yet.) The technical reality is that
people write computer code, and only started doing it a couple
decades ago. Just as people only discovered the "code" of DNA a few
decades ago, and now some of them think they know everything about it.
The Y2K problem--no matter how complex it is, and it is complex--is
finite. There is a finite number of faulty lines of code out there,
and further replication of this error will fall off, now that the
problem is known and understood. Yes, it's complex, but it's not
infinite. Nor is it increasing exponentially, out of human control.
In the case of GMOs, there are potential problems you CAN'T fix by
going back and fixing code, simply because it ain't just humans, and
computer programmer humans, writing it. Think of the number of
bacteria in a teaspoon of soil. They're among the programmers. DNA
itself is unfolding according to a very ancient programming. Four
billion years now. And no matter what the gene jockeys with their
studly gene guns want us to believe, they're not in control of the
process. It long predated us.
Finally, Stephen posted this item about two months ago:
>OUT OF 1,000 FIRMS SURVEYED, 84 PERCENT ARE PREPARING
>FOR POSSIBLE POWER FAILURES, 86% PERCENT FOR LOSS OF
>TELECOMS LINKS AND 97 PERCENT FOR SYSTEM FAILURES
Well, for the love of lefse, Stephen--let us hope so!!!! This is a
planet of material reality, and in material reality--as any engineer,
parent, or person catching a train for an important interview
knows--things go wrong. Fires, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes,
meteors crashing in the tundra, squirrels bedding down in electrical
transformers, highly paid engineers who don't know the difference
between the English and metric systems of measurement...all kinds of
Humans run technology, and nature stomps around doing its
planet-building stuff. Preparedness such as the above should be part
and parcel of daily life. I'm willing to bet that for the "firms
surveyed," they were doing much of this stuff anyway, and their "Y2K
preparedness" involved looking at what they were already doing, and
reporting on that. If they weren't doing this already, they're idiots.
Because power fails. Telcom fails. Systems fail. Preparing for
failure is part of simple, basic preparedness. Engineers know
this--fault tolerance is something the responsible ones build into
their systems. Things break.
Maybe I've just reached information-fatigue on this issue in the past
three years. I've answered questions of so many people in the past
year or so--what kind of power generator they should buy, how to
liquidate real estate or stocks without starting a panic, what the
best canned food nutrition is, how long I think the "half-life" of
this crisis is.... I've stopped being understanding and polite,
because what scares me is how willing people are to believe that
humans are lemmings, heading for the edge of the cliff.
What kind of society can we all build together, with that hopeless,
disaster-focused vision of the future? What has happened to the
mindset where people say, this is my home, this is my community,
these are my neighbors, and I am committed to making things work for
the greater good, no matter what happens?
It's one thing to prepare, in general, for disruptions of basic
technological services. What I see, instead, is that many people are
perceiving this technical issue, and any potential resulting social
problems, with a millennialist anxiety. And a creepy kind of
death-wish-flavored energy. And victimization. And helplessness.
My point in my earlier message is that the Y2K meme--the idea, the
thought-form--got a lot of its power from people spreading scare
stories in order to sell goods and services. Most of those were
stories about the scary things that COULD happen. But now many of
them are accepted as the prophesied truth.
So we hear (as one Y2K-hysteria Web site puts it):
Bank funds will not be accessible.
There will be massive, long-term power failures.
Planes all over the world will be grounded.
911 will be out of order.
Military defense systems will fail.
Telephone systems will fail to operate.
IRS tax records and government checks will be unavailable.
Office computers will not work and your employer will go bankrupt.
Social security checks will stop coming.
Hospital electronic instruments will stop working.
The stock market will crash in 1999.
Bank runs will start in 1999.
The government is already prepared to declare martial law.
Supply networks for life saving medications will cause shortages.
Municipal water plants will close down.
The postal system will not be able to process mail.
Populations of large cities will riot.
I agree that computer technology is not nearly as invulnerable as
people think it is. Yet I don't believe--as many people apparently
do--that the fabric of human community and ingenuity is so weak that
this particular technical glitch is going to bring human society
Anything built by humans is prone to crashing. And since we live in a
society where we're subject to so much infrastructure built by
humans, yep, the possibilities for crashing are everywhere.
Is it possible to survive, and even thrive, without social security,
911, airplanes, the stock market, computers, the postal system,
municipal water, etc.? Most people in this world don't have or use
these things, and they survive. Gosh, they even manage to have
families, communities, and societies. They have art, music, science,
philosophy, dance, religion, tradition, homes, food systems.
Everything in the list above--criminy, that sounds like part of day
to day life for most people. I mean, c'mon, name one thing, above
that hasn't happened, prior to Y2K.
So what are the Y2K hysterics concluding--that the only possible way
of living is a technologically dependent one, and that's going to
fall apart? Jeez, what a death-worshipping worldview. No thanks. What
does our purported Western industrial "quality of life" amount to, if
we can be disabled so easily in spirit and faith, catapulted into
fear, by a technical mishap which may or may not cascade?
Yes, this Y2K thing is bound to have effects. Yes, some of them are
likely to be dire for someone--just as the earthquakes in Turkey and
Taiwan were dire for the dear folks living in those fault zones. I'm
willing to bet that Y2K-related failures injure or kill far fewer
people in the next ten years than breast cancer will between Y2K and
Y2K+1. I'm willing to bet more people will be killed and maimed on
New Year's Eve by drunk and drugged drivers or gun-wielding doofuses
than by computer problems.
In these closing days of a period of arbitrary calendrical
measurement (a "millennium"), I don't have a lot of patience for
millennialist hysteria. If you want to see the real social effects of
cascading technological failure, go to the Sudan, to Ethiopia, to
Russia, to Yugoslavia, to Korea, to Flint, Chester, East St. Louis,
and Gary, Indiana. Go to the "third world" nations where perfectly
viable, sustainable technologies were replaced with "superior" ones
that have proceeded to shred and dismember societies and create new
forms of suffering.
For me, the Y2K thing could wake people up to think about the
interconnectedness of human technology, the fragility of and lack of
fault tolerance in those systems, and the risks we take with our
health and lives in pursuing the Promethean myth that we can command
the forces of nature. But I see it as far from the biggest threat
facing us at present. And I see those of us in sustainable ag as
having the power to voice a vision that steps aside from
technological dependence on the one hand--and techno-panic on the
other. As the last lone cannibal on the deserted island said, "Well.
Looks like survival isn't everything after all."
Thanks for listening.
Center for Integrated Ag Systems, UW-Madison
UW voice mail: 608-262-8018
Home office: 415-504-6474 (504-MISH)
Home office fax: Same as above, phone first for enabling
Prometheus, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen
fire...but I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in
which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own
destruction. --The god Zeus, in Hesiod, /Works and Days/ 55
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