The Psychological Challenges of Y2K

The Y2K computer problem is especially challenging to the traditional rational mind that requires indisputable factual data before it can act. We have watched hundreds of bright, talented leaders wrestle internally with the inherently nebulous, indefinable and unknown consequences of what may happen as a result of the Y2K problem. In one conference of frustrated, fact-hungry political leaders and economic forecasters, understanding Y2K was decribed as ‘trying to nail a cream pie to the wall.’

Just as people go through distinct psychological stages when first learning that they have a terminal illness, so people pass through different stages when trying to come to terms with Y2K:

1. Denial. This is the most common response. People think it can’t be that serious. Or they think that technical wizards will come up with a magic bullet to fix it just in time. ‘Oh, Bill Gates will come up with a solution.’ For those who don’t think systemically, it’s difficult to assimilate the potential severe cascading systemic effects that could result from a loss of power in the electric grid, failures in thousand-mile-long food-supply lines or water- or sewage-treatment plants. Many people have the attitude that ‘I don’t even use a computer, so why should I care about it?’

The sheer improbability of it all is another barrier. The idea that the most powerful nation on earth and much of the world civilization could be brought to its knees because of some misprogrammed computer codes simply boggles the mind. It is difficult to integrate because most of us simply do not understand how totally dependent we are on computers for everything from our food supply with its computerized ‘just in time’ inventory systems, rail-delivery systems, to all our financial transactions with every nation in the world.

2. Anger. The second stage is often anger and blaming corporate and government managers for short-term, bottom-line thinking. People ask accusingly, ‘How could they be so stupid? Why didn’t they tell us sooner that this could be a major problem? How much are they still not telling us? What else are they hiding?’

3. Fear. The next stage can be fear, when people get in a survivalist mode and try to protect themselves–running out to buy and store food, water, and other supplies. They think, ‘If I just do the right things I will be OK.’

4. Depression and Panic: Next, people realize that even if they buy food and store water and totally prepare, they could still be without electricity and transportation systems. They worry that other people who are desperate may try to steal their food or become violent. They then may feel a sense of hopelessness–that everything will come crashing down. They feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of it. This is the dangerous stage, as mass panic may ensue if large numbers of people go through this stage at the same time.

5. Acceptance and Cooperation. Finally, people can reach the stage of accepting the inevitability of this massive change, and asking realistically what they can do as part of the larger community to cooperate and to make sure everyone is as ready as possible.

In order for this possibility to become a reality, it seems essential that as many people as possible become informed about Y2K as rapidly as possible. This gives them time to go through a personal and psychological process to reach the stage of acceptance and working with others. If the current official policy of withholding information about the severity of potential disruptions continues, and people do not find out until mid-1999, with little time left to prepare, they will be angry, frightened, less trustful and less likely to work together. Individual survivalism becomes a useless strategy if you are the only house on your block with food and water, and others are also in need. If you hide in the hills with your fear, your food and a gun, the quality of life you would be living would leave little real reason for living.

We need to start spreading the word about Y2K early enough that people can go through their personal process and work through their fear and panic while they still have time to prepare. If people have time to acknowledge and plan for the disruptions, we will have a better opportunity to build a network of community relationships that will support everyone in working together, sharing resources, skills and expertise and building a stable society. Businesses will also have time to gear up to meet new demands for canned foods, wood stoves, bottled water, and so forth.

People are not just waiting for leaders to take action. An August 1998 poll by Americans Talk Issues Foundation showed that 10 percent of Americans have purchased emergency home supplies and 39 percent are considering it. Over a hundred community preparedness groups have sprung up all around the country, and churches, foundations and other organizations are beginning to gear up to help prepare the public for the likely impact of widespread systemic disruptions.

Some are seeing the Y2K crisis as a social change opportunity. People who have been working their entire lives for political, social and cultural change immediately see its transformational potential. A common response among this group is, ‘This is what I came here for,’ or ‘I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.’ They immediately see the systemic implications of the issue, and use their carefully developed prototype projects as seed examples of how we can meet some of the real human needs in this new situation.

What many people are realizing is that if there are breakdowns in the infrastructure of the modern world, the seeds that have been planted by all these movements are likely to see exponential growth. Previously uninvolved members of the public will see them as practical solutions they can use in neighborhoods and communities to meet real-life needs. Using well-developed dialoguing and visioning processes involving the entire community, people could develop new ways to organize themselves with community-supported agriculture, barter and alternative currencies, solar and wind energy, wholistic and complementary medicine, and co-ops of all kinds. As people realize they can mobilize their personal resources and contribute to community-preparedness efforts, they feel more confident and empowered that they can get through this Y2K crisis.

Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson are coauthors of Spiritual Politics: Changing the World from the Inside Out(Ballantine, 1994),andBuilders of the Dawn. They are cofounders of The Center for Visionary Leadership in Washington, D.C. and cofounders of Sirius, an ecological village and educational community in Massachusetts. Corinne coordinated a national task force for President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and taught politics at American University, and Gordon was formerly the executive director of the Social Investment Forum and of The Center for Environmentally Responsible Economics. They can be reached at: The Center for Visionary Leadership, 3408 Wisconsin Ave. NW., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20016; (202) 237-2800.

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