By Donella Meadows
–July 16, 1998–
I’m told there are two million programmers working full time to get the Y2K “millennium bug” out of our computers. Judging from my email, I’d guess there are another two million discussing the problem, warning about it, hyperventilating about it.
Not that there isn’t a problem. To save time and computer memory, early programmers wrote only the last two numbers of yearly dates — just “69” for 1969, for example — letting the computer assume the “19.” Apparently no one thought about January 1, 2000, when the computers will assume it’s the year 1900.
With all the stunning advances in computer technology, one thing that has changed surprisingly little is code. Once you’ve written a program to calculate an interest payment, or to figure out who has just become eligible for social security, there’s no point in writing it again. To save time and money you pick up and re-use chunks of code.
So old programs using two-digit dates are embedded not only in computers, but in tiny chips that run traffic lights, electric grids, railroad switches, hospital equipment, air traffic control centers, elevators, satellites. The average American, they say, encounters 70 microprocessors before noon every day. No one knows how many of them are “year 2000 compliant.”
To make matters worse, over those same decades, our economy has become leaner and meaner. Suppliers of everything from car parts to groceries have developed “just-in-time” inventories aimed at having products come in the back door at the same rate customers carry them out the front door. That saves a lot of money, but it leaves little capacity to tide over a temporary interruption in the flow, caused by, say, a Y2K glitch.
Then too, because it’s cheaper to hire labor in foreign lands our economy has become dependent on distant sources and complex supply chains. Says one article that showed up in my email, written by consultants John L. Petersen, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers: “Our ability as an economy and society to deal with disruptions and breakdowns in our critical systems is minuscule. Our worst case scenarios have never envisioned multiple, parallel systemic failures…. Costs have been squeezed out of all our critical infrastructure systems…. Complex, multiple failures have been considered too remote a possibility and therefore too expensive to plan for.”
Whatever happens at midnight on December 31, 1999 — and my guess is that surprising things will indeed happen — there is an opportunity here to appreciate what ecologists call “resilience.” Resilience is the ability of a system to absorb blows, repair itself, weather hard times, adapt, adjust, evolve. Without resilience, in this noisy, unpredictable world, any system dies.
The immune system in our bodies is a wondrous resilience mechanism. The emergency core cooling system in a nuclear reactor is there for resilience in case the chain reaction gets out of hand. We buy of insurance for resilience against many kinds of disaster. We maintain fire departments, police forces, armies, doctors, plumbers. We save money, install smoke alarms, organize ourselves into families and communities. All for resilience.
Resilience has its costs, which sane people are willing to pay, because doing so is a matter of survival. But not doing so is very tempting, especially if your time horizon collapses to the very short term, as has happened in our economic system.
Keeping only just-in-time inventories saves money. So does replacing human beings, who would never mistake the year 2000 for the year 1900, with computers. Cutting a tax deal for your business saves money but reduces the public budget and hence the resilience of the community around you. Shaving workers’ pay and cutting their insurance and pensions to the bone eats into their personal resilience and that of their families.
Modern economic logic recognizes only a few kinds of resilience and relentlessly destroys other kinds that look incompatible with the short-term bottom line. In the long term that makes as much sense as letting all insurance lapse and selling off the smoke alarms and deciding not to build emergency cooling systems because they cost a lot and almost never get used.
Economic logic is especially bad at valueing the unpriced but priceleEss resilience of nature. Wetlands don’t produce corn or subdivisions, so let’s drain and fill them and make money — but wetlands are shock-absorbers, storing storm surges, moderating floods, holding water for droughts, filtering and purifying the water that flows through them. It makes economic sense to clearcut forests, but those trees also hold water, build soil, cool and humidify the land, moderate the weather, slow the wind, store carbon, and shelter millions of other species.
Sheltering species makes no sense to the short-term bottom line, but the huge diversity of nature, in addition to being fascinating and beautiful and sacred, is also a most amazing resilience mechanism. The complex interactions among the critters in an ecosystem allow the living community to adjust to change. A shortage or excess of a nutrient is corrected as some populations rise while other sink. Some species can weather cold, some do well in drought, some recover after fire, so the community can rebuild after disasters.
Most important, the genes carried in millions of species, invented and tested over billions of years of planetary variability, form the information base for nature’s long-term resilience response, which is evolution. Evolution is innovation. It is new technology. Wiping out species is equivalent to wiping out libraries and data bases and scientific research. Saves money in the short term; real expensive in the long term.
So as we pay billions of dollars to go back and fix our mind-boggling accumulation of computer code, and as we cope with whatever breaks down on the New Year’s Eve after next, maybe we could make some useful resolutions about treasuring resilience.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998