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Why community-based responses to the Year 2000 Problem make more sense than individual survivalism

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain...until
it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
Jane Addams
The survivalist approach is just not a practical approach.... You can't
head for the hills because everybody else is going to be in the hills....
This is a communal problem that needs a communal approach.
Peter de Jaeger, leading Y2K authority
In a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
My own personal strategy does not include heading for the hills; it involves
trying to keep my community together, after I've ensured my own family is
prepared to the best of my ability. To poorly paraphrase, "No man is
an island." That's where I expect to be spending a majority of my own
personal time during most of 1999.
Rick Cowles
expert on Y2K impact on utilities
[Survivalists assume] that it will be necessary to get out of the cities because
law and order will break down. [They also seem to assume] that those
who stock food and other necessities will be left in peace to enjoy them.
In actual fact, of course, those people who are prepared to be the most
violent will simply seize the resources which others have prepared for them.
Robert Theobald, community futurist
Alternative Scenarios for Y2K

The longer we pursue strategies for individual survival, the less time
we have to create any viable, systemic solutions. None of the boundaries
we've created across industries, organizations, communities, or nation
states give us any protection in the face of Y2K. We must stop the
messages of fragmentation now and focus [on] how to engage everyone,
at all levels, in all systems.
John L. Petersen, Margaret
Wheatley, Myron Kellner-Rogers
The Year 2000: Social Chaos
or Social Transformation

Together we can create opportunities,
Which escape us when we hide,
Our resources and skills from others.
It is time to build community again,
To share what we have,
And to experience miracles.
Robert Theobald

There is a good chance that the Year 2000 Problem will result in significant breakdowns in the social and economic support systems we've grown accustomed to. We will likely find it more difficult to get the basics of life, to say nothing of the luxuries and comforts that our industrialized, high-tech, mass consumer culture has delivered to us for so many decades. In many regions it is likely that people will only survive to the extent they have prepared for the possibility of hard times.

At this point it is not possible to predict how hard or how lightly any particular area will be hit. We may be able to predict this more confidently late in 1999. But by then there will be little time to make preparations -- and any efforts to prepare will likely collide with the efforts of others, producing a more or less frantic mess. It seems wise to face the probability now that the Year 2000 problem will produce areas of significant hardship and even the possibility of widespread deprivation (of food, water, heat, etc.), death and social chaos. Prudence dictates that we make substantial preparations soon.

But what kind of preparations are most likely to succeed?

The role of government

We can always hope that our national and state governments will come to the rescue. Such faith is blind. Although most are doing something, none of them are doing enough for us to depend on and many of them are still doing little or nothing. Those that are active are primarily busy with their own computer systems; they are doing little to prepare for the impact of the Year 2000 crisis on the lives of ordinary people outside the realm of government services and regulations. Even if a government official or politician were to push ahead on our behalf, they would likely be hamstrung by fiscal and political constraints, and their ability to help will be further undermined in any location where the infrastructure (transportation, media, etc.) broke down. It may become very hard to get aid to areas most in need of it. In the worst case scenarios, governments themselves may collapse or become irrelevant.

Clearly, we can't count on government to save us. However, all levels of government could play essential and constructive roles in our collective survival through the Year 2000. We should actively push for them to make that a priority. In the meantime, we should also assume that we'll need to be much more self-reliant than usual. We might even demand that governments actively cultivate conditions in which widespread self-reliance can develop and succeed.


But what kind of self-reliance am I talking about here? To what extent do we need individual and family self-reliance and to what extent do we need community self-reliance?

I will argue here that -- dollar for dollar, hour for hour, ounce for ounce -- building community self-reliance will yield a better return on our investments than building personal self-reliance. I will also describe ways in which community self-reliance involves mutual aid within and between communities.

Survivalist and Community-based approaches

Perhaps the most compelling argument for community-based approaches to preparing for the Year 2000 crisis is this: The more you and your neighbors invest your energy in a community response, the more synergy you can create. If four people who are each straining to move their own heavy table get together, they can move all four tables quickly and efficiently. That's synergy. Together, a community is able to do more things that help the individuals in it, than those individuals can do by themselves. You waste less energy getting in each other's way and defending yourselves against each other. All of you together become greater than all of you individually. The more you each act to support a community response, the more powerful that response becomes, and thus more able to help each of you.

In contrast, the more you and your neighbors pursue a survivalist response -- the more you invest in strategies that protect only you, your family, or those close to you -- the more dysergy you create together, and the weaker your collective response becomes. Like tens of thousands of cars gridlocked on a highway or two kids fighting over a toy, everybody's efforts added together produce less progress than would be possible if they were alone. And we must face the fact that we are not alone; we are inescapably embedded in a society with millions of other people, all of whom face the same threat we do. The more survivalism there is going on in the society around us, the more our individual actions will start to undermine each other.

It can get quite messy. In a crisis where resources are scarce, differences between Haves and Have-Nots become vivid and disruptive. As those differences increase, so does jealousy, resentment and the sense of deprivation. Trust breaks down, and with it, social cohesion. The Haves invest more and more resources in defending themselves, while the Have-Nots invest more and more resources in stealing from or attacking the Haves.

To anyone viewing this from the outside, it would be clear that all those resources -- all that time, attention, effort, and material resources invested in attack and protection -- were being wasted. It would be like watching somebody who needed to open a door, stand before it punching themselves in the head with one hand while protecting their head with the other. Anyone watching this would wonder if they are crazy. Why don't they use their hands to open the door? Similarly, why wouldn't the citizens of a threatened society apply their resources towards creating benefits of value to all of them, instead of fighting amongst themselves?

Perhaps only our outsider would notice, as well, that this struggle over resources was tearing apart The Commons -- that shared environment of natural, economic, social and spiritual benefits and possibilities that normally sustains human communities. The participants in this intense survivalist game, obsessed with their own physical needs, would probably fail to notice that they and everyone else involved were systematically destroying important parts of themselves, their humanity, the quality of their lives and often the world around them. When everyone takes up the survivalist banner, everyone becomes a loser.

And so, paradoxically, in conditions of widespread breakdown, we find survivalism helping only a very few survive -- and even then, usually helping them only for a short time. In a survivalist world, if you Have and most other people Don't Have, you become a target for everyone else's hunger, thirst, greed and resentment. If you are not willing to kill and steal, those who are willing to do so will take what you have. If you are willing to kill and steal, those who are more violent than you will destroy you or, if you are lucky, they will let you kill and steal for them in exchange for their support.

Most of us recoil at the very thought of such a dog-eat-dog existence. But we must face the fact that when people are starving and their community spirit is weak, such violent, Mafia-like power shakedowns are exactly what happen -- and have happened throughout history, over and over again. They are happening today in impoverished city neighborhoods domestically and around the world. They are happening in Russia and Bosnia. They are an ugly but effective means of distributing resources. There is no reason that this sort of thing won't happen wherever the right conditions exist -- that is, wherever there are scarcity, government breakdowns and weak community -- exactly the conditions we could expect from a major Year 2000 crisis.

Survivalism can take different forms. The extreme individual survivalist heads for the hills with a stash of supplies, guns, and big dogs. A more mild individual survivalist keeps his stash at home and builds a higher, stronger, fence -- or moves to a quiet small town in some tropical place (since the Year 2000 befalls us in the dead of winter). The collective survivalists move into gated communities with armed guards. The self-defeating dynamics of survivalism unfold for us no matter which variety we choose.

Survivalism is a tempting option because, although we may not have a lot of influence on the level of scarcity and or government breakdown in a Year 2000 crisis, we think we can control our own preparedness and destiny. I have tried to show that individual-(or group)-against-the-world solutions are not as workable as they may at first appear. The alternative, of course, is community-building and mutual aid.

Don't people naturally rally to help each other?

Some people suggest that pro-social community responses are natural and inevitable. They point to countless floods and earthquakes in which neighbors acted together spontaneously to meet community needs.

I would love to share that viewpoint. However, such events are different from a widespread Year 2000 breakdowns in at least three very significant ways: 1) they are local, 2) they are temporary, 3) they happen with little or no warning and 4) they are "acts of God." A Year 2000 breakdown may well be 1) worldwide, 2) long-term, 3) largely foreseen and 4) created by humans, opening the door to blame and scapegoating. There may be no larger healthy society upon which a traumatized community can call for help. As more people are threatened by deprivation, their loved ones will naturally rally more to meet their needs than those of their neighbors. In order to avoid fragmentation, the whole community's needs must be taken into account ahead of time, by the whole community, and collective action taken to plan for contingencies. Such a collaborative community undertaking creates an environment in which pro-social responses can more easily surface and sustain themselves in a struggling population.

The fact is that both pro-social and survivalist tendencies are natural. But what we do now will make all the difference in the world which natural tendency will predominate. We can have a lot of influence -- starting right now -- on the strength and self-reliance of our communities. If we support community responses, each of us becomes a co-creator of our community's survival and the general welfare. We receive benefits along with everyone else. The more equitable and resourceful a community we can create together, the less risk any one of us will end up facing.

What if everybody acts the same way?

But before we leave the survivalist strategy for good, let us look at another of its glaring shortcomings -- one so obvious that hardly anyone notices it: Any survivalist approach will only be as successful as nobody else does it. If everyone starts moving to the countryside and small towns, there will soon be no countryside or small towns left and what little there is will be horrendously expensive -- and will need to be heavily guarded, and increasingly unpleasant to live in. Another example: If everyone starts taking money out of the banks and stuffs it under mattresses, the banks will crash and robbers will soon realize that homes are becoming more lucrative targets than ever, ripe for the picking. Or if everyone starts buying up large stocks of batteries and preserved foods, the prices of these goods will skyrocket, making it harder for other people to stockpile their own stash and more likely that they will try to steal from the early stockpilers. If people are stockpiling guns and ammunition (and some are), this picture can turn very unpleasant, indeed, very rapidly.

In contrast, the more people act in a community-oriented way, the better the scene becomes for everybody. Any action by anyone on behalf of the community, benefits everyone in the community. The more people join in teams to think and act together, the healthier the community becomes and the better the survival prospects for all involved. Some neighbors can prepare ways to collect rainwater while others are busy improving the community's capacity to provide accessible, low-tech medical care. While some are tending community gardens, others are teaching their neighbors how to grow food in their homes or to gather edibles from the landscape. While some are arranging for security or setting up generators in community facilities, others can be helping neighboring communities become secure, as well, reducing the chance of inter-community conflict. Businesses who are part of this community enterprise won't try to make a killing off of community needs, and communities can form purchasing blocks to bargain for good prices from other businesses. If banks and other financial institutions are threatened, communities can create local currencies to help all their citizens and businesses cope. (Note: This list is just to give you a taste of what I mean by "community approaches" and is not intended as a program for any particular community. More details about community approaches to the Year 2000 problem will be explored in subsequent articles and continue to be developed over the next year or so.)

The stockpiling of commodities and foods is a trickier question, because this issue needs to be dealt with on a regional or national basis. Networks of communities, working with state and national governments, could arrange for the production of key commodities and for the development of systems through which necessities could be shared equitably. Here the communities' role might be to pressure the higher levels of governance to serve communities, collectively, rather than trying to force into place centralized systems that may, in January 2000, fall apart. Equitableness among adjacent communities will be very important for social cohesion. Once we're into the year 2000, a spirit and practice of mutual aid among communities will be as vital as it is within communities.

Long-term quality of life

While all of us need to reasonably prepare ourselves, our families, and those close to us for the likely hardships of the Year 2000 crisis, our wisest efforts will be spent working with others in our local communities. In the process, we may even discover -- as thousands of people already have -- that such community activity is more meaningful and rewarding than the fragmented, pressurized lives we've been living. Perhaps we will decide, as we build back from the breakdowns of the Year 2000, that we are going to hold on to that close community we have created. Perhaps we'll use it to start building a better quality of life together than the old mass consumerism ever gave us.

If we end up realizing that real community is always healthier for us than big government, big business and big individualism, then the Year 2000 crisis will have been an unprecedented gift, not only to us, but to all the generations after us. They will inherit our wisdom that the community approach is a good idea -- not just for surviving crises like the Year 2000, but for living truly rich and satisfying lives into a long, long future.

Tom Atlee

June 5, 1998

See also Robert Theobald's article: Reweaving Community Resilience

Discussion of self-interest vs. community interest

On Aug 13, 1998, Roger Harrison wrote:

I personally think that if we don't address personal preparation and
survival in our attempts to build community, but stay on the lofty level of
all for one and one for all, that we will lose people we need to have with
us. I think it's important not to drive people's concerns for themselves
into the shadow, but rather to bring them into the light, focusing on what
we can and must be responsible for ourselves, and then on what we need
cooperation with others to do, the things we can't or shouldn't be doing
just for ourselves. If we don't acknowledge self interest, we won't have a
very real dialogue, but will tend to encourage posturing.

Tom Atlee replied:

Is it possible to make a space for ALL motivations that might play a role in positive developments? I think you are right that the majority are motivated by self-interest, some more enlightened than others. AND there are some for whom the welfare of others or the community is THE primary motivation. Still others are looking beyond community welfare to the long-range outcomes, the welfare of the seventh generation or the earth, or the spiritual progress of themselves or humankind. I would hope we can create a climate where all these can play a role in a positive unfolding.

Sometimes some creative reframing may help, such as
prepare yourself SO THAT you can better serve the community (a number of churches are saying this)
IF you are going to leave the cities, go help set up an ecovillage, or go to a town already moving well towards sustainability and help out there