Y2K and Our Big Bet
By Larry Shook
from Awakening: The Upside of Y2K -- a book inspired by this website!
The premise of Y2K seems almost too ridiculous to accept. A simple technical
flaw with the potential to, at worst, jeopardize civilization, at best cost
twice as much as the Vietnam War to fix? Please. It's like one of those
adrenaline-flushed movie previews Hollywood is so fond of.
Still, skepticism is good and if, like many of us, you're still not persuaded
of the need for rapid personal and community actions by the articles you've
already read, there's only one more suggestion that occurs to me. Review
the proceedings of a Y2K conference hosted by the Center for Strategic &
International Studies on June 2, 1998 in Washington, D.C. and broadcast
on C-Span. It's easy to get both a videotape and transcript of this conference,
and I urge readers to do this in order to come to their own conclusions.
For thirty years CSIS has been a sober voice of scholarship and reason in
a puzzling and often dangerous world. It's as reputable a think tank on
public affairs as you will find anywhere. The views expressed at the June
2 briefing are as sobering as anything you'll ever likely hear. For the
purposes of this discussion, here's a brief summary:
- "The world is virtually doomed to have major Y2K problems."
- Fixing Y2K in time is impossible. We have to do something else.
- World leaders should plan for Y2K as though it were an approaching
- While impact from Y2K is inevitable, the scope is not. With immediate
contingency planning, the disruption might be held to significant but manageable.
Without such immediate action, Doomsday scenarios are possible.
- At risk are energy supplies, food supplies, transportation, financial
systems, general government services (including defense), and general business
- The U.S. probably leads the world in Y2K preparations, but the U.S.
is the most vulnerable, too.
- Our present absence of readiness is such that, "If tomorrow were
1/1/2000, our economy wouldn't grind to a halt, it would snap to a halt."
- Famine in the United States beginning in the year 2000 is possible.
- Individual survival initiatives are pointless and will make matters
worse. Panic, start stocking your own pantry and arm yourself if you wish,
but that will only make your own and everyone else's problems worse. This
is a community challenge for which there will be community solutions or
none at all. Translation: the best way to help yourself is to help your
- Individuals and communities should demand far better government attention
to Y2K than they have so far received at the local, state and federal levels.
The current lack of leadership compounds the possibility of a Titanic scenario.
Citizens should contact government representatives immediately, request
that Y2K contingency planning begin now, and that regular public progress
reports be issued.
- While government is crafting its response, every citizen should get
involved in community contingency planning immediately.
- At its heart, Y2K is not a technology problem. It's a "human
- "Don't panic, but don't spend too much time sleeping, either."
This presentation was moderated by former senior Newsweek editor
Arnaud deBorchgrave. The keynote speaker was U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah),
chairman of the Senate's special committee on the Y2K problem. (He's the
one who cautioned against sleep.) Among the distinguished panelists were
Dr. Edward Yardeni, chief economist of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and one
of the world's most respected economic authorities (Yardeni's the one who
says that, without effective action, Doomsday and famine are possible),
and such members of the technological priesthood as author Peter de Jager,
former Royal Air Force intelligence expert Alan Simpson, Keith Rhodes of
the General Accounting Office, and software expert Bruce Webster.
For your own video, call C-Span, 1-800-277-2698 and order tape #106506,
the three-hour 6/2/98 broadcast. The tape costs $90, plus $75 for three-day
shipping if you're in a hurry (normal shipping takes three weeks). You could
chip in with friends to get this tape immediately, share it, discuss it,
see if you can get your local public access station to air it. Anyone who
watches this tape without being concerned, it seems to me, should probably
just stock the cupboard with gin and get comfortable.
If you don't want to buy the tape but if you have access to the World Wide
Web, go to the CSIS web page: http://www.csis.org/
and open up "CSIS Tackles Millennium Computer Crisis." Then go
to the "June 2 Conference" and open "Conference Transcripts."
You can print out everything that was said, photocopy it, share it with
On the CSIS web page, I also recommend the "Y2K Crisis Links"
and "Y2K Web Site." Check out "Dr. Yardeni's Economics Network."
On August 19, 1998 Dr. Yardeni will host "Global Y2K Action Day, T-500
and Counting." Track the proceedings.
To understand the school of thought that Y2K can't be fixed, open "Year
2000 and Euro: IT Challenges of the Century." Then read "Routine
That Became a Meltdown." It's a chilling report of a manufacturing
test in Australia that suggests humanity's sudden vulnerability to this
strange new bug.
Well, fine. So what's the average grudging computer user like me to do?
I just can't shake the implausibility of it all, and I know from conversations
with friends and family that I'm not alone.
That said, as of today I'm taking Y2K seriously. It's July 29, 1998. I hope
that on July 29, 2000 I'm able to look back on this moment and feel foolish
for my worry. Right now, however, the chorus of concern has simply grown
too loud for me to ignore. People I have every reason to trust say that
anything from the equivalent of storm surf to a tidal wave may be coming.
Do I stand on the beach and wait to see if they're right?
This is the crisis of choice we all face: do we mill around in disbelief,
or do we take action? And what should we do?
The second question is the most complicated, but before considering it,
just ask yourself this: is it better to have an emergency plan and no emergency,
or an emergency and no plan?
I find that my own instincts are not to chop wood, stockpile food and head
for the hills (though I've always dreamed of a country life). My decision
is to do what I'm doing at this moment: facilitate the flow of information
and head for the town halls, to join with others and try to figure out what
Together. E pluribus unum.
At this moment, my problem as an American citizen is that a credible group
of leaders has gotten out ahead of the White House, the business community
and the financial community and declared... well, a national emergency.
Surely, they have not done this lightly. The Center for Strategic and International
Studies went to the trouble to create a high-profile national podium for
comments like these by individuals of stature:
"[If you see that you can't fix Y2K in 18 months] you can begin to
spend 18 months developing contingency plans that will see to it that you
at least not shut down... When people say to me, 'Is the world going to
come to an end [because of Y2K],' I say I don't know. I don't know whether
this will be a bump in the road-that's the most optimistic assessment of
what we've got, a very serious bump in the road-or whether this will, in
fact, trigger a major worldwide recession with absolutely devastating economic
consequences in some parts of the world." -Senator Robert Bennett
" 'The fundamentals are fine!' is the cry from Wall Street. They are
oblivious to the fact that the wheels are going to fall off the cart...
We are headed for the first turn in the road in this information highway,
and we forgot to put in a steering wheel... We have both the ability and
the capability-we even have the resources necessary to fix this problem....
What we lack is the management will and courage to face this problem square
in the eye and deal with it. And until we find that courage the people who
recommend that you head for the hills may be the ones with the answer."
-Peter de Jager
"I am an optimist on Y2K. I expect that we will hear good news. But
I also think there will be significant vital systems that will not be operational
in time, and I think these will have a domino effect on the rest of us who
think that we have fixed our system, and as a result I think there will
be some really significant disruptions on a global basis. So I'm an optimist
but I'm also an alarmist on the Year 2000 problem... Could it be six months
of major disruptions to our computer systems? Absolutely. Could it be an
entire year? Absolutely... The April 27  Fortune magazine...
quoted the chief information officer worldwide of General Motors saying
there are 'catastrophic problems' in every GM plant... What's really missing
here is leadership on this issue... We desperately need to have leaders
tell the public what's really going on... We need to alarm the public. You're
not going to panic anybody a year and a half in advance of the problem.
You can alarm the public, and then the public will make sure that politicians,
the business leaders do everything in their power to fix this problem. If
we don't let the public in on this problem, then they will panic sometime
next year... I'm not a doomsayer. I'm not talking about the end of life
on planet Earth. But... if we continue to pretend there isn't a problem
coming, Doomsday scenarios are conceivable... We have to tell the public,
'Some things you depend on may simply not work...' The contingency plan
is to prepare people for the fact that certain products, services and information
that they really need aren't going to be available. You're going to have
to conduct your business, your life, without some things for a while...
We have to do two things. We have to operate on two levels. One is, we have
to make it the number one priority-stop everything else and fix the problem!
And two, we have to prepare for the fact that we're not going to completely
fix it. There are going to be failures. And we have to reconstruct as quickly
as possible. We have to minimize the panic, because the panic will make
the crisis much worse than otherwise it needs to be." -Dr. Edward Yardeni
By the time this book went to press, the White House, industry and Wall
Street were all still pretty quiet. Why?
The CSIS panelists and other close observers of Y2K (see Douglass
Carmichael's piece on page 60) say this is because the politicians are
waiting for November elections to pass, and industry and Wall Street are
more concerned with legal liability and stock prices than the survival of
the republic. (Panelist Alan Simpson declared that if the politicians stalled
action on Y2K another six months, "then I've lost all hope.")
In other words, Y2K could bring about an epic confrontation between America's
most polar personality traits: self-interest and self-sacrifice. If this
showdown materializes, and if the Y2K Cassandras are right, then either
our finest or our darkest hour may be at hand. Whatever the case, the public
is entitled to clear and persuasive official responses to CSIS's alarming
declaration. Or should we just hope that this venerable old institution
has unaccountably gone off its rocker?
It seems to me that Y2K confronts us with two basic problems. The first
is purely practical: how do we keep the power on, food in the larder, water
flowing from the tap, etc.? The second is a little more abstract: How do
we talk to each other about this? If, in the end, Y2K really does cause
widespread social disruption, my guess is it will have more to do with the
second problem than the first. Just now, I have good friends who see in
all this the unfolding of events transcribed by a fisherman 2000 years ago
and foretold in the Book of Revelations. Others are reminded of the Hopi
prophesies. Still others bring up the predictions of the old French physician
and prophet Nostradamus. Some see Y2K as a cosmic joke. Some take the view
it's just one more technological hurdle to clear, albeit a pretty big one.
Let's say the Millennial Bug actually has become the Millennial Bomb. What
we know from the experience of war is that it's pretty hard to bomb a society
out of existence. People become resilient and selfless in the face of adversity.
But of all the wars in humanity's bellicose repertoire, none is deadlier
than holy war, that heartless, mindless bloodbath over meaning. This is
where Y2K's test, if it comes, could be most severe. We must create a compass
of common values and shared hopes-and quickly-if we are to find our way
in what could be an altered social and economic landscape. How do we go
Senator Bennett has set seven priorities for preventing Y2K from unraveling
society. They involve preserving the utilities, safeguarding telecommunications,
keeping transportation running, holding the financial system together, maintaining
general government services (defense included), sustaining general business
activity, averting an orgy of self-defeating litigation.
Look at it this way. Assume Y2K really can knock out the power grid. If
the power goes, we get cold, we lose water (it's pumped and filtered with
electricity), we get sick, we quickly overload health care. But between
now and 2000, is it possible to accelerate new power sources that deregulation
of the electric utility industry has launched already? The answer depends
on who you ask.
This has to do with the creation of decentralized, micro-grid sources of
energy. I asked Amory Lovins, one of the world's foremost authorities on
this subject, if he thought it could be done. If anyone's hunch on this
seemed worth betting on it's Lovins'.
"Yes," he said. "It wouldn't be a trivial undertaking, but
it could be done."
I took that as good news. Gearing up the industrial might that won World
War II wasn't trivial either, but it was done.
Twenty-two years ago, in his influential treatise on "soft energy"
in one of the world's most prestigious journals, Foreign Affairs,
Lovins argued that the global petroleum-based energy system would inevitably
change as oil supplies dwindle. He advocated turning to the abundant supplies
of much cleaner natural gas as a transitional fuel while sustainable technologies-photovoltaics
in conjunction with less wasteful energy practices, etc.-were put in place.
Today, the electric utility industry is following Lovins' advice by turning
to small, scattered natural gas turbine generators as a far more economical
and reliable source of power than the old, hideously expensive coal, nuclear
and hydro plants. Y2K or no, these power sources are already revolutionizing
America's energy system. As this book goes to press, Lovins reports, such
companies as Capstone and Allied Signal are shipping the new generation
of micro-turbines. Can this process be expedited, coupled to Y2K-resistant
sources of natural gas, as part of a rational contingency plan? Again, Lovins
thinks it's possible. I asked if his Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the
nation's top independent energy consulting organizations, could help organize
such a conversion.
"We could help," he said, "but the American Public Power
Association is in a far better position to do that."
But Mike Hyland, director of engineering for the American Public Power Association
in Washington, D.C., the national trade representative of more than 2,000
state and local government-owned electric utilities, disagreed with Lovins.
"It took a hundred years to build the grid," he said. "You're
not going to replace it between now and 2000. Besides, this isn't a fuel
source problem. It's an embedded problem."
Beyond that, however, Hyland said he doesn't think widespread Y2K disruption
of America's electricity is likely. Reason: while Y2K is a new specific
problem, it's only a modern variation on the electric industry's oldest
nemesis. It fits in the category of "things that can disrupt the flow
of juice." Hyland says the industry owes its second-by-second existence
to its ability to respond to such events, and he's confident, based on polling
his members, that the industry's history, coupled with its intensive Y2K
efforts, make widespread outages unlikely.
"If you're asking if your TV could go black on New Year's eve 2000
while you're watching the ball in Times Square go down, yes. A drunk on
his way home from a party could hit a utility pole, a squirrel could get
fried in the lines, the wind could blow, a blizzard could take out your
power. Or a Y2K glitch somewhere near you could interrupt your service.
But I don't think it will stay out for long. If you're asking me if I'll
be on an airplane or a train, or in an elevator in January 2000, no way."
How to reconcile Hyland's optimism with references #16 and #17 in Dacia
Reid's piece on page 84, I leave to you.
After loss of power, of course, loss of food supply would also cause an
instant emergency. When Dr. Yardeni warns of the possibility of famine,
it's because the ability to pump and distribute fuel is also vulnerable
to the defective microchips in the nation's computer systems. If you lose
transportation you quickly lose groceries (see "A
Big Grocer's Y2K Nightmare," page 78). So what about food production?
Many agricultural experts have warned for years that despite the impressive
technological achievements of modern society, never in history has the average
human been so vulnerable to starvation. There are several reasons for this.
One is the staggeringly destructive impact of modern agriculture. According
to some experts, chemical and mechanized cultivation wastes so much soil
that by 2025 the earth will no longer have enough of the precious commodity
to support its human population. Other forecasts allow as much as a century
of remaining soil, but the result's the same. This has nothing to do with
Another reason for humanity's present food danger is the high-tech nature
of modern farming. Old-fashioned open-pollinated plants have been replaced
by hybrids. The old plants are lusty rascals, yielding a comically extravagant
surplus of seeds, constantly renewing their own source. The new ones are
sterile and reproduce by fragile industrial processes only. Moreover, modern
agriculture is dependent on oil and the microchip. Oil makes the pesticides
and herbicides that kill the bugs and weeds lured by monoculture. The chemical
fertilizers on which the artificial plants depend are made from oil. It
fuels the trains and trucks that keep the cities stocked with their three-days'
supply of food. And of course, microchips control the rails by which much
of the food comes to town.
Because of this untenable state of affairs, since the 1970s a global movement
for sustainable and urban agriculture has steadily gathered momentum. If
you can use the World Wide Web, type in "sustainable agriculture"
and see what comes up. You will see the unmistakable outlines of a life-saving
revolution waiting, vibrating, to happen. You will see, for instance that
Canada has an "Office of Urban Agriculture," (www.cityfarmer.org/urbagnotes1.html),
devoted to teaching society to produce food outside its door instead of
three thousand miles away. You will see the National Agricultural Library
maintains an Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (www.nal.usda.gov/afic),
and that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture mounts a Sustainable Agriculture
Network. Similarly, the Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service in every
community (www.e-answers.org) represents
a local food-growing brain trust waiting to be tapped. You will see that
there is an American Community Gardening Association (http://communitygarden.org/acga.htm)
that identifies an army of expert food growers-and food-growing advisors-in
every city. You will learn that Ecology Action's classic treatise on calorie
production, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible
on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, is now in its fifth edition, published
in eight languages, over 350,000 copies in print. (The book's real title,
author John Jeavons wanted me to note, is found on the inside cover: How
to Grow More Vegetables* Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops...
because that's what it's really about.)
The news from alternative agriculture is that nothing on earth is more needless
than famine. A world is possible that is a far more abundant than the one
But can we accelerate alternative agriculture in time to make a difference
Canada's City Farmer is the world center for urban agriculture information.
If people in the cities began working together immediately, I asked Mike
Levenston, its executive director, could an alternative food supply be in
place by 2000?
It's a bad news/good news situation, he answered. Or maybe the other way
around, depending on how you see things.
"The bad news," said Levenston, "is that it takes time to
grow food. You can't just turn it on. You can't grow food in a panic. It
takes planning. If people don't really believe that Y2K can disrupt food
supplies, if they wait until January 2000 to see what happens, it will be
Human nature makes him skeptical that people will act in time.
I understood, but that wasn't quite my question. What I wanted to know was,
based on his expertise, if people believed it was necessary, if they took
action now, could an adequate alternative food system be in place by 2000?
As casually as if I asked him if the sun would rise in the morning, he answered,
The reason for his confidence? Levenston pointed out that experience from
two world wars showed that massive community gardening-"garden warriors,"
WW II's Victory Gardeners were called-is infinitely possible. He said that
urban food production long ago proved its potential, it's just been awaiting
its day in the sun. "Thousands of food growing experts can be found
in every city" to show the way. "The costs are negligible. A few
seeds, a few simple tools. Yes, it could be done."
I asked John Jeavons the same question and he underscored Levenston's reply.
Jeavons, a Yale political science graduate, executive director of California-based
Ecology Action, has devoted nearly thirty years to refining his Biointensive
mini-farming methods. He has been widely commended in the national media
(his book, wrote The New York Times, is "possibly the
most detailed explanation of the Intensive gardening method available.")
In more than 100 countries Jeavons' methods have proven that an entire year's
worth of food can be grown for one person on about 4,000 square feet. By
contrast, commercial agriculture needs 22,000 to 42,000 square feet per
year per person (85,000 square feet if you eat a lot of meat). Industrial
farming uses 100 percent more energy than Biointensive mini-farming, 50
percent to 100 percent more purchased fertilizer and 33 percent to 88 percent
more water per pound of food eaten compared with Biointensive food-raising.
In the U.S., conventional agriculture loses to wind and water erosion six
pounds of soil for every pound of food produced, the ultimate deficit spending.
China loses 18 pounds of soil per pound of food eaten. In contrast, proper
Biointensive agriculture can actually build the soil-up to 60 times faster
Jeavons likes to quote Will Rogers: "They're making more people every
day, but they ain't makin' any more dirt." Then he notes: Biointensive
practices can build up to 20 pounds of soil for every pound of food eaten.
Writes Jeavons: "American farmers are 'feeding the world,' but mini-farming
can give people the knowledge to feed themselves."
Such knowledge was once held to be essential, and should some of the worst
Y2K nightmares come to pass, that could turn out to be the case again. But
whatever food crisis Y2K produces, Jeavons sees it as a variation on our
present agricultural system's slow suicide.
Jeavons' methods have "done more to solve poverty and misery than anything
else we've done," former U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Robert Bergland once
[see also Eight Steps to U.S.
Y2K Food Security by Carla Emery]
Of course energy and food disruption are just two of the areas threatened
by Y2K. There's plenty else that could go wrong, plenty that may well be
responsive to prayer alone. Meanwhile, the homely chore of growing food
together-civilization's very first act of community building-could prove
to be a tangible form of interfaith common prayer.
In all of this, I must confess a certain bias. More reliable, more environmentally
responsible sources of energy and food don't seem to me like such inconvenient
things to work for. Quickly building community doesn't seem like such a
bitter pill, either.
I would much rather there was no such thing as Y2K, but the truth is, at
this moment I feel a little like Brer Rabbit. ("Don't throw me in that
briar patch!") It's because of the way I was raised. I can't prove
it to you, but I happen to know we can handle Y2K. I don't know that we
will. But I know that we can.
I was born in 1946 and grew up in the explosive development of post-World
War II San Diego. As a boy I experienced the wonder of having great golden
canyons to play in. And then I knew the grief of watching them get swallowed
up, one after another, by housing and shopping centers. Deep in my soul
it never made sense to me.
Fortunately, my grandparents were gardeners, organic gardeners at that.
While one world constantly vanished around me, another perpetually flourished.
For Granddad this was a strange passion, because he had spent most of his
life as a roughneck in the Texas oil fields. Dad was a Marine during World
War II, and after the war he stayed in San Diego. Grandmother and Granddad
moved to be near him.
Granddad took a job as a steamfitter, performing one of the most industrial
of jobs by day, dropping to his knees in the dirt after work and on the
weekends, making the earth bear fruit. He became an importer of ladybugs,
the old oil driller. When Granddad retired he worked harder in his garden
than he ever did for a paycheck. Grandmother always wore an apron and canned
constantly. They were portly and looked to have been born in Beatrix Potter's
imagination. Throughout my childhood I got to experience the Garden of Eden
they made together. It was the most beautiful place-green avenues of avocado
trees, caverns of grapes, fruit, vegetables, sweet corn, horned toads everywhere-the
most delicious food, the most fragrant world, the loveliest way of life
I have ever known or heard of.
Should Y2K spawn an American landscape like my grandparents', it would feel
like coming home.
There's something else. Once upon a time, I experienced the edge of the
end of the world. I looked over the edge.
It was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. I was a doorgunner on a helicopter
gunship. For 48 hours I didn't sleep. We took off, pointed our guns at the
ground, emptied them. We had to turn off our radios, because all of Three
Corps was one big tactical emergency. Guys below would scream at us to come
help them, but we had to go where we were told. When we landed we could
only hope that there would be more ammunition to load, more fuel to take
on. All life's normal reference points were gone, only a thin line to follow.
Follow the line. Keep moving, do your job, hope others do theirs, keep hoping.
I saw what can be done in such a world. It's a thing of terrible beauty.
I know we can handle Y2K, no matter what. Here's how. Right now ask yourself
who you really are. What really matters to you? Who do you love, and what
kind of world do you want for them? Roll up your sleeves. Move your feet.
Share your gifts-your gifts-because we all need them.
We're all of us sentenced to history and can't avoid the events that led
us to where we are. But we're also held in the vise of the present, and
of this we must break free. Technology expert Alan Simpson, the RAF intelligence
veteran, says one reason Y2K has become the mess it has is because no one
is telling the whole truth about it. The market can be a wonderful thing,
but it can also represent a deadly vortex of self-interest. We must tap
its energy but avoid its killing greed.
Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their world. What's
in our hearts is about to be writ large on the page of events around us.
Stand by for a spectacular movie in living color and thrilling Dolby sound.
I can think of at least three reasons to launch aggressive, compassionate,
all-together-now contingency planning, and none are because of what Y2K
will do. We don't know what Y2K will do. The experts say Y2K's impact is
1. Y2K might break the systems on which life now depends. This could-let's
not mince words-destroy civilization. That's what authorities like Dr. Yardeni
mean when they refer to Doomsday scenarios. It's why authorities like Senator
Bennett say, "Don't panic, but don't spend too much time sleeping,
2. The way we're living right now is deadly. It violates our principles.
We don't mean to, God knows, but we're all committing "inter-generation
remote tyranny." (See William McDonough's piece on page 132.) Short-term
emergency solutions of decentralized power pegged to sustainable power later,
and sustainable agriculture, and local currency and vigorous community barn-building
of all sorts (see Paul Glover's "Protecting
Our Community from Year 2000 Computer Chaos" on page 112) not only
might save our bacon, they may represent better long-term practices anyway.
McDonough, I think, is right: these are the things we should be doing anyway,
even if the Y2K bogeyman were nowhere around.
3. The danger of planning for an emergency that doesn't happen is nothing
compared to facing a real emergency without a plan.
But the truth is, I can also think of at least two reasons not to do anything.
1. In all likelihood, emergency measures capable of saving us will forever
change the way we live. If we let these big cats of change out of the bag,
we may never return to the old habits that were so hard on the earth, families,
children, etc. That may seem like bad news for economic interests that benefit
disproportionately from those practices.
2. Y2K may fizzle. In that case we will have gone to a lot of trouble for
We can't avoid gambling. The question is, where do we want to place our
Watch The Center for Strategic and International Studies tape, or read the
transcript, and note how many of these sober, conservative men mention the
Titanic. "This is Titanic America," declared Deutsche Morgan Grenfell's
The Unitarian minister from Brockton, Mass., Dacia Reid, in her
piece on page 84, writes of the Titanic metaphor: "...the disaster
was not that the Titanic sank. The disaster was that so many people died
because of too few lifeboats, inappropriate use of what lifeboats there
were, denial, inaction, and disbelief. I have a carpenter friend who says
that he just can't believe that with all the materials on that ship and
all the people on board that they couldn't have devised floatation platforms
for virtually everyone in the two-plus hours it took that ship to sink.
It would have been a lot better than having the band play on."
Wouldn't it be ironic if the tragedy of the Titanic at the beginning of
this century-our ultimate metaphor for technological arrogance and vulnerability-helped
civilization itself avoid the same fate at the beginning of the next century?
As I watched the CSIS Y2K conference tape, my mind leaped back to the eruption
of Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington. I remembered a young geologist
who died. He was camped across from the volcano with the best view, and
on that May morning in 1980 when the mountain blew, he had time for one
brief radio transmission.
"Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!" he cried.
And then his voice was gone as half a mountain filled the sky.
Larry Shook has been a journalist for twenty-five years. He's written for
and been an editor of San Diego Magazine and Seattle
Weekly. With his wife, Judy Laddon, he published Spokane Magazine.
He was editor-in-chief of Washington Magazine, and has been
a stringer for The New York Times, The Washington Post,
Newsweek. His freelance magazine articles have appeared in publications
as divergent as WorldView and People. Newspaper
features of his have been syndicated by Pacific News Service.