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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:
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: 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 friends.

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 to do.

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 [1998] 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 about that?

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 Y2K.

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," (, 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 (, and that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture mounts a Sustainable Agriculture Network. Similarly, the Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service in every community ( represents a local food-growing brain trust waiting to be tapped. You will see that there is an American Community Gardening Association ( 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 we know.

But can we accelerate alternative agriculture in time to make a difference for Y2K?

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 too late."

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, "No problem."

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 than nature.

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 said.

[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 unknowable.

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, either."

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 nothing.

We can't avoid gambling. The question is, where do we want to place our bets?

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 Yardeni.

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.