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Media, The Millennium Bug & The Stories We Tell

by Larry Shook

It's easy enough to understand the stories of Susan Conniry, Tom Beasley, Cynthia Beal, Ed Baldwin and others like them I've interviewed in recent weeks. It's just not easy to tell their stories in America. In the media's eyes, these sources constitute a sort of demimonde, first because they're worried about the Millennium Bug computer problem, second, because they're a little old fashioned in their views. Well, more than a little. They share a reverence for the Earth, an awe of nature. Conniry and Beasley, wife and husband, teach wilderness skills. Beal's a natural grocer and organic farmer. Baldwin's a big grocer -- that is, he works for a major food distributor -- but in his heart he's still a farm boy who knows too much about where food comes from to entirely trust the supermarkets that employ him to feed his family. Baldwin and friends believe so much in the wisdom of storing food that a few years ago they purchased twenty thousand pounds of grain directly from farmers and then, out of neighborliness, helped their neighbors put it up.

Anyway, these people are not militia members or fanatics. Actually, they'd be more palatable to label-dependent editors if they were. They're just concerned citizens with a rational basis for concern. They think Y2K, as the issue is also known (for Year 2000), just might be dangerous enough to alter history in the most disruptive and chaotic of ways. Worse, the objective risk, whatever it turns out to be, may be amplified precisely because America's cultural biases have the effect of muzzling voices like these. That prevents society from better comprehending this almost mystically strange development, or admitting it, and taking preventive action. My demi-sources are afraid that we suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness that causes us to keep breaking things in Nature's china shop. That eccentric perspective makes it even harder for me to tell their stories. Now, because of this bug, our compulsive consumerism could play out in such a way that the industrial world won't even know what hit it until it's stumbling in the ruins. And what is about to hit us? The economic equivalent of a neutron bomb, my sources fear, a sequential detonation that could destroy our life-supporting infrastructure while leaving our cities intact, like the boneyard of an extinct species.

Conniry, Beasley, Beal, Baldwin -- I'm convinced there are millions like them. They wish storytellers like me would do a better job with Y2K. But I'm caught between a rock and a hard place.

If the nation's media were a glowing campfire (the kind Conniry and Beasley like to build out under the stars) I could come to it of a lonely evening and trade my stories for a little food and a warm place to curl up. But the media's not like that, and I'm not like that. I need the media's money to pay for the research phone calls by which I procured these stories. Also to pay for everything else in my life. The media gets its money by helping companies persuade you to buy things. Sure, there's some sin involved -- I've seen it; all reporters have -- but there's mainly innocence. "Most of us are just trying to get to the post office," a friend of mine's father used to say.

Uh, Houston, we have a problem here is what I'm getting at. The problem is that the world is a wild place full of wild stories. So many of those stories die when they have to be domesticated to live in a media zoned only for consumerism. Some of those stories, I am convinced, are like certain plants lost to rainforest clearcuts. Healing entities we never knew.

So if I tell you the stories of Conniry, Beasley, Beal, and Baldwin you might not buy the things that, right now, pay me to tell you the stories. I'm going to, though, briefly. I don't know how many old fashioned paydays we have left anyway.

First, I'll remind you of what this computer bug is. Computers run our world today. They determine whether we have water to drink, heat to warm us, food to eat, medicines to take when we're sick, a way to communicate and move about. Everything. And we broke them. Accidentally. We got distracted and we taught them to keep time with two digits instead of four -- to record 98 instead of 1998. So when 2000 rolls around, unrepaired computers will register goose eggs, two zeroes. They won't know what time it is. Surprising parts of our world -- technological surrogates for direct human effort, ingenuity, relationships -- may come to a halt. Observers such as respected business author Margaret Wheatley say this situation is confronting civilization with the possibility of the first complex system failure in history.

"If Y2K doesn't bring down the modern world, it will show us how it's connected," Wheatley has predicted.

We're so unprepared for this, says Steve Davis, budget manager of Montgomery County, Maryland, one of America's most prepared local governments, that if tomorrow were January 2000, "From a societal perspective, people would essentially be starving and rioting... the economic and personal loss [of wealth, not life] would be as devastating as World War III."

And that's why Susan Conniry and Tom Beasley are concerned. They know how tenuous is the average person's attachment to the Earth anymore without the help of the infrastructure. At Conniry's Native Skills School in San Diego County they teach outdoor enthusiasts how to stay alive in the wilderness, in freezing cold or blistering heat, with only their bare hands and the clothes on their backs. (Those clothes don't come from fancy outdoor manufacturers, either, the kind with glitzy advertising campaigns featuring glamorous adrenaline junkies; they come from thrift shops.) Because San Diego is earthquake country, and El Niño country, for many years Conniry/Beasley have taught their classes to urbanites, too, as a means of emergency preparedness. What good is stored food and water, they reason, if it's buried in a house destroyed by an earthquake? Much better to be able to make do. Not long ago, threatening wildfire forced the couple to evacuate their home. It took all of two minutes; they're always prepared to take the Earth on her own terms. With their ready bags they spent the night in a park in perfect comfort. Had it been necessary, they could have drifted away into the dry hills, foraging, sipping water from secret places, sleeping warm at night. For them it would have been more like worship than hardship.

A San Diego County emergency preparedness official has told Susan he wishes all three million county inhabitants could take their training, but publicly he's not saying that, and neither is he announcing what Susan says he told her -- that the county is getting ready for riots.

It's distressing to Susan to think of such plans being laid just because business as usual in the most excessive society in history may be disrupted. People need so little, really, to be well. Susan and Tom regularly have the experience of taking corporate leaders out into the wilds and watching the scales fall from their eyes. If Susan could just have the opportunity to teach more people the magic of making a fire from two sticks... well, they would get the point, the symbolism would take possession of them. The point is that so much of what we fear losing we don't need, anyway, and that what we need, like warmth, is immanent.

I enjoy hearing Susan talk about her work. She's a cheery Englishwoman with a bright, Mary Poppins accent and a scholarly, anthropologist's respect for indigenous cultures. One of her and Tom's mentors was an Apache who entrusted them with the knowledge that once let this fierce/gentle matrilineal people avoid the Europeans for a long time by disappearing into one of the Earth's harshest landscapes. Tonto Apaches were so eerily good at this that General Benjamin Crook's 3rd Cavalry troops thought that chasing them over precipices into the stony, furnace-like canyons they called home was like pursuing spirits.

I wanted to weave the Conniry/Beasley story into a newspaper feature I recently published on the Millennial Bug, but I couldn't figure out how to do it without scaring editors and maybe readers, too. Y2K is sacrilegious enough, because the facts suggest that our great faith in computers and technology has been misplaced. Reporting Susan and Tom's ideas about getting ready for the Third Millennium by taking a leaf from hunters and gatherers, I feared, would kill my chances of being invited to the media's campfire. I've been disinvited often enough to recognize the signs.

I couldn't figure out how to get in a certain observation of Cynthia Beal's, either. Cynthia owns The Red Barn Natural Grocery in Eugene, Oregon. She's a passionate student of Y2K who has been working hard with suppliers, farmers and customers to create contingency processes to keep people fed if the food system crashes. One day in the midst of all this preparation a great sadness came over her. For some reason, certain images in poignant photographs of the war in Bosnia returned to her. She remembered scenes of vegetables desperately planted in every random pocket of dirt. A cemetery had been converted into a farm. Agonizing over the difficulty of waking people up to Y2K's threat made it seem incomprehensible to Cynthia that people in her own materialistic society could ever find the reverence to do so humble a thing as plant a seed in the hope of eating.

I couldn't work in Ed Baldwin, either, without tipping the story in a direction I feared editors would close the gate on, or without getting Ed in trouble with his employer, the grocery distributor. For many months now, on his own, Ed's been researching Y2K's potential impact on the nation's food system. He's very concerned, and very puzzled that the media hasn't seen what he's seen. At least if it has, it's not letting on. Also Ed's employer has let him know that the company intends to take no action beyond its normal profit-making activities to help the public deal with Y2K. Ed feels somewhat nervous about his activism on the subject, sensing it's not too healthy for his career. Ed Baldwin isn't his real name.

Baldwin looks at the May 14, 1998 Congressional testimony of Joel C. Willemssen, director of the Civil Agencies Information Systems, and knows what it means. Willemssen said:

"This morning we bring a message of urgency relating to the Department of Agriculture (USDA): its progress to date indicates that it will have a great deal of difficulty in correcting, testing, and implementing its automated information systems to work beyond 1999 -- that is, to become what is called Year 2000 compliant -- in time. This could have serious implications for the many vital public health and safety and economic activities that its systems support. Constituencies nationwide could be affected -- farmers, consumers, even schools."

PDH, PDQ. That's how Willemssen's words translate in Baldwin's world of food distribution. It means people could get pretty darned hungry pretty darned quick because of Y2K. In fact, unless food is stored to see the public through until Y2K's disruptions subside, that's just what Baldwin expects.

Moreover, Baldwin knows that among food industry insiders he's not alone in his worry about the world's ability to feed itself in the wake of Y2K. Michael Sansolo, Senior VP, of the Food Marketing Institute, told Baldwin that he's been "shouting about this for two years." Sansolo credited his colleague Patricia Shinko for being, as Baldwin recorded in notes to himself, a "visionary of the enormity of this issue." At a recent FMI conference, said Sansolo, contingency planning was stressed. When Sansolo told Baldwin about the session he used the phrases " 'extremely frightening' and 'drastic situation' in describing the seriousness of the pending food distribution crisis."

In the end, I couldn't get these and other stories in the newspaper piece I published. Still, I think the article I turned in was worth the candle. It ran under the head "Altogether Now: The Y2K Neighborhood Takes on the Millennium Computer Bomb." What emerged from the sources I was able to quote was, essentially, an exhortation to love one another and make community against the possible disruptions to come. The editor ran the story with a cover illustration done by a child. The artist's bio read: "We asked Ilsa Payne, age 7, to imagine a perfect neighborhood, the kind where everyone cooperates and looks out for each other -- the kind of neighborhood we should have with or without the threat of Y2K. Above, Ilsa created a community garden, like the Victory Gardens of World War II times. On the following page, she imagines how rainwater can be conserved as the precious commodity it is."

Readers have said the child's drawing touches them deeply, because her images tell the plain truth about Y2K -- what her world could and should be.

I did something with that story I've never done as a reporter. I sought the advice of many friends about how to write it, so great, I feel, is the iconoclasm embedded in the moral of Y2K. Especially valuable was the help of a psychotherapist friend, Dr. Kent Hoffman, who coached me about how to create a "holding environment" with the narrative. "When we feel held," he explained to me, "it makes us much stronger and lets us be more creative."

Still, I let the reader down, because I left these other stories behind. I didn't know what else to do.

And I don't know what to do about Y2K, either -- not as a citizen, not as a storyteller, except to reach out to friends and strangers alike. We need to find one another in new ways, I think, in this curious time. Because, if much of our world does break, we may not have the surrogates we've gotten used to for personal relationships. Also, I think we need to reinvent shared rituals for loving the Earth. For me, as a writer, I think this will require that I stop being embarrassed to say what I am grateful for.

Accordingly, I offer thanks for the blessing of this small fire around which to tell my story.