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Strategizing for Community: Preparedness for Y2K-induced collapse


by Jan Lundberg Fossil Fuels Policy Action Institute, founder organization of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium

[The author formerly published the "bible of the oil industry," the Lundberg Letter, which predicted the second oil shock in 1979. The following, originally a "dear neighbor" letter dated Sept. 13, 1998, asks if a major recession or Y2K/"millennium bug"-induced collapse could be mitigated by (1) local depaving coordinated in order to grow food, and (2) increasing pedal-power delivery capability so that local food and other goods could be maximized-thus decreasing dependence on diminishing petroleum and on distant truck-reliant corporations.]

Economic Collapse or Y2K-induced Collapse?
What happens if there is a serious recession, or even economic collapse? According to more and more observers, this is not out of the question. You have probably been aware of the Asian, Russian, and now Latin American financial collapses that are starting to hinder the machinery of U.S. economic growth. There are disturbing parallels between (A) today's stock market movement and other conditions, and (B) the economy of 1929. On a societal level, the breakdown of some of our basic institutions, such as the family, has parallels to ancient Rome in decline.

Some faithful consumers and producers still think economic growth can go on forever, or that massive debt is desirable. What is needed is qualitative growth, but policies are geared in the main toward mindless expansion, typified by urban sprawl-with an astronomical price to pay ecologically and in long-term economic security. What persists and grows is a materialistic orientation to individual security: the attempt to "get mine now," at almost any cost. This sociopathic trend can change.

Perhaps "Y2K" will hit us all hard economically and socially-a Greater Depression? Y2K refers to Year 2000-the "Millennium Bug," which may throw a severe monkey wrench into any and all computer systems but the newest. Alistair Cooke has reported for the BBC that it is far more than a bug-a storm on a certain horizon. He is but one of the more well-known names to go with government officials and Wall Street analysts who have issued frightening warnings on Y2K. (An Internet search on the year 2000, Y2K and computers can yield well informed websites and references.) It is not simply a problem on January 1, 2000, that may ball things up for a while we have a holiday. Our digitized society may start to go into a seizure earlier, in 1999, upon beginnings of fiscal year.

Two digits is all that older computers-currently in use-have for the year. Large organizations pose the big problem; not so much one's personal computer. Many "newer" computers are flawed, or are often linked to flawed computers. "00" had been assumed to mean the year 2000, but computers take things literally: zero means zero, or 1900! Some computers don't even recognize anything beyond 99. Imbedded in the economy's infrastructure (electrical grid, transportation, banking, trade, etc.) and bureaucracy (Social Security payments/calculations, scheduling, etc.) are computer chips and programs that have no four-digit reality for the crucial elements of date and time. Imbedded chips are hidden all over the landscape in the "civilized" world. Millions of lines of code cannot be rewritten overnight, or in years even, unless great numbers of workers and managers get on the task. This they will start to do increasingly, soon slowing the economy more and more, I predict.

Corporations and government agencies are starting to work on the change, but there is not enough time to fix most computers. One weak link in a chain can mean the breakdown of a whole system or entire industry. (The big UPS and GM strikes demonstrate the potential of interference with complex interdependent systems.) It all can make you regret our dependence on so many computers, which have taken over more and more of our lives. We are such a linear culture, as opposed to being oriented to the cyclical and natural. The price to pay for the wrong world view may be colossal and historic. Some observers and analysts of the Y2K threat openly foresee either a major depression or worse. The economy is so interdependent on shipping, credit, and the integration of separate specialized components of the whole economic picture that our electric power-and probably natural gas and water services as well-could shut down, out of control, in very wide geographical areas for unbearable lengths of time.

A run on the banks is a more and more common prediction regarding Y2K-who would trust digitized cyber-wealth to stay safe amidst computer failure? Perception of trouble can cause panic which may turn ugly. Perhaps the only comfort will be in the radical reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. But the prospect of "many Chernobyls" is greater with technological failure and any slackening of society's careful attention. Let us envision a grassroots movement that, after we come together in our communities, would demand and ensure that the Bill Gateses and Charles Hurwitzes of the world are made to put their wealth toward maintaining a nuclear priesthood to baby-sit the nukes.

Food Security and How to Create It
My purpose in writing is to see if we can start to plan ourselves into readiness, at least partially. Food security becomes a major concern when we consider how far away sources of food are, and how complex and corporate the growing and distribution of food is. Water is the most critical factor, the bigger the population; pumps, pipelines and energy need to survive Y2K. The procedures and arrangements for agriculture are increasingly computerized, and for decades longer have been a petroleum-based industry. Petrochemicals for crops came on starting in 1930, when our population was half of today's.

Before going into the oil supply/distribution situation, we can look at the requirements for sustaining a reasonably sized (?) population with food from the land. (The seas and bodies of fresh water are mostly extremely overfished and polluted. Fishing often involves huge, technologically advanced ships, so food from the sea is not much of a solution.) Crops would feed a lot of people, particularly if the soil is healthy and nurtured. There is as much pavement in the U.S. as officially designated wilderness area, and our cities have over half their areas devoted to motor vehicles. The average piece of food consumed in the U.S. is shipped about 1,200 miles, according to Worldwatch Institute. Therefore, the two operative factors in securing local food supply would be depaving and pedal power transport. Lawns-biological pavement?-are a good thing to sacrifice for food production, so it would be wise to stop using weed killing poisons. Composting is also a good idea, and is (or ought to be) essential in most places. Using former lawn area or depaving a long driveway, totalling perhaps 800 square feet, can fulfill much of a small family's diet. Careful organic gardening using family and neighborhood cooperation can provide most caloric requirements, depending on the state of the soil and what is grown. If grains are not grown in every neighborhood, perhaps they can be traded for. Author John Jeavons's "Biointensive" farming methods are recommended. He also endorses depaving to meet towns' food requirements. Additionally, fruit trees can be grown where ornamental trees, lawn and shrubs now live. Lead time for trees and berry bushes goes beyond the projected Y2K crash, but those who survive past the year 2000 will benefit. (Modern culture's big fault is said to be our failing to pass on a healthy ecosystem to future generations-we rob from our descendents.)

Crops and other essential products can be transported by bike carts and bike trailers. There are plenty of fit young people to do the job, and today, electric bikes can assist the out-of-shape. Pedal Power Produce is a program in Humboldt County, Calif., with a cousin-project in Eugene, Oregon, that brings vegetables to market via pedal power. What it demonstrates is that we do not need to rely so much on long distance freight systems, and, if distance is too great for pedaling then it is probably not sensible for local self reliance. Bioregional living-how 99.9% of humans' existence has been spent-cannot happen while relying on far-flung areas for basic goods. People have relatively recently gotten used to a limited diet of corporate agribusiness staples, compared to indigenous traditions featuring hundreds of kinds of local foods enjoyed from nature's garden. Because living off the fat of the land is now impossible most places, due to overpopulation and degradation of the ecosystem, we need to grow what we can and use our existing space. It would be "bad for the (present) economy" if people began to barter and work more at home and in their neighborhoods. But most economic indicators have been misleading or false anyway, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and clean-up having contributed to the Gross Domestic Product and economic growth. Is not unbridled growth the logic of the cancer cell?

Oil Supply Vulnerability
Oil will be depleted at current rates in the U.S. by around 2020; globally, oil will basically run out by about 2040. This should encourage conversion to alternative fuels, but oil prices are subsidized to be low. Two undesireable trends have emerged: rising consumption of gasoline and other products from refineries, here and abroad, and the politically motivated inflation of oil reserves by OPEC nations individually so as to jack up their quotas short-term. The U.S. economy guzzles about 115 billion gallons of gasoline every year, more than half the maximum potential of oil to be discovered in the coveted Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. New oil discoveries take too much energy to extract-the ratio of extraction-energy to derived energy is now turning from 1:+1 to 1:-1. Our vulnerability to supply crises worsened with NAFTA and GATT: more global trade means greater oil consumption. Our "leaders" are not concerned about energy or local self-sufficiency or long-term economic security: they instead gamble on "a future of plenty." "Economic growth" is endorsed, mostly for short-term corporate profits. Mainstream media pound the same drumbeat of prosperity via consumption.

They rely on car ads-what's that about trusting car salesmen? Ralph Nader tried in vain to convince Senators not to vote for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), passing along to them my oil analysis "Beyond GATT." But the Senate was moved by none of it. GATT means more oil imports for our nation, and this hurts our energy security. Proponents of schemes that compromise national security in this way have been called traitors to our country. It seems clear they are not trying to protect us from another oil crisis or economic crunch that they don't want to admit is rather possible. Nor does it seems that military aggression can give us food security, long-term anyway.

The two simple projects or concepts that I have much faith in would promote neighborhood/community survival using our own power of cooperation. Waiting for government solutions is hardly comforting. (In fact, the 2nd oil shock in 1979 happened mostly because of federal and state regulations. My old newsletter the Lundberg Letter became famous for predicting that particular gasoline shortage). The corporations can't solve social problems with more mergers or more high-tech products. Corporations have already tried that, and it bought the growth-and-debt economy some time-putting us all further out on a limb, while destroying more topsoil and destabilizing the global climate system.

Depaving and Pedal Power Scenarios
Depaving enough asphalt and concrete to grow lots of vegetables and fruits can happen with present driveways, parking lots and overly wide streets, some of which can be scaled down or made one-way. (Planting food in lawns is needed, but many urban dwellers have no lawns.) This could allow significant supplies of potatoes, corn, apples, fibres, etc. to be grown in many bioregions. Pedal power delivery of food, etc. is almost ready-made: bike carts and trailers can be constructed out of aluminium lawn chairs and dumpster-dived, recyclable materials. The ability to share produce and other essential items by bicycling the distance is an important criterion for achieving subsistence, in the event the trucks cease rolling into Safeway, the Co-op, and other food stores. Presently a farm I have an interest in brings organically grown veggies by bike to Saturday Farmers' Markets. Arcata must become more self-sufficient, and much less dependent on the Central Valley and other states and countries for our food. Our county (Humboldt) already values local food tremendously and prefers organic. Unfortunately, most parts of the country have lost local characteristics and are increasingly one big homogenized corporate culture. This is supposed to happen to the whole world, to deliver other cultures from "poverty", according to the designs of our globally competitive "leaders." But bikes are everywhere, as is the pavement and lawns. In crisis-especially when it's a looming one-there is opportunity, the ancients advised.

Author Theodore Roszak informed me that the World War II Victory Gardens were for the most part created by depaving. If that was necessary then, and today we have almost twice as many people, and much more of the best farmland paved over, wouldn't that suggest that we should get started? The Auto-Free Times magazine published a how-to depaving feature by urban designer and creek-restorer Richard Register, in its issue #10 (1996). Today, many unused or barely used parking lots in inner cities can grow food, but heavy metals from motor vehicles render plants unfit to eat. In most cities it is fortunate that soil has been covered and protected from the air-assuming topsoil remains when land may have been scraped. (My depaved driveway yielded good soil and a productive garden.) Perhaps the concrete method of paving does not involve as much toxic contamination of the soil as does some asphalt-paving additives initially placed on the ground. Moreover, driveways and parking lots-more likely to be concrete-are thinner than roads to depave. For big jobs, heavy diesel-powered equipment would speed us to prepare, ironically, for the Millennium of Sustainability.

Another reason to get around by bike and by foot, in the absence of renewable-energy powered mass transit, is that pollution is thus prevented, sparing the soil and water for living things. Pedal powered small-scale freight also spares road surfaces from destructive trucks and their weight.

Why depave, when you might want to go down the road and use some pasture? The problem is with private, corporate or government property and the prevaling culture's individuals' unwillingness to share the land. Fences are up, and some people and their corporations waste land in order to cling to meat and dairy production. Many times more protein per acre-and much less energy and water-are produced with grains than by growing the animals to be exploited. It is beyond this document to discuss regaining the commons, or depaving public areas guerrilla-style for food and fibre production.

If we could gather sometime in one of our homes, or have a community meeting, we could explore the potential and obstacles in establishing urban food gardens and improving security of transportation for food delivery. Creating a close community could be the eventual result, and that is in many people's opinion an indispensable key to survival. Hillary Clinton repeats that "it takes an entire village to raise a child." We could ensure we have a functional society without vulnerability to computers. There may be no need for computers at all. If you would like to get together or would just like to be kept informed of meetings, please give me a call at (707) 826-7775 or stop by my home or office. The idea of depaving our city's pavement in light of possible economic crisis is being promoted in the form of distributing this document. Our new website contains this document, and is <> [Note: a Y2K Arcata Community Preparedness group has since formed, and we meet every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Our Y2K hotline telephone number: 1-707-825-8736]

Thanks, Jan Lundberg

Appendix: Local Microcosm and Climate Change Humboldt State University plans on constructing a big parking lot in our neighborhood. This would add to traffic congestion and destroy a green patch of nature, where people collect fennel and blackberries. HSU should discourage, not encourage, driving and oil consumption. The city needs to hear from you on this, although the State and the feds have the legal right to build as they choose without answering to locals. You can complain to HSU and promise some civil disobedience perhaps, if reason should somehow fail to sway one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. One point to keep in mind is that more pavement increases the "urban heat island effect" which refers to the higher temperatures in cities due to heat-absorbing surfaces such as pavement and roofs, and the absence of cooling vegetation. Global warming is more and more evident, so we should not add to it. Climate destabilization may fry our cherished Headwaters redwood forest,

and the anticipated harder rainfall means more flooding particularly in roaded and heavily paved areas. Countless forest roads need decommissioning. Sea-level rise is scheduled to result, because Antarctica is already melting, and this will do away with much of our low-lying land. But one may regard the Y2K problem as an unintended means of meeting United Nations-recognized goals of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 50-70%, necessary to stave off catastrophic global warming. However, our population grows, fed by a "fossil-fuels free lunch." Even Arcata has exceeded its human carrying capacity of the ecosystem, if pre-white invasion native population sizes are a guide.

Note: "pavement" and "paving" refer only to sidewalks, to the British. They may say de-tarmac, perhaps.


Auto-Free Times, Spring 1999