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Got the Y2K Blues? Seek Community Relief

Computers: Panic is the wrong response, but a few precautions are certainly in order.

November 30, 1998|DONELLA H. MEADOWS | Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College

I keep running into scary Y2K discussions, which I suppose will continue right up to Dec. 31, 1999, when the year 2000 computer bug will kick in and End the World as We Know It. Which is what some people say it will do. Others say it's all hype, a weird modern version of end-of-the-millennium hysteria.

Every discussion I hear starts with those two positions. As the talk proceeds, the alarmists recite stories about chemical plants blowing up, trains screeching to a halt, even missiles launching themselves. They scare the bejabbers out of the scoffers. That doesn't mean the alarmists are right, it just means that images of impending disaster have more psychological punch than sunny statements of faith in computers, corporations and governments.

So I watch perfectly practical people get converted within half an hour from "surely this is all overblown" to "hmmm, maybe I should stock up on canned goods and get my money out of the bank and buy an electric generator." At the latest of these meetings, involving charitable foundations, someone suggested we should pull out of the stock market completely so our portfolio doesn't take a dive.

The Y2K problem--the fact that computer programmers long ago settled on two-digit representations for years and that, as a result, many computers could read "00" not as 2000 but as 1900 and either malfunction or shut down--worries me a little; these conversations worry me a lot. If all foundations (and pension plans and university endowments) pull out of the stock market, they will cause the very dive they're trying to shield themselves from. If we all empty the supermarket shelves, demand cash at the banks, drain down the tanks at the gas stations, if even a few of us hole up in the hills with rifles, it won't matter whether the computers go down on millennium midnight or not. We'll create our own catastrophe.

Reminds me of Honolulu during the oil embargo. Hawaiians, 6,000 miles from their sources of almost everything, are jumpy about shipping interruptions in any case. In 1974, their gas lines were longer than anywhere else. I got around by bicycle and avoided the lines; what bothered me was the toilet paper panic.

Store shelves were bare not only of toilet paper, but of tissues, paper towels, any reasonable substitute. Whenever an incoming shipment was announced, lines snaked through the store. Even at one roll to a customer, toilet paper sold out within the hour. This went on for weeks.

Finally the increasingly frantic orders of the store managers started to flow in. Toilet paper began to stay on the shelves. Once people saw it there, they stopped buying because, it turned out, each household had stockpiled something like a five-month supply. The stores sat on paper mountains for months, until household stocks were worked down and everything returned to normal.

This self-induced crisis makes a useful point about Y2K. Our possible responses to that or any other threat fall into three categories. We can do things to protect ourselves individually, which, if everyone does them, will guarantee real problems. We can do nothing, which is inadvisable, because there could be real problems. Or we can do things to protect ourselves collectively, which will calm us down, bring us together and prepare us for other disasters, even if this one turns out to fizzle.

I suggested to the charitable foundations that they announce jointly that they will not make any unusual investment swings during 1999. If they get the university and pension and mutual fund managers to join them, that would defuse most if not all investor panic.

What I'd most like to see is a communitywide effort, spearheaded by local newspapers and/or TV stations, to check out systematically the supply streams that keep my community running--water, food, electricity, gas, cash.

If we all knew from a reliable source (not the government) that the stores won't run out of food, the banks won't wipe out the records of our accounts, the lights will stay on, the Social Security checks will arrive, the hospitals will function and the sewage plants won't fail, we could enjoy a historic New Year's Eve without creating all sorts of unnecessary problems for ourselves.

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