My Y2K - A Personal Statement
People will consequently suffer. I don’t know how much. Some people may lose their lives - but more likely at the hands of a disabled medical establishment than because of civil disorder, loss of power, starvation, bad water, or other projected horrors (though these, too, are possible). Some will suffer the loss of fortunes, some of any income whatsoever, and many of something in between. Quite a few will find themselves suddenly without an occupation, and few ideas about how to make themselves useful to other people (without occupations themselves). Many will suffer a loss of comfort and modern convenience, and if that goes on any longer than a week, it may escalate into serious problems of public sanitation and infectious disease.
The foregoing may seem to be little more than unsupported generality. I will be more specific below. I won't knock myself out trying to empirically demonstrate the "truth" of these assertions. It seems to me that the Y2K problem is so broad, systemic, and unprecedented that imagining its repercussions calls for something beside conventional thinking. Many of the effects I anticipate will not be provable one way or the other until the interconnected and interdependent skein of events this problem represents plays out. Since the effects of Y2K are apt to follow fractal pathways of self-organization - with strange, surprising twists - understanding them may be better served by a mind in free flight. These scenarios therefore should be taken for what they are: an exercise in human imagining.
Nor will I go into the technical history of Y2K as a computer programming blunder. There are more than enough concise essays about that elsewhere on the internet and in other media. I assume that anyone reading this already knows enough about underlying problem. I am more interested in the social, economic, cultural, and political ramifications. Personally, I have moved from an emotional state of surprise, to alarm, to despair, and now to hopeful anticipation of Y2K in the months since I first heard my wake-up call. It was a lovely July day, 1998. I was driving to Schroon Lake on the Adirondack Northway (I-87) when Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah) came on a noontime NPR broadcast and told the audience that Y2K was a global problem that had to be taken very very seriously. He explained why. It was all new to me. Up until then, all I’d heard about the Y2K "bug" was that it might screw up a few computerized accounts receivable. Senator Bennett’s message was a clear and plausible warning that there was much more to it, and he did a good job of outlining the areas of concern: the power grid, telecommunication, nuclear arsenals, manufacturing supply lines, industrialized agriculture and so on. He certainly didn’t come across as a nut.
I was stunned and fascinated by the implications. In the months that followed, I read whatever I could find about Y2K. Coverage in the regular media turned out to be rather sparse and shallow, shockingly so as the months tick by and danger approaches. I don’t believe, as some do, that newspapers, television, and radio are necessarily unequal to the task. The poor quality of their coverage may be more a reflection of the public’s ridiculously short attention span these days in what has become for practically everybody a daily shitstorm of e-mail, news, tabloid idiocy, advertising, entertainment, infotainment, and work-related required reading. Otherwise, I really can’t account for this failure and don’t especially want to try here. On the internet, however, there is a wealth of information about Y2K. It ranges from the deeply paranoid to the earnestly idealistic, with a broad credible, sensible middle, and dashes of skeptical mockery here and there. Most of this commentary, across the whole spectrum, is intelligent and remarkably well-written, even by the extremists.
For instance, there is Gary North, the Christian "Reconstructionist" / survivalist / historian who welcomes Y2K as The End of the World as We Know it. He wants the whole demoralized mess of western civilization to sink down the drain, and the timing of this particular computer problem with the portentous millennium acts as a sort of gift-wrapping for his apocalyptically wishful world-view. Nevertheless, his website Gary North contains a useful gleaning of Y2K world news and rumor, including opinions quite opposed to North’s own - as well as witty commentary about all of it. I read it as much for North’s mordant wit as for the content, however I might disagree with his eschatology.
At the other end of the spectrum is Margaret Wheatley’s humanistic view of Y2K as an opportunity for the world to move beyond the sclerotic culture of consumerist hyper-individualism. Wheatley Article Y2000. For Wheatley, Y2K represents the welcome pathway to a necessary paradigm shift supporting the evolution of human intelligence. She has a kindred spirit in Douglas Charmichael, a psychiatrist who also writes about the potential for welcome social evolution in Y2K. Charmichael - Year 2000. Between them and the End of the World nuts is a colorful cast of interesting "authorities" ranging from Ed Yardeni, chief economist of the Deutschbank Ed Yardeni's Site to senior programmers like Cory Hamasaki Hamasaki's Y2K Weather Reports, Ed Yourden Ed Yourdon's Home Page, and Steve Heller Steve Heller's Home Page, who have decades of techno-geek experience in major institutional computer systems, all of whom project dire economic repercussions from Y2K. Out of thirty years experience in federal government comes Victor Porlier Victor Porlier's Bio. There are many, many more. All but Yardeni are pretty much absent from the regular mainstream media, but well known on the Net.
The best of these voices display an admirable quality of humility. They freely state that they may be wrong, that they don’t pretend to know exactly what is going to happen with Y2K, that indeed nobody does, but that they think the problem is serious enough that a reasonable person ought to take steps to prudently prepare to act in the face of it. The most appealing of these voices (e.g. Wheatley, Charmichael) see our redemption in communal action rather than selfish survivalism.
My own view of Y2K is a synthesis of theirs modified by a particular slant that I’ve taken studying and writing about the physical arrangement of life in America, specifically about the cultural and economic meanings found in the design of our towns, cities, suburbs. Two of my books, The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, are about the mess we’ve made of the American landscape and the degradation of our towns and cities. Even before I ever heard of Y2K, I concluded that our practices and habits in placemaking the past half century have resulted in a human habitat that is ecologically catastrophic, economically insane, socially toxic, spiritually degrading, and fundamentally unsustainable. To plagiarize myself: we have built a land of scary places and become a nation of scary people.
For five years, I had been flying around the country telling college lecture audiences and conference-goers that our fucked up everyday environment of strip malls, tracts houses, outlet malls, parking lots and other accessories of the national automobile slum was liable to put us out of business as a civilization. I asserted that the culture growing in this foul medium had gotten so bloated and diseased that it would succumb sooner rather than later to its own idiot inertia. I still believe that today. It is both a conviction and a wish, because to go on in our current mode would be culturally suicidal.
During this period I became active in the Congress for the New Urbanism, a movement to reform the way we build things in America. The CNU is essentially a campaign to restore traditional civic design so we can live in a way that has a future. While I wholeheartedly support its goals, I have doubted that this reform process would occur without a painful and disorderly period of transition. Our investment in the status quo is too enormous. The strip mall developers, the highway builders, the trucking interests, the realtors, the auto-makers, the jet-ski manufacturers, the hamburger franchisers, the theme park owners - all those contributing to the cancerous process that politicians call "growth" - will not quit what they’re doing, and find something less destructive to do, without a crisis in the cultural medium that supports their activities. To a large extent, however, I have viewed this status quo as being a crisis in and of itself, both cause and effect, a colossal self-reinforcing feedback loop. And up until recently, I had expected it to self-destruct, to bankrupt itself, to crash and burn in a great orgy of craven profligacy. For me, an analog could be found in evolutionary biology, where organisms achieve their largest scale and greatest complexity at the cost of their ability to adapt to changes in their surroundings. They flourish during periods of extraordinary stability and die off when conditions destabilize. The United Parking Lot of America seemed to me to be just this sort of overgrown, overly complex organism. It had evolved in an extraordinary period of cheap petroleum and relative world peace. Now the world is changing, political and economic conditions are destabilizing, and our "normal" way of life has become too ponderous to adapt.
I certainly haven’t changed my view in the past year. Only I now see Y2K as the mechanism that will force events to a tipping point much more quickly and surely. Over the next year, many elements of "normal" American life are going to hit a wall of dysfunction. The need to change ways of doing business will butt up against a desperate desire to preserve business as usual. These events will challenge our democratic institutions. Politics will probably become delusional, as is always the case during periods of social stress. There will be a lot of economic losers, including people who thought they had it made, or thought that they were entitled to a lifetime package of goodies called "the American Dream." It’s going to be a hairy time. Y2K is a bitch-slap upside the head of American culture. With a two-by-four.
If nothing else, I expect Y2K to destabilize world petroleum markets. These disruptions will be at least as bad as those produced by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo (so-called). The aftershocks of that event thundered through the American economy for the rest of the decade, giving us several years of interest rates above 15 percent and a weird malaise that puzzled economists called "stagflation (stagnation + inflation). The OPEC embargo involved a lot of backstage political shenanigans, but apart from these, the actual market shortfall appears to have been about five percent of our imported oil. In 1973 less than half of our oil came from foreign producers. Today, more than half does. Of that, at least 30 percent comes from countries that are considered unprepared for Y2K, countries over which we have no control and limited influence.
At every stage of the supply line, oil is vulnerable to disruption. The supply infrastructure of the oil industry is among the most computer and embedded chip dependent of all industries. From the well-heads to the pipelines to the terminals, the port facilities, the tankers, the refineries, and finally to the pumps, the movement of oil is controlled by computer systems of one kind of another. Oil is also the mother of all industries - to borrow a term from our friend in Iraq. Without oil, there are no other industries, in the modern sense of the word. If somewhere between five and 30 percent of our imported oil fails to get here, I think you can be sure that we are in for an economic kick in the ass far more severe than the 1973 OPEC embargo.
Such an oil shortfall would put at hazard such "normal" American activities as national chain retail and industrialized agriculture. I doubt that the WalMarts and K-Marts of the land will survive Y2K. Their fabulous success the past 20 years had been due to the combination of continually falling gas prices, relative world political stability (and long distance outsourcing of cheap labor), and computerization. They operate at extremely narrow profit margins. They will not be able to adapt to even modest changes, and especially fluctuations, in their business equation. In order for WalMart to make a $100 profit, it has to ship 1000 plastic wading pools from California to Pennsylvania - and then sell at least 997 of the wading pools. What happens to their profit margin if the price of truck fuel goes up even modestly - say 30 cents a gallon (which by international standards would be a tiny increase)? What happens to WalMart if their customers’ disposable income decreases by seven percent? What happens if their merchandise supply chain is interrupted by the Y2K problems of their thousand-fold vendors? Or if their own systems produce corrupted data. Or if all the above happens during the same time period? It seems to me that national chain retail is exactly the kind of activity that has achieved an absurd and inadaptable economy of scale, and that they will not be able to function in a post-Y2K world.
Similarly, the consolidation of agriculture into gigantic corporate farms employing few human beings, dependent on petroleum-derived chemical fertilizers, long-range trucking, intensive irrigation, and based on crop monocultures that are dangerously vulnerable to the very disequilibriums that Y2K will produce. It is a (truthful) cliché that the average Caesar salad travels 1800 miles in America, from farm field to restaurant plate. To cut to the chase, we are going to need local agriculture again, practiced on a smaller and more organic scale. We are going to regret turning some of our best farmland proximate to towns and cities into shopping malls and suburban housing tracts.
Speaking of suburbia, where well over half of Americans live and work today, I expect spectacular dysfunction in a Y2K-weakened world. The more intractably car-dependent a place is, the more people will suffer in it. In an oil crunch as bad or worse than 1973, places like Long Island, Northern New Jersey, the San Fernando Valley, Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, Las Vegas and hundreds of places like them are apt to become uninhabitable. Since I expect the aftereffects of Y2k to rumble through our economy for years, I believe that we will see astonishing losses in the value of suburban real estate of all types: residential, commercial, office. The sheer equity losses emanating out of Y2K will make the Savings and Loan disaster look like a small-time re-po job.
A while back I said, if nothing else, I expect Y2K to destabilize world petroleum markets. Only I don’t expect nothing else to happen. Here is a list of other things that are subject to disruption by Y2K. There is a lot of speculation about what may happen to these systems, and plenty of information about it elsewhere on the web. I won’t elaborate on them except to say that nobody really knows whether these systems will fail or not. There is a range of intelligent arguments both ways, and a broad, credible middle that expects failures in some systems and not in others. However, the potential for problems certainly exists in all of them, and Murphy’s Law has not been suspended (anymore than the business cycle). The failure of any one or number of these systems, along with an oil market disruption, will synergize and amplify the damage to the status quo.
To me, the greatest ramification of all these things has to do with the economies of scale I mentioned earlier. We have been living in a nation where local economies and local cultures have been practically exterminated by large scale national corporate enterprise. Whether it was evil or benign or a mixed bag is a moral judgment that history will have to make. It was a fact of life in the late 20th century. The small farm was put out of business. Local commerce was effectively exterminated, except at the most frivolous boutique level, in every corner of the country. Local manufacturing was superseded first by industrial giantism and centralization, and then shifted altogether out of the country to places where foreign peasants worked for peanuts. Since community equals economy and vice-versa, American communities imploded. With no merchant class, many small towns across America lost the caretakers of their local civic institutions. With damaged community institutions, and no useful honorable work, social norms disintegrated and, even in the lily-white small town backwaters, we got an underclass culture of criminality, teen parenthood, domestic violence, illiteracy.
The aftermath of Y2K will require us to do things differently. We are going to have to live more locally, and more self-dependently. All our activities will have to be conducted on a finer scale. The "move to quality" that is sometimes invoked in discussions of financial investments will apply across the cultural and economic board. There will be less room in our lives for junk of all kinds: junk food, junk merchandise, junk entertainment, junk relationships. We are going to have to re-invent smaller-scaled farms (with value-adding activities), and we’re going to have to localize, or at least regionalize, commerce. We may have to start making some things again ourselves, or do without them for a while.
The need to adapt to these new realities is likely to be thwarted by the political perversities I mentioned earlier. Surely a sizable fraction of the American people are going to be very pissed off by the need to change. They will view these events as a swindle cooked up by imagined "enemies" and they will look for scapegoats. As a nominal Jew, the prospect of this naturally makes me nervous, but not enough to deny the possibility of it happening.
I believe the aggregate economic effect of these failures will be a worldwide deflationary depression. I will not be surprised if it is as bad in terms of unemployment and hardship as the 1930s. I expect that it will be attended by international political and military mischief. As I said above, in such a climate there are good reasons to anticipate domestic political trouble, too - America may turn to some charismatic political maniac (or maniac party) to bring back the "good old days of the 1990s" by force, if necessary. We should all be concerned about that.
From the point of view of my particular concerns with cities, I see some paradoxical outcomes. Some of those following the Y2K problem have proposed that cities may become dangerous in a "worst case" scenario that would entail power outages of more than a few days duration, loss of water service, and interruption of the food supply chain. This would appear self-evident. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the "worst case" viewpoint, but I might wrong. However, even if cities become dangerous or uninhabitable for a period of time, human beings will still require cities and towns in any kind of plausible future. But we’re going to need a different kind of city than the overgrown industrial behemoths of the past century. And if we’re going to restore any faith in the future of this particular civilization, our towns and cities had better become more spiritually rewarding places to live, places worth caring about.
The Congress for the New Urbanism and allied groups have set into motion a campaign for accomplishing this. Indeed they may represent a broader cultural trend based on a widespread recognition that the human ecology of America today is a failure and a mess. From time to time Great Ideas seize our culture with transforming power. The City Beautiful movement of the turn of the last century was based on such an idea: that a great young nation deserved better cities than ours had become by the late 1800s. The current idea embodied by the CNU is that Americans deserve to live in a better everyday world than the National Automobile Slum. If we are fortunate and intelligent, Y2K will prompt us to reduce the scale of our cities, reduce the role of the private automobile in our lives generally, and humanize our surroundings with purposeful design and deliberate attempts to create beauty. This is perhaps wishful and idealistic, but isn’t in the nature of human aspiration to hope for better things and undertake to make them happen? Besides, what is the alternative? Obviously, I believe that a continuation of the status quo will not be possible under any circumstances. What else then? Barbarism? It has happened before. Large complex civilizations have gone to hell, dried up, and blown away. Are we ready to go that way? I hope not.
The most deeply humanistic of Y2K writers, Wheatley and Charmichael, have the right idea, I think, when they say we should regard Y2K as a "teacher," that we should learn from this set of potential tribulations, and use the harsh lessons it offers as an opportunity to make a better world, starting with our own communities.
History is merciless. History is not shedding any tears for the Pharoanic Egyptians, for the Hittites, the Minoans, the Romans, the Maya, the Soviet Leninists, or any other culture that has poured itself down a rathole. History is merciless, but the human race is resilient. Personally, I’m confident that life will go on, that civilization will pick itself up, slog forward, and eventually advance one way or another. Cycles are endemic to the human condition. We may cycle into a period of cultural darkness as a result of Y2K. If that is our destiny, tough noogies for us. We should have known better. We had some good things going for us: democracy, the movies, space travel, indoor plumbing, painless dentistry, jazz, great restaurants, a beautiful country. . . . We became a fat, complacent, and slovenly culture. I hope that our grandchildren do better.
Gird your loins and God bless us all.
Home From Nowhere (Simon and Schuster).
Continue on to a review of Choice or Fate.
Copyright © 1999 James Howard Kunstler