Not Just Waiting For Y2K to Come
By Joel Achenbach
Sally and Ray Strackbein are suburbanites, living on a wooded one-acre lot not far from Fair Oaks Mall. They met on the Internet and married three years ago, moved here from California and got work in the technology industry. Lately, they've been visiting their neighbors, most of whom are strangers. They are delivering everyone a present, a little oil lamp, a symbol of their new mission in life: surviving Y2K.
The Strackbeins are stockpiling food in the basement, the workshop, the garage and the den. They bought a wood stove for when the power goes out. They are loaded up on Starkist tuna, Vienna sausages, dried beans and egg protein powder. They have 18 cans of Spam and two jumbo slabs of Velveeta.
And they have books: the "U.S. Army Survival Manual," a book called "How to Hunt," another called "Pet First Aid" (they have three dogs). They even have a book called "Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects," but that's just a joke, they say. They expect Y2K to be bad, certainly, but not so bad that they'll have to eat bugs for dinner. They're trying to keep things in perspective.
"It can consume your whole life, and I don't think it needs to consume your whole life," Ray said.
The Strackbeins are part of a grass-roots movement -- people stockpiling food and getting ready for the first scheduled disaster in human history.
For much of the last year, the Y2K (shorthand for "year 2000") computer bug has been a rallying point for all manner of subcultures, from Deep Ecology hippies to consciousness-raising spiritualists to apocalyptic fundamentalists to gun-toting militia organizers. But now the Y2K fears are spreading into the mainstream, into the house next door, the next cubicle, the adjacent seat on the Metro.
For many of these people, Y2K is not merely a crisis, it's a transformational experience. This is a chance to discover who they are, what they're made of, and how they would survive if suddenly stripped of the enveloping comforts of modern civilization.
The Y2K, or millennium, bug is the infamous programming flaw that could cause widespread computer failures at the very moment 1999 gives way to the year 2000. These computers contain programming codes that recognize only the last two digits of the year, and "00" may be interpreted as the year 1900. No one knows whether Y2K will cause a mere technological hiccup or something far more serious.
The problem has triggered a multibillion-dollar effort to fix the software problems before the millennium. The federal government says that the public need not panic. "There's no evidence at this point to indicate that people should be disrupting their lives in any significant way because of the year 2000 problem," said Jack Gribben, spokesman for the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.
But the grass-roots movement isn't buying it. Dozens of Y2K gurus are stalking the Internet, some warning of a "meltdown." The Internet acronym of the moment is TEOTWAWKI, which is slightly easier to write than The End Of The World As We Know It.
The dire scenario includes prolonged power outages as winter hits high gear; food shortages; sewers backing up; faucets running dry; and, of course, martial law. There are fears that planes will fall out of the sky -- everything these days has "embedded chips" that might go haywire at that time.
The alarmists believe that the government is playing down the danger in order to stave off public panic or a run on the banks. Many corporations have announced that they have made progress in becoming "Y2K compliant," but skeptics think this may be a ruse to prevent stock prices from falling. Suspicion is a powerful energizer.
The Y2K experts are now saying that this is not merely a technological problem but a social one as well. Some of the fears could become self-fulfilling prophecies. The Federal Reserve has already taken steps to put an extra $50 billion into the banking system in anticipation of people withdrawing cash from their accounts.
So far, most people apparently are not paying much attention to Y2K. When the Strackbeins talk to their neighbors, they get a lot of funny looks. Washington isn't the West Coast, where Y2K is already a cultural storm.
Stephen Balkam, 43, who lives in Friendship Heights in Northwest Washington, remembers the night he became convinced that Y2K is a problem. He went to a meeting about Y2K at the Center for Visionary Leadership, a nonprofit organization above a Starbucks coffee shop on Wisconsin Avenue next to his own office. Every Monday night, a group of people gets together to discuss Y2K from technological, cultural and spiritual perspectives. Balkam hadn't been that worried about the issue, but that night he converted. He went home and approached his wife, Jan.
"I hugged her tight and said, 'There's something I've got to tell you.' "
When she heard what he was concerned about, he said, "She thought it was nuts at first."
Now Balkam, who is president of a nonprofit organization called the Recreational Software Advisory Council, has helped organize a Friendship Heights community group to prepare for Y2K. He's been joined by Philip Bogdonoff, a freelance Internet Web site designer who has also been an adviser to the World Bank on environmental issues. They are neighbors in an affluent, quiet precinct of young professionals, an area fully stocked with bookstores, gourmet coffee shops and upscale retail stores -- not the terrain where one would expect people to be stockpiling food.
"I have sleepless nights, and then I have moments when I think it's all going to be handled. But those moments are diminishing the more I read about it and the closer we get to the day," Bogdonoff said.
He is not an extremist on Y2K by any measure. Bogdonoff merely wants to be prudent. He said he thinks it makes sense to prepare for a two- or three-week period of severe disruptions, akin to the aftermath of a major blizzard. He's just started setting aside some food -- a few bags of beans, boxes of pasta, jars of spaghetti sauce, to go along with the large jars of rice and beans he already stores on a shelf.
"It's such a huge problem -- possibly one of the biggest that humanity has ever faced," Bogdonoff said.
Many of the people who have latched onto Y2K are carrying with them an ideology, religion or worldview for which Y2K is a kind of affirmation. Bogdonoff was greatly influenced in the early 1970s by the "Limits to Growth" study of the Club of Rome, which argued that fossil fuels and other resources were being depleted and that economic growth couldn't be sustained. The environmental thesis of the 1970s is reflected in the fears about Y2K: The good times can't last.
His neighbor Balkam said, "Our modern society has led us into this sleepwalking, in which we think that if we just flip this switch, light will appear."
The sense of being overly dependent on technology may explain why the Y2K fears are making inroads into the normally complacent yuppie culture. People have lost the ability to do something as elementary as shutting off water to a part of their home. A typical urban house has become an inscrutable collection of wires, tubes, hoses and pipes.
For Ray Strackbein, knowing how to survive in one's own home has resonance for society as a whole. He's been worried for a decade, he said, about whether human civilization is sustainable.
"We have put the planet in jeopardy by not focusing on how the system of the house works, or the system of the society works, or the system of the planet works," he said.
People are turning to publications like "Year 2000 Survival Checklists and Workbook," which provides contacts for ordering bulk food and solar-powered water pumps and kerosene lamps.
Jay Golter, a federal banking researcher who lives in Springfield, won't say how much food he's setting aside, in part because he's worried about being seen as "hoarding" food. He's storing more than his own family of four needs, he said, because he assumes his neighbors aren't going to be sufficiently prepared for Y2K.
"I've been very disappointed with my neighbors, and I'm expecting to have a lot of children to feed," he said.
Golter, 42, has two cords of wood, a wood stove, 98 rolls of toilet paper, 750 foam plates, 655 coffee filters, 68 rolls of paper towels, two portable grills, one solar water heater and many cans of rice, flour and macaroni. He has a Y2K garden, looking a bit pale and dispirited in the late autumn.
Golter has no ax to grind on Y2K, but he said he's sensitive to how a society can become dramatically torn asunder. His mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and he spent time in Iran in the late 1970s when it was going through cultural upheaval as the Shah was toppled by the Islamic revolution. Many people today are seizing on the Y2K issue and looking forward to a radical alteration in society, he said, and they don't realize how brutal it may turn out to be.
"I just want people to survive this and get through it," he said.
One recent morning, Golter and a small squad of Northern Virginia Y2K activists, including the Strackbeins, passed out fliers at the Ballston Metro station giving people suggestions for Y2K-appropriate holiday gift ideas. Instead of buying someone silk pajamas, the flier said, why not thermal underwear? Instead of foaming bath gel, why not antibacterial wipes? Instead of earrings, why not earmuffs?
Golter dashed to and fro, chasing busy commuters, doing his best to explain an extremely complicated point of view in a matter of seconds. He drew some blank stares. Ray Strackbein, for his part, carried a sign saying "Computer Virus to Infect the World in 400 Days."
Strackbein said that although he'll have enough food to last a year, he won't be taking a lot of cash out of the bank in advance of the millennium. The whole monetary system could collapse, he said. "If things get bad enough, no one's going to trust the government anymore, and we'll go back to the barter system," he said. "You can barter toilet paper. People will give a lot for toilet paper."
There have been prominent media reports of various people heading to the hills with their guns and bulk food, hunkering down for the long siege. But there is another strain of thought that is emerging in the Washington area. At the Monday night meeting at the Center for Visionary Leadership, the prevailing sentiment was that Y2K may be a boon, that it may be precisely what communities need.
The center is run by Gordon Davidson and Corinne McLaughlin, husband-and-wife authors of the book "Spiritual Politics." They advocate a combination of New Age consciousness raising and community organizing that goes beyond the traditional liberal-conservative divide. Their vision is one of people "coming back together in a New England town meeting," as McLaughlin put it.
At their meetings, everyone sits in a circle and shares any thoughts and feelings about Y2K and modern life in general. William Moore, a video producer in the District, said during last Monday's session, "The society has gotten so separated, we don't even know who lives next door to us."
The session drew 15 people, a diverse group, multiracial, about evenly split between men and women and young and old. One woman brought a tiny dog inside a knapsack. An excitable man with a shaved head, Kenneth Rothschild, told the group, "This is probably the most important year, with the exception of the year when the asteroid dropped and wiped out the dinosaurs."
The meeting ended with everyone standing, still in a circle, holding hands, eyes closed, praying, sharing any inspirational thoughts that came to mind. McLaughlin made a vow: "We can get through this, whatever the future holds."
Davidson and McLaughlin became focused on Y2K earlier this year, when they read about the computer bug on the Internet.
"When you first hear about it, most people are in total denial. They can't believe that Bill Gates won't come up with a magic bullet. They can't believe that the world could go through radical change. It's a bit like having a terminal illness. The first stage is denial," McLaughlin said.
At one point they were both panicked. They worried about poor people from the city streaming toward their Bethesda home in search of food. "You can imagine all sorts of horrible scenarios," Davidson said. Then they were depressed. They'd worked hard to build up the Center for Visionary Leadership, and this threatened to destroy everything. Then they got into a survivalist mode, calling up food companies. Finally they calmed down and decided that it was a great opportunity to advance their belief system.
The Y2K problem, McLaughlin said, "is good for the soul of this country."
A major point of disagreement in the Y2K subculture is over guns. For some, Y2K is a reason to get more heavily armed. Steve, a low-key resident of Alexandria who did not want his full name printed, recently bought a rifle "with Y2K potential" as well as 200 rounds of ammunition. He decided to buy 200 rounds more. All this is in preparation for what he thinks might be a massive social upheaval when Y2K strikes. He had read on the Internet that in a single "bad day," a person might need 800 to 1000 rounds of ammo. He anticipates that the District in particular will fail to solve its Y2K problem and that the urban poor will strike out in search of food.
"Those people are going to need food and be upset," he said.
When asked if he would actually shoot people to keep them from getting his food, he said he wouldn't. He admitted that his response may be an overreaction to the situation.
"It's slightly irrational. I don't foresee people trying to kick in my door, unless you put my name in the paper," he said.
Sally Strackbein said she and her husband have asked themselves whether they're getting too worked up about the computer bug. They've come to a conclusion: "No, we're not nuts."
"In the Information Age," Ray Strackbein said, "we became machines. We lost our humanity. The pendulum is going to swing the other way."
He won't even wait until the computers begin to fail. This winter, when it gets really cold, he's going to shut off his electrical power for several days. He hopes it gets to be 18 below, so he can put his systems to a thorough test. He and Sally will use the wood stove, eat the beans, survive on canned food and stored water.
They're going to know what the Y2K disaster feels like before it even happens.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company