Apocalypse Later: The Y2K Letdown

Newsday, Jan 1, 2000

By David Futrelle

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN predicting the end of the world since, well, the beginning of their time on the world. And each and every one of them has been humbled by the world's resilience. Doomsday prognosticators come and go, but the earth keeps on ticking.

We can now add the Y2K activist to the list of prophets proved wrong by history: The big day came and went, and they were left with little to show for it but red faces and pantries full of canned goods. A few technical glitches turned up - French weather service maps reported the date as 01/01/1900, there were minor malfunctions with a U.S. military satellite and a Japaneses nuclear reactor, but back-up systems came to the rescue, much as they do in everyday technological screw-ups. Rarely is a political movement rendered so completely and convincingly obsolete, quite literally overnight.

As we look back on the achievements and the embarrassments of on the last century, it is perhaps also a good time to revisit the less- than-brilliant career of the Y2K activist - a species of political animal we can only hope fades into oblivion in the new century.

Of course, even as they prophesied the end of our technological dispensation, Y2K activists didn't exactly separate themselves out from the foredoomed order of things. Indeed, the Y2K movement could not have spread as quickly as it did had it not been for the Internet, a perfect venue for true believers to exchange dubious "information" with one another and to recruit others to the cause. This resulted in such absurdities as prominent Y2K activist Gary North informing the world it had better return to pen and paper - in a message posted on his web site.

Other blind spots were less benign. Y2K activists claimed to speak for the people, but their utterances were suffused with a none-too subtle elitism. Their writings carried the self-congratulatory, patronizing tone of those convinced they're one with history - the corollary point being that those who disa- greed with their bleak assessments were simply living in denial.

And what Truths did the Y2K activists expect us to swallow? That Y2K wouldn't just bring glitches - but possibly The End of the World As We Know It, a phrase so common in their writings that it's been reduced to a simple acronym, TEOTWAWKI.

It wasn't just head- for-the-hills extremists who were predicting something close to a cataclysm: The Utne Reader, a sleek and more-or- less mainstream journal of New Age liberalism, produced a widely distributed "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide."

Among other things, this handbook suggested that we might well be forced to live for months off stored rice and beans, drinking and bathing with water found in such unlikely places as toilet reservoirs and waterbeds, disposing of our own waste in plastic buckets and resorting to barter once our cash reserves were gone.

Y2K activists will now tell you that many of the worst Y2K problems will only come to light in the weeks and months ahead - and in this they are probably right. But we need to remember that only a short time ago these very same people were assuring us the end-of- the- millennium crisis would hit on a big scale long before 1/1/00 rolled around.

The strangest thing of all about the Y2K activists was their enthusiasm - not just for saving the world, but for a world desperately in need of saving. Y2K activists often spoke of the allegedly impending crisis as a wonderful opportunity, not only for their ideas to spread but for humanity as a whole to change its course and embrace a new and simpler lifestyle - you know, without such modern indulgences as supermarkets and functioning fire departments. Their notion of the post-apocalyptic world, in which urban dwellers returned to such bracingly old-fashioned ways as grinding their own flour and reading by candlelight, was two parts Cub Scouts, one part Cultural Revolution. For doomsayers, they were an awfully cheerful bunch.

Such attitudes were common among Y2K prophets of all political stripes. Articles abound in the Y2K literature with titles such as "Seeing Y2K as a Gift to Save Us From Ourselves" and "TEOTWAWKI - The Upside." Indeed, the favorite word of most Y2K activists seemed to be "opportunity."

In the Utne Reader Y2K guide, most of the mildly lefty contributors, like their brethren on the far right, have a very clear idea of just how the world should be recreated - and just who should lead the way. "People who have been working their entire lives for political, social and cultural change immediately see its transformational potential," write Gordon Davidson and Corinne McLaughlin in the Utne guide. "A common response among this group is . . . 'I've been waiting my entire life for this.' "

So eager were many Y2K activists to seize the opportunity to "clothe for the hero's journey," as the influential Y2K activist Margaret Wheatley immodestly put it, that they were able to conjure up (in their own heads at least) a worldwide cataclysm out of what turned out to be, at most, a mere technical bug.

The problem wasn't just that these activists spoke so confidently about technical matters it's now clear they knew nothing about. Rather, what's distressing is that they were positively giddy over the possibility that the rest of humanity might be reduced to living like animals - because they imagined that this would make the poor sheepish souls more receptive to their particular brand of utopia, a sort of New- Age-Meets-the-Stone-Age world heavy on group hugs and "alternative currencies" and agricultural co-ops.

There is something not only pathetic but also a bit frightening about a political movement that looks upon the collapse of the world economy as a tremendous positive breakthrough. If you truly believe that chaos will make the world safer for your brand of politics, why simply wait for a crisis to hit? Why not actively push it along? That, after all, was the thinking behind Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; that, after all, is the thinking of the apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists who believe that destroying the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem will hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

No, the Y2K activists didn't throw any bombs - but the logic of their argument is chillingly similar to the ideas of those who have. We can be grateful that the Y2K rollover passed largely without incident. We humans don't need computers to mess up the world for us; we can do that quite well, all by ourselves.

David Futrelle is a staff writer for Money magazine and Newsdays former Netcetera columnist.