Adam L. Penenberg
WHEN GERALD WALKER DECIDED TO RELOCATE, HE looked for a good place to hide. Not from assassins or thugs or even the police, but from a bug. Not just any bug: a computer bug.
Walker, who last November bought a home in rural San Jaoquin Valley, Calif., is part of a growing movement of computer professionals, entrepreneurs and religious extremists who are about to quit their jobs and head for the hills because they are convinced that the “millennium bug” will bring on the end of civilization as we know it.
This bug will not infect people but it will cause computers to throw a fit when the new decade begins. This is the Year 2000 or Y2K problem, a computer glitch that will cause mainframe computers to see the year 2000 as 1900 and either stop functioning or start spewing some very bad data.
Computer programmers are working around the clock to solve this problem, and it is going to be expensive. Gartner Group estimates that companies will end up spending anywhere between $300 and $600 billion to fix the bug.
To folks like Walker, who have been lighting up online discussion forums dedicated to the Y2K problem, the millennium bug is a prelude to Armageddon. For these believers, many of whom see it as a manifestation of God’s wrath against a sinning world, the end is near. They believe that when the clock strikes 2000, the nation’s electricity will short out, trains won’t run, banks will collapse and hordes of urban dwellers will scavenge for food as supplies dwindle.
As a result, these hardy souls have begun to establish “safe havens”-Y2K-compliant communes conveniently located near farmland with access to fresh water and their own electric power through local generators, windmills or solar panels.
None have yet been built, although some are past the planning stage. Heritage Farms 2000, for instance, slated to be built in Sully County, South Dakota, offers Y2K survivalists five-year leases on half-acre plots for just $10,000. Founder Russ Vorhees, who already owns the land outright, expects the community to be fully functional by mid-1998. Although he is not sure how bad things will get with the onset of the millennium, he says he sees a business opportunity.
So why not sell the plots of land? Because time is running out, and leasing plots would make this opportunity available to the greatest number of people in the shortest time.
Heritage Farms 2000 promises a safe place with a high-quality of life for doomsayers to wait out the five or so “turbulent years” after the onset of the millennium, Vorhees says. To that end, he plans to offer independent satellite hookups that can ensure Internet access and telephone service. Of course, he assumes that the Internet will survive Armageddon.
In Monte Vista, Colo., a Year 2000-compliant safe haven is planned on a 120-acre spread, complete with a business plaza, commercial strip mall and several residential communities, including two with 18-hole golf courses. Alex Gallegos, an attorney and partner in the project, says that the area’s abundant sun, water and fertile soil make this an ideal place to set up a Year 2000-compliant community. And in the mountains of southwest Virginia, a planned Christian community called Rivendell has already sold several plots.
Naturally, there are those in the material world who look down on this flight. “Panic is the last thing we need,” says William Ulrich, president of the Soquel, Calif.-based Tactical Strategy Group and author of The Year 2000 Software Crisis: Challenge of the Century. “All it does is spread fear and, concurrently, drain the population of people who can help fix the problem.”
Millennial fever is not new, of course. A thousand years ago a whole slew of crackpots and religious movements rose up and predicted the end of the world. And the upcoming millennium is no exception. But the latest twist involves technology, a sign of our times, and there are computer professionals who are also sounding the Y2K alarm.
Take Ed Yourdon, a computer programmer and author of Time Bomb 2000. He is not interested in solving the problem, which is simple but laborious. Instead, he plans to wait out the millennial changeover at a ranch in New Mexico. He has also posted a message on a web site dedicated to the Y2K problem that warns programmers that it may be time to quit their jobs in the big city and head for more hospitable environs (read: the countryside where rioters, the theory goes, will be in short supply.)
At the epicenter of this Y2K safe haven movement is Gary North, a historian from Tyler, Tex. who likens the millennium bug to the bubonic plague and the advent of syphilis. (He calls it “a good, old-fashioned Deuteronomy kind of thing.”)
North has churned out some three-dozen books on religious, economic and survivalist themes and has dedicated his web site (with the quaint URL: trapped.com) to the Y2K problem. On it, he offers threaded discussion groups centered around posteconomic meltdown topics like relocating, food and food storage, home power generation, bartering as an economic exchange and nonhybrid gardening. And many of the posts have to do with laymen and computer programmers discussing the best places to relocate to and the best ways to accomplish this. Others are by people mulling over opening up their own land to Y2K refugees.
North claims that God is using the millennium bug to punish society for its sins. “Anyone who believes that a civilization can collapse because a handful of unknown programmers made a bad decision has a choice between two main explanations: It’s just one of those things, or it’s God’s will.”
But the trouble is this isn’t the first time North has predicted doomsday. In 1996, he published The Coming Mutual Fund Meltdown and almost ten years before that penned a book called 12 Deadly Mega-Trends, opining that government debt and inflation could topple civilization.
If North were the only one predicting economic calamity, it would be easy to dismiss him. But he is not. In addition to veteran programmer Yourdon, whose alarmist book is selling briskly (it is already in its 6th printing), Edward Yardeni, chief economist for Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, predicts there is a 60% chance that the nation will encounter a recession because of the Y2K problem.
Although Yardeni seems wary of being lumped together with a religious rabble-rouser like North, he says he cannot dismiss anarchy as a possible byproduct to the Y2K problem.
“Unfortunately, some of North’s scenarios are entirely plausible,” he admits. “I share his concern about the supply of electricity, air traffic control system and transportation. Will the trains be able to run so that they can deliver the coal which powers our electricity? I don’t know.”
But Yardeni says he will be at his home in Long Island when the Year 2000 is ushered in. In essence, he would rather fight than switch.
North, on the other hand, seems fatalistic. “If you want my position in one phrase, here it is,” he says. “When the world’s mainframe computers interpret the year 2000 as 1900, it will soon be. Then 1800, if the power grid goes down.”
Copyright 1998 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)