By Donella Meadows
–July 2, 1998–
The average bite of food eaten by an American travels 1300 miles from field to mouth.
That statistic is quoted over and over by people who want us to think about how distant we are from our basic sustenance, how vulnerable our lives have become, how dependent on systems we can’t control or even understand. These people intend to scare us in the same way the people who are yammering about the Y2K problem intend to scare us.
Y2K is the computer world’s label for a bug that apparently infests computer programs everywhere. Y2K stands for “year two thousand,” K being the scientific abbreviation for “kilo,” which means thousand. As you have undoubtedly heard, programmers, back when computer memory was scarce, entered only the last two digits for years — “73” for 1973 — never thinking of the moment when the clock would turn over to “00.”
Now some credit cards are already bouncing because a computer assumes that “00” means the card expired in 1900. One chemical company, testing for Y2K problems by artificially advancing the date throughout its automated factories, discovered a computer chip that would have shut down a cooling system at midnight on December 31, 1999, probably causing an explosion. That problem got fixed, but, the experts say, half of large corporations and 75 percent of small businesses are unprepared for Y2K, and the government is especially far behind. Social Security and Medicare payments could be held up for nobody knows how long, as computers deduce that someone born in 1930 is minus 30 years old.
Here’s a typical list of computer-dependent entities that could go haywire: air-traffic and railroad control systems, banks, stock exchanges, insurance companies, electric utilities, major manufacturing installations. One consultant estimates that there are 50 million chips embedded in hospital equipment, burglar alarms, oil refineries, power stations, elevators, all of which could shut a machine down if they think it was last serviced in 1900. The National Federation of Independent Businesses estimates that the Y2K bug will bankrupt 330,000 small businesses.
I have listened to this scare talk with a mixture of disbelief, fear, amusement, and the sort of smugness that doubters can’t resist when technology goes awry. Ha! Those smart-alec computers that are supposed to save us time are now demanding enormous amounts of time just to fix a stupid mistake. (State Farm Insurance has been grappling with the Y2K problem since 1989 and still has 100 employees working on it full time.) Furthermore I can see in the short-sightedness of the programmers an apt metaphor for other social short-sightedness. (Such as oil wells or groundwater wells running dry, which will happen about as far ahead of us now as the Y2K problem was in 1970.) But surely this Y2K thing is exaggerated, right?
Then a few weeks ago I was talking with Ray Anderson of Interface carpet company, who told me he had spent $20 million on reprogramming within his firm and feels he’s on top of Y2K. But he can’t say as much for his suppliers, banks, shippers, electricity sources or customers. Then he told me about a dinner party with a high military officer at which he asked whether it might be possible that a Y2K glitch could send off a missile.
The general turned white, admitted he’d never thought of that and said he’d find out the very next day. “He won’t,” said Amory Lovins, who was listening in on our conversation. “It’ll take at least six months.”
So now I’m taking Y2K seriously. I don’t plan to spend December 1999 panicking and hoarding (which, if everyone did it, would create a Y2K problem even if the computers work fine). I’m just going to plant more potatoes and squash and dry beans than usual and lay in extra firewood.
But what about that average bite of food, which presumably could be stuck on a stalled train or hung up by a bounced credit card or a missing Social Security check somewhere on its 1300 mile journey to the average American?
Thinking about that, I asked my brilliant research assistant Diana Wright to track down where the 1300-mile number came from. She found it in — believe it or not — a defense department study conducted in 1969, right about the time the programmers were creating the Y2K problem. The Office of Civil Defense tried to calculate how to get food to surviving Americans after a nuclear attack. The analysts looked at where food was grown (mainly the Midwest) and where people lived (mainly the East), made some wild assumptions (such as ignoring fruits and vegetables) and came up with a 1300 mile average shipping distance. (If it’s any comfort, they concluded the distance would be less post-attack, because East Coast populations would be so decimated.)
The number was too low then and must be way too low now, given the globalizing market, lamb from New Zealand, oranges from Israel, apples from Chile, and 50 million more Americans than we had 30 years ago. The point about vulnerability holds, however, enhanced now by our increased dependence on foreign oil and on those millions of buggy computers mediating our transactions.
We may have gotten past the threat of full-out nuclear attack (not sure). We may get past the Y2K meltdown (far from sure). But there are other threats ahead, predictable and unpredictable, probable and improbable, from climate change to terrorists to toxic spills to Ebola virus to those asteroids the movies are so obsessed with.
Why do we go on making our life support systems ever more interdependent and unresilient?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998