Survival, Y2K.

Things that could go wrong, especially in Y2K


This is speculation that considers the question, "what could go wrong?" I do not predict or offer evidence that all the disasters described here will, in fact, take place.

The scenario

The year 2000 rolls around, and in spite of efforts to the contrary, computers and other electronic devices which use the date in some way have errors.

Serious efforts have been underway to anticipate and deal with this problem for 12-18 months by most equipment and software vendors. Some of the more conscientious vendors have been actively working to address the Y2K problem for 2 years or more. There are instances of software that used 4 digit software going back into the '70s, or used an internal date format so as not to be affected by the calendar year. With any code change, there is a risk of introducing new bugs, so in some cases new bugs will be created as the result of attempt to fix the Y2K problem.

As a rule of thumb, brand new products and software in isolation are least likely to be affected, older products and software more likely.

The widespread interconnection of electronic devices in networks greatly complicates the picture. A software application or network device which does not in isolation have errors manipulating dates at the turn of the century, may still fail as a result of receiving as input an incorrect date from a faulty application or device.

General countermeasures: move to a rural locale or third world country. Cultivate a lifestyle that does not depend on computers and electronics.

Work out in your mind ahead of time what you are willing to do without, and what you would fight to keep.

Clarify your values. If economic laws are passed, e.g., rationing, price controls, anti-hoarding, internal passports/national ID card, etc., will you obey? Would you inform on a family member? A neighbor or acquaintance? A rival or enemy? What if a loved one was being held, and your interrogator told you your cooperation would earn their release?

A crisis may put unusual demands on your body, so become fit and healthy. Could you ride a bicycle to all the places you need to go? Work packing and lifting or digging ditches? Stay up to date with your dental work.

Get a passport. This document is essential to legally leave the country. During the "government shutdowns" of 1995, the issuing of passports was one of the services that was interrupted.

Get out of debt if you can.

Electronic communications

Y2K could effect normal telephone service, cell phones, pagers, FAX, email and WWW, broadcast radio and television, cable television. Postal mail and services such as Federal Express, UPS, DHL, etc. rely on electronic communications and could be disrupted.

In the most extreme case, all but face to face communications cut off. Communication with family members outside your immediate household and nearby neighborhood cut off. Unable to contact your bank or broker. ATMs don't work. Lacking access to reliable news, gossip and rumors become the only source of information about what's going on outside your immediate circle of acquaintances. Patches and bug fixes for the Y2K problem can't be distributed via the usual channels over the Internet.

Countermeasures: secure access to redundant channels of communication to increase your chances of emerging from the crisis with something that works. Have a regular phone, a cell phone, and an Internet Service Provider. Ham or CB radio might be useful. Subscribe to one or more paper newspapers or news magazines. Get a TV with cable service.

Money; banking and financial services

On a personal level, your credit, debit and ATM cards could stop working. Loss of phone service could result in it becoming impossible to check a credit card balance, thus vendors would not agree to credit card transactions even with a human clerk, proper ID, etc.

On a level that affects the whole society, a general breakdown of credit could lead to a liquidity crisis and deflationary depression. Businesses not in the black would be forced to close though under normal circumstances credit would be readily forthcoming. Unemployment increases, prices drop. Some titles to property become unclear because they were stored electronically. Some accounts payable/accounts receivable/payroll systems don't work; businesses everywhere become less efficient as they are forced to revert to doing accounts by hand.

Disruption of payroll systems leads to people not showing up for work. The people who provide services you rely on may not be at their post. This could include the people you see such as bank tellers, grocery store checkouts, gas station/convenience store attendants, cops, firemen, emergency room physicians; as well as the people you don't see such as truck drivers, engineers and maintenance workers who keep your phone, gas and electric working, and warehouse office workers keeping records of freight transactions.

In the absence of electronic records, more transactions are disputed. If law and order is preserved, the result is increased litigation. Otherwise, Russian style mafias spring up to enforce contracts and collect debts.

There may be a run on banks, brokerages and financial institutions as, in anticipation of Y2K problems, depositors seek to withdraw cash.

Government intervention in an attempt to fix the problem could make things worse. Government attempts to expand the money supply by running the printing presses could lead to hyperinflation.

Personal countermeasures: keep a reserve of cash. Where practical, also keep a reserve of the necessities of life you would otherwise buy daily. If the public loses confidence in federal reserve notes, barter goods or small-denomination non-numismatic silver coins might be useful.

Gas, electric, heat

Embedded controllers (microprocessors) controlling transmission pipelines for natural gas, gasoline, heating oil, etc. break down.


Computer controlled transmission and delivery systems for petroleum products break down. Computer controlled refineries break. Fuel for motor vehicles and airplanes becomes scarce.

Computer controlled traffic signals could break causing massive jams in urban areas. Air traffic control systems could break. Flight and crew scheduling and reservation systems could break.

Highways get choked with refugees trying to escape the cities or be reunited with family members. Traffic jams that go on for hours become permanent as vehicles run out of fuel and are abandoned in the middle of the road.

Countermeasures: move out of high population density areas. Resist the temptation to jump in your car and drive when the moment of crisis arrives.


Food and other groceries

Grocery stores and other food vendors are mostly supplied by truck. Their stock will diminish to nothing in a matter of days if the supply is cut off. Any number of problems could interfere with the ability of trucks to get through, such as shortages of gasoline and diesel fuel, or the highways being choked with panicky refugees.

Countermeasures: stockpile a reasonable supply of food, water, necessities such as soap and toilet paper, fuel for heating, cooking and light, barter goods, ammo...

Mormons stash a year's supply. If you are able to put away enough for 6 weeks that will be enough to weather major disasters such as Hurricane Hugo or the 1992 LA riots. Expensive survival kits are a ripoff, just get normal nonperishable stuff you will eat or use even if the world doesn't end.


Y2K problem causes electronically controlled pumps and regulators to malfunction in pipelines carrying flammable materials such as oil and natural gas, leading to fires.

Y2K causes malfunctions in electronics controlling nuclear power plants. Radioactives released into the environment. Similarly, refineries, chemical plants, etc. could burn, explode, and/or release toxic gasses or liquids.

Countermeasures: don't live or work near concentrations of hazardous or flammable materials.

Psychological: panic and hysteria; denial

The perception of shortages becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as consumers rush to get dwindling supplies of consumable goods and such items as generators and fuel tanks.

Turn of the millenium leads to increased activity in cults and fringe groups.

The behavior of people you trust and rely on may change because they believe the end of the world is near.

Hardship can lead to the search for a scapegoat. Racism/anti-semitism could increase. Any tragic event could lead to the demonization of the group held responsible as RKBA activists and right wingers in general were blamed for the bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.


Political freedom, civil rights

In the event of shortages, governments may attempt to "fix" the problem with rationing, price controls or by punishing hoarders. Price controls and rationing interfere with the flow of goods from supplier to the point of demand by taking away the economic incentive. We saw this in the gas lines of the '70s when OPEC raised petroleum prices to a point where the US vendors could not make a profit and remain within the price limits fixed by the US government.

If new economic "crimes" are created, enforcement will require informers. The financial rewards will be tempting for those facing serious hardships. Persons arrested or accused of crimes will be offered a way out if they inform on friends and family. The outcome of this trend if it proceeds unchecked: loss of respect for law enforcement and government; widespread attitude that no one can be trusted.

Zones of martial law could be declared. Some governments are already floating trial balloons about this possibility for the anticipated Y2K crisis. Every kind of restriction on freedom imaginable is possible: restricted travel, internal passport/national ID card, civilian disarmament, random searches and arrests, suppression of dissent. During the 1991 LA riots, gun stores were shut down. Solzhenitsyn writes that in Stalinist USSR, dog ownership was suppressed as dogs can serve as a kind of weapon to resist middle of the night searches and arrests.

2000 is a US presidential election year. Voters disillusioned with Clinton's corruption and the aimless floundering and paralysis of the Republican party may be more receptive to third party candidates. If a crisis continues past the early months of 2000, voters may succumb to the appeal of an authoritarian candidate. Perot comes to mind.

Questions and Answers

  1. Q: When should I start getting ready?

    A: My recommendation is that you always follow the Boy Scout motto: 'Be Prepared'. Most of the hardships and disasters described here could happen at any time due to hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, power outages, floods, civil disorder, etc.

    If you go for supplies and the line stretches around the block, if you turn the tap and water doesn't come out, if you turn up the thermostat and heat doesn't come out, if you pick up the phone and there's no dial tone, if you turn on the light and nothing happens, if you look out the window and see rioting and looting or marching soldiers, it is too late to plan ahead.

  2. Q: Isn't it selfish to hoard supplies?

    A: Quite the opposite. When you are prepared, you fulfill the first duty of good citizenship: not being a burden to others. When disaster strikes, you will be one less panicky member of the herd stripping the shelves in the grocery store.

  3. Q: Isn't it too expensive to be prepared?

    A: You can increase your readiness without buying anything you wouldn't have eventually bought anyway. And nothing you buy needs to go to waste.