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Y2k and "Survival Equity".

What About the Poor?

When the Year 2000 rolls around, the lives of the world's indigenous jungle- and desert-dwellers may continue without the slightest disruption. But for anyone living within ten feet of a wallsocket, Y2k has the potential to really "level the playing field."

If electric systems fail and fossil fuel falters, the United States of America could experience an instant and prolonged decentralization.

San Francisco got a taste of Y2kollapse on December 8, 1998 when a "simple human error" blotted out power to as many as a million people.

On February 20, 1998, the lights went out in Auckland, New Zealand -- and stayed out for 17 days. High-rise buildings became unusable for most (and a prison for some). Radio broadcasts (powered by gasoline) urged inner city residents to flee the city and find lodging in nearby cities. Many businesses abandoned Auckland for good.

In Auckland, the wealthiest survived in relative comfort while the poor, the elderly and the infirm endured more than two weeks of sweltering heat in dark rooms and stench-filled streets. Y2k-related problems are likely to hit the poor more than the rich -- at least in the short run.

In the US, the richest one percent of the population (which controls 28 percent of the country's wealth) will be safely ensconced in guarded retreats in the Poconos and Barbados. Their underground fuel tanks are already topped off: Their larders are stocked.

Civil Society or Civil Strife?

If civil society breaks down, the battle will not be between these well-fortified super-rich and the Have-Nots but between the Have-Littles and the Have-Mores.

In the widening debate about Y2k, the urban poor have been ignored -- except by the right-wing survivalists who are buying land in the deserts, woods and prairies in fear that rioting will breakout in the cities "when the welfare checks stop coming."

While it's nice to envision every middle-class family on Earth planting survival gardens and producing their own "off-the-grid" solar- and wind-generated-power, also picture this: You are desperately cold and hungry in a dark and threatening world -- wouldn't you be drawn toward the one home that stands apart, aglow in the light of electric lamps?

Missing in most Y2k discussions is the issue of "survival equity." People with more money have more opportunities to prepare for disruptions of power, fuel, food and cash. If, when the lights go out, some people are hungrier, colder and more desperate than others, the results will not be pretty.

Even if welfare checks (and paychecks) do arrive on time, it won't matter if there is no food in the markets.

Civil Survival Centers

Every US city should begin now to stockpile emergency supplies of food and water in convenient community centers so that urban residents will not be forced to chose between becoming refugees or contestants in a war for daily survival.

Such contingency planning would also prepare cities to survive disruptions caused by earthquakes, floods, fire and tornadoes.

During the Cold War, the US created a nationwide system of Civil Defense Shelters filled with drums of drinking water and barrels of survival biscuits. These shelters were, of course, incapable of protecting our parents from nuclear attack. But national networks of "civil survival centers" could help to protect our children from Y2k or climate-change disruptions.

It's not enough to "get to know your neighbors." For years, an American underclass has been forced to survive through acts of petty crime, illicit commerce and violence. If the lights go out, civil society must finally solve the problem of massive unemployment -- or face the consequences.

If the power grid fails, there will be much useful work to do -- hauling goods, moving the disabled, caring for the ill and elderly, creating new post-Y2k technologies.

Come the millennium, the currently unemployed may have lots of company. As one Y2k commentator put it: "If you aren't doing some kind of work that was being done in 1945, you're going to be out of a job." Can you repair shoes? Fix a manual typewriter? Build a house? Operate a mimeograph?

Like the threat of being hung in the morning, contemplating Y2k scenarios serves to "focus the mind."

One realization is that electricity is not an essential commodity. What would a post-Y2k solar-panel power? Televisions? CD players? Power tools? Light bulbs? (Why not go to sleep when it gets dark and rise with the sun?) Forget electric heat and self-defrosting refrigerators. Electric bikes and wheelchairs, however, do make sense.

Critical physical needs include food, water, clothing and shelter -- electricity is not essential for survival.

Electricity will be essential, however, for the functioning of civil society. Electricity (from renewables, one would hope) could maintain regional (and possibly national and international) communications.

People need reliable sources of information. People also will need to experience any disruption as a community as well as individuals. Radio broadcasts would most likely fulfill this need. But remember: Once the batteries are dead, boomboxes may as well be footstools. (During the San Francisco blackout, Earth Island was able to follow the emergency using a hand-cranked radio that also was powered by a photovoltaic cell.)

The Rich-Poor Gap

For thousands of years, closing the gap between rich and poor has been a fundamental goal of enlightened government. Y2k could provide a sobering reality check on our progress.

In the US, the typical US executive earns 85 times more than the average worker. Globally, over the last 25 years, the debt of the developing world has surged from $100 billion to $1.4 trillion -- a 14-fold increase. Today, more than one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Thirty years ago, the richest 20 percent of the world controlled 70 percent of the world's income. Today, they hold 83 percent.

In his classic text, Ecology and Our Endangered Life-Support Systems, Eugene P. Odum, of the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology, places the rich-poor disparity at the top of his short list on "worrisome gaps that must be narrowed if humans and the environment, as well as nations, are to be brought into more harmonious relationships."

A sustainable society will require more than alternative sources of energy and community organizing. It will also demand social justice. Lacking social justice -- and "survival equity" -- the most efficient solar panels might simply wind up being tom from suburban roof tops to build shelters for the homeless.

The concentration of natural resources, wealth and political power in fewer and fewer hands is both ecologically unsustainable and fundamentally anti-democratic. If the Y2k glitch pulls the plug on the 21st century, it will add a troubling new dimension to the power struggles of the next 100 years.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earth Island Institute
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Smith, Gar
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Protecting Communities from Y2K CHAOS.
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