Preparing for the Millennium

Go to the Austin Hill Country and meet some folks who are taking Y2K very seriously

One summer, while her house was under construction, she spent part of each day walking her land, naked, eating berries off the trees. Last year the state had to threaten Lynn with a $300-a-day fine before she relented and put in a septic tank. She had become accustomed to using a wooden box positioned over a hole in the ground under a tree. The box was moved occasionally but always faced east, so Lynn could watch the sunrise.

Clearly, few people in a modern society would be comfortable living this way. But in the context of Y2K, amid the hype and mild hysteria created by fears, real and imagined, there's a certain practicality to it.

"The big question out here is 'How do you deal with your shit. Do you flush, do you compost or do you bury?'" says Lynn, a handsome, strawberry-blond woman in her late 30s. "People who know how to deal with their own shit, they're not going to have any problems with Y2K."

Under the current social climate, it's tempting to believe that anyone spending more than a few hours actually "preparing" for Y2K has fallen for the old Chicken Little scam. In the debate over what's prudent and what's hysterical overreaction, one person's compost pile is another's bomb shelter.

Fact is, though, no one really knows what will happen when the year 2000 arrives. But according to the chairman of the portentously named Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, Senator Robert Bennett (Republican-Utah), "We need to state unequivocally that Y2K is, indeed, an event that has potentially massive and unpredictable economic, social and geopolitical ramifications."

With the "event" less than 300 days away, more and more people are beginning to take such warnings seriously. Even the Red Cross (hardly a reactionary bunch) urges everyone to stockpile basic necessities, as they would for an approaching hurricane or blizzard. Card-carrying survivalists have been hoarding food, water and cash for months and, fearing social chaos, are moving away from the city.

Still others, certain that the Jesus train is coming, see Y2K in apocalyptic terms and are stockpiling guns and ammo for the showdown between good and evil. An overlapping movement, dubbed "the new patriotism," is preparing for violent confrontation with the federal government, which, according to these neorevolutionaries, plans to declare martial law and launch a new world order.

Charles and Laurel aren't paranoid or particularly antigovernment, nor do they expect Armageddon. Nothing in their talk or manner betrays a hidden extremism. Nonetheless, they aren't particularly optimistic. Y2K has little to do with it, but they wouldn't exactly be surprised if it all fell apart, one way or another.

"I haven't believed in the American system for years," says Charles. "I've just been sure for a long time that some kind of shit's going to go down."

That has long been the consensus of the environmental movement, whose leaders have been warning about the effect our modern, technology-dominated society has had on earth's natural resources since the industrial revolution. Not surprisingly, many activists are looking at the potential for chaos resulting from a Y2K disruption as an opportunity to instill a different set of values on society, to rebuild it in a new image.

"Something needs to happen," says Peter, a self-described "ecofascist" and Houston businessman who bought five acres in the Hill Country in 1994. "Things just cannot keep going the way they are. I mean, what are all these people who have spent their lives shopping and lunching, who don't know where their food and water come from, going to do when Y2K hits? I think they're all going to commit suicide."

Well, maybe not. But Peter is right about one thing: Few people can honestly say they are immune to the effects of a technological meltdown. While not everyone agrees Y2K will be a devastating experience, no one can deny how few functions in society aren't, in some way, interconnected. To cite one example that has been used frequently, if the computer-controlled rail system malfunctions, then coal can't get to the power plants that provide electricity and grain can't get to the farmers, who won't be able to fatten cattle for the slaughterhouse. In a worse-case scenario, the lights will be out and there will be a shortage of food.

That possibility has forced many people, from environmentalists to business consultants, to reconsider the world in which they live. Some are talking about a "new consciousness" that shifts attention away from a global economy and refocuses it on local communities, which, in the view of some, will become the foundation for a post-Y2K world.

That's the premise behind the "ecovillage," a self-contained settlement similar to a commune that attempts to harness the resources available in a particular region. In Dripping Springs, a nine-acre "ecosettlement" called Ledgestone is being developed around 6,000 square feet of organic gardens that will feed 100 "community supporters," who contribute $50 a month and a few hours of labor to share in the bounty.

Larry McCain, the "master gardener" at Ledgestone, says he also hopes to be selling produce grown at the settlement at a roadside stand by April. The revenue generated will be used to develop alternative housing, such as straw-bale, and to help environmentally friendly small businesses get off the ground.

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