The worry in some parts of Washington is that even if most Y2K problems are ironed out, pre-2000 panic could have a real impact. If people are worried about the stability of the economy, they might pull their money out of the stock market, which, if nothing else, would cause real dips in the market. Bank runs stoked by fear could be as bad as actual computer-generated bank problems, says Senator Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican who heads the Senate's Year 2000 committee. As a precaution, the Federal Reserve plans to print an extra $50 billion to $75 billion worth of bank notes this year.
There are already small signs of alarm. Preparedness Resources Inc. is a 20-year-old Utah purveyor of dehydrated foods. The typical order of one year's "nutritionally balanced" supply of grains, vegetables, fruit, milk, meat substitutes and cooking aids sells for $1,495 plus shipping. Until about 1995, the company did most of its business with Mormons, who stockpile food as a principle of their faith. More recently, however, as much as 90% of sales have been to non-Mormons. "Y2K is driving the worry," says office manager Roslyn Niebuhr. Because monthly sales have zoomed from $300,000 in December 1977 to $4 million last November, the company has quadrupled its dealerships to 100.
Since the end of the world prompts thoughts about escape to the ends of the earth, rural real estate development is another promising end-time business. In Colorado's San Luis Valley, a onetime physicist and computer programmer named Milt Trosper is fashioning High Valley Cyber Development, a would-be millennium-insulated community on a high plateau surrounded by mountains. "'Safe haven' is the buzzword," says Trosper. "People want to move here from Chicago, Florida, Ohio." If he can get $50 million in financing, he hopes to accommodate the nervous newcomers with a "smart" community of PC-operated, solar-heated homes.
The proliferation of millennial doomsayers leaves mainstream denominations uneasy. The expectation of Christ's return is a fundamental tenet of Christian faith, so Pope John Paul II has been talking up the millennium for years--but as an opportunity for spiritual renewal, not as the estimated time of arrival for Christ's Second Coming. Many churches are worried that false predictions of the Second Coming will undermine the authority of biblical teachings generally. In October, bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a pastoral letter to their 5 million members, dismissing "wild prophecies" and declaring that the third Christian millennium should be welcomed with hope.
The Y2K alarmists have no such concerns about how their post-millennium credibility will stand. The impulse to find signs of the Second Coming and all its attendant disasters is a durable one. It can thrive in the face of continuing disappointments. All the same, in the probable event that the world does not come undone next year, academics like Richard Landes, director of Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies, expect that alarmists "will be totally discredited. Millennialism will fade rapidly." His group has a theme chosen for the 2002 edition of the International Conference on Millennialism: "Millennial Disappointment."
Good title. Apocalyptic imaginings are fun, but they're wishful thinking. It's more likely that the world will just churn on as it is. Or as R.E.M., another set of millennium prophets, once put it:
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
Reported by John Cloud and Emily Mitchell/New York, Wendy Cole/Lisbon, Declan McCullagh/Washington, Timothy Roche/Dallas and Richard Woodbury/Taos
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