Like most people, my colleagues and I are very suspicious of alarming predictions about the year 2000. What finally focused our attention was a small item in the back pages of The New York Times, Saturday, June 13th. It began, “The nation's utilities told a Senate panel today [June 12] that they were working to solve expected computer problems when 1999 ends, but that they could not guarantee that the lights would not go out on January 1, 2000.”
The Times went on, “An informal survey by a Senate panel of ten of the nation's largest utilities serving 50 million people found none had a complete plan in case its computers failed because of the problem. ... Many electrical plants use date-sensitive software to run built-in clocks that monitor and control the flow of power. These could fail if not updated.”
The utilities say the lights may go out, yet none of them has a full contingency plan. What is this year 2000 computer problem, and how serious could it become?
“Y2K” is the shorthand name for the Year 2000 computer problem. Many thousands of operating computers represent the year by two digits: “25” is 1925, and “98” is 1998. When January 1, 2000, rolls around, these computers will assume “00” means 1900, not 2000, unless their software is fixed. Computers that have this Y2K date problem are called “non-compliant.”
When such computers start calculating or comparing dates after 1999, they won't work right. They may simply shut down, or they may seem to run fine but produce incorrect information that is very hard to detect. As we examined the items in our Y2K folder, we found opinions ranging from, “This is a fake problem,” to “This is the end of civilization as we know it.” Where does the truth lie?
We believe it is reasonable to conclude that portions of the nation's critical infrastructure (water, electricity, telecommunications, and transportation) may be disrupted for a period – perhaps a few days, but conceivably longer. Essential government services may also be disrupted.
For starters, many noncompliant computers are the really big “mainframe” machines that serve as the central nervous systems of financial institutions (banks, savings and loans, credit unions), stock exchanges, air traffic control systems, missile defense systems, government tax agencies, the Social Security Administration, Medicare, the insurance industry, and all of the Fortune 1000 multinational corporations.
Mainframes will not be the only computers to fail on January 1, 2000. Many industrial machines contain “embedded systems” – computer chips that are literally embedded within some larger piece of equipment, such as power stations, oil refineries, telephone switches, emergency room equipment, military defense gear, and chemical plants, among others.
By the year 2000, there will be an estimated 25 billion embedded systems, and 50 million of these embedded systems will be noncompliant, according to the Gartner Group. The problem is to identify and replace those noncompliant systems in the next 500 days. Therefore, someone would have to identify, replace, and test about 100,000 chips each day between now and December 31, 1999.
BYTE magazine wrote recently, “One ... problem is associated with gadgets that monitor periodic maintenance. When the clock strikes 12 on New Year's Eve, 2000, these devices might think it's been 99 years since their last maintenance, realize it's too long for safe operation, and shut down.”
Virginia Hick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently interviewed Peter de Jager, a well-known Y2K consultant to industry. Here is what Hick wrote:
“De Jager talked recently with an executive of a company that makes volatile gas ... who told de Jager how his plant discovered the seriousness of faulty embedded chips.
“The plant found a chip that failed when the date was moved forward. When the chip failed, it shut off a valve that would have shut down the cooling system. A cooling system shutdown, the executive said, would have caused an explosion.”
We need to begin now to think about ways to mitigate the problems caused by Y2K.
Individuals might take precautions to protect their families. They need water, food, shelter, and a cash reserve. They also need paper records of bank accounts and insurance policies in case computerized records are lost.
Those who live in communities with one or more chemical plants should be asking their local governments to hold public hearings on the Y2K problem and seeking public assurances from local plant managers that they really do have this problem under control.
In addition, communities need to think creatively about ways to help those who are most vulnerable: people who rely on Social Security, veteran's benefits, and private pensions, for example. What will happen if their funds are delayed?
We could begin now to bring communities together to avert serious problems that might occur. Approached properly, Y2K could become a catalyst for positive community growth and development in the best sense of those words.
– Peter Montague
Adapted from Rachel's Health & Environmental Weekly, #604 and #605. The entire text , which includes a listing of relevant Y2K articles, can be obtained from the Environmental Research Foundation, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403. 888/2RACHEL. E-mail: erf@ rachel.org; Web: www.rachel.org.
Canadian logging company MacMillan Bloedel, one of the three largest logging firms in Canada, has announced that it will “end clearcutting as we know it” on both its public and private forest land in British Columbia, according to the Vancouver Sun.
MacMillan Bloedel says it will replace clearcutting with a form of selective logging that leaves more old growth forest standing. Old growth makes up about 10 percent of MacMillan Bloedel's holdings.
CEO Tom Stephens says that the move is in response to demands from environmental groups and consumers. “We are hearing more and more from our customers that they and their customers don't want wood from old growth clear-cuts,” Stephens told The Financial Times.
– Jeff Shaw
Poor Deeper in Debt
Credit card debt held by low-income Americans has been steadily rising since 1983.
According to a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and cited by Peter Coy of Business Week, households with below-median income held 22 percent of all credit card debt in the US 15 years ago. By 1995, their share had risen to 30 percent.
Coy warns that the high debt balances carried by lower-income households could prove crushing if the economy slows.
– Tracy Rysavy
French TV Turn-off
The Christian Science Monitor reports that people in France are turning off their TVs in record numbers – over a million ceased watching the tube in the first four months of 1997, and so far, they're not tuning back in.
Reasons vary from rejecting the imposition of a single world view to wanting to reclaim time for hobbies, friends, and family.
Attempts by the networks to upgrade their programming and lure people back have failed so far, and as the number of defectors grows, a national debate has ensued. On one side are those who charge that TV condones violence and inhibits proper development of social skills and creativity. On the other hand, some feel that TV offers a range of experiences many cannot get first hand.
– Susan Callan
The most recent sign that female genital mutilation may be losing legitimacy occurred in Senegal this year. As of June 1, 1998, 28 Bambara tribal villages in southern Senegal have signed the Diabougou Declaration renouncing the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is considered an important rite of passage into womanhood in at least 28 African countries. The practice ranges from “circumcising” the hood of the clitoris to removing the clitoris and both labia and partially sewing the vagina shut. An estimated 100 to 130 million women and girls in 28 African countries have undergone the knife, and 6,000 more are subjected to FGM each day.
Part of the reason for the change is an 18-month education program run by Tostan, an African organization funded by UNICEF that Senegalese village women attend. The program provides an opportunity for many women to speak openly about the practice of FGM for the first time. Molly Melching, Tostan's director, is careful to stress that the program is non-judgmental. Tostan counselors merely explain the health risks associated with the practice and give the village women an opportunity to talk about it, says Melching.
Other African countries are joining the movement to end FGM. In December of last year, a 1996 ban on FGM was upheld by Egypt's highest administrative court after an extensive legal battle led by those who want to preserve the tradition.
In Gambia, activists recently experienced similar success. In May 1997, the Gambian government banned public criticism of FGM, but the ban was lifted in November in response to a letter writing campaign organized by The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices.
And in Kenya, many organizations are educating women about the health risks of FGM and promoting alternative initiation rites for girls. Jane Meme of Save the Children explains that the new ceremonies include all of the traditional feasting and dancing – without the practice of FGM.
– Carrie Fox
Colleges with a Conscience
Students and staff from many US post-secondary schools are working to make their campuses socially and environmentally responsible – with significant results.
Students from over 20 colleges and universities, with the help of New York-based labor union UNITE, created the Sweat-Free Campus campaign to push universities to sever ties with companies that use sweatshop labor.
This March, activists from the year-old campaign celebrated its greatest victory to date. Duke University enacted an unprecedented code of conduct that requires all those using the Duke University name on athletic gear to recognize labor unions and pay at least the minimum wage. It also mandates that Duke licensees maintain a safe workplace and prohibits the use of forced labor and child labor.
Since the Duke code was enacted, Cornell University and Brown University have followed suit. Students are pushing for similar regulations in many other universities.
The Sweat-Free Campaign isn't the only group making waves on US campuses. A new report released in March by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) reveals that big savings are being achieved through environmental initiatives in colleges and universities nationwide.
Green Investment, Green Return highlights 23 cost-saving conservation initiatives at 15 public and private post-secondary institutions in the US. Savings per project ranged from $1,000 to $9 million, the study found. Savings across the 23 projects totalled $16.8 million, an average of $728,500 per campus.
“When the average annual campus savings are multiplied across the remaining 3,685 campuses nationwide,” said NWF president Mark Van Putten, “the potential for savings tops $2.6 billion.”
The projects addressed issues of transportation, energy, and water conservation, materials re-use and redistribution, composting, recycling, and management of hazardous chemicals. By implementing low-flow toilets and new water fixtures, for example, Columbia University saved $235,000 and 80,000 cubic feet of water.
– Jeff Shaw
For more information on the Sweat -Free Campus Campaign, contact UNITE, 1710 Broadway, New York, NY 10019-5299. 212/265-7000. To obtain a copy of the National Wildlife Federation report, call 410/516-6583; Web: www.nwf.org
Kentucky farmers are asking a federal judge to determine if they can grow industrial hemp. The farmers – together with the Hemp Company of America and the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association – have filed a landmark lawsuit asserting that Congress never intended for industrial hemp to be banned.
The lawsuit states that hemp's illegal status violates a 1937 determination by Congress that the plant does not share the psychoactive effects found in hemp's close relative, marijuana.
Many Kentucky farmers facing uncertain times in the agricultural marketplace see the re-introduction of industrial hemp as an economic opportunity.
Noted for its versatility, industrial hemp has been used as an ingredient in textiles, paper products, organic foods, concrete reinforcement, automobile parts, plastics, and cosmetics.
– Tracy Rysavy
Businesses for Chiapas
A group of American companies committed to fair trade practices have joined together to help the Actéal farming community in Chiapas, Mexico, survive in the wake of a massacre that left 45 men, women, and children dead.
Business for Equitable Trade and Human Rights in Chiapas is made up of 16 US companies that trade in the region. The coalition is pressuring the American government to investigate potential misuse of US weapons in Mexico and to close the US Army School of the Americas, where the US military trains Latin American military officers. Graduates of the school have been implicated in human rights violations.
Representatives from the group, which includes White Dog Enterprises, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and Equal Exchange, are also urging the Mexican government to honor the San Andreas Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, a human rights agreement between the Mexican government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
In addition, Boston-based coffee importer Equal Exchange has raised $11,000 for La Unión Majomut, a coffee farming cooperative in the municipality surrounding Actéal. La Unión Majomut farmers have been unable to harvest their crops since the attack due to fears of further violence.
– Jeff Shaw
Contact Equal Exchange, 251 Revere St., Conton, MA 02021; 781/830-0303; E-mail:
For more information on Businesses for Equitable Trade, contact Judy Wicks, 215/386-9224.
Democracy & Corporations
“Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under the law?” An Arcata, California, ad-hoc group called Citizens Concerned about Corporations is sparking community dialogue on that question.
Together with members from Democracy Unlimited, CCAC assisted in the launch of an advisory ballot initiative for the city.
If successful, the advisory initiative would ask the Arcata City Council to co-host with CCAC two major town hall meetings on corporate rule and create a commission to discuss how to implement local policies and procedures. The commission would ensure citizen authority over corporations conducting business within the city in order to maintain the health and well-being of the community and its environment.
For a copy of the full initiative text, contact Citizens Concerned about Corporations,
c/o DUHC, PO Box 27, Arcata, CA 95518, tel. 707/441-9913.
Green Tax Reform
American voters support green taxes, according to a national survey released on June 17th. The telephone survey, commissioned by the national environmental organization Friends of the Earth, found that more than two out of three voters surveyed favored environmental tax shifting as a way to reform the US tax system.
More than 70 percent of the respondents, representing a cross-section of Republican, Democrat, and independent voters, supported increasing taxes on energy sources that pollute the environment and using those revenues to reduce existing taxes on payrolls and income. Respondents also supported a tax on air and water pollution, voicing slightly more support for this type of environmental “sin tax” than for taxes on cigarettes or liquor.
– Friends of the Earth
For more information, contact Friends of the Earth at 202/783-7400.
European Toy Ban
Responding to widespread European concerns over the health impact of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the European Commission has urged national governments to take a closer look at toys and teething rings containing softening agents called phthalates. These agents are a component of PVC, which may cause cancer, hormone disruption, or liver and kidney damage when ingested. Austria, Denmark, and Spain have already banned certain phthalate-based toys from the market.
In June, the EC tabled a vote on whether to ban toys containing phthalates. Although, a majority of commissioners agreed on the need to take emergency measures to address the health risks posed by exposure to phthalates, they will not decide on the extent of these measures until further research has been completed. Instead, the EC will consider options for a limited ban – possibly on products made specifically to put in the mouth – based on tests of individual products.
Any European toy bans would have a significant impact on the toy industry, which includes large US companies such as Mattel and Hasbro. A limited ban on products made specifically to be put in the mouth could defuse tensions with toy makers, but is likely to outrage consumer groups who say infants and toddlers could also put other kinds of toys in their mouths.
– Kristen Godard
If you think that the Oprah versus the Cattle Growers court case settled the matter of food libel laws, think again. That case was decided solely on issues of statutory interpretation and common law. It didn't touch the core issue – freedom of speech.
In April, the Center for Science in the Public Interest formed “Foodspeak,” a coalition to monitor and oppose laws that hamper public discussion of the vital issue of food safety.
Foodspeak consists of 30 environmental, civil rights, and legal affairs groups. All agree that food disparagement laws – which prohibit public criticism of the food industry – are a danger to public discourse on food safety and a strong foothold for chilling speech in other areas.
Thirteen states have product disparagement laws on the books; two others, California and Michigan, have laws pending. Foodspeak is committed to opposing passage of new food disparagement laws and to seeking repeal of existing ones.
Contact The Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009; 202/332-9110, ext. 322; Web: