Canned Food, Doomsday Fears, and the Y2K Hoarding Disaster That Didn't Happen
The Y2K bug got the public more familiar with the survivalist lifestyle than ever. However, despite all the soothsayers warning the public to stock up for armageddon, the public didn’t take the bait.
LA resident Margaret Newman shows off her supplies in 1999. Image: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times
A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
The Y2K bug got the public more familiar with the survivalist lifestyle than ever. However, despite all the soothsayers warning the public to stock up for armageddon, the public didn't take the bait. Good thing, because the US government was afraid the public would break the economy by hoarding too many supplies.
The latter months of 1999 were like looking into the great unknown, and all thanks to a computer bug the public barely even understood.
A logical person could tell you that odds were high you were going to fall asleep as the ball dropped, wake up in the morning, turn on the lights, and still hear the dulcet tones of Moby's pop-electronica experiments rattling on the radio the next morning.
But we weren't 100 percent sure, and it wasn't helped by the fact that the Y2K bug became a media craze in the years before we crossed the millennial finish line.
Understandably, people freaked out, but they're still freaking out today, even though the Y2K bug—the glitches in early software and hardware that didn't account for a millennium changes—got fixed more than 15 years ago.
But way back then, was the real concern exposed by the Y2K bug the potential of mass hoarding? Based on quotes from federal officials during that time frame—federal officials who were taking the issue seriously enough that they spent $50 million dollars on a "Y2K Command Center"—you could probably argue that they saw hoarding as the real threat.
Fortunately for everyone, we didn't overstock our pantries.
How much did people actually hoard before Y2K?
"I'm 99.9 percent sure nothing is going to happen."
—Jeff Waters, a Fairfax, Virginia contractor, spoke for the masses when he was interviewed by the Washington Post for a December 31, 1999 story.
He clearly wasn't freaked out to the point where he was bunkering down as he wandered to the Costco near his home, but he did buy a case of bottled water, on the off-chance something did happen.
And while people were buying basic supplies briskly ahead of the new millennium, it wasn't to the point where shelves were emptying out and people were fighting over the last can of Campbell's Chunky Soup.
This probably warmed the heart of John Koskinen, the head of President Clinton's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, who warned that people changing their habits en masse would be nearly as dangerous as a mass computer shutdown.
"We are concerned about people overreacting," he said in September 1999 panel discussion, according to the Chicago Tribune, adding that problems would arise "if 100 million people decide to do anything differently."
Clearly, nothing truly bad happened—which must have been disappointing for ABC News, as it had invested a lot of money in its millennium news coverage—and Koskinen is now the head of the Internal Revenue Service.
But the economic impact of people overreacting was nonetheless a real concern. Too much hoarding, and demand could have outpaced supply on items that are essential for survival—like prescription drugs.
"Patients should know that if everyone gets an extra supply of drugs, then it might start a shortage," Canadian Pharmacists Association spokeswoman Noelle-Dominique Willems warned in one 1999 article about the potential of prescription drug hoarding.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, recommended a much softer tack when it came to Y2K. The agency had a full section of its website dedicated to informing the public about Y2K, which the Internet Archive has faithfully archived. On it, the agency told people to stock up on supplies, but only the amount that one would need if you were about to be snowed in for a long weekend, separated from your nearest Domino's, with the power potentially flickering off for a little while.
FEMA Deputy Director Mike Walker encouraged people to use their heads when to came to Y2K's risks:
I have a great deal of faith in the American people. I know they will see through the naysayers and fearmongers who are trying to scare us or make a buck. When you look at everything Americans have dealt with throughout our history, Y2K is nothing. Yes, it poses a challenge. But it pales beside the great challenges Americans have previously faced and the great challenges Americans have conquered.
Now, there are always exceptions, and people did do weird stuff ahead of Y2K to try to keep themselves safe. This hardware store in an Amish town did brisk business ahead of the millennial shift because it mostly sold products that didn't require electricity.
As he was heading the Y2K Command Center, Koskinen was quick to note that hoarding didn't live up to everyone's worst fears.
"As a general matter, there are no reports of any changes of any significance in consumer buying habits in either food, pharmaceuticals, or gasoline at this stage,'' Koskinen said to Reuters in a December 31, 1999 story.
This poses a question in my head: Looking back, is it possible that the US government successfully discouraged people from hoarding before Y2K actually took place? You know, beyond that .1 percent, "just in case" 24-pack of bottled water that folks like Jeff Waters picked up from their local Costco?
I think they did, which is impressive, because people tend to hate listening to the government.
"If you have half a tank, you're good to go. There's no need to hoard gasoline. Storing it in your house is not a good idea, way more dangerous than any 'millennium bug.'"
— Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and onetime energy secretary, warning the public not to be idiots about storing gasoline in their homes in the days before January 1, 2000. That Richardson had to tell people that hoarding gasoline was a stupid idea that could kill more people than the Y2K bug says a lot about what people were thinking at the time, clearly. Gas is cheap these days, so in case you happen to be looking to store it, this 1997 article from Backwoods Home magazine tells you how to do so properly.
The Philosophy of Hoarding for Survival Extends far Beyond Y2K
These days, hoarding is most closely associated with reality shows that highlight the problems some have with getting rid of their stuff—something that, in the years since Hoarders first hit the scene, has been classified as a mental health disorder.
But the kind of hoarding that we're talking about in the context of Y2K is the economic kind—where valuable resources are stored away for a rainy day. This phenomenon is pretty much owned by survivalists these days, the kind of folks who recommend that you have six months of toilet paper just sitting around just in case the world ends and you never see your family again.
The reason why Y2K was a concern on an economic level was because it was a rare instance where people were made aware of something bad about to happen, and given enough time to stock up. Generally people didn't stock up, but they could have. The average person doesn't think in terms of bulk storage, but survivalists do, and they have somewhat fair concerns. As survivalist novelist James Wesley Rawles argues on his website:
The food on your supermarket shelf does not come from local farmers. It often comes from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This has created an alarming vulnerability to disruption. Simultaneously, global population is still increasing in a near geometrical progression. At some point that must end, most likely with a sudden and sharp drop in population. The lynchpin is the grid. Without functioning power grids, modern industrial societies will collapse within weeks.
This phenomenon has gone in and out of fashion over the decades, with figureheads like one-time Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne and Backwoods Home magazine, but Y2K was perhaps its peak moment, the first time the movement got true mainstream attention, as well as a place for a community to build around it in the internet.
A 1998 Forbes article written by Adam Penenberg nails down the concern that folks like interview subject Gerald Walker had prior to the Y2K bug hitting—as well as the entrepreneurs willing to sell to such "preppers."
"To folks like Walker, who have been lighting up online discussion forums dedicated to the Y2K problem, the millennium bug is a prelude to Armageddon. For these believers, many of whom see it as a manifestation of God's wrath against a sinning world, the end is near," Penenberg wrote. "When the clock strikes 2000, the nation's electricity will short out, trains won't run, banks will collapse and hordes of urban dwellers will scavenge for food as supplies dwindle."
Sounds scary. So why didn't the public buy into this let's-horde-everything theory despite the media hype? My guess is this: Even then, with our primitive knowledge of the internet and limited understanding as to how bad the Y2K bug really was, we could still sniff out a crackpot, and there were a lot of those hanging around at the time.
"I have many critics who believe that my scenario is too apocalyptic. You must decide for yourself. This Web site is designed to provide you with relevant evidence to help you make an informed opinion, and then a principled series of decisions."
— Gary North, an online doomsayer and economic historian, ahead of Y2K, on his website during the era, which offered an in-depth analysis of why exactly Y2K was likely to take place, what was about to falter, and how you needed to prepare. Penenberg highlighted North in his Forbes piece but emphasized that his take on this issue was blunted by the fact that he had done this before. "If North were the only one predicting economic calamity, it would be easy to dismiss him. But he is not," Penenberg wrote. (As it turned out, it was still easy to dismiss both North and his peers.)
Earlier this month, CNN Money revealed a hilarious fact about failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum: As a way to raise money to pay bills for his belly flop of a 2016 campaign, the campaign sold his email list to the highest bidder, earning $36,968 from the endeavor.
One of the companies that bought Santorum's list is designed for the survivalists of the world. Food4Patriots, a company that sells food kits to preppers, says that its food is meant to last for a quarter century. The firm says that FEMA, the same organization that told people to plan for Y2K like it was a snowstorm, tried to buy up their supply of meals before they could sell them to the public.
"I think that the government knows something we don't and is worried that they see a full-scale disaster about to hit," the website states, "And I think I found the factors that will trigger it."
It's always good to have a stocked pantry, but something tells me this food is going to expire before the preppers get a chance to try it.