Dave Pollard tossed out an interesting essay this week. He is in the process of moving — not entirely voluntarily — and musing much on home these last few months. His latest post on his blog, How to Save the World, is a useful list of attributes to look for in a home that will serve as a shelter in our messy times. Most of us are living in highly brittle locations; stands to reason that most of us are going to have to move. Dave has prepared a checklist to navigate those moves.
I asked permission to reprint his essay here to compare his new home in a Vancouver suburb (that is also, in its own right, the 6th-largest city in British Columbia) to my new home in small town Vermont. Both these locations are rather insulated from the worst effects of ecological collapse, and yet neither scores very high. But Pollard’s home seems to be much more fragile than mine, and I think this is almost entirely due to population density. He lives in a city; I live in a small town surrounded by farmland.
I would be very interested in how you score your own homes. I’ve left comments open on this post. I’d also be interested in your ideas of a place that might score closer to a best case scenario. I’ve included my own scoring below. Pollard’s essay is in black; my thoughts are in red. I’ve also added a few other things that might be good to look for in a resilient home. Not many. I think Pollard’s list is fairly comprehensive. What might you include?
Posted on August 16, 2021 by Dave Pollard. Reprinted with permission.
Having just moved from one rather precarious place (a small ferry-dependent island) to another (a suburban high-rise), I’m hardly in the position to be giving advice on this subject. But it doesn’t take much of a grasp of the firehose of disaster and collapse news to appreciate that some places (Haiti and Afghanistan come to mind) are a lot more precarious than others, and that disparity is likely to grow as the crises we face deepen.
So here’s a checklist of things to consider before your next move, so that when the economy collapses, and ecological collapse worsens and begins to seriously affect us all, you’re hopefully at least not stuck in an impossible situation. On a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best), I’ve ‘scored’ my new home in Coquitlam on the ten factors in the checklist, and they add up to a total score of 32/100 (about the same score as my previous home on Bowen Island). I’d be interested in how you’d ‘score’ your current home.
1. Avoid areas highly prone to natural disasters. As collapse accelerates, areas hit by hurricanes, coastal flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis, wildfires, and severe and chronic droughts and water shortages, and chronic unendurable heatwaves, will not be rebuilt. They will be abandoned. Before that happens losses will become uninsurable, as insurance companies fold and tighten up their portfolios. Even if it takes fifty years for sea levels to fully engulf low-lying coastal areas, they may well already have been rendered uninhabitable by the increasing frequency and severity of storms. Forty million Americans currently rely on the Colorado River for fresh water, and it’s quickly running dry. There is no back-up plan. My score: 4/10 (earthquake & wildfire risk).
Here in central Vermont there are slight risks of fire, drought, and heat waves that are difficult to manage in this place that generally lacks air conditioning. Score: 8.
Two notes: First, Dave’s timeline for collapse is probably optimistic. Coastal areas will be uninhabitable in just a few more hurricanes regardless of sea level rise. Many coastal aquifers in North America are at or below current sea level. Once salt water breaches these aquifers, that’s it, no more drinking water without expensive desalinization. Ever.
And the Colorado River is just… not.
Second, there are no natural disasters. All our disasters are defined in terms of human costs. Drought, for example, does not mean no rain. It means less rainfall that humans are accustomed to using in a given region. Drought in New England is plentiful precipitation in New Mexico. Similarly, hurricane destruction is measured in property damages — and not just actual costs of structural damages, but also potential revenue losses. If we’d not build our business operations right on the coast in the direct line of destruction, hurricanes would be far less disastrous. But we do build on the coast. Quite a lot of brittle enterprises that have multiplier effects on any given natural event. For example, many water treatment facilities are on the coast. One storm surge can knock out a water supply for a whole region and throw tonnes of raw sewage into the surrounding area. Even more problematically, we have built many power stations near cooling waters, including nuclear power stations — and there is no off switch on the cooling tanks for fuel rods. Ever. If there is a disruption of any kind, the rods melt down, sending nuclear waste into the water, soil and atmosphere. In our future of dwindling reserves, it is going to be harder and harder to keep these wastes contained. So… best not to live anywhere near any human structure or endeavor that will fail catastrophically when nature does what nature does. Nor even downstream from these places. So that’s some complicated geographical math.
2. Live near those you love. We probably have at most a decade before airline travel is restricted to emergency trips only, as affordable hydrocarbons are depleted and are rationed for more essential uses. And those you love are going to want and need you near to face the crises we will all be sharing. My score 4/10.
This one is the most personal and also the one that I have the least control over. There are no plane trips required to visit my kids and parents (who won’t be alive much longer, in any case). However, my sisters are all over the place and unable to relocate for various reasons. Also there’s no guarantee that my sons will stay near me because they will be compelled to move toward employment. My thin hope is that maybe they won’t be able to move which is no kind of wish for a mother to harbor. The score here: 5/10.
3. Avoid places dependent on food that has to come from more than 100 km away. Economic collapse will take an immediate toll on trade of all kinds, especially cross-border trade, meaning that anything that can’t be grown locally, or manufactured from local materials, will likely become precarious. My score 3/10.
A balanced diet can be produced here in central Vermont. It already is. There won’t be coffee and chocolate and avocado toast. There won’t be year-round fresh veg, but much of what is grown here is easily storable with low-energy inputs. That said, as in many cold climates, it may be rather difficult to maintain a vegetarian diet here. In fact, fresh milk and eggs may even go back to being seasonal. But we will not want for nutrition. Score: 9/10.
4. Live walking or biking distance away from (a) your work, (b) adequate medical care, (c) local farms and markets, and (d) any facilities that provide goods, services and amenities (eg parks, warm beaches) you can’t imagine living without. My score 5/10.
I don’t have a great many things that I can’t imagine living without. Still, I can bike to work, walk to farm markets (actually my job is in a farm market / garden center), and walk or bike to most other things. I live a block from downtown. This is a small town with lots of amenities packed into it. We have an opera house, music, theatre, great restaurants serving local fare, and lots of shops procuring local goods and services. We have a decent hospital and are within a short ambulance ride of excellent medical care. I can bike to the local urgent care facility, though I doubt biking will happen if I need to go there. There is plenty of entertainment value in our mountains and rivers and woods. We have a great library and a few good bookstores. Finally, we have a train line that can get us anywhere up and down the coast as long as trains work. Score: 9/10.
5. Live in a place where you know and care about your neighbors, where you and they have at least a rudimentary sense of community, and where your neighbors at least somewhat share your values. When TSHTF, you’re going to have to rely on each other for lots of things you don’t have to today. My score 2/10.
This particular neighborhood has probably too many transient renters. But I love my permanent neighbors. We already work together and socialize regularly, and I’ve only lived here a few months, a couple of which were still under social distancing guidelines. But the renters are largely kids and do not contribute to our neighborhood in any way except sporadic noise-making. Hopefully, as things fall apart, they will either root in or leave. Score: 7/10.
6. Live in a place where you can accommodate unimaginable numbers of economic and climate refugees. My decade-old estimate of 2 billion global migrants due to collapse is looking more reasonable all the time. When a chunk of them realize they have no option but to leave their homes and move to where you are, will your community be ready? My score 3/10.
My home town is small with actual physical barriers — mountains and rivers. We don’t have the space to accommodate housing for many more people unless we start building towers — which is unlikely in a time of resource stress. Also the food budget would be strained if we try to feed “unimaginable numbers” of migrants. We can feed more than we do now, but there isn’t space to produce food for vastly increased numbers. However, the physical barriers to increased housing will limit us before food comes into play. On the other hand, I suspect Vermont will play a key role in conducting people north. There is transport infrastructure, and the remnants of a tourist economy can be put to use to house people on the move. Vermont could be the corridor to Canada. Still… Score: 2/10.
7. Live in a place where you can live comfortably despite frequent and lengthy blackouts and brownouts, water disruptions, fuel shortages, and cutbacks and disruptions of public services (public transport, road repairs, health and social services, public education etc). Governments and utilities are going to be stretched thinner and thinner to provide these things we most of us currently take for granted. Just as we’re going to see store shelves empty of imported goods, we’re going to have to learn to do without some of these things, at least intermittently. My score: 1/10.
Ex-urban New England is generally a place of “frequent and lengthy blackouts and brownouts”. We have regular shortages and disruptions of all kinds, particularly in the winter months, but not exclusively in the winter months. My son’s town, three miles away, lost electricity for over 8 hours on Monday morning just because “someone ran into something”. And I’ve had all power and communications cut off in Northern Massachusetts for two days because an old maple tree fell on the overhead cable lines in a moderate rain storm. So we have long experience with this one. Collapse disruptions may be more intense… but then again, there are many places in New England that only got “city water” and electricity in the 1950s, and many places still don’t have sewers or gas lines. There are still people living who have memories and skills from those times. In any case, thus far, we’re doing fine. One problem may be water systems. I believe we will be re-opening private wells quite a lot in the coming years, and we really need to work out ways to use household sewage rather than rely on septic sucking (a really accurate term). Score: 8/10.
8. Live in a place where you can live comfortably without reliable cell phone and internet service. I don’t even want to think about this, but thirty years ago these were luxuries and rarities, and there’s good reason to believe they will be so again some time between ten and thirty years from now. These are expensive, high-energy-demand amenities, that we will find we just cannot afford any more. My score: 1/10.
This is one where my home rules by already being miserable. Rural and small town New England does not have reliable cell phone and internet service. Full stop. I’ve lived in three houses in three states, none of which had anything better than patchy cell service. (Interestingly, the one place where cell phones always work in each house is the kitchen.) Internet is spotty, meaning even the cable-based phone land-line goes down regularly. I don’t like it when it’s gone, but I also don’t need it. I still haven’t even gotten used to using a cell phone. I’m certainly not going to miss it. Score: 10.
9. Live in a place where your neighbors know how to do things you don’t. That especially includes the ability to make essential repairs to things (heating, electrical, A/C, telephone, and other systems; repairing and adjusting clothes; fixing appliances large and small, computers etc). It’s going to get harder to pay someone to come a long distance to fix and make things for us when our throw-away culture becomes unaffordable and these skills come into high demand. This list of essential things also includes ‘soft’ skills like mentoring, facilitation, conflict resolution, and negotiation. You might find your neighbors have more of these skills than you’d think. Or not. You might also find that some of your skills, that you don’t get paid for, are actually stronger than you think, and could be essential in your community when TSHTF. My score: 3?/10 (I’m brand new to this neighborhood so it’s only a guess).
My neighbors have skills. And tools. My boss at the garden center is also a chef and a potter — and she’s a early childhood psychologist. The guy who lives behind me fixes cars and has an estimable array of home-maintenance tools, including a power washer that runs on solar-charged batteries. George next door is a retired engineer and a pretty mean hand at the charcoal grill. Two of my co-workers live on farms and can make just about anything involving fabric — including the fabric. Moreover, lots of technical skills that might be deemed necessary elsewhere are inessential here. Most buildings don’t even have A/C, for example. Heating is chopping and stacking wood and making sure the chimneys are cleaned. Plus the best wood stove manufacturers in the world are just up the road a bit (and have been in business longer than fossil-fuel dependent business models have existed). And see numbers 7 & 8 with regard to computers and other electronica. Score: 8/10.
10. Live in a place with well-maintained infrastructure. Well-functioning, non-hydrocarbon-dependent public transportation. Well-maintained water, sewer and electrical systems. Adequate, well-maintained roads, bridges, tunnels and walking and cycling paths. Functional emergency services and critical social services. In many places, long-term neglect means expensive infrastructure failures are inevitable, and they may turn out to be just too expensive to rectify at all. My score: 6/10.
Central Vermont has a critical bridge problem. This is generally true of the entire United States after four decades of neoliberal neglect, but it is intensified by Vermont geography, topography and climate. Also many good roads today will revert to cow paths when we can’t afford to plow for a season or two. (Though maybe there won’t be as much ice?) Vermont also has to do something about pump-dependent water systems, and our sewers are already a bit of a nightmare. But we can and do get around these things. In fact, that’s the point of this list, I think. To find a place where the “critical infrastructure” of the last 75 years or so is not so critical. Still… Score: 5/10.
I doubt there are many places that would objectively get a score greater than 50/100, and those that would are probably small, well-formed, established intentional communities or historically affluent Scandinavian towns. Billionaires who think that they can buy their way out of low scores on this checklist, and preppers who think they can do all these things themselves and won’t have to rely on others, are in for a surprise.
Perhaps Vermont counts as one of Pollard’s exceptions — somewhere between “small, well-formed, intentional” and “historically affluent Scandinavian” without the affluence or the Scandinavians. (Lots of Scots though, and a good number of French, if either of those count.) In any case, I’m a cautious person — I’ve never been accused of being a right little ray of sunshine except in sarcasm — and even I think my home scores nearly 70 on this list.
Being me, I would add a few things to look for in a resilient home for the future. I believe a good place will have access to 1) education, at least for skills training, but maybe also for culture and critical thinking; 2) tools, especially those used in producing food, clothing and shelter; and 3) books or other printed information media. (There’s not going to be a Google or YouTube for much longer.) All three of these are related. We need the knowledge, the means to acquire knowledge, and the means to use that knowledge to provide for ourselves. Perhaps that was implied in Pollard’s list, but I think it is necessary to stress just how important it is for us all to be able to learn and then do — because honestly, every person who can’t find out and fend for themselves will be a drain on everyone else, a stress that most communities will not be able to afford in times of collapse.
See? Right little ray of sunshine…