Friday, 28 December 2018

Responding to Collapse, Part 5: finding a small town

Driftwood accumulating on the beach

In my last post I started talking about moving from the city to a small town as a way to make adapting to collapse easier, and I listed a number of criteria for choosing a small town. Today we'll be looking at some of those criteria in greater detail.

As before, credit goes to Don Hayward, Joe Clarkson from the comment section of this blog, and, new this time, to Category 5, from the Dark Green Mountain blog and the Doomstead Diner.

Looking back on the criteria I laid out last time, I can see that I should have divided them into two sections— picking a town where you can live while BAU is still working and then picking a town that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us. For the next while we will find ourselves living in two worlds—trying to make enough of a success of life in BAU so that we can afford to disentangle ourselves from BAU and get something started to replace it.

So, to get started, just exactly how far from the city do you need to be? I am very much a "shades of gray" guy, so my answer will be in terms of a spectrum rather than a single hard number. Here in rural Canada we tend to talk about distances in terms of driving time. I would guess that an hour amounts to around 50 miles. I live about three hours from Toronto, around two hours from many other cities to the south and east of here, and about an hour and a quarter from the small city to the northeast. I am not considering a move to get farther away, so if pressed for a definite answer I would say somewhere between an hour and two hours is a sufficient minimum distance. To be cautious, err on the long end of that range, and of course I'm not saying you shouldn't be more than 2 hours from a city. On the other hand, you may find you need to be close to a city for a while yet and accordingly place yourself at the lower end of the range, while remaining aware of the greater risk that probably entails.

Many cities are quite close together and there are whole areas where there is nowhere far enough from a city to meet my distance criteria. Moving away from your current city but toward another one clearly won't help.

By the time collapse has progressed far enough for this distance to be a real concern, transportation fuels will be in short supply, either because of genuine shortages, market malfunctions or supply chain breakdowns. Initially they will be "rationed by price" to the point where they are not affordable for most of us, or they will be outright rationed by the authorities. Then there will be intermittent interruptions in the supply. And at some point beyond that these fuels will not be available at any price. So the distance from the city would have to be covered on foot or bicycle, making it, in effect, considerably longer. That two hour drive would be a multi-day walk for most people, if they could manage to do it at all.

There are several reasons for wanting to be this far away:

  • in the city there are limited opportunities for adaptation in the face of infrastructure and supply chain failures—the resources you need are just not available locally. You need to be far enough away from population centres that the local resources can support the local population
  • there will be social unrest and civil disobedience (much of it justified) in many cities—violence that you don't want to get caught up in
  • as conditions worsen in the cities, there will occasionally be waves of refugees fleeing from them. I think the aim of people in small towns like mine should to help those refugees, but if there are too many we won't be able to help them and things will go badly for both them and us. So, we want to be far enough away that the distance acts as a filter and reduces their numbers to something manageable.
  • it seems likely that there will epidemics from time to time, especially as public health systems start to fall apart. It would be good to have some distance between you and any city that is being ravaged by an epidemic. A sort of geographical quarantine.

But the main reason you're moving to a small town is for what's there, not what you are trying to get away from.

What size of small town you should be looking for?

Zero is the wrong answer. As Douglas Ruskhoff says, "being human is a team sport." You can't accomplish much, especially in the long term, as an isolated individual or family. Even a group of a few families will find themselves struggling just to survive. In my opinion, remote, isolated survivalist compounds or even lifeboat eco-villages have little future. More people means a greater range of skills and talents and more redundancy in the support systems you need to set up.

I don't think there is much hope of retreating to the wilderness and surviving by hunting and gathering, either. There is very little wilderness left and what is left is not so completely untouched as it once was. The effect of this is to make hunting and gathering more difficult and it is, in any case, a skilled and demanding lifestyle, especially if you weren't born to it. Learning those skills, when you aren't living in a group where most people already have them, would be very challenging.

What you really need is a community that is viable now, as part of "Business as Usual", and which can adapt as collapse progresses and then still be viable under post collapse conditions.

Now I will agree that for some activities a lone individual is best, and for others 2 to 5 people is ideal. But these are specific, short duration jobs within a larger context.

At this point some of you are probably thinking of "Dunbar's number"—"the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person." That number is somewhere between 100 and 250 people, and there is definitely something to the idea. But I would say that this is more like the lower limit on size for a viable community. Larger communities are made up of smaller, overlapping circles of people who know each other in the "Dunbar" sense.

The upper limit on the size of a viable community is determined by how many people the surrounding geography can support without fossil fuel powered agriculture and shipping. Typically that would be a few thousand people, possibly as many as 10 to 20 thousand in ideal circumstances. A counter example would be Edo (now Tokyo) during the days of the shoguns, which grew to over one million people without the benefit of fossil fuels or modern technology. But these days climate change is reducing the carrying capacity of almost every area, and you must remember that the size of small towns will increase first as former locals return from the city and then again as refugees arrive. Set your upper limit around ten thousand to begin with.

So, distance and size will help narrow things down somewhat, as will the climate change based criteria I mentioned previously. But still, which town to pick?

Probably the most important consideration is connections in the community. If you grew up in a small town, if you still have family there, or even close friends, then that town has to be very high on your list of places to consider. If you have limited resources, those connections may prove vital in making your move possible.

Next, I think you have to be looking for a place where you can find accommodations and earn a living in the short run while "BAU" is still in operation. As Category 5 suggests, once you have found a likely looking small town, it would be a good idea to live there in rental accommodation for a year or two in order to get to know the place better. It takes more than a few brief visits to really size a place up and figure out how to fit in. And for those with limited resources, renting on an ongoing basis may in any case be a better alternative than taking on a mortgage you can't really cope with. In today's uncertain market, it's wise let your landlord take the risk of investing in real estate.

Financial considerations also have to be very high on your list of priorities. Eddie at the Doomstead Diner has written an excellent article entitled "Some Inconvenient Truths About Collapse Economics". He challenges the idea, common among kollapsniks, that the only things worth investing in are preparations, gold, silver and farmland. At some point in the future that may be true, but you have to have a plan for surviving in the meantime, and that will likely involve taking part in an economy that you know has a limited shelf life—even putting some of you money into conventional BAU style investments in the short term.

I'll be going into more detail on this in a future post, but some degree of preparation is a very good idea and you should spend some money on it, but not every cent you have. It is also good to have some ordinary cash on hand, and even some actual physical gold and/or silver carefully hidden where you can get at it if you need it. Farm land, while it is tempting, is currently very expensive per acre and since it comes in large chunks, likely to be out of reach for most people. Remote farms may cost less, but leave you too isolated.

When I talk about "collapse progressing", it may sound like I am envisaging a uniform run downhill, but my regular readers will know this is not the case. Collapse progresses unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. This is good news if you are thinking of moving, because there is likely some place where things are better than where you are now, especially if you are flexible and willing to adapt to a new situation. There are "eddies" in the stream of collapse, places where things occasionally stand still or even improve somewhat for a while.

I think this is very true of both real estate and employment considerations.

A great many cities are experiencing real estate bubbles today. Accommodation costs a lot to buy or rent there and the situation is only getting worse. This is less about the demand for housing and more about malfunctioning markets and people with money trying to find somewhere to invest it at a good rate of return. But since there is no real demand to justify those real estate prices they will eventually decline, and decline precipitously. The trick is to get out with your assets intact before that bubble bursts.

Aside from high prices caused by investment bubbles, there is also often a clear relationship between distance from good employment opportunities and the cost of housing. Housing in small towns away from big employment centers (which are almost always in cities) is very likely to be less expensive. So if you don't mind a longer commute, if you can telecommute, or if you can make the big leap of finding work away from the city, you will likely find housing that costs less.

But I've read that in the United States towns with more affordable housing also offer jobs that pay less, so moving there may not solve your problems. It seems to me that this will be determined by what level the minimum wage is pegged at, if there is one. So states (provinces here in Canada) with a decent minimum wage would be a good place to look for work.

Handymen and skilled tradesmen are most always in demand, as are skilled professionals. Even small towns have a few relatively unskilled jobs in service industries and there will be seasonal work in agriculture and tourism. One of the few justifiable reasons for delaying this move is to find a job to support you in your new location. Just don't make this an excuse for not moving.

I live in a small town that is in an economic eddy, being a bedroom community for a nearby nuclear plant which employs several thousand people. (It's one of the largest nuclear generating developments in the world.) This is "energy sprawl", where lower EROEI energy sources require a lot more infrastructure, and just happen to create jobs building, operating and maintaining that infrastructure in the process. So such opportunities do exist.

How you approach these opportunities will largely depend on your own personal circumstances—your socioeconomic class, in particular.

The Upper Class

If you are a member of the upper class—the "one percent"—you can do as you please, at least for the moment. But in a really serious financial crash, your wealth is likely to evaporate, and you probably don't have the sort of skills that will be needed in the aftermath. For all I care, you can jump out a fortieth floor window and end it all quickly. But if you hope to survive, you'd better be prepared to fit in and keep a low profile, among people who are likely to be resentful of the rich, who they see (correctly) as responsible for the mess the world is in.

No doubt though, you will be focusing on ways of keeping BAU rolling along and maintaining your status within it. Good luck with that.

The Middle Class

Indeed, a willingness to let go of BAU should probably be seen as the distinguishing difference between the middle and upper classes. Though currently, especially in the U.S., many middle class folk mistakenly think that if they support policies that benefit the upper class they will themselves eventually be able to ascend into that class. Of course, the upper class does everything they can to encourage that attitude, with no intention at all of benefitting anyone but themselves.

There are two traps here: one is thinking that you have much chance of joining the upper class and the other is thinking that it would do you any good if you did. If you're currently in the middle class, you likely have enough resources to respond to collapse in a fairly effective fashion. Don't miss the opportunity.

If you already own a home or at least have quite a bit of equity in it, you may well be able to sell it, buy a house in a small town and still have enough cash left over to retire early and invest in preparations. You should do this soon, before the real estate bubble bursts. If you are already retired, you can probably do the same thing and end up in better financial shape than if you'd stayed in the city.

If you are middle class but younger, you are likely working at a job that is keeping you in that class, and this will make the proposition of leaving the city much harder to consider seriously. But perhaps you can commute or even telecommute from a small town. Or find a small town with a local industry that needs people with your skills. If you are renting or have only recently bought a home and don't yet have much equity built up in it, then renting in a small town may cost you substantially less than your current rent or mortgage payments. Don't make the mistake of believing that real estate prices will keep going up forever.

All middle class people should look ahead to days of further economic contraction and consider taking a "deliberate descent" approach to life. That is, learn to live with less, so that when that is all you have left, it won't be so much of a shock. As John Michael Greer has said, "collapse now and avoid the rush." And of course, living frugally will make your resources last longer.

The Lower Class

It can be difficult to see where the line should be drawn between the middle and lower classes, so I am going to simplify things and lump everyone who has a somewhat decent, secure job with benefits, and who owns a home or is renting while saving with a reasonable expectation of being able to buy a home in the foreseeable future, into the middle class. We'll leave other assets and debts as an issue for another day.

Below that is the lower class which for the purposes of this discussion includes, at the upper end, those who have a job and can afford accommodation and a vehicle to drive to work, down through those who have to choose between accommodation and a vehicle, and may end up working but living in a vehicle, through to those who are jobless and homeless. The majority of these people, if they have a job, are members of the "precariat". That is, their job is not in any way secure and does not pay enough to make the rest of their lives secure either. If you are a member of the precariat, you don't need to be told about "deliberate descent"—you're already living it, though I would guess not willingly.

No doubt it is somewhat presumptuous on my part, as a relatively "fat cat" middle class guy, to offer advice to lower class people. Though I did grow up on a small family farm in a family that was just barely middle class at best. And my kids have certainly spent their share (and more) of time in the precariat. But I don't really have a lot of experience at being poor and when I have problems, I am accustomed to using money to solve them. For people in the lower class that’s rarely an option.

Nonetheless, I have a few things to say that I hope may be of help. Lower class people are, I think, farther along the collapse road than the rest of us, and may well be less bothered as things fall further apart—it will all just be more of the same shit to them. Psychologically they are quite resilient but, materially speaking, they have very limited resources to deal with specific problems as they arise, and in that sense they will be harder hit. So, for lower class people, the need to get out of the cities is no less, but the challenge of doing so may be greater.

Many of the problems faced by people in the lower class come from the degree of isolation in which they find themselves. I think there are great possibilities for small groups of disadvantaged people to get together and share housing, food, transportation and so forth. Sadly, we have largely forgotten the skills for getting along in such circumstances, or have been convinced by those who are in power that such skills are worthless. The neo-liberal approach of using money to mediate all relationships between people leaves us at the mercy of those who control the money and that of course is exactly what they want. I think there is a lot of potential in various sorts of co-operative ventures to break out of this trap.

I've been doing a bit of reading at Sharable, a website that "aims to empower people to share for a more resilient, equitable, and joyful world". This is essentially what I am talking about here. It would certainly be a move in the direction of the adaptations we'll have to make down the road in order to succeed in small isolated communities.

Well, I think that's enough for now. Next time we'll continue with this, looking closer at criteria for choosing a small town as place to live as BAU goes further downhill and we can no longer rely on it completely for the necessities of life.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Responding to Collapse, Part 4: getting out of the city

A cold and windy day on Lake Huron

In my last post I talked about the economic contraction that is being caused by declining surplus energy and the collapse which that contraction, combined with the effects of climate change (covered in the post before that), is likely to cause.

My conclusion was that we will have a good bit of adapting to do and it will be much easier to do in rural areas than in the cities. So I advised that, if you currently live in a city, you should be considering a move to the country. But I didn't go into much detail about this moving and adapting and now I intend to remedy that. I should give credit in advance to my friend Don Hayward for sharing with me his thoughts on the subject, and taking part in many good conversations that have allowed me to clarify my own thoughts. Similar credit is due to Joe Clarkson, from the comments section of this blog.

It will no doubt be obvious to my readers that I am figuring this out as I go along. Whether I've got it right is, of course, open to discussion. I also reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more.

In a post some months ago I expressed the opinion that the reduction in our impact on the planet following a major financial crash would be mainly a matter of drastically reduced levels of consumption, particularly in the developed world, and that there would not be a major reduction in population at that point. After considerable reflection, I have to say that especially in large cities, the combination of climate change and supply chain interruption following a global financial crash will lead to greater loss of life than I had previously thought. Of course it is hard to predict, but I think this will lead to an actual reduction in population, perhaps by a few billion people.

I still believe that planetary resources will still be sufficient to fuel some sort of recovery as we rebuild the virtual organizational systems lost in the financial crash on a smaller, more local scale. But if we don't learn to live sustainably, that recovery will see us plowing through the remaining resources and there will be another crash, an agricultural one, mainly effecting the more populous areas and reducing the population to a few hundred million. One thing I am pretty sure of is that the predictions of a world population of 9 to 10 billion later this century are not going to pan out.

I am still expecting a slow and irregular collapse. Even without the localized catastrophes that will no doubt happen, the contracting economy will lead to a slow crumbling of industrial civilization.

But now let's return to our scheduled programming, so to speak. The question for today is what sort of adapting am I talking about and why do I think it will be easier in well chosen rural areas?

For most people the hardest thing about collapse is facing up to the end of progress. Adapting to this big change in how we think about the world, and our lives in it, is challenging. But it can be done, and most of the effort takes place inside your head. So it doesn't much matter where you are for that part of the process. It does help if you have a supportive family and community around you, though of course that is true of anything you try to do.

But once you've decided that life is still worth living, you're faced with the many practical issues of staying alive in a collapsing world.

For most of us, staying alive means taking part in the economy—having a job or collecting a pension or the proceeds of investments, so as to have the money needed to procure the necessities of life. Since the economy is contracting fewer jobs are available and many people are unemployed, or "under employed" at best. Pension and investments are under some stress but not doing so badly, though a financial crash would certainly change that.

At the same time, in many locales, housing is getting more expensive and the ranks of the homeless are swelling with the unemployed and even the working poor, many of whom are living out of their vehicles.

That contracting economy also means that less money is being spent on maintaining infrastructure, which is gradually decaying as time passes. And in an effort to keep the economy growing, regulations intended to protect the environment are being repealed and efforts to cut back on the release of greenhouse gases and reduce climate change are being abandoned.

This means that what were once minor inconveniences will grow into catastrophes. Here is a brief and probably not complete list of such events:

  • The degradation of the natural environment due the load placed on it by the human race, mainly manifesting as climate change, ocean acidification and various other pollution related problems, as well as degradation of the environment due to resource use and habitat destruction.
  • Failures of the physical built human environment, mainly infrastructure— water supplies, the power grid, and transportation and communication infrastructure.
  • Failures of the virtual built human environment—economic contraction, financial crashes, failure of the credit systems which make commercial enterprises possible and have largely replaced cash for individuals, breakdown of governments as economic contraction starves them of financial resources, degradation of the fabric of our communities, social unrest, and war.
  • In some sense food is at the intersection of our natural, built and virtual environments, and as such, we can expect there to be problems in production, processing and distribution of food. These will lead to famines in many cases.
  • It also seems likely that there will be an increase in severe epidemics. I am not as well informed as I'd like to be about this, but it seems that hunger, poor sanitation and crowding in slums and refugee camps will be contributing factors.

So, we are going to find ourselves poorer and adapting to getting by with less. Less energy, less stuff and less stimulation, to borrow a phrase from John Michael Greer. This will mean a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience but given the high level of consumption in the developed world, there is quite a bit of room for this sort of adaptation. I think there is good reason to believe that many of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

When it comes right down to it, the bare necessities are energy, food and water. All three are going to be in short supply as collapse progresses over the next few decades, and those shortages will frequently lead to crises. The term "necessities" implies you can't adapt to such shortages, at least not in the long term. All you can do is try to be where they are less severe.

Cities rely on supplies shipped in from other locations. Before fossil fuels, the largest cities had populations of one million or a little more, and that only in ideal circumstances where water transportation made it possible to bring food in from a large enough surrounding area to feed that many people. Cities today rely on complex infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to supply their inhabitants. They will be in deep trouble as collapse progresses.

On the other hand there are many rural locations where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood, which can be cut by hand if necessary
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps, or surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery
  • the population is small enough that organizing such alternate arrangements will not be impossibly difficult to do when it becomes necessary.

This is the essence of why I think we will have a better time adapting to collapse in rural areas. Yes, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to accept a less affluent lifestyle, but it is all quite doable. As always, what I am recommending here as a viable response to collapse will only work if relatively few people follow my advice. But somehow, I don't think that will be a problem.

The standard trope in discussions of collapse and in collapse fiction is that the most extreme sort of catastrophe happens very quickly, widely and early in the process of collapse. Things break down pretty much completely over a period of days, and people are left thirsty, hungry and freezing in the dark. The sort of perfect storm it would require to have all this happen at once all across even one city, much less a whole country or continent is pretty unlikely in my opinion, though it does make for exciting stories.

After this fast and drastic collapse it is assumed that there will be roving hordes of hungry people leaving the cities to engage in looting and other violence in the countryside, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. But we should bear in mind that, even in the unlikely event of such a collapse, people can't walk far on empty stomachs, especially when they aren't used to walking much at all. Thirst and hunger are debilitating and in a fast collapse most people, caught unawares and unprepared, would not think to head out until they were already in pretty desperate shape. If this really were to happen, what you would end up with is piles of corpses along the sides of the roads, gradually thinning out as you get farther out of the city.

But of course, that is not the way I see it happening at all. Long before things have broken down completely, economic contraction will leave fewer and fewer people with jobs to keep them in the city. At the same time, infrastructure and supply chain failures will become more frequent and more lengthy, providing the nudge that people need to get them moving. First there will first be a trickle of people leaving the cities, mainly those who left the country to find jobs in the city in the recent past. Later on, there will be a wave of refugees leaving the cities following each new disaster.

While governments still have the wherewithall to do so, many of these people will end up in refugee camps. But as economic contraction eventually starves governments to the point where they simply don't have resources to do much of anything, those camps will stop being serviced and people will be left to their own devices, both in the cities and in the camps. And by the time things have broken down completely, there will only be a few people left in the cities.

The actual facts about how people respond to disasters paints a very different picture from what most people expect. There is a deep human need to come together in crises to take care of each other. And contrary to the horrific picture of typical reactions painted by the "disaster mythology" (especially points 2, 3 and 4 in that article), in fact communities often do come together to help themselves in the most extraordinarily positive ways. This works best in communities where people already know each other and where things haven't broken down to the point where there are hostile factions that are basically at war. And of course, it requires at least a minimum of the resources needed to keep people alive (energy, food, water). These resources are far more likely to be available outside the cities.

It has also been suggested, that when the financial sector crashes, the commercial sector must fall apart too for lack of working credit arrangements, and with catastrophic results. I don't agree—even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally.p>

From personal experience in agriculture and the power industry I would predict that the people at the workface in critical industries will simply refuse to set down their tools when the results would be disastrous, just because banks are no longer doing their part. Alternate credit arrangements will be set up, involving handshakes, records kept on paper and promises to straighten it all out after the dust settles, rather than let people freeze and starve in the dark if there is any alternative at all.

Make no mistake, I don't mean to suggest that "Business as Usual" can continue on after a major financial collapse using jerry rigged credit arrangements. But there is a vast distance between BAU in all its glory and complete collapse where everything quits working. There is a lot of inertia in the systems which we most need to keep working: the power grid, industrial agriculture, the various systems by which fuels, especially diesel fuel, are distributed, and transportation and communication. This sort of thing will mitigate to a degree situations that would otherwise be thoroughly catastrophic.

So, anyway, you're going to move to the country, to position yourself where surviving collapse is the more doable.

The first thing to decide is when you should make this move. Many people, who live in sheltered circumstances, don't realize that collapse has already been happening for quite a while and that parts of many cities are already nicely along their way in the process of collapse. And it appears that we are in for another financial crash that will make things much worse. You want to leave well before your personal resources have become so depleted that you can't make the move successfully.

So this is more urgent than you might think. Still, I'm not suggesting you leave in a panic today. But do start preparing right away, and leave as soon as you can do so in an orderly fashion with a workable destination already arranged. You don't want to end up in one of those camps. Nor do you want to end up as one of a large wave of refugees arriving in a rural community, especially if that community is unprepared for you arrival, as will likely be the case.

This is more than just a matter of getting out of the cities before things get really miserable there. It's going to take some time to get set up where you are going and to become integrated into your new community. At the moment, people are still leaving small rural towns to find work in the city, but the day will come when that flow reverses. You want to be seen as a relatively old hand in your small town when that happens.

One of the challenges of the slow and uneven collapse that I am predicting, and which has indeed been going on for several decades now, is that there is never going to be a day when you can say at bedtime, "yep, industrial civilization collapsed today." Looking back years later it will be more obvious that collapse has been happening, but still hard to pin down a specific date for when it happened, even in any one location.

If you are at ground zero for one of those catastrophes I listed, there will usually be somewhere else where things are better and you can go as a refugee. But waiting to be a refugee, or worse yet a victim of catastrophe, is exactly what I recommend you don't do. As I have said before, the only real choice you have is to be part of the influx of refugees or to be among of those who are welcoming that influx. I would say that the latter role is very much preferable. A timely move, before things get serious, can put you on the right side of things.

But where to go? In the second post in this series I identified a number of criteria for selecting a new location, based on avoiding the worst effects of climate change:

  • well above sea level
  • not at the top of a bluff overlooking the sea that is being gradually eroded away
  • not situated so as to take the full brunt of tropical storms
  • not in the floodplain of a river
  • not in a desert or semi-desert that relies on water from fossil aquifers that are being depleted faster than they are replenished or rivers fed by melt water from disappearing glaciers
  • not subject to hot season temperatures or heat waves that are not survivable if the power goes out or you can't afford air conditioning
  • receiving enough rain to allow for agriculture largely without irrigation
  • with a growing season and soil that will support agriculture

Now based on the need to get out of the city and find a location where adapting to post-industrial collapse conditions will be easier, we can add a few more criteria:

  • far enough from the city to avoid the worst of what's going to happen there and so that the waves of refugees will be largely spent and small in number when they arrive at your location, and to be isolated from epidemics as well
  • in a small town (a few hundred to a few thousand people) or on a farm near such a town
  • where the surrounding agricultural area can support the local population using low tech, sustainable agricultural methods
  • where there is still some standing timber, mainly for firewood, but also for all the many other things that can be done with wood
  • where the ground water or surface water is potable or can be made that way with simple filtration
  • where you have connections in the community, or where you can make those connections with some work hard
  • where you can initially earn a living or set up to live off your savings/investments/pension

There are a few things that such a community needs to be prepared to do and you should work toward being in a position to encourage that preparation. At some point the trucks are going to stop running. You'll need to get by on local resources.

  • Many small towns have a water treatment plant that relies on chemicals that are shipped in on a "just in time" basis. A stockpile of those chemicals and/or a plan for moving to an alternate source of potable water will be critical.
  • You will need a plan to feed the populace when the grocery store shelves are empty, using local farm products, so that people don't panic and start helping themselves to, and in the process destroying, the stock and crops on local farms.
  • It will only be a matter of time until your connection to the power grid fails. Firewood, wood burning stoves, lanterns and so forth will be in short supply and you'll want to be prepared.
  • While perhaps not quite so urgent, some thought should be given to how welcome refugees. This is on humanitarian grounds, if nothing else. A community that is willing to drive refugees away at gun point, will eventually be willing to treat its own member just as harshly. Your remote location should ensure you won't be overrun, that a manageable number of refugees show up. Your aim should be to treat these folks as well as you treat yourselves and, without abusing them, to turn them into a resource rather than a burden. You will be switching over to a lifestyle where people are needed to replace automation, so that shouldn't be too hard.

It would be excellent if the existing authorities were aware of what's coming and had plans to deal with it, but I should think that is pretty unlikely in most small towns. Better to get to know some of the locals, particularly farmers, well enough to be able to get together with them and organize what's needed when the time comes. If you set a good enough example, others will follow.

More on that, and other practical considerations, next time.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Thursday, 1 November 2018

What I've Been Reading, October 2018

Links

Miscellaneous

Collapse

  • Technofantasia in action, by Tim Watkins, The Consciousness of Sheep
  • Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise, by Nafeez Ahmed, Medium—Insurge Intelligence
    A climate change-fueled switch away from fossil fuels means the worldwide economy will fundamentally need to change
  • Is America at Rock Bottom Yet? By Umair Haque, Medium— Eudaimonia
    "If the Rise of Political Violence Doesn’t Make Society Reject Authoritarianism — What Will?"
    Sadly, if all the problems Umair points out were corrected, we'd still face the effects of declining surplus energy, for which there is no solution.

Responding to Collapse,

A Paradise built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
I'm borrowing the title of Rebecca Solnit's book for this section of links. There is a deep human need to come together in crises to take care of each other. And contrary to the horrific picture of typical reactions to disaster painted by the "disaster mythology", in fact communities often do come together to help themselves in the most extraordinarily positive ways.

A transcript is included with each of these podcasts.

Peak Oil

Climate Change

  • Global heatwave is symptom of early stage cycle of civilisational collapse, by Nafeez Ahmed, Medium—Insurge Intelligence
    "Collapse does not arrive in this scenario as a singular point of terminal completion. Rather, collapse occurs as a a series of discrete but consecutive and interconnected amplifying feedback processes by which these dynamics interact and worsen one another."
    "It is not a final process, and it is not set-in-stone. At each point, the possibility of intervening at critical points to mitigate, ameliorate, adapt, or subvert still exists. But it gets harder and harder to do so effectively the deeper into the collapse cycle we go."
  • We are heading for a New Cretaceous, not for a new normal, by Peter Forbes, Aeon

Economic Contraction

  • Our Bonus Decade , by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute
    "As a shorthand way of speaking about these four related factors, we at PCI have begun speaking of the “E4 crisis” (energy, environment, economy, and equity). It’s no longer helpful to focus on one factor to the exclusion of the others; it’s far more informative to look for ways in which all four are interacting in real time."

Energy

Emergency Preparation

Agriculture and Food

  • Farm Babe: My story: Why I advocate for agriculture, by Michelle Miller, Farm Babe
    "The reason I share my story with you; the reason I am so passionate about this, is because I want people to know I get it. I was once very misinformed and wasted a lot of money. I see how crazy and confusing it can be to only want what’s best for your family, the planet, and the animals. I want people to understand that farmers are real people who just want to connect with you. Behind the corporate face of “big ag” are real family farmers. Good people who want you to understand what we do and why."
  • Is Organic Really Better? 4 Food Myths Debunked By Science, by Victor Tangermann, Futurism

Practical Skills

Genetic Engineering

Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its product. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely substainable.

Politics

Free Speech

Lacking an Owner's Manual

The human body/mind/spirit doesn't come with an owner's manual, and we continually struggle to figure out how best to operate them.

  • How To Make A Relationship Last, by Kris Gage, Medium—Relationships
    As a guy who has been married over 41 years, I'd say this is pretty much spot on. Although after you've done it, the work doesn't seem like such a big deal. It's the work that remains to be done that's the big deal.
  • Six science-backed techniques to help you make hard decisions, by Aytekin Tank, Medium—The Startup
    There is a lot of the "business speak" that I find so irritating in this one, but the techniques it presents are solid.

There is No God, and Thou Shall Have No Other Gods

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am an atheist, but I may not have made it clear that I think any sort of worship is a bad thing and that believing in things is to be avoid whenever possible. Indeed, I do not believe in belief itself. That's what the "Thou shall have no other gods" is about—it's not enough to quit believing in whatever God or Gods you were raised to believe in, but also we must avoid other gods, including material wealth, power and fame.

Intelligence

  • The elephant as a person, by Don Ross, Aeon
    "Elephants might have the necessary capacities for personhood – we just need to help them acquire the cognitive scaffolding"

Refugees and Migration

Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI

  • Dunkin' Donuts Employees Just Got Involved in Another Disgraceful Incident. This One Could Be the Worst, by Chris Matyszczyk, inc.com
  • How to Be a Better Neighbor to Homeless People, by Matthew Gerring, Medium—Better Humans
    "...in my home city of San Francisco, about 70% of people experiencing homelessness were housed residents of San Francisco before becoming homeless. They worked and paid rent just like everybody else before some catastrophic event, like a job loss or an eviction or a natural disaster, led to the loss of their home."
    "It’s one thing to call the police when someone is in danger, or causing danger to others. It’s another thing to call the police (or to vote to give new powers to the police) just because someone is doing something that annoys you."

Autonomous Vehicles and Artificial Intelligence

Education

  • Why it’s so Hard to Help With Your Kid’s Math Homework, by Jessica Lahey, Medium/Washington Post
    This is why parents get frustrated with their kids’ math homework, and why kids may end up thinking they are not “math people”
    This one was almost amusing to read. Apparently, Canada, or at least Ontario, went down another road from the US, and tried to give kids "math sense" while largely eliminating the rote learning of number facts and basic procedures. The results, I can assure you, are just as bad. Somehow, in elementary school in the 1960s, I was forced to do the rote learn and also managed to develop a strong math sense. Both are needed. And a large part of having math sense is having those number facts memorized so well that it feels like intuition when you use them. You'll never get math sense without that foundation to to base it on.
    When discussing these issues with friends I am frequently given examples of supposedly hard math problems that I can do in my head in a matter of seconds. I am no rocket scientist, I just have a pretty good grasp of the basics.
  • You Have to Adapt, or Die Trying, by Jessica Wildfire, Medium
    "Nobody succeeds at anything without adapting. In order to adapt, you have to realize what’s missing. In short, identify why you currently suck."
    I could just as easily have put this in the "Lacking a Manual" or "Responding to Collapse" section, but since it's from the viewpoint of a teacher, I'll leave it here.
  • Flawed thinking has hijacked early childhood education, by Kendra Bell-Hayes, Medium—Education
    This one got included because the same points could be made in any situation where adversaries try to communicate. That's something we all need help with.

Humour

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

Friday, 26 October 2018

Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy

Canada Geese enjoying a calm day on Lake Huron

In my last post I talked about responding to changes in our "natural" environment caused by climate change. Today I'll be talking about responding to changes in the human part of our environment, the part that we have created, both the "built" physical environment and the social environment.

We are social animals and also technological (tool using) animals. For the last few million years our ancestors evolved to live in groups and use technology. In one way of looking at it, our techniques for working together in groups are an organizational technology that greatly amplifies what we could do alone.

At any rate, for a long time now we have been dependent on technology—we certainly aren't much good alone, naked and empty handed. Technology needs energy to make it work and for most of our history that energy has come from food via muscles (human or animal), biomass (mainly firewood), and to a lesser extent wind, moving water and the sun. But over the last couple of centuries we've added cheap and abundant fossil fuels to that mix of energy sources. We've gradually become dependent on a global network of complex technology powered by those fuels for the very necessities of life.

This is a cause for concern—what if energy were to become more expensive and/or less abundant? As it certainly seems likely to do in the near future. Well, in short, the way we live would have to change, becoming less energy intensive, and it seems very likely that the planet would no longer be able to support so very many of us. It can barely support the number of us that are alive today, so this would mean a significant dieoff of the human population. And the climate change related problems we talked about last time will only make this worse.

Of course this is nothing new. I've discussed the ideas of carrying capacity, overshoot and dieoff many times over the years on this blog. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and if we are to discuss strategies for living through collapse, we need to look closely at those details.

The economy is a major and critically important part of the modern human environment and one that is fueled by energy, so I see depletion of fossil fuel energy resources (often referred to as Peak Oil) as the major challenge as far as the human built environment goes. To really understand that challenge, it is important to understand a bit about "biophysical" or "surplus energy" economics. Have a look at those links for more detail, but I'll try to explain in brief.

First, why is energy so critical to the functioning of the economy? Modern industrial processes are significantly more productive than the cottage industry of just a few hundred years ago, and it requires a lot of energy to make them work. The energy that drives these processes is worth far more in terms of the goods it produces than the price that industry pays for it. As such, energy is far more than just another commodity. And it must be abundant and cheap, if industry is to be profitable and the economy is to continue growing.

Second, why are fossil fuels such an important source of energy? Basically because they have been abundant, cheap and convenient to use. When I say cheap, I am not just talking about the cost in dollars, but in the amount of energy it takes to access fossil fuel energy. This is defined as the "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI). Early in the twentieth century, when oil came into prominence as an energy source, it took just one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground—the EROEI was 100. The "surplus energy" was over 99% and this was a tremendous stimulus for economic growth.

Since we have developed fossil fuel resources on a "lowest hanging fruit" basis, the easiest to access, highest quality sources have gradually been used up. Modern oil discoveries rarely have an EROEI better than 10. Unconventional sources of oil, such as fracking and tar sands, have even lower EROEIs. And sadly, the renewable energy sources that are being considered to replace fossil fuels also have very low EROEIs. Even lower if you add in the energy storage required if intermittent sources like wind and solar are to be put into practical use.

The important thing to understand here is that there is a very clear link between the average EROEI of a country's energy sources and the strength of its economy. As that average EROEI goes down, industry starts to become less and less profitable. Below 15 this gets very serious—it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new endeavours and existing businesses find it hard to stay profitable. As the average EROEI decreases further, infrastructure replacement and even routine maintenance of infrastructure becomes difficult to fund. Industrial civilization starts to crumble and the kinds of heroic efforts it would take to save it are beyond its capabilities.

Conventional economists are blind to this and assume that as one energy source runs out, demand will successfully fuel efforts to find a substitute. Without a clear understanding of EROEI, evaluating the merits of such substitutes can be very difficult. Already we are seeing "energy sprawl" as wind turbines and solar panels are springing up everywhere, but with such low EROEIs that they are actually lowering the average EROEIs of the systems they are being added to.

Some people argue that there are huge reserves of unconventional fossil fuels, enough to last for centuries, "so where's the problem?" The problem is that these unconventional hydrocarbons have such low EROEIs that they are not a solution—pursuing them just makes things worse.

The same is true of nuclear fission—lots of fuel, but such a low EROEI (around 9) that it's no help. If at some point we manage to design practical fusion reactors, it is pretty clear that they will be so complex that their EROEI will be even lower than fission reactors, making the abundance of fusion fuel a moot point.

The essence of our situation here in the early twenty first century is that the problem of declining surplus energy doesn't have a solution. Of course, in addition to that underlying and insoluble problem, there are lots of things wrong with our social/governmental/economic systems that make the situation even worse. Definitely it would help to fix these problems, but it is important to keep in mind that, even if they were all fixed, everything wouldn't suddenly be OK—the main problem would still exist. And because of declining surplus energy, it's going to get harder and harder to fix anything.

So, what to do? Well, we just have to adapt to these new realities. Here I am going to borrow some ideas from Prof. Jem Bendell's essay "Deep Adaptation", particularly his three Rs.

Bendell is mainly concerned with climate change and after doing a review of the current findings of climate science, he concludes that "collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is likely and extinction is possible". Considering declining surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction as well as climate change leads me to the same conclusions, maybe more so. Even without any catastrophic events, the slow collapse of industrial civilization, brought on by the falling EROEI of its energy sources, is surely an inevitability. And we should be planning our response to such a slow and tedious collapse, which will require a great deal of adaptation to our new circumstances.

There are many forms of denial that people fall into when faced with the certainly of collapse. Not surprisingly, most people see their continued livelihood and their feelings of self-worth as being dependent on the possibility of ongoing material progress. This is the "religion of progress" which is so central to our modern society. Collapse, of course, means the end of material of progress, and immersion in a complex predicament beyond our control. Admitting this is even possible has, at least initially, a crushing effect on most people.

But, for those who have overcome their denial, Bendell's three Rs hold the key to successful adaptation.

First comes "Resilience". This means having the personal resources—emotional toughness to keep going in the face of collapse and the willingness to adapt to conditions that we have been taught are simply unacceptable (involving a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience). I am currently reading Resilience, by Rick Hanson, which gives an abundance of advice on achieving a greater degree of personal, internal resilience.

The alternative is to continue with denial, or having accepted the reality of the situation, give up and abandon any attempt to adapt. To do so is a great pity, since the situation is potentially survivable. Not to minimize the rigors of collapse, especially of the kind of dieoff we will eventually be facing, but there is good reason to think that some of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

In order to be among those who survive, resilience also involves having accumulated some physical and social resources which will tide us through when the system that currently supports us falls apart, allowing us to hang in there long enough so that we have a chance to adapt. These are the things we will decide we do really need to keep in order to meet our basic needs—safety, satisfaction and connection. Our ancestors did this for millions of years without the help of industrial civilization, so I think there is some chance we can do so as well.

Next comes "Relinquishment". This means deciding what we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse. Clearly, many aspects of modern industrial society cannot be sustained and will have to be abandoned.

Lastly comes "Restoration". This means deciding what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies. In building our modern world there is much that we have set aside, old things that can brought back and put to good use in our low energy future.

I could spend one or more posts looking at the details of these three Rs, and it is likely that I will. I think there are many different approaches that should be tried, and of those, quite a few that will be successful to some degree. The main thing is that people actually give it a try.

So, we started out to have a closer look at the details of collapse in order to gain a better perspective on strategies for living through collapse and after it. I think an understanding of surplus energy's role in economics and the three Rs outlined above is a good start. But to delve deeper into this, I think we need to take a look at mankind's disturbing tendency to group together in ever large settlements. We tend to focus on the advantages of living in cities and to ignore what it takes to make a city work, how it can stop and what might happen when it does.

Cities rely on long supply lines and extensive infrastructure to supply their inhabitants. Our failure to maintain that infrastructure and its resulting decay is already leading to intermittent outages of services for which there is no local alternative. At some point the line between outage and catastrophe blurs and not long after that it becomes unavoidably clear that collapse is really happening.

Now I am a country boy, so perhaps I am biased, but it is my contention that cities are going to be very hard hit by collapse, even the sort of slow collapse that I am talking about. I think that escaping to a more rural area before collapse progresses much further would be a good idea.

The key question, though, is why do I think things will be any better in rural areas?

There is no doubt in my mind that the crises related to supplies of energy, water and food (the basic necessities), which will no doubt occur as industrial civilization crumbles, will effect rural areas just as much as urban ones. People in rural areas are just as much a part of "Business As Usual" as people in the city, just as dependent on long supply chains and complex systems. And when there are disasters, relief efforts are likely to be focused on large population centres, ignoring the rural areas just on the basis of what will help the most people with the least effort.

But we are already seeing the US federal government tapering back on relief efforts in response to hurricanes and passing the responsibility off to the private sector. There is little reason to believe they will do any better. And not far down the road local communities, be they urban or rural, will find themselves essentially on their own when the going gets tough.

The good news is that there are many rural areas where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood which can be cut by hand
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps and surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery

Sure, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to adapt our lifestyles, but it is all quite doable. This is not the case in the city, where local resources for self-sufficient living are simply not available.

When I speak of rural areas, let me make it clear that I am talking about small towns of a few hundred to a few thousand people, surrounded by farmland, not isolated farmsteads. It will take more than a single family or two to make this work. Indeed isolation is one of the most debilitating conditions that you can find yourself in as a human being.

During the last few decades neoliberalism, in its endless search for profit, has done its best to monetize every human relationship and to isolate individuals from each other. The declining economy is leading to increased under employment and unemployment, poverty and homelessness all of which stresses our communities and isolates their individual members. And civil unrest is growing as inequality between the upper and lower classes increases and the degree to which the lower classes are being abandoned becomes more obvious.

But many small towns are a long way behind cities on that curve and their communities are still intact enough that co-operation is possible when it becomes clear what is required. And during a slow collapse it will gradually become more clear what the situation really is. To enough people, at least, that those advance preparations will get made. Collapse aware people have an important role to play there.

For a long time now, young people have been moving from areas like the one where I live to the cities in order to get an education and find work. The day will come (as I understand it already has as conditions have worsened in Greece) when the situation in the cities will be so bad, they will start to come home to take advantage of the somewhat better situation in the country. They will be able to pitch in and help their families adapt to collapse.

So far I have been talking about adapting during a slow and steady collapse. But of course catastrophic events can by no means be ruled out. In particular, our financial systems are largely virtual and as such are subject to extremely fast collapse when they fail. They will be the first to go, and that will have a negative effect on everything else.

It appears to me that most real economic growth ended in the 1990s and since then growth has largely taken the form of financial bubbles, fueled by debt instead of energy. Those who have money are desperate to find somewhere to invest it at a good return, but profitable, growing businesses are becoming rare, so instead they invest in ever more speculative endeavours. That's fine as long as the price is going up, but every such bubble is looking for a pin to burst it. A few months ago I said that we can expect a financial crash of greater magnitude than 1929 or 2008, sometime in the next few years and nothing has happened since then to change my opinion.

Already we have had a minor spike in the price of oil, trouble for the currencies of emerging market countries, and some indication that the long running bull market may be coming to an end. We are in the middle of this and it isn't yet clear if this is the start of a recession, or if the economy will rally and put off the big crash for some months or years yet.

When that crash does happen, I think that even in cities most of the population will survive the initial days of a financial collapse, mainly because of heroic efforts on the part of individuals in shop floor and low level management positions in supply chain and infrastructure organizations. The people at the tops of those organizations will be largely paralyzed, or at worst doing exactly the wrong thing. But even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. And that's a good thing, because it means when things get really bad locally, there may well be someplace to go where things are better.

I expect there will be some reduction in our population due to supply chain failures following financial crashes. But the big dieoff that lies ahead of us will happen when industrial scale agriculture (both conventional and organic) comes hard up against resource limits—mainly fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers.

Still, it is possible that in the wake of a financial crash the stereotype of a city full of people starving in the dark with no help in sight will occur occasionally. For the vast majority of the unprepared people in that city this will not a survivable scenario. For anyone who really has no other choice but to stay in the city for now, it might be best to have a few weeks of food, water, etc. on hand and plan to stay at home during such a situation, keeping a very low profile, until things settle down and only then head for the country.

But you and I, of course, will have long since moved to a small town at a safe distance from the city. The standard trope in discussions of collapse involves our little town being overrun with roving hordes of hungry people engaged in looting and other forms of violence. I think this is unlikely. The key is to be farther away from the city than most of its population can walk on empty stomachs, which is not that great a distance. Thirst and starvation are debilitating and most people will not think to head out until they are quite desperate.

A few people will no doubt make it through though. It is my opinion that it would be better for everyone involved to welcome them with food and medical assistance, rather than fight them off with guns. It will be a bit of a trick to be set up to do that and in my next post I will look at the practicalities of moving to a small town in the country and getting ready to cope as the pace of collapse increases.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Monday, 1 October 2018

What I've Been Reading, September 2018

Links

Miscellaneous

Collapse

Peak Oil

Climate Change

Economic Contraction

Emergency Preparation

Agriculture and Food

Genetic Engineering

Lacking an Owner's Manual

The human body/mind/spirit doesn't come with an owner's manual, and we continually struggle to figure out how best to operate them.

Refugees and Migration

Puerto Rico

Poverty, Homelessness, Minimum Wage, UBI

Books

Fiction

I re-read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Science in the Capital" trilogy this month.

Non-Fiction

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Responding to collapse, Part 2: Climate Change

These squash just climbed up and helped themselves to a seat.

The title for this series of posts started out as "Preparing for collapse", but in my last post I immediately went into a rant about how I see a hard, fast, world-crippling collapse as pretty improbable. What I'm observing instead is a slow collapse that has already been happening for several decades and will continue for several more, albeit with much the same end result as a fast collapse. KMO, one of my favourite podcasters and a follower of this blog, suggested a better title would be Responding to Collapse, and that's what I'll be using from now on. Thanks, KMO.

Of course, I expect that the degree of collapse will become more intense as time passes, and it is that which we should try to prepare for (or respond to). Times will become gradually harder and occasionally bad things will happen that make things quite a bit worse all at once. But things will be much worse in some areas than others and if you are clever you can arrange to be where you'll miss the worst of it. Though if you think you can arrange to miss all of it, you're kidding yourself.

Over the next few posts I'll be offering some rules of thumb for surviving collapse. But always remember not to follow any rule off a cliff. Look at your own current circumstances and adjust my ideas fit.

All of what I am suggesting here only works if the great majority of people ignore my advice or, more likely, never hear it in the first place. One of our biggest problems, now and for quite a while yet, is that there are too many people living on this planet. If a great many people where to head in the direction I am pointing, the advantage of being there would immediately go away.

This is already starting to play out in some parts of the world where things are getting bad enough politically, economically and/or climate-wise that many are leaving in desperation. I am talking about places like the Middle East, North Africa, Venezuela and to some extent even Puerto Rico, where people are leaving for the mainland U.S. in droves. As the numbers of refugees mount the welcome they receive gets less enthusiastic. But bear in mind that the only real choice you will have in this situation is to be part of the influx of refugees or to be among of those who are welcoming it. I would say that the latter role is very much preferable. A timely move, before things get serious, can put you on the right side of things.

And those of you who applaud their government for clamping down on immigrants and immigration, consider this: if your government is so ready to mistreat "those people", how long will they hesitate to treat you similarly when it becomes convenient? Better to take part in the political process (vote, as a minimum) and work towards a government with more humane and progressive policies.

Some of those bad things that might make you want to move will be caused by climate change and today I'd like to focus on the negative effects of climate change, specifically higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

I should say in advance that if you are in denial about climate change, please go somewhere else where you'll be more welcome. I simply don't have the energy or inclination to engage with you. As far as I am concerned it's happening, we're causing it by adding CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and it's going to get worse for quite a while yet. Especially since it doesn't seem like we are going to do anything about reducing green house gas emissions until collapse forces us to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels and our level of consumption in general. At the same time, I give very little credence to those who talk about near term extinction of the human race. That's way too much of an easy way out, and little more than an excuse for inaction.

Much of how we have come to live over the last few thousand years was determined by the climate, which has been fairly stable and accommodating to the way we practice agriculture. Based on this, we have been a very successful species, at least if you judge by how we have spread over the planet and how our population has grown. During the last couple of centuries energy from fossil fuels has enabled us to become even more "successful". We have overcome some challenges that had previously been insurmountable and managed to feed an ever growing population.

The Green Revolution involved some "improved" plant varieties that give startlingly better yields in response to optimized irrigation, fertilization and pest control, all of which have been facilitated by the ready availability of cheap energy. Unfortunately, this has involved the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, the water in fossil aquifers, and deposits of potash and phosphorous.

We've managed to live and even farm in areas that were previously deserts. and we've been able to ship food from all over the world to areas where the population couldn't even remotely be supported by local agriculture. But the days of cheap fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides, abundant fossil water, and low cost worldwide shipping (with refrigeration as needed) are coming to an end at the same time as the climate is going crazy. We're are going to have to adapt as best we can.

So, let's have a closer a look at the consequences of climate change.

There is no doubt that the climate is warming worldwide and will continue to do so. That warming is much more intense in the high latitudes, leading to melting of major ice shields in Greenland and Antarctica. Mountain glaciers are also melting and disappearing at an alarming rate. To make matters worse, the water and land exposed by melting ice is much less reflective that the ice was and retains more of the heat from the sun rather than reflecting it back into space, leading to even more warming.

Ice is only about 89.5% as dense as sea water. This is why about 10% of the mass of an iceberg sticks out of the water, and why when ice floating in sea water melts, it does not change the level of the water. So the ice covering the Arctic Ocean will have no effect on sea level as it melts. But ice sitting on land does increase sea level when it melts and runs into the sea. This is true of the ice in Greenland and in mountain glaciers, and of much of the ice in Antarctica.

The loss of mountain glaciers also effects the way in which precipitation is stored and flows into rivers and we'll get to that in a moment, but for now, let's concentrate on sea level rise.

Interestingly, sea level isn't the same everywhere. When we speak of altitudes "above sea level" we are talking about "Mean Sea Level", which is an average level of the surface of one or more of Earth's oceans. But what we are concerned about here is the actual sea level at any particular location, and this can differ quite a bit from one location to another, and from one time to another, as the sea is in constant motion, affected by the tides, wind, atmospheric pressure, local gravitational differences, temperature, salinity and so forth. In addition to melting ice, sea level has been increasing during at least the last century as the oceans have heated up due to climate change. Further, many human settlements are built on river deltas, where subsidence of land contributes to a substantially increased effective sea level rise. This is caused by both unsustainable extraction of groundwater (in some places also by extraction of oil and gas), and by levees and other flood management practices that prevent accumulation of sediments from compensating for the natural settling of deltaic soils.

Here is an interactive map that illustrates what areas will be flooded as sea level rises. You can select the amount of rise and scroll around and zoom in to see the effect on the parts of the world that interest you most.

When I initially looking at that map, even with the sea level rise set to the highest level, it didn't seem all that bad—there will be lots of dry land left. But, zooming in and giving it a little further thought, I realized that the missing piece of information is what currently occupies the relatively small areas that would be flooded—a whole lot of people, many of whom are living in the world's largest and most economically important cities.

It's hard to nail down how many people will get their feet wet for any particular increase in sea level, but I did find one article that discusses this in some detail.

The writer says,

"Current estimates for the absolute maximum sea level rise, if the glaciers at both poles melted, range from 225 to 365 feet, with the latter being more likely accurate. If sea levels rose that much, coastal lands would be depressed several meters and transgressive erosion would also occur. So, for instance, even though Long Island has many points that are above 300 feet or so, none of it would survive the transgressive erosion because it is all glacial till. It is hard to extrapolate from the numbers above to a 100+ meter rise, and improper to do so, but consider that if the human population is concentrated near the seas, and 10% live below the 10 meter line, then it is probably true that well more than half live below the 100 meter line, and many more within the area that would be claimed by the sea through erosion and depression."

But while all that ice may well melt eventually, most sources predict that sea level will only go up a few feet during this century. That would be less destructive, but even moderate increases in sea level combined with more severe and more frequent storms, and with tides (if the timing of those storms is bad), will result in previously unheard of damage to seaside settlements. We've already seen some of this with Katrina, Sandy and several storms (Harvey, Irma, Maria) in the fall 2017, that hit the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico and Florida. As I write this, Hurricane Florence is heading for the Carolinas. It promises to last longer and bring with it a lot of rain due to the unusually high temperatures associated with it

Clearly, you'll want to be away from the seashore. But you don't want to jump from the pan directly into the fire, so we need t look at what other climate change related problems you might face farther inland. In an attempt to increase the content value of this post, I found some more maps which illustrate the effect climate change is going to have over the coming decades.

Climate change is a global problem, but in my search it became obvious that quite a lot more information is available for the U.S. and Canada, and since many of my readers are from North America, I'm including some of that information here.

Looking at those maps and a lot of other study led me to the following conclusions:

Tropical storms can do quite a bit of damage fairly far inland—look at what Maria did to Puerto Rico—even the mountainous inland parts of the island. This is something to take into consideration if you currently live in the Caribbean, near the gulf coast of the U.S. or near the eastern board of the U.S. Tropical storms in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are not something we hear much about in the mass media in North America, but they do happen and have lots of potential for damage to human settlements. If you live where this happens you're probably well aware of it and can take it into account in your plans.

People are often proud of the way they have managed to rebuild after storms, and this is fine if you're talking about storms that only happen once a century or so. But as storms become more frequent the financial resources to rebuild every few years will dwindle away. The best time to move is when things have recovered nicely from the most recent storm, but well before the next one. Of course, if it looks like recovery isn't going to happen, then it's time to get out, regardless of the cost.

It always astonishes me the way people are willing, perhaps even eager, to build or move into accommodation on the floodplains of rivers. The story is always that the river floods only very rarely and hasn't flooded in a long time. Now that sounds to me like a promise that flooding can be expected shortly even without climate change. But as climate change brings more violent storms even outside the tropics and changes in the pattern of precipitation and spring melting of the winter snow pack, more frequent floods are a certainty. So don't be fooled when moving into a new area—stay away from floodplains and areas likely to be undercut by erosion.

Heat waves are becoming more common everywhere, but particularly in the tropics. Many areas will eventually get to the point where they will be uninhabitable for large parts of the year if you don't have air conditioning or housing designed to cope. As always, the poor will be hardest hit.

The lack of water can be just as much of a problem as too much.

Already deserts are expanding and they will continue to do so, consuming the semi desert areas surrounding the desert where people have been living and are now forced to leave. This is already happening in North Africa and the Middle East and is the root cause of a lot of political unrest.

Droughts are becoming more common and are striking areas that traditionally have not suffered droughts. The Pacific Northwest, including California and British Columbia, is one such example. Even areas such as the one where I live, which is getting slightly more precipitation overall, are suffering from changes in when the precipitation happens. In the case of southern Ontario, we're getting more precipitation in fall, winter and spring but less in the summer. This is a problem for agriculture hereabouts, which has traditionally relied on getting a sufficient rain in the summer.

There are areas in the southwest of the U.S. that have traditionally been seen as deserts, but during the twentieth century were made to bloom, using water from pump from fossil aquifers and rivers dammed and diverted. Unfortunately the aquifers are just about depleted and all the water in the rivers is being used while demand still grows. As precipitation decreases and temperatures increase even at higher altitudes, there is less accumulation of snow and glaciers melt away, meaning that rivers fed by melting snow and ice run dry earlier in the summer, if they run at all.

There is a great deal to be said about areas outside of North America, but this would require a lot more research on my part and delay the publication of this post even more. But I was reading recently that Spain and Portugal are experiencing a severe drought, and it is expected to get worse.

People have difficultly responding rationally to these sorts of problems. Slowly increasing temperatures, slowly rising sea levels and slowly spreading desertification are the kind of thing that we tend to let future generations worry about, thinking it's not going to happen here, not just yet anyway. Then one day it does happen and many are caught unprepared.

Catastrophes that happen irregularly and unpredictably, like storms, heat waves, droughts and forest fires, are the kind of thing we live through and convince ourselves won't be happening again anytime soon. But as climate change progresses, they will become ever more frequent and more difficult to recover from.

Don't be caught in denial—where ever you are, you'll be experiencing some negative effects from climate change. But in some places, those effects will be overwhelming and the only viable response is to move away. Better to be well ahead of the rush. If you own property, better to get it sold while there are still buyers who haven't caught on to what's happening.

So, you're looking for a place that is, and will continue to be:

  • well above sea level
  • not at the top of a bluff overlooking the sea that is being gradually eroded away
  • not situated so as to take the full brunt of tropical storms
  • not in the floodplain of a river
  • not in a desert or semi-desert that relies on water from fossil aquifers that are being depleted faster than they are replenished or rivers fed by glacial melt water
  • not subject to hot season temperatures or heat waves that are not survivable if the power goes out or you can't afford air conditioning
  • receiving enough rain to allow for agriculture
  • with a growing season and soil that will support agriculture

In addition to the problems caused by climate change, the other two main concerns of this blog (resource depletion and economic contraction) are going to see most of us becoming quite a bit poorer, and not relying on anything that uses much energy, including shipping things in from far away. Most of our own food will have to be grown locally and the smaller amount of "stuff" we consume will be made locally.

In a future post (coming soon) I'll be talking about coping with the challenge of finding and fitting into a community that can survive under these conditions. For now I'll just say don't assume that collapse will relieve you of the necessity of earning a living in the growth based capitalist economy. It's going to take a long time to switch over to a low energy, low consumption, non-growth economy and in the meantime, most of us will have to keep a foot in both worlds, and initially mainly in the currently existing world.

So any plan for a move will have to take into account the necessity of earning a living where ever you go. You may well find that the pressure of earning a living pushes you in the opposite direction from what collapse related planning would indicate is best.

Next time I'll look at the socio-economic side of things—the problems caused when we are surrounded by too many people and by too few, often at the same time.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse: