by Dale Allen Pfeiffer
Dale’s blog post
June 18, 2008
The following article originally appeared in The Mountain Sentinel two years ago. Currently there are a number of people making panicky statements that everyone needs to relocate. To present a fair assessment of the idea and to help calm people down, I have decided to reprint this article for free.
Since this article was written, my family has moved from Appalachian Kentucky to Evansville, Indiana. Evansville is not a haven of preparedness. It will face many problems as we enter an age of energy depletion and impoverishment. Our reason for moving here is that we have a lot of family in this area, and family can be a far more important resource than any other.
My daughter is in public schools now. While she does battle with the authoritarian rigidity, patriotic propaganda and religious zealotry that plague the public schools, she is at least making friends.
For my part, when I can spare a little time from working on novels and short stories, or playing the fiddle and the banjo, I do a little work with the local sustainability group, and the food co-op.
As this article asserts, there is no place in North America that is ideally prepared for the joint crises of resource depletion, environmental destruction and economic impoverishment that now loom before us. Relocation is an option, but for many people it is not the best option — perhaps for most people.
The Delusion of Survivalism
Many people have asked me where they should go to survive the end of the oil age. People asking this question generally fall into one of two groups, those who believe that civilization will disintegrate into lawless chaos where former neighbors will be preying upon each other and hordes of murderous starving bandits will swarm out of the cities to feed on the suburbs. The other group are those who see things breaking down, but not to the point where they must seek to defend themselves against every stranger. These people want to find a community and/or a farm where they can become self-reliant.
I will address the total breakdown group first. If there is a total breakdown of civilization and we are left with neighbors preying upon neighbors, then there is no place you can go. Whatever remote mountain hideaway you sneak off to, in this scenario you will have to deal with pillagers out to take what little you have. Anywhere you go, there are already people there.
In this day and age, the only places you can go to hide away are lacking in human population because they are so inhospitable. There are so few people there because it is so difficult to live there. And the few people who already live there probably meet that ecosystem’s limited carrying capacity for human beings.
As someone who has lived alone in the wilderness, I have to ask you: do you really want to be a hermit. Do you want to spend your entire day struggling for the basic necessities? Can you make your own clothing, build and maintain your own weapons, grow, forage and hunt enough food to feed yourself, lay in a sufficient store of fuel to keep you from freezing in the winter? The list goes on and on. Sure, you can survive off what you forage and hunt, make clothes and blankets out of hides, and live in a debris hut; but do you really want to?
Stop romanticizing about the myth of the rugged individualist. It is just that: a myth. Almost all of the rugged individualists I have met were maladjusted misanthropes who would likely have been institutionalized if they had lived among others. This is not to say that I have not known many sane and balanced mountainmen and mountainwomen. But the sane ones do not live in total isolation, however limited their interaction might be, they are part of a community.
Consider indigenous peoples throughout the world. They are not rugged individualists. They all belong to tribes. Their sense of identity is closely linked to the community of which they are a part. It is their family and their safety net. They could not imagine trying to make it on their own and would wonder why anyone would ever want to do such a thing. When they are taken out of their tribal setting and placed in modern civilization, they are lost without their community.
The pioneers were not rugged individualists. They knew that community was the key to their survival. They worked together to build their community, plant and harvest their crops and provide everyone within their community with the necessities of life. It was only with difficulty that their sense of community was squashed by the modern industrialized community and the centralized state.
Let’s get this straight. The myth of the rugged individualist is extolled by the dominant socioeconomic system because it helps cover up the atomization of society, and it leaves the disillusioned and disenfranchised uninclined to work together towards an alternative.
And where did you ever get the idea that you will have to fight your neighbors for survival, or that the cities will unleash hordes of desperate degenerates to pillage the countryside? This is an unlikely scenario. Sure there might be a rise in crime if the established order breaks down, or there might not. In large part, this depends on us.
When we look at examples of collapse, we do not see much real change in the crime rate. In a socioeconomic collapse, here does seem to be a relationship between the crime rate and the strength of community. The more tightly knit the community is, the lower the rise in crime, and vice versa.
During the Great Depression, people helped each other. Though they may have little to share, they did share it. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, people helped each other. Even in North Korea, people helped each other — though they were terribly repressed by there government.
The counter-argument is that this is a different situation. There will be no recovery, and in the US people are atomized, selfish and overly competitive. We are no longer predisposed to help each other, and there is very little sense of community left. Where people were once loyal to their community, they are now loyal to their company. And if that company closes its doors to them, they will do whatever it takes to survive.
My answer to that is Argentina. The people there were highly atomized and terrorized. More so, even, than people in the US. Decades of experience taught them not to concern themselves about their neighbors; to look out only for themselves. But when the Argentine economy collapsed, the people banded together to create one of our best examples of how people can respond positively on a grassroots level to a collapse. For details on this, I refer you to my article Coping with Collapse; Examples from Argentina in the The Mountain Sentinel, Vol. 1 No. 1.
The scenario that the collapse of the dominant socioeconomic system will result in a dog eat dog situation is another myth. This myth most likely evolved from the misconceptions of social Darwinists. It is reinforced by the fear mongering of the US news media which portrays our communities as dangerous places full of murderers, rapists and thieves. And it is fleshed out by our entertainment media (that is our manufactured perception of reality) that thrives on cop shows and violence.
We are taught that it is a dog eat dog world, where you must always watch out for the other guy, and where the successful businessman is he who reads The Art of War. Then we internalize the perception of crime and violence that we are fed daily by our media. It is no wonder that we wind up projecting our own fears and insecurities onto the world around us, believing that the collapse of the dominant system will leave us fighting each other for our very survival.
Where to Go
Okay, we have done away with the myths of survivalism. Now to address the second group: those who worry that their community is not prepared for the collapse of the dominant system and who are honestly wondering what to do and where to go. Let’s start off by stating that there is no place that is fully prepared for the collapse. There are a few places where a portion of the citizens in aware of the approaching problem and are beginning to prepare for it, but these places are at present very few and would be quickly overrun if we all headed there. As of this writing, most communities are unprepared and very few people are even aware of the pending problem. So, for the most part, you can forget about moving into a community where people are already aware of the problem and are actively addressing it.
Now, where should you live? There are four choices: wilderness, rural, urban and suburban. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks; except for suburban, which has most of the drawbacks of both rural and urban with few benefits.
If you are living in a wilderness area, you will want to become completely self-sufficient and you might want to hide your location as well. We have already discussed wilderness living somewhat in the section above. It still presents a viable option, which would probably be best pursued if a group of likeminded people move to the wilderness to establish their own community. The difficulties in doing so would be very similar to the difficulties encountered by the first settlers who came the North America, but would be further complicated by the fact that the remaining wilderness areas are largely inhospitable areas that cannot sustain too many people.
If you are living in a rural area, then you will want to become a family farmer living as part of a farming community. A farmer’s life can be a hard life, but it is not without its rewards. One major benefit of being a farmer is that, so long as you can hold onto your land, you will have food. Bear in mind, farming is not something you just decide to do. Even if you have the right skills and a knowledge of farming, it will take some years of preparation, trial and error before you have gained enough experience to even begin becoming a self-sufficient farmer. Perhaps your greatest resource will be the advice of the experienced farmers who are your neighbors.
If you are in an urban area, you will want to organize your community so that you can survive with the cooperation of your community. You will want to establish community gardens, and self-sufficient utilities such as water and sewage. And you will need to form an agricultural cooperative with outlying farmers, to help supply your community with the food you cannot grow.
It is those living in the suburbs who would be wisest to pull up stakes and move to one of the other three areas. Suburbanites are too widely scattered to build any sort of functioning community, yet too concentrated to feed themselves by farming. If most of the residents of a suburb move away, the few remaining might be able to plow up all of the lawns and become farmers, but they will be lacking the support communities that are already established in rural areas. The worst off of the suburbanites will be those who live in trailer parks, closely followed by those who live in condos. There are simply too many people in these locations and the living quarters simply won’t be viable without heating, electricity, water or sewage treatment.
Do You really Want to Move?
If you move, you will be the new kid on the block. Even in wilderness areas, there are residents who will look on you as the new-comer. You may always be the outsider. And if things become difficult, you may be persecuted simply because are new.
If things have become difficult before you even begin to consider your move, then you probably won’t be welcome anyplace else. Communities struggling to survive are not going to welcome the displaced.
If you move too far away, you will have to contend with cultural and language differences. These differences will mark you and serve to keep you apart. If you move to a small town in the south and do not join a church, then you are likely to remain isolated. If you are moving as little as 300 miles south or north of your current latitude, you will likely find yourself in a different climate. Though you may have been an experienced gardener in your former home, you will have to learn what to grow in your new location and when to plant it.
Stop and think for a moment. If you have been living in your present location for several years, then you know what is around you. If you need something, you know where to go to find it. And you know what neighborhoods to avoid. You have a network of friends and acquaintances. You know where the local farmer’s market is, where the food co-ops are, and where you can find community activists with whom you can work. And, though you might not realize it, you probably know where to go to fish, to hunt, to forage.
In your new location, you will know none of that. If times are already getting hard when you make your move, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Although the idea of moving might have some appeal — certainly, the grass is always greener — do you really want to move? You need to decide whether it would be preferable to move to a new and unknown community, or to help organize the community where you are already at home. Instead of asking “Where should I go?”, you should be asking “Where do I want to live?” And, if you honestly consider all of the possibilities and important factors, your answer might be to stay right where you are and get more involved in your local community.
Speaking from Experience
Early in the year 2001, we had a family catastrophe that forced me to leave my position, pull up stakes and move. All of our savings was used up paying for medical and legal expenses. With what little we had left, we had to find a new home in an area where I could find no employment in the field for which I was trained. We wound up buying a trailer in a mobile home park, and went to work as a substitute teacher until I could make enough money as a journalist and author to leave that job.
We lived in that trailer park until summer of 2005. Although we were grateful to have a roof over our heads, the neighborhood was bad and the trailer was too small. Our yard was a small lot composed of shaded sand and acidic soil. We couldn’t grow anything on the little land we did have. From the beginning, we knew that we would have to get out of this trailer park, preferably before the economy went sour.
In summer of 2005, we did make a move, all the way from Michigan down to Kentucky. The major factor in choosing the location was the proximity to relatives in southern Indiana and Tennessee. The price of real estate and the affordability of a mortgage were also major factors. There were other factors that I won’t get into here. In hindsight, although we now have more room, a better yard and a much safer neighborhood, the move has not placed us in a much better position.
The town we live in, as it turns out, is a dead town that has been overtaken not by suburbs but by suburbanites. While it looks like a small town, and it has a local government (indeed, it is the county seat), it is not a functional town in the sense that the residents meet all of their needs locally. We drive 20 miles to do our grocery shopping, and 60 miles to do any major shopping, or to reach the only decent food co-op in the area. Most of the people who live in this town make a 20 to 60 mile drive to work every day. When the price of gasoline climbs over $4.00 per gallon, people around here are going to have a very difficult time carrying on with their lifestyles.
We are very isolated in this community. We are not church-going people, and so there is no social interaction with our neighbors. We have been invited to attend a couple of the local churches, and though we have been tempted to go simply for the socialization, we can’t bring ourselves to actually do so. We have started attending services at the Unitarian Universalist church 20 miles away, but none of the other members reside in our area.
Our daughter, who is now 14, has no friends. When we first moved here, we sent her to public schools. Though we quickly found that the local schools were 3 years behind the schools she attended up in Michigan, we kept her in the school so that she could make friends. She did meet a couple of girls who were friendly, she did not socialize with them outside of school because we did not attend their church. Other kids teased her because she was different. In the end, we started home schooling her. We have found her one friend, who subsequently moved 40 miles away. And it is mainly to provide her with social activity that we began attending the Unitarian church.
Last summer we planted a large garden, but most of it failed because of the heat. We did get a good crop of green beans, a fair crop of carrots and a few tomatoes, but everything else failed, including corn, squash (zucchini, summer and acorn squash), cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and peas. We have since learned that down here peas should be planted early in the spring, while cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower should be planted at the beginning of September. But nobody down here did well with their gardens this summer. It was too wet in the spring and again in at the end of summer, while midsummer was much too hot and dry. And fall has struck hard and cold this year, so fall/winter crops are suffering as well.
Michigan had a lot of state land where I could hunt, forage and simply enjoy nature. And there were any number of lakes up there for fishing, not to mention the Great Lakes. Because it was largely settled before becoming a state, Kentucky has very little open state land. It is mostly private land and some national forest. There are some rivers down here, but I don’t know that I would eat anything out of them, even if I knew where to fish them. And there are a few small manmade trout ponds where you can pay to fish in a puddle so small I would have a tendency to caste right over the water and hit the guy on the far shore. I wouldn’t know where to hunt around here or where to forage. And half of the plant I normally forage for — such as cattail or boneset — are comparatively hard to find around here.
No doubt, if I had grown up in Kentucky, none of this would be a problem. I would know where to hunt and forage, or I would know who to ask permission to hunt and forage on their land. And we would be recognized members of the community. But, as it is, it was a mistake to move here, and now my hope is to get out of here before things fall apart. I wish that somebody had given me the advice I have tried to pass along in this essay, and I wish that I would have listened to it.