Where Should You Live When TSHTF?

Street in Helsingør (aka “Elsinore” thanks to Shakespeare), Danmark, nominated as one of Europe’s 5 greenest towns of 2021-22. Photo by Grega.nered – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Having just moved from one rather precarious place (a small ferry-dependent island) to another (a suburban high-rise), I’m hardly in the position to be giving advice on this subject. But it doesn’t take much of a grasp of the firehose of disaster and collapse news to appreciate that some places (Haiti and Afghanistan come to mind) are a lot more precarious than others, and that disparity is likely to grow as the crises we face deepen.

So here’s a checklist of things to consider before your next move, so that when the economy collapses, and ecological collapse worsens and begins to seriously affect us all, you’re hopefully at least not stuck in an impossible situation. On a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best), I’ve ‘scored’ my new home in Coquitlam on the ten factors in the checklist, and they add up to a total score of 32/100 (about the same score as my previous home on Bowen Island). I’d be interested in how you’d ‘score’ your current home.

  1. Avoid areas highly prone to natural disasters. As collapse accelerates, areas hit by hurricanes, coastal flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis, wildfires, and severe and chronic droughts and water shortages, and chronic unendurable heatwaves, will not be rebuilt. They will be abandoned. Before that happens losses will become uninsurable, as insurance companies fold and tighten up their portfolios. Even if it takes fifty years for sea levels to fully engulf low-lying coastal areas, they may well already have been rendered uninhabitable by the increasing frequency and severity of storms. Forty million Americans currently rely on the Colorado River for fresh water, and it’s quickly running dry. There is no back-up plan. My score: 4/10 (earthquake & wildfire risk).
  2. Live near those you love. We probably have at most a decade before airline travel is restricted to emergency trips only, as affordable hydrocarbons are depleted and are rationed for more essential uses. And those you love are going to want and need you near to face the crises we will all be sharing. My score 4/10.
  3. Avoid places dependent on food that has to come from more than 100 km away. Economic collapse will take an immediate toll on trade of all kinds, especially cross-border trade, meaning that anything that can’t be grown locally, or manufactured from local materials, will likely become precarious. My score 3/10.
  4. Live walking or biking distance away from (a) your work, (b) adequate medical care, (c) local farms and markets, and (d) any facilities that provide goods, services and amenities (eg parks, warm beaches) you can’t imagine living without.  My score 5/10.
  5. Live in a place where you know and care about your neighbours, where you and they have at least a rudimentary sense of community, and where your neighbours at least somewhat share your values. When TSHTF, you’re going to have to rely on each other for lots of things you don’t have to today. My score 2/10. 
  6. Live in a place where you can accommodate unimaginable numbers of economic and climate refugees. My decade-old estimate of 2 billion global migrants due to collapse is looking more reasonable all the time. When a chunk of them realize they have no option but to leave their homes and move to where you are, will your community be ready? My score 3/10.
  7. Live in a place where you can live comfortably despite frequent and lengthy blackouts and brownouts, water disruptions, fuel shortages, and cutbacks and disruptions of public services (public transport, road repairs, health and social services, public education etc). Governments and utilities are going to be stretched thinner and thinner to provide these things we most of us currently take for granted. Just as we’re going to see store shelves empty of imported goods, we’re going to have to learn to do without some of these things, at least intermittently. My score: 1/10.
  8. Live in a place where you can live comfortably without reliable cell phone and internet service. I don’t even want to think about this, but thirty years ago these were luxuries and rarities, and there’s good reason to believe they will be so again some time between ten and thirty years from now. These are expensive, high-energy-demand amenities, that we will find we just cannot afford any more. My score: 1/10.
  9. Live in a place where your neighbours know how to do things you don’t. That especially includes the ability to make essential repairs to things (heating, electrical, A/C, telephone, and other systems; repairing and adjusting clothes; fixing appliances large and small, computers etc). It’s going to get harder to pay someone to come a long distance to fix and make things for us when our throw-away culture becomes unaffordable and these skills come into high demand. This list of essential things also includes ‘soft’ skills like mentoring, facilitation, conflict resolution, and negotiation. You might find your neighbours have more of these skills than you’d think. Or not. You might also find that some of your skills, that you don’t get paid for, are actually stronger than you think, and could be essential in your community when TSHTF. My score: 3?/10 (I’m brand new to this neighbourhood so it’s only a guess).
  10. Live in a place with well-maintained infrastructure. Well-functioning, non-hydrocarbon-dependent public transportation. Well-maintained water, sewer and electrical systems. Adequate, well-maintained roads, bridges, tunnels and walking and cycling paths. Functional emergency services and critical social services. In many places, long-term neglect means expensive infrastructure failures are inevitable, and they may turn out to be just too expensive to rectify at all. My score: 6/10.

I doubt there are many places that would objectively get a score greater than 50/100, and those that would are probably small, well-formed, established intentional communities or historically affluent Scandinavian towns. Billionaires who think that they can buy their way out of low scores on this checklist, and preppers who think they can do all these things themselves and won’t have to rely on others, are in for a surprise.

I’m not stressed at my new community’s 32/100 score at this point. But as I likely have about 15-25 years to live, I’m going to do my best, wherever I am living, to get to know and appreciate my neighbours, and whenever I move again I will be looking to find a place with a higher score. Vancouver is rated as one of the ten most sustainable cities in the world, but that’s not saying much, and may be total nonsense. I’d bet a lot of Northern European cities and small towns would rank higher in an honest list, and as I get older they are starting to replace Hawai’i and New Zealand as the places I can imagine one day living in, when things get tougher.

If there are other factors you think I’ve missed, or if there are some sparkling low-precarity places to live you are willing to share, I’d love to hear about them.

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6 Responses to Where Should You Live When TSHTF?

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    My location’s reasonably objective score is 64. You may find that difficult to believe, but I am willing to get into details if you think it’s needed.

    I live on a small, off-grid farm on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island at 2300 ft elevation. The biggest numbers were in categories 5 through 9. The only 10 was in category 7.

    One of the biggest assets here is community. Another is the ease with which food is grown year around. A lot of food and other commodities are imported, but if all that stopped tomorrow, our community’s diet choices would be severely limited, but no one would starve for lack of calories. Subsistence horticulture and diversified commercial ag could also ramp up in weeks if necessary. The 10,000 acres of irrigable land below the Hamakua Ditch would be a godsend.

    Also, I think you left out another important criterion. Minimal danger from nuclear war and avoidence of fallout patterns from either war or crumbling nuclear power plants. I know that sounds kind of over-the-top, but that’s one of the big reasons my family moved here in 1986. I still think it’s valid.

    One final point: when TSHTF, one of the most valuable assets will be intra-community trust. A strong foundation of trust can take a long time to develop. I would pick a place to live and spend the rest of your life sincerely devoted to your community. In times of great stress, newcomers will have a harder time gaining/retaining the trust of their neighbors than people who have been an asset to the community for decades.

  2. John Whiting says:

    11. Live in a place which will not be invaded by vast hoards when the rest of planet earth has become uninhabitable; i.e. move to another ecosystem.

  3. My central Vermont home scores about 68. The low points are infrastructure and being able to accommodate refugees — both of which are related to mountain topography, rivers, and cold climate.

    One thing I might consider adding to your list is access to 1) education, at least for skills, but maybe also for some culture and critical thinking; 2) tools, especially those used in producing food, clothing and shelter; and 3) books/other printed information media, which feeds into education, but also general reference. Not going to be a Google for much longer.

  4. Mike Stasse says:

    I score our situation at 80…. I’ve put a lot of thought into our 2700km move, and I planned to be energy, water, and food self sufficient. Our biggest concern would be bushfires as we had one here a couple of years ago that got as close as 500m…. But even there, our house is designed to be fireproof and the nearest combustible trees are about 100m away. Also, being in the southern hemisphere means we’ll probably be the last place on Earth to feel the worst of climate change.

  5. D says:

    So many of these criteria are impossible to quantify, but it’s a worthy exercise. But it’s important to recognize we don’t know what we don’t know, and even the act of listing and quantifying is at least a little delusional. It’s like the Drake equation.

    Still, I’m glad you did this. I think you’re right that it would be hard to judge just about anywhere as better than 50/100.

    Other, darker thoughts:
    – Regarding 6, climate refugees, I would suspect this will either be a massive problem, or a non-problem. I would tend toward non-problem. Of the billions of people trapped in unsurvivable locales, how many can realistically escape? 10%? Less? If there are large numbers, I don’t think the US in particular would have many moral qualms of setting up a no-man’s land across the southern border and strafing until they stop.

    Europe will face a larger moral dilemma. Those little Scandinavian villages will have to decide if they want to be overrun.

    – I wouldn’t underestimate the manic desperation to keep Normality going, especially for landed elites. We will cut down the last truffula tree if it keeps our phones going for another day.

    Likewise, I think the US will use nukes before it gives up driving.

    – On 10, in North America, I don’t know that any infrastructure is well-maintained. People think roads, but every other important system is in disrepair. It’s unlikely governments will repair anything in time, especially with an eye to what’s coming. For the US, I can see rebuilding New Orleans two more times.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, all, for these fascinating and thoughtful comments.

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