MovingFilter: How much is it really worth imagining Worst Case Scenarios
May 29, 2018 9:40 PM   Subscribe

There are a trillion things to consider when you're picking where to move and hopefully settle for goddamn ever. Is it worth factoring in the somewhat unknowable disasters of the future?

I'm mostly thinking about climate change and water. Today I had a conversation with a friend about how everywhere is impossible to move to these days because so many places have been "discovered" and immediately became horribly expensive. She said she felt like her hometown of San Antonio is still somewhat under that clickbait "great places to live" radar but will run out of water in 25 years.

I sometimes think this is a "We'll All Go Together When We Go" deal--if the shit really hits the fan, it's not going to matter that much if you're living where less of the shit hits less of the fan. And the truth is we don't quite know what will happen when, anyway, other than a reliable-feeling sense that we're screwed in the not too distant future.

Any well-thought-through arguments on whether it makes sense, for instance, not to move west of the (new) 100th Meridian?
posted by Smearcase to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Anywhere you move is going to have drawbacks, whether it's risks of earthquakes, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, whatever. The likelihood of dying in one of those scenarios is far lower than from something like heart disease or car accidents. So, unless you never speed in your car or never eat candy, I don't really see how you should let these far less likely scenarios decide where to live. Think of all the other things that matter just as much too, like crime and air quality and radon and all this other stuff. You can't avoid everything bad.

I live in a place that will apparently get a massive earthquake one day. I sure hope that doesn't happen while I am still living here and I often think how I'd like to move somewhere not prone to earthquakes in the next decade before it hits. But an earthquake is the small chance of something happening, whereas me being happy living here is a certainty.

I also think it's wrong to think about moving as something that is permanent. I understand wanting to move somewhere to settle down, but it'll add unnecessary stress to think of it as a forever decision. Some of the best advice I've seen here on The Green is that moving is one of the few major life decisions that is relatively easy to un-do. As someone who has moved many times across the country, it's very true. Give a place a shot and, I hope it's perfect for you, but if it's not, there's no reason you can't go somewhere else.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:51 PM on May 29 [9 favorites]

This is purely anecdotal, but when I was looking to buy a house, I wound up buying in an area surrounded by lakes and farmland, which has a functioning if defunct well system, and is about 20 minutes away from a major city but isn’t a major city. I won’t lie, there was certainly an element in my decision that considered climate change and resource management.

I don’t have any well-thought out arguments about it, but I would consider it a poor decision to relocate to an area known to have critically depleting aquifers, high populations, and heat that can reach extremes. It seems logical that those areas would be subject to desertification first, which certainly doesn’t bode well for long-term habitation unless you plan to spend a ridiculous amount of money on importing food and water, and on cooling. All of which would only contribute to climate change more than if you moved somewhere where you didn’t have to rely almost exclusively on shipping in basic necessities.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:53 PM on May 29 [9 favorites]

Well, I wouldn't move to a coast, or a major river, but I also would not move to a place that did not have a coast or a major river within say fifty clicks. I guess I also probably wouldn't move too close to a fault line or a volcano if I could help it. And I'd steer clear of any areas that are highly agricultural or highly industrialised since, in the particular scenario I'm thinking of, those are where the first bombs will hit. An international airport somewhere nearby probably wouldn't hurt, and it might not be a bad idea to have an army barracks or similar in the vicinity. But, those will get bombed too.

Also somewhere where there are mountains nearby. Mountains are good, as a rule. Certainly you don't want to be anywhere where the terrain is perfectly flat.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:53 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]

San Antonio Texas? I think she's right on both counts. Its an awesome town, my favorite in all of Texas. But while we were living in Austin 2 years ago, little Texas towns were quietly dissapearing as their water ran out. People in those towns were just SOL, you know. No one helped them. They lost everything. I could easily see the same thing starting to happen in larger cities all over the Southwest. But, on the bright side, I bet property will be dirt cheap...
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:53 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]

Not to abuse the edit window, but as far as disasters go, blizzards and tornadoes are pretty low on the oh-shit scale. Tornadoes can be massively destructive, but the chances of being hit by one are minuscule, especially since you can literally drive a few miles away and be out of danger. Blizzards can be dangerous, but mainly for travelers, and they come with plenty of warning and opportunity to prepare. If you stay home, it would have to be truly extreme circumstances to experience harm from a blizzard. You can’t really feasibly outrun earthquakes and hurricanes.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:59 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]

I say if you want to live some place 20-30 years, look at the 20 year outlook. And that means bad shit going down in terms of water supply is something to consider as plausible.

Water is pretty important, and I personally can’t wait to leave Texas for that and many other reasons.

Climate change is of course real and happening, but what many people underestimate is how political will can amplify these things. It matters whether local govts can or will take measures to mitigate climate change effects, or invest in public infrastructure maintenance and improvement. TX dams and municipal water are already about to collapse, and there’s currently very little state interest in fixing these D grades, despite earning them for at least a decade. The leadership is currently obsessed with bathroom laws and handing public money to big business. So I wouldn’t recommend TX to anyone I personally care about (admittedly I am biased by my time spent living in and learning about TX).

The long answers depend both on both biogeographical and geopolitical considerations, but this is absolutely something I think a lot about, and I hope more people think about while they still have some luxury of choice.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:06 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]

Minor threadsit: sure, nothing is forever, but I've lived in the northeast, the south, Chicago, the bay area, and Texas (which I love) and I'm in my mid 40s and I'M TIRED. I would not mind if this next one is it.
posted by Smearcase at 10:08 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]

fwiw, my dad maintains that Connecticut is the safest place to live. Housing prices are stagnant, Long Island takes the brunt of most weather that comes off the Atlantic, tectonic movement is small and slow, and weather is ordinary New England extremes. It has some history / culture, you can take Amtrak / Metro North a good number of places, and nothing is THAT far away.

What scares me about the west is that outside the coastal cities, everything is so damned spread out, and a sea of TRUMP PENCE red. Southern New England is compact enough that you don't get that frightening "if I get shot here no one will care because I don't look like I belonged here anyway" feeling.
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:16 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]

Put another way: drought is a location-dependent phenomenon. I think you’re wrong about all of us/none of us suffering these consequences. Clearly you haven’t been living in Flint MI this past year.

Even within the USA, climate change will affect some places more than others, and how people prepare will affect their future losses.

Water shortages across the country matter a little bit to me. Having to line up for water drops from National Guard or Walmart to not die is a different ordeal entirely.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:20 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]

I like to think of these things. I purposely didn't buy a place that's in a lovely and super popular area because the water level is practically street level and it just takes a high tide and strong winds to flood everything. Add in even a few cm sea level increase and that place is going to be a mess. I bought fairly near by, but at a higher elevation.

It's worth considering the time horizon. If estimates are that it will be problems with higher sea levels in 50 years and covered in water in a hundred years and you're in your mid-40s then, meh, it should be fine. But if you are going to be raising kids, they might find it distressing that their family home will be gone within their lifetime or that of their kids. Also if you want an asset to pass on to someone vs being ok in your life time and not worrying about it holding value.

Then there are the obvious things. Even without sea levels rising, if you buy a home right on the beach edge and then find everything's falling into the sea following a big storm, don't act surprised. (I'm looking at you, incredibly wealthy yet incredibly dopey residents of a particular beachside neighbourhood).

A home is an expensive purchase and can provide a lot of emotional security. It's nice not living on a fault line/floodplain/edge of a volcano. I also considered transport links, infrastructure, climate. Still plenty of things can go wrong but it's nice to guard against the obvious ones.
posted by kitten magic at 10:30 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]

Don't move anywhere withing 6metres of current high tide level.

Don't move onto an alluvial fan NZ example, but these are common hilly-area features globally.

Most dry places will only get more so and this will be noticeable even across the next 20 years.

Being within walking distance of a rail-line may become worth something in a 20 year timeframe - depends on your beliefs about oil scarcity.
posted by unearthed at 10:53 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]

It depends how serious of disasters you're talking about. There's somewhere between "blissful ignorance of local hazards" and "the bunker where I prep for the apocalypse" that's worth aiming for.

The problem with trying to prep for, say, the climate-change apocalypse is that the local effects of climate change can be unpredictable, and even when they are predictable, the social-political-economic effects often are not.

Modern society is built on such interdependent and complex global systems that even if your location is safe from disaster, massive crises elsewhere can seriously impact your life in really unpredictable ways (like the supply chain for your imported food and medicine being damaged or the land you're on being expropriated by the government or your well being poisoned because the local water table has been contaminated or martial law being declared and your orchard being invaded by hungry guys with guns or a sinkhole opens up and swallows your bunker...).

It's a gamble and there is no perfect decision. Check your floodplain maps, check your local infrastructure, check your proximity to arable land and potable water and people you can feel a sense of community with, but don't make your decisions based on fear.

The disaster that actually happens isn't the one you're prepared for; that's what makes it disastrous.
posted by windykites at 12:31 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

We'll All Go Together When We Go

As mentioned above, absolutely not. If anything the history of development, particularly in the US is a story of completely uneven and circumstantially driven success/failure. Because the last 100 years in the US are completely unlike any wealth growth in history, it's hard to see how unlikely it is for the trend to continue.

(0) Folks are right that many of the 'disasters' some places are known for loom larger in imagination than in real probability (tornadoes are a good example).

(1) Place is largely about economy, which is largely about geography...transportation access, natural resources (including climate), labor talent. It's hard to assess these things over big time periods but if you look back at least 2-3x as far as you're planning you can get a sense of it. San Antonio, eg, had a late 19th century oil boom and another one post WW2. Now that population growth has stalled. This is usually when things get 'interesting'.

Will the 'place' continue to thrive off of an oil economy? There's likely to be a near-term boom as prices go up, but it's looking more and more like electrification with green energy is going to eat its lunch before too long. Is San Antonio (or Texas more broadly) the kind of community that will be able to diversify and innovate to find a new way to keep people coming? Can it go back to its agricultural roots afterwards if oil busts and water is scarce? I don't think I'd bet on these sources to continue to make the place valuable.

(2) Places don't usually go 'bust' completely they atrophy. This means that the benefits of scale, dynamism and outside investment diminish and lag until the local interests fight over smaller and smaller bits. This can be water, but it can be taxes for schools, roads and utilities too. A lot of times the reason why dense places are expensive is because they've actually done a good job of covering ongoing costs. Civilization is actually kind of expensive and that problem gets worse if you're shrinking. Managing atrophy isn't impossible, but because the US is big enough, political interests typically just move on to greener pastures instead of finding more sustainable solutions in the current place.

However, places where people have stuck it out typically do have robust institutions, good ways of negotiating the particulars of their 'place' and the track record to prove it. People think of New York as risky or fragile, but it's one of the most robust and sustainable places on the planet. That being said, I don't want to live there.

(3) If you're serious about these risks but also price sensitive, you probably want to park yourself at the edge of one of these megalopolises. You get the benefits of infrastructure, but without the need to interact with the real urban core. I'd argue for one that has stable population, more regular rain and good transit.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 3:43 AM on May 30 [6 favorites]

Don’t move to a flood zone or a place that has flooded over the past x years. I dunno what the appropriate perameter is, I just know some places flood periodically and then people rebuild if they can, etc. Much of the California coast should not be inhabited because of fire, floods, mudslides, drought and earthquakes. I lived there until recently anyway and was quite happy. But am relieved to be living elsewhere for a variety of reasons, and natural disasters are the least of them. Does Texas feels like home? To me, that pretty much outweighs most other considerations. Unless, you know, it’s in a flood zone. :-)
posted by Bella Donna at 5:18 AM on May 30

We cant over emphasize the importance of flooding in this modern world. Houston is the obvious example, but San Antonio has been having problems as well
posted by Jacen at 6:05 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

Here’s a bit of science: Mapping the Potential Economic Effects of Global Climate Change.
Climate scientists agree that this century is getting much warmer and that such warming will likely bring economic pain to the U.S., but economists aren't sure how much. Now, a team of scientists and economists, writing in the upcoming issue of the journal Science, says it can at least tell which parts of the country are likely to suffer the most.
tl;dr: Move closer to the border with Canada, particularly in the US Pacific Northwest.
posted by notyou at 6:06 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]

I wouldn’t suggest the PNW. You have a choice between living near a major city and paying ridiculous premiums for housing, or living in the sticks and shacking up next to all the survivalists and white supremacists.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:15 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]

Houston, for instance, is on a very flat area, and even small amounts of rain have no place to go, so flooding is common. New Orleans is in the Mississippi delta, and rivers are hard to tame. You can find hurricane frequency maps. Los Angeles and San Francisco are at risk for a severe earthquake. Flood zones are mapped. You can research the areas with violent crime and/or addiction. The Ohio town I grew up in is ravaged by a crappy economy and addiction.

Personally, though I prefer warmer weather, I would not relocate anyplace that gets very hot, because it's getting hotter. If a place is going to run out of water, or has a terrible infrastructure, that will only get worse. I would also consider one of the biggest risks, which is driving. If you have to drive a lot in an area with bad drivers, your risk of harm from traffic accidents is greater.

All that said, for actual happiness, after eliminating areas that seem untenable, I would move to a place that feels like home, where you can make friends, do what makes you happy, earn a decent living. If there are activities you love, if you have a church affiliation or hobby, go where you can do that.
posted by theora55 at 6:31 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

I've lived in the Pacific Northwest and there are threats from earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires there. Also lots of scary white people.

I have lived on the southeast coast and there are threats from hurricanes and flooding there. Also it's hot as balls and only getting hotter, and there are lots of scary white people.

Now I live in Western New York, between Rochester and Buffalo. There don't seem to be many threats from global climate change here. There are lots of scary white people, but of those three places, I think this one is the best. Also: walking distance to Canada, if it comes to that!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:12 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

Also in the far west, you have the fires. The fires are what have started to freak me out. I live just outside of Vancouver, BC, so we can call it PNW for this conversation. Love it here, mountains, water, temperate climate if you can deal with the rain. Ignore the insane housing prices for now. Yeah, there will be an earthquake eventually and every few months the media likes to remind us about "THE BIG ONE", but there's some disaster looming everywhere, right? Oh yeah, the ocean... if waters rise certain areas are hooped and our airport will be underwater, but i'm a few miles inland, so i'll be ok. But now it's fires. Last couple summers BC has been basically on fire. So has most of the west. So now for me here the tides have turned from "pretty safe except for an earthquake probably in the next century or so" to "where else can I go?" Trouble is I don't know that answer either... right now the Yukon looks nice... except for cold, no jobs, etc. So I dunno.
posted by cgg at 7:50 AM on May 30

I think there are (at least) two scales of thinking about this, perhaps with different answers. On the, lets say, macro scale of City/Region A vs City/Region B or on the micro scale of Neighborhood C vs. Neighborhood D.

I think it's worth imagining for the micro scale -- evaluating for flood, landslide, fire. On the macro scale, I think it depends. Drought, yes. But earthquakes vs. tornadoes? That seems like less of a risk factor than economic factors and institutional resilience (as Reasonably Everything Happens describes).
posted by janell at 9:21 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

Just to push this out a bit farther, playing 'devils advocate' to advance possible but completely unrealistic possibilities is a total waste of everyone's time. It doesn't matter if it is climate change or just imaging some minor policy or thing at work.

Your post is an exact example of this. "San Antonio is going to run out of water in 25 years". San Antonio's max water usage was a few years ago, and as it increases in density, it's water usage is actually slightly falling. San Antonio has so few watering restrictions currently that you are allowed to water your lawn every day, which is not true in most major Texas cities. If you really want to use less water (and fight climate change effects), then a city like San Antonio should jump from 2200 people per sq mile to 4000 per sq mile and higher.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:48 AM on May 30

As one who has just lived through one of those disasters and lost my home in a wildfire, we did take a hard look at whether we want to continue living here (Sonoma County). We were absolutely positive that our biggest threat was an earthquake. We even had a really good earthquake kit all ready to go. It burned up. Never, ever did we consider losing everything in a fire. We lived very close in to town, had a brand new fire station a half-mile from our house, and another one a mile in the other direction. They both burned down. We lived on a golf course even (which suffered only the loss of a building). All it took was one warm night of 70 mile-an-hour plus winds and a downed power line to start a fire that killed 43 and destroyed 5,000 homes (roughly). We weren't in a drought, but there was a hell of a lot of fuel in them thar hills.

But, in the end, this is our home. It's where we are happy, have friends and activities that bring us joy, and none of that has changed. The stuff is just stuff. We won't put our lives back in the same way, and that's OK. We had the nice house filled with nice things, and we're sad to lose it, but it's not the end of the world. We love our home county and are going to stay.

So I'll echo other comments here to find where your heart is and go there. You'll get through whatever comes your way and you'll be grateful for those friends and activities that make you whole.
posted by Gusaroo at 10:42 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]

Minneapolis area -- lots of water, progressive government, growing economy, probably slight agricultural and economic boost from global warming -- but choosing a home location carefully due to spring floods (rain/river). (Like, don't pump $50,000 into finishing your basement unless you're POSITIVE water will never come in.)

A lot of Minnesota/Wisconsin/Illinois/Iowa should be okay for the big global warming problems, with the caveat that there will be hotter summers, colder winters, and more tornadoes and spring floods. But compared to living in a coastal city, that seems okay -- it's not, like, hurricanes destroying the city or rising sea levels wiping it all out; it's more like "things that are currently annoying about living here becoming more annoying more often." Which, if you know you can live with the stinky heat of a prairie August and survive a January deep freeze and can cope with periodic water in your basement, isn't so bad.

And, not for nothin', but Minnesota is part of the Great Lakes Compact, which is a fairly forward-thinking agreement among US states and Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes, limiting water extraction and strictly limiting export. It's going to have to get stronger and stricter over time, but we are light years ahead of a lot of other places, in that we're already regulating and limiting water use, promoting efficiency, environmentalism, and sustainability, and putting very strict limits -- that are part of an international treaty and so tough to overthrow through routine fuckery and partisan politics -- on how corporations can exploit lake water and any water that drains into the lake basins.

I'd say Illinois too, if you liked it here, but frankly Illinois's state government is such a hot fuckin' mess I'd wait until after the 2018 gubernatorial election and see if the new governor takes some steps to fix the problems before I'd plunk down here. Minnesota's doing a lot of forward-thinking planning for the longer term and addressing issues like global warming in state plans; Illinois just isn't, because instead we're going to all listen to politicians pretend they don't have to pay the 30 years of bills they didn't pay and that's going to suck up all the air time for anything until they address reality and come up with a plan to pay.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:08 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]

Climate change/ potential for sustainability in economic collapse is why I’m in upstate New York in a walkable town on the outskirts of a small city instead of somewhere with more pleasant weather. However, I factor it in more because of my kids; I want them to have the best odds of having the happiest lives possible. If it were just me, at my age with my health problems, I wouldn’t fret as much… I’d fall quickly and I’m at peace with that. But I DO like feeling that my investment in my home is a pretty reliable one come hell or high water; it gives me a feeling of safety and peace despite the political and ecological disasters all around me. YMMV.
posted by metasarah at 6:43 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]

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