Seeking sustainability
June 4, 2007 8:14 PM   Subscribe

As a "peak aware" twenty something with parents within range of retirement, I've been persuading my family over the last five years to plan for a future with dramatically reduced energy supply. I want us to start a long-term transition to green -- and more importantly, I want us to live in a community that's green or at least capable of making a similar transition. (We currently live in hot pink Miami.) I don't just mean I want to feel good about recycling, but I don't quite mean an intentional community like Earthaven, which would be a step too far for my family. How can I find a community that has the elements necessary for localized, self-sufficient living? Search advice and specific endorsements are both welcome.

This question is an extension of last week's, in which I asked advice on planning a trip to Asheville, NC to scope it out as a possible relocation destination. From my experience, Asheville has both a green sensibility and plenty of appeal for my parents as a place to retire. But the response from MeFites was discouraging: most insisted that Asheville is overdeveloped, far from viable agriculture, and nourished largely by wealth that comes from outside of the community. People seemed to agree that we shouldn't look there for sustainability.

So help me out: what are the elements of a community that is better prepared to adapt to a "post-peak" energy scenario? I can name the basics: a place where food can be grown within 10 miles; where the important things in life are all within walking distance; where the community itself is robust and accustomed to deliberative democratic civic engagement. Does such a place exist? How do I look for it? Is it possible to find a suitable nook within a larger, less suitable area?

Some more info about us (copied from the last question): My parents are in their 50s/early 60s, father's a lawyer and mom is a school teacher, and my siblings (2) and I are in our late teens to mid twenties. We are well-off, though shy of wealthy. We'd like to make the move with our aunt and uncle (late 40s, with two kids, 9 and 17) who are all sold on the idea, though less well-off. They'd like to be near a good school for their young son. Both sets of parents would want a good synagogue nearby.

Asheville apparently has a dead job market - which wouldn't be an issue for my parents but would be for my brother and sister and cousins. But outside of a big city, aren't all job markets tough?

There are other questions begging to be unpacked in here: like, when one is planning such a relocation in preparation for post-peak, is it better to look for a good chunk of land to build a new energy independent home and plan out some modest food production, or is it better to live right within a community where everything is in walking distance? That's probably next week's question.
posted by greggish to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is not an area I know much about, but I'm going to link to someone who lives near me who has a blog and lots articles on homesteading and living off-grid. This person is affiliated with an organization called Back Home, which may be a good resource for you.

I live in far upstate New York, where farmland is relatively cheap because of the short growing season. For that reason, it has attracted homesteaders (both religious and green-centric) as well as a large number of Amish. But it is also a college town that attracts intellectuals and environmentalists. As a plus, one of the colleges does a lot of work with new green technologies.

I'm not saying all this because I think this is an ideal spot for you, but looking at the diversity of this community could show you that your plans may work anywhere.
posted by saffry at 8:41 PM on June 4, 2007

saffry beats me to the punch, but I'd like to further emphasize that towns in upstate New York, similar to Ithaca and Potsdam, have a lot going for them by your criteria. Interestingly, Ithaca has its own currency that can be used in local establishments to pay for goods and services, supposedly to prevent being taxed. Lots of farmland and people concerned with treating it right, the only downside as previously noted is the short summer.
posted by invitapriore at 9:21 PM on June 4, 2007

As a "peak aware" twenty something ...

... you should do more research about your assumptions before making any big decisions.

A college physics professor told me flatly that the world would completely run dry of oil within 20 years. I still remember one of the class projects was to make presentations on alternate energy technologies in preparation for the coming societal disaster.

That was 30 years ago.


I really don't mean to derail a thread (delete away!), and I'm not attempting to make a flip comment such as "Consider becoming Amish." I truly feel it's helpful to suggest that someone asking a question like this (and others reading it later) gain some perspective before committing monetarily to anything as profound as you seem to be preparing for.

At the very least, focus on the long-term finances in and of themselves. There's nothing wrong with retirement savings, and you can do it long before you need to start picking out arable land and deciding to grow melons for a summer harvest.
posted by frogan at 9:38 PM on June 4, 2007

I share the same caveats as frogan, but he's covered that so I'll let it be.

But I think you're going about this wrong. If we want to live greener, we needer to increase population density in the cities, not spread out the population over rural and suburban land. Your parents may well be better off in Miami if they don't drive a lot.

If you move out into the boonies, they're going to be driving everywhere. That's a massive source of pollution and such. You want to be mass transit reliant city dwellers.
Are your retirement age parents really up for giving up their cars? If they aren't, the rest of this won't matter too much.

If they are willing to do that, find the "greenest" decent sized city you can and live inside the city, not on the outskirts, so you can walk or take mass transit everywhere.
posted by Justinian at 10:01 PM on June 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

I would say look for these elements:
- walkable or bikable town, which eliminates a lot of more recently developed car-focused cities esp in the southwest.
- town that isn't prone to water crisis; again a problem for retirement places in the southwest.
- town near arable land (look for river flood plains) so that you could rely on locally grown food if major transport systems went belly-up

If you're concerned about climate change, I imagine you will want to move north, esp out of the hurricane-prone regions on the southeast coast.

Much of the northeast US has towns that meet these requirements to some extent. The winters will be worse, which can be harder on retirees (slips and falls, shoveling, etc). You will want to be in a place with some kind of reasonable hospital.

here is an old thread that might be of interest too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:22 PM on June 4, 2007

I thought it would be prudent to point out that green living objectives are not congruent with peak oil survival objectives. It would be important to figure out which camp you're in.
posted by hodyoaten at 10:34 PM on June 4, 2007

what are the elements of a community that is better prepared to adapt to a "post-peak" energy scenario?

Outside of extremely unusual communities (eg Amish), every community in the US is built on the endless use of cheap energy. You can minimize certain kinds of exposure (although these goals can be contradictory):

-- you can buy lots of land so you can grow your own food when energy costs too much to transport food;

-- you can live in a place and in a way that you will not be directly impacted by rising energy costs (this is an indirect way to assess how much you might be impacted by a peak energy crisis) -- if you have no car, then the price of gasoline is felt only indirectly, in things like the cost of food and other products; if you live in a warm climate or can grow your own wood, then you can stay warm in the winter without concern for the cost of fossil fuels;

-- you can live in an extremely dense part of a city to maximize human connections and minimize certain aspects of your "ecological footprint";

-- you can live in a place (most likely a college town in a semi-rural area) with "progressive" politics that is formulating municipal responses to ecological and other issues... but don't forget that such places are sustained through transfer payments from other areas, and consider how that will be affected by an energy crisis;

And so on.

But the key here is that no single community in the US is really ready to take on the role you envision. I would say that you are probably going to be happiest if you have lots of like-minded people around you, so I would suggest a smaller college town like Ithaca, Eugene, Madison, etc. Even Gainesville, just up the road from you, will have lots of people with a very similar view of the world. (And these places tend to have good schools and reasonably robust job markets, at least for the over-educated.) A community that is already bicycle-friendly is at least going to be easier to get around if gas is expensive, and somewhere with a well-functioning farmers' market is perhaps closer to being ready to be more self-reliant for food.
posted by Forktine at 10:55 PM on June 4, 2007

You don't need to consider the more extreme scenarios like a collapse of the transportation grid; that's total paranoia. What could happen is things getting more expensive. That's why I suggest a high density living situation; less reliance on personal vehicles for transportation eliminates a lot of that cost. The bulk shipments for food and such will help offset the increased prices a little. And so on.

Remember, we can make hydrocarbon fuels, including petroleum fuels, it's just expensive.
posted by Justinian at 11:17 PM on June 4, 2007

Move to a place where you can work on local self-sufficiency with the entire community. Check out Willits, CA and the California Mendocino Coast -- both have organized groups working for local self-sufficiency for a post-peak-oil world. Look up the websites for WELL (Willits Economic Localization Link) or CELL (Coast Economic Localization Link). Bad names, cool groups. In Willits, the city has endorsed local self-sufficiency as a planning goal (or something, too lazy too look it up). Also, these places have really high housing prices.
posted by salvia at 11:20 PM on June 4, 2007

Justinian makes a good point. Large cities may, in many ways, be better places to be as energy gets more expensive.

Southern Florida has quite a bit of agriculture, incidentally. As long as food can be transported a hundred miles without too much trouble or expense, you are unlikely to go hungry in Miami.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:21 PM on June 4, 2007

Best answer: I live in a small town that is located inside a national park, and is a satellite of a major city.
The city is a 2hr train ride away, but the train station is only 10mins walk from my door, as is a small supermarket, newsagent, pharmacy, butcher, liquor store, pub, post office and a bunch of cafes, restaurants and gift shops.
A mile away is a major supermarket and bigger shopping center.
There is a lot of tourism industry, plus some primary production.
It is a popular retirement region for some, and a genuinely nice place to live.
If you are concerned about future energy shortages, I would suggest finding a place you would want to live that is reasonably self contained and has good public transport links. This will enable your new community to weather any future energy problems more easily.
Its a good idea to plan for the up-side as well as the down side of change, and if, for example, cheap low pollution energy is discovered, you will still live in a place you can be happy.
posted by bystander at 11:38 PM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The large city thing could be better in tough times but it could be worse. James Howard Kunstler has discussed how, if things get *really* bad, some cities will suffer because they will be surrounded by a belt of really uninhabitable places (namely, "dead" suburbs) which will pose all sorts of problems. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles may be nightmarish, whereas "cities" surrounded by a smaller amount of suburbia, like Portland, Oregon, would have an ideal thing going. The key for many will be the small-footprint that living in a city offers when that city has a discernible connection to the country.
(I'm reminded of the Andy Warhol comment about the ideal city being one really built-up long street with no intersections. You'd only need a single bus line or subway, and if you wanted to go "to the country," you just have to go out your back door.)

In one of the links to a similar thread someone posted above, one person wrote that America would be among the last places to feel the effects of (to put it simply) shit-going-down-on-a-worldwide level. I have to disagree. We'll feel stuff sooner than many other countries. We have poorer public transportation systems than most Westernized countries, we have greater expectations of a "right" to drive SUVs, crank air conditioners and on and on. We're less prepared than practically anyone and we're much further from any sort of self-suffiency than almost any nation.

Last summer on a train trip which took me across Germany, I was astonished (having been acclimated to American ways for the past 15 years) at what I saw . . . the train would pull out of a big city, there'd be a few minutes of "suburbia" and then fields and wilderness. Every now and then, a neat and compact little town or village would pop up, surrounded almost entirely by farmland for a few miles, then more wilderness. Even with all the open space, people chose to live close together, without any "sprawl." Even the farms appeared to lack houses - I'm guessing the farmers had a house in the village and lived apart from their farmland. It was a nice set-up, I thought. And when bad things happen, these little communities will do quite well. Nothing's outside walking distance aside from "big city" stuff. And there's a nice little train station to take one there. You could live quite well without a car.

A similar train trip (if it were even possible) in America would show large lots separating houses, and as one gets more "rural," still more individual houses, just surrounded by more land, but no real wilderness (in this sense, a place with no roads) - just sprawl. There's "wilderness" in America - it's just not a place many people could walk to. even in an hour or two. That's not the same in much of Europe.

But back to the question above. I lived through bad times - constant threat of death, no water, electricity, access to fresh food, phone service, heat and so on. For several years. As I've mentioned in other posts, this was in Sarajevo during the war. And I'm a deep environmentalist and fairly obsessed with what the future holds . . . in large part because of my experiences. I tend to agree with the Kunstler idea that there won't be an energy crisis per se, but rather we (as a society) will argue and delay fixing things until it's way too late. So, when the "crisis" comes, it won't be as quaint as expensive gas or melting polar ice caps, but a time of real anger, violence and danger. I've lived it once already, due to "causes" which were infinitely more "fixable" than the environment and our patterns of wastefulness. I hope that doesn't sound crazy; I hope my ability to express myself in English makes me look at least reasonably intelligent.

Sure, on some level, living in a city is very "green" - especially compared to how most Americans live, in suburbs and towns were it is functionally impossible to get by without a car, and impossible to do one's necessary errands by foot. But I'd feel trapped in a city during tough times (because you are trapped!) and cities are not what they were even during America's Great Depression - they're much more cut off from the country / food-producing areas, more people live and work in places dependent on massive energy use (40-story buildings, offices with unopenable windows), much of the necessary mass transit infrastructure is gone - destroyed and ripped out (like in Chicago, where they used to have trolleys, or Kansas City, which did not allow for a need of public transportation and couldn't ever afford to build the sort of commuter train system that Chicago's suburbs have, and many more examples.) In many cities, the first arable land is more than fifty or sixty miles out.

With ALL that in mind, the ideal place for me would be something like a college town surrounded by open space. Burlington, VT. Lawrence, KS. Eugene, OR. Bloomington, IN. Madison, WI. Or some place like those (I haven't actually been to all of those places, but I've researched it a lot. They all seem doable in this sense.) And the ideal living situation would be for all the families to live in the town itself, except for a plot of land nearby, on which someone would build a "family" house and maintain gardens and "spare" farming land. This is more or less a historical model that works, and I could cite many examples of Bosnian "town" families with a nearby "country" cousin or similar Jewish families (as well as those of other nationalities) with the same set-up who survived WWII or at least lived a bit longer. But this post is already too long!

And I don't mean to be quasi-apocalyptic, but if you want to live green and to be prepared for hard times, half measures won't necessarily cut it. I lost my parents and most of my other family and most of my friends because this sort of talk wasn't taken seriously, and not too long ago either. For me, it's never again.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:15 AM on June 5, 2007 [16 favorites]

I think you need to stay in a city. Being self-sufficient is a pipe dream if you don't already have the survival skills. Do you really think you're going to be able to learn how to grow all your own food and weave your own clothes? No matter how bad things get, the market for these things. That market will be drawn towards the area of greatest demand -- cities. Things might get much more expensive, however, so the wisest choice would seem to be to save money and pick a cheaper city with nearby farmland.

Plus, a city is a natural center for innovation, and random small towns are not. If the going gets tough, the collective genius of New Yorkers will keep the place going. There's something to be said for the division of labor.
posted by footnote at 6:34 AM on June 5, 2007

This may not speak to "peak-awareness," but I spoke recently about the best ways to be low-impact with someone who specializes in such things at the EPA (he's a holdover from previous administrations, which I feel is somehow...relevant). Anyway, he said the absolute best thing you can do for the environment, somewhat counterintuitively, is to move to a big city. As someone who'd always equated "nature-loving" with "nature-living," that really made me think.

If you're looking for an environmentally aware community near a big city (and thus with access to jobs, transportation, etc.), you might want to check out Takoma Park, in MD near DC. Lots of people with your values there.
posted by walla at 7:54 AM on June 5, 2007

Dude if you really think shit is going to "go down" then it won't matter what city you move to. If there really is a large scale disaster that makes your new city that much better than every other place then it will soon be overrun by the rest of us.

Move to the mountains, learn survival skills and how to be independant from society. Otherwise take the good and bad that comes with living in a puplation center, big or small.
posted by b_thinky at 10:12 AM on June 5, 2007

Not to derail, but that phrase "peak aware" -- can anyone point me to its' origins? Thanks ...
posted by thinkpiece at 12:32 PM on June 5, 2007

Response by poster: b-thinky: as I said in the last post, I fall somewhere far between frogan (who really should do some research of his own) and Kunstler. I certainly think there are hard times ahead, although I'm not about to go running for the hills to be a survivalist. I'm going to hope for the best - and, frankly, 'the best' is still going to entail some tough shit. People who don't want to think about the tough shit just pretend that those of us who talk about the tough shit are on some sort of Mad Max kick. And then it's easy to dismiss.

In the meantime, thinkpiece - I'm sure I picked the phrase up on some of the 'peak-aware' blogs - there's a lot of them linked in the links on this thread...

Thanks to everyone who took the question seriously. there's quite a lot to chew on here.
posted by greggish at 3:40 PM on June 5, 2007

I tend toward the apocalyptic view, as well. If you seriously think the shit's going down in the next couple of decades, I'd say move somewhere you can stockpile guns and nonperishable food in significant quantities, and somewhere easily defended by a small number of well armed people.

Or just accept that we're all going to die of something, just like people throughout history. Nature will take care of the balance.
posted by spitbull at 4:53 AM on June 11, 2007

frogan (who really should do some research of his own)

Have fun storming the castle!
posted by frogan at 9:35 PM on June 11, 2007

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