Responding to Collapse, Part 6: finding a small town, continued

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on January 26, 2018

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The end of January and finally it is looking like winter on Lake Huron

In this series we've been talking about how to adapt to collapse and I've put forward the idea that small, remote towns may be much better places to do that adapting that the cities where most people currently live. In my last post I said, "pick a town where you can live while BAU (business as usual) is still working and that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us."

In that post I proceeded to talk about how you might do the first part of that. But that is the simple part, since you can see how a town is doing currently, especially if you live there for a year or two. It's harder to predict how it will get along as BAU continues to break down. But there are a few important things that we can check on fairly easily, and I'll talk about that today.

First though, there is a detail that I should have covered last time—I did mention "Deliberate Descent", living more frugally as if the economy had already collapsed, as an important strategy for getting by if your move from the city leaves you with less income. But I didn't direct you to a series of posts about Deliberate Descent that I wrote a few years ago. I hope the information there will be of assistance.

And now on to picking a town that will be a good place to live as collapse progresses.

There is a strong tendency, even for me, to think about before and after collapse in very black and white terms. No doubt this comes from years of extensive reading in the "collapse sphere", which is saturated with the idea of apocalypse—a hard, fast collapse. But of course that's not what I'm expecting. I don't even think it is useful to identify stages or steps along the way from full BAU to full collapse. Rather, I like to think in terms of movement along a spectrum, admittedly sometimes in fits and starts, and at different rates in different areas.

Over the years to come, even towns that are now economically strong and have recently updated infrastructure, will suffer from economic contraction and the gradual wearing out of that infrastructure. Infrastructure that won't get repaired or replaced due to lack of money. Because small remote towns are more expensive to service and have fewer voters, governments will be forced to abandon them first. In some cases this is already happening, with the cost of various programs being downloaded onto municipalities to make provincial/state budgets look healthier.

You might wonder why you'd want to move to a small town if that is the case. Or if you're already in a small town under such conditions, you might be tempted to give up and move to a city. But the cities are on the same curve, just some years behind. And as I've been saying, they won't be able to do as good job of coping with the situation. Cities rely on essentially everything they need being brought in from outside. Many small towns could, with a little adaptation, get by on locally available resources.

Once you are firmly set up in a remote small town, reduced outside support may not be such a bad thing. It will allow you to work on the beginnings of a post BAU economy without having to compete so much with BAU. Currently, where BAU is doing well, it is very difficult to even discuss, much less establish, any sort of alternative.

When you move to this hypothetical town we're talking about, you'll likely start out relying almost entirely on BAU for the necessities of life and experience infrastructure breakdowns so rarely and briefly that you can largely ignore them. But as time passes, breakdowns of infrastructure and supply chains will become more frequent and more lengthy, necessitating that you be prepared for outages of the power grid, the municipal water supply, or shipments by truck from out of town. Traditionally, government recommendations were to keep enough emergency supplies to get by for 3 days without outside help. Many areas are increasing this to two weeks. As time passes the interval will no doubt get longer.

Eventually, the outage situation will become normal and availability of services and supplies the exception. At that point communities that have become largely self sufficient will be the successful ones, and many others will already have been abandoned.

A few years ago I read Short Circuit, a book by Richard Douthwaite, which is about "Strengthening Local Economics for Security in an Unstable World". The title comes from his idea of short circuiting BAU economics and setting up to provide the most urgent necessities locally. This is in a European Union setting (Ireland) and very much against globalism, which suits me just fine. Douthwaite says the first things to worry about are money, energy and food. (I have to comment at this point that most of Europe is too densely populated to have much hope of becoming locally self sufficient, but nonetheless the book is full of good ideas.)

Money in this case refers to the financial services needed to facilitate a functioning community, and I'll be discussing that at length in a future post. To energy and food I would add water.

In a future post I'll talk about the actually concrete steps you'll need to take to make you, your family and your community more self-sufficient, but certain local resources are needed to make that possible and that's what you'll be looking for initially.

Water

When I started thinking seriously about water, I soon realized there are more aspects to the subject than initially meets the eye.

Ideally you'll want to move to a town with modern, recently updated, water supply and waste treatment systems. But such systems rely on the power grid, and consumable supplies and repair parts that are not sourced locally. Fortunately, there are low tech alternatives that can be set up using local resources, providing the actual supplies of water are safe and secure. So that is the main thing you'll be looking for—a water supply that can be relied on in the long term.

Existing waste (sewage) disposal systems are also something to look at in the short run, but in the long run you'll be switching to a composting toilet to cut down on water usage and supply fertilizer and organic matter for your garden. The degree of resource waste in our current "waste" treatment/disposal systems is appalling.

On farms and in very small villages, you'll usually find each house has its own well, and a septic tank and weeping bed for waste disposal. In the short run this means you'll be responsible for more in the way of maintenance, but in the long run having your own well already set up will prove handy. Most likely the pump won't be collapse proof, but that can be remedied, providing the well is less than about 300 feet deep.

It would also be a good idea to check into the health of the local ground water—does it get depleted during long dry summers, for instance. Especially since you would need more water for your garden under such circumstances. And of course, if things are so dry that local agriculture has to rely on irrigation for field crops, you won't even be interested in the area in the first place.

Contamination of your well is a major concern, especially in an area where a lot of livestock are being raised. Make sure that well isn't downhill from nearby barnyards and feedlots, and check into what's being done in the way of "nutrient management", i.e. where the manure from livestock ends up. This is a serious concern for confined animal feeding operations which generate large amounts of manure and don't have sufficient land associated with them to absorb the waste. Small farms don't have as much of a problem this way, although in our area farmers are being encouraged to fence off river bottoms to reduce contamination of streams and the lakes they flow into. There is also a volunteer group working at planting trees in those river bottoms, which I think is a brilliant idea.

In larger villages there may be one or more wells maintained by the municipality. Convenient in the short run and provided you are within easy walking distance, maybe workable in the long run.

The town where I live draws its water from Lake Huron and has a new water treatment plant. This is nice, but I also live within easy walking distance of the lake and I have a home built water filter ready for when it becomes necessary to use lake water directly.

The municipality here has run pipelines to some of the outlying villages to supply potable water, rather than try to ensure the safety of previously existing, and occasionally contaminated, wells. The next town to the east of us is Walkerton , which had major problems with its water supply a few year ago. This has left people in this part of Ontario pretty concerned about water quality. Fortunately, government money has been made available for upgrading municipal water systems. In many areas (think Flint, Michigan) this hasn't been the case and water infrastructure has not been brought up to modern standards, or properly maintained if it was.

As well as water from wells, surface water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that don't run dry in the dry season, and are not seriously contaminated, is used by many towns and cities. Often long pipelines are needed to get that water from the source to where it will be used. It's not hard to see that as collapse progresses these systems will be faced with many serious difficulties.

In addition to biological contamination from livestock operations, you'll want to look into lead contamination from outdated water systems, heavy metal contamination (lead, arsenic, etc.) which is a natural characteristic of the ground water in some areas, and industrial contamination. This sort of information may be available on the internet or from the local municipality, but I wouldn't actually buy a property without taking a water sample and having it tested for both bacterial and heavy metal contamination.

Looking back on what I've just written, I can see that there are some things I don't really know about our local water supply and I'm going to be looking deeper into that. I'll fill you in on what I find out in a post at some point down the road.

Another use for water is transportation. A town located on a canal, navigable river or lake has some major advantages, especially when shipping by truck and rail becomes unfeasible.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as too little, especially if you are situated on a flood plain. Keep in mind that locations that seem bone dry in the summer may be flooded with snow melt in the spring. There are several small towns in this area whose main street occasionally floods in the spring. I grew up in a house that needed two sump pumps to keep the basement dry for a week or two almost every spring. I wouldn't buy real estate that I hadn't seen during flood season.

Food

The next thing to look at is food and the prospects for producing it locally. For this you'll need arable land and adequate rainfall. You'll want to drive through the area surrounding the town you are looking at and see what sort of farming is being done.

In the area where I live, quite a variety of crops are grown: corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, rye, sorghum, flax, canola and, most recently, marijuana. There are also a few orchards (mainly apples, but also cherry, peach and pear) and berry farms (mainly raspberries and strawberries). And many livestock operations: dairy, beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey. There are only a very few market gardens, but there could be more if there was a greater local demand. Currently it is hard to compete with the supermarkets.

Some areas will specialize more, but I think a wide range of agricultural products is a sign of a healthy farm economy. That variety will also be a big plus when the day comes that you have to rely primarily on local foodstuffs.

But it occurs to me that most of you, who did not grow up on a farm like I did, would have a tough time identifying most of these plants and animals standing in a field as you are driving by. So, talking to farmers in the area is going to be a necessity. Definitely stop by the local farmers market, and get to know the farmers selling there. Some of them will be able to point you to the local community garden if there is one. If you are renting for the first while, a plot at the community garden will allow you to get started on learning how to garden.

The odds are that most of the agriculture in any area will be conventional***, as opposed to organic. I am not as negative about conventional agriculture as many kollapsniks, especially when it comes to the safety of the food it produces. Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that I'm paid 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 pricey products instead of their less expensive conventional competitors. Millions of dollars are being spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are about equally safe. Sadly, neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable, mainly due to their reliance on fossil fuels, and a once through approach to many of their inputs.

But there are a few questions you should be asking:

One, can the GMO corn and soybeans being grown on local farms be eaten safely in the event of a supply chain breakdown? The scientific consensus is yes, and I agree.

Two, can those conventional farms be converted to a more sustainable form of agriculture when the time comes to do so? Again, the answer is yes. In particular, modern herbicides are much less persistent than the older ones they have replaced and do not "poison" the soil for long periods of time after application. At worst, crops that aren't "Round Up Ready" can usually be grown with no trouble in soil that was treated with Round Up (glyphosate) the previous year. Of greater concern is soil health—conventional farming methods do often lead to both organic matter depletion and erosion. But sustainable farming methods can address those issues.

And from a more reality based viewpoint:

Three, is the land being farmed at the moment, regardless of the method? You certainly don't want to have to turn currently forested land into farmland.

And, four, is it being farmed without irrigation for field crops such as grains and hay? This will indicate the local rainfall is sufficient to support agriculture.

You'll want to look at a map and see if the area of farmland surrounding the town you're looking at is large enough to support the local population. In the short run, just to provide food, think an acre per person. In the long run more like 5 acres per person would be required to allow room for crop rotation and provide fiber, lumber and firewood. Sure, this will vary somewhat from one area to another, but those are good rules of thumb to start with.

Of course, you should be thinking about the long run. For a town of 10 thousand people that would mean 50 thousand acres or 78.125 sq. mi. of farmland, a circle approximately 5 miles in radius with the town at the center. For the same town situated on a lake, it would require a semicircle approximately 7.07 miles radius. And don't forget to take into account the area taken up by lakes, river bottoms, swamps, forests, roads and settlements.

One last item to look for in the area is a butcher shop. In a lot of areas they have almost been regulated out of existence. A thriving butcher shop, or shops, is an indicator of a strong local food industry.

Thinking about all this, I see that I have some work to do myself—some further questions to ask of the farmers I do know and maybe even getting to know a few more farmers.

Energy

Climate change considerations will mean that most of the areas worth looking at have a season when heating is necessary. Eventually supplies of fuel oil, natural gas, propane and electric power used for heating will become over priced, unreliable or non-existent. Provided there is sufficient standing timber in the area, a wood stove is a viable alternative. Possibly a cost saving measure right now and later, a life saving one.

You'll be looking for the presence of wood lots on most farms and some larger forested areas as well. Also look for local businesses which sell firewood and others that sell and install woodstoves. All this would indicate that the area already has a thriving wood heat industry.

Wind, water and solar are other forms of renewable energy that I think will eventually have a role to play in a sustainable society. But all the big wind turbines and solar panels that have sprung up in this area over the last few years won't work unless they are connected to the grid, and don't, as far as I can see, have much of a future.

One thing to keep an eye out for, if the town you're looking at is on a river, is the remains of a water powered mill. The dam may still be more or less intact and perhaps even the mill itself, though it is very unlikely to still be in use. The day will come when such installations can be refurbished and put back into use, very much to the benefit of the local community.

Muscle power is also going to become a more important form of energy as BAU declines, not just human muscles, but also those of draft animals. Look for people keeping horses, especially work horses. Even if this a only a hobby now, the existence of breeding stock will be a big help in the future.

Beyond looking for these basics (water, food, energy) you'll want to select a community that is well endowed with other useful resources, is resilient enough to withstand the shocks that lie ahead and has already made a start on local self sufficiency. Exactly how to tell if that is the case is beyond me, but it's something to think about.

Well, that pretty much wraps things up for this post. Next time I'll start looking at what you'll need to work on once you're actually living in a small town.


***I don't think that 7 billion people can be fed sustainable on this planet, regardless of the agricultural techniques used. But a lot of the criticisms leveled at conventional agriculture simply aren't based in fact, and are pretty insulting to the farmers. Only 18% of the food produced in the U.S. comes from corporate farms. The rest comes from family owned farms, some of them admittedly quite large. But those folks take pride in the food they produce. For a look at the subject from their viewpoint, check out Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe. Like me, she isn't being paid by Monsanto, or any of the other big agritech companies.


 

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