It's getting to be a tight squeeze.
I: The Paradox of Heading for the Hills
All of humanity is now involved in a global collapse, which is happening on two levels: the material (fossil fuels, metals, food, etc.) and the economic (unemployment, inflation, debt crises, etc.). Basically it's the first causing the second, as in ancient Rome, but the causality is complicated, now as it was then. By the year 2020 or 2030, if there is any real solution it would be to move away from the cities, because ultimately that is the only way to provide independence from the cataclysm.
This would be a move on the part of the individual person. Collective decisions, on the national or even municipal level, would be largely impossible, because most people are indecisive on such issues, and politicians prefer less troublesome questions. Escaping from the city would be the ultimate do-it-yourself project.
But buying rural property at the moment, at least in the more-industrialized countries, involves a bizarre irony: in spite of our ingrained ideas about going back to nature, the reality is that it's very expensive. Thoreau's Walden is a wonderful book, but in the present century there's more to country living than hoeing beans.
"Elegant country living," to use the term of the glossy magazines, isn't available on demand. Those who most need to get out of the city are those who have the least money, while those who find it easiest to get out of the city are those who are rich enough to be hauling huge motorboats behind them as they travel. That's the irony -- or so it seemed to me one morning as I watched such a boat going down the road.
The rich can live well in the city, because endless goods and services are available with money. They can also live well in the country, for exactly the same reason. The non-rich -- i.e. the majority of the population -- cannot live as well in the city. It's the non-rich, therefore, who have the greater need to escape. But the fact is that the non-rich are, in many ways, locked into the city. For them, the city is habitable; the countryside is not.
In the city, even if you cannot live in great luxury without money, you can at least "get by" there. You can survive in the city with little or no money because there is public transportation, or you can use a bicycle, or you can walk. There is cheap housing, even if only at the level of the boarding house or lower, and maybe you can find a nice landlord. And there are always sources of food, to the extent that with no money at all you could go to a food bank or elsewhere. The nanny state will keep you alive, at least if you are willing to obey your nanny.
On the other hand, in order to move to the country, during these earlier days of collapse, you would need money for the purchase of property, and while property in the country is not as expensive as in the city it is still not cheap. If you intend to grow vegetables, perhaps raise animals, and cut firewood, you'll need several hectares of land as well as a house. For plant food, a garden of as much as a quarter-hectare per person might be needed. It's commonly believed that less land than that is necessary for food-production, but that's only if we delude ourselves into thinking we don't eat grains of any sort, when in fact they make up a large part of our daily diet. It's easy to delude ourselves as long as flour and other grain products are cheap enough to buy, but the prices of grains are going up swiftly. Raising animals takes even more land, perhaps not much for chickens but certainly a good deal for larger animals that necessitate areas for grazing and for hay-production. Access to firewood might require another 2 to 4 hectares of land.
The quality of the land is important. To grow crops, you need fertile soil, arable land, not bare rock or swamp. Here in the province of Ontario, for example, the arable land is only 5 percent of the total land mass. It's mostly just a small stretch of land around the southern Great Lakes. But that same piece of land also holds 90 percent of Ontario's population. The same ratio is roughly true of the rest of the country. Arable land here in Canada is nearly always expensive. If you find a place where arable land is cheap, a closer look may reveal unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and petty crime -- not a good trade-off for anyone intending to find a permanent place to live.
If you're a physically-fit 20-year-old without much money, you could move north, get a gun and an axe, and head for the bush. On the other hand, if you're no longer young, you might think the idea of spending the winter in a log cabin is not a terribly practical one. Although I've built one or two log cabins myself over the years, I'm somewhat hesitant about going back to that life, especially since I'm already past 60. In nice weather I often get Daniel-Boone fantasies, but when the Arctic wind starts whistling down the street I sometimes think I would die without central heating. So it's hard to say.
Here in Canada, for less than about $60,000 you would not even get a "fixer-upper" out in the country, you would only get a "tearer-downer," i.e. something that should not have been regarded financially as an element of the purchase agreement you signed. And after enough 16-hour days of doing repairs on rotting timbers, your spouse is going to decide that marital vows are not non-negotiable.
There are other things that cost money. Because there is usually no public transportation out in the country, you would probably need a car, and on top of that the distance from home to job -- if you actually have such a source of money -- may be considerable. Some things are actually more expensive in the country than in the city, including electricity, gasoline, and telephones, mainly because of the greater distance between one point and another, resulting in longer stretches of road, more utility poles, and so on.
At least in pre-collapse times, you would probably need a job. But jobs in the countryside are rare; they usually go to somebody's cousin, and bitching about nepotism is going to get you nowhere, even if you manage to explain the word. Such jobs also pay less than comparable jobs in the city, partly because the rural economy is even more depressed than that of the city, and partly because you don't need as much money in the country -- or so you'll be told.
Owning an average house in Canada or the US will mean spending at least $10,000 a year to maintain it. That figure might include a mortgage, insurance, property tax, renovations (or repairs), heating (or air conditioning), electricity, telephone, and water, among other things. A house in the UK might mean spending five times that much.
There are other aspects to the downside of owning a house nowadays, although some of these are matters that hold true irrespective of whether the house is in the town or in the country. It's less practical for a single person to buy or occupy a house than for a couple, and couples are rarer in this age of quick divorces. The money you pay for a house might not be recouped if you resell, since real-estate bubbles may be less common in less-optimistic times -- and the ongoing bills for a house cannot all be cheerfully ascribed to "equity" if they include insurance, taxes, and repairs.
In the nineteenth century, the division between urban and rural was not so pronounced; Thoreau's town of Concord was almost part of the forest, or so it seems as we read his accounts. But rural living has been transformed since those days: the property is now expensive, crowded, and just not readily available. I know people who are living in the country with fair success, but they are exceptions for various reasons: for example, they might have moved there when property was cheap or their bank accounts were adequate, or both. The "locals," of course, have the advantage of occupying houses that their families have owned for generations, although perhaps nothing in such dwellings would meet any by-law entitled Residential Living Standards; in any case, the "locals" are a vanishing breed. I lived in the country myself from 2000 to 2008, but I can't say it was either cheap or easy.
Fortunately, after the total collapse the money economy will vanish, both from urban and from rural areas. Even in industrialized countries, the use of money is already starting to disappear because of the underground ("gray") economy. But it might be a fairly long wait before such a collapse that completely eradicates the use of money.
Perhaps the best thing is some sort of compromise, some happy medium between civilization and wilderness, between town and country. It may be that the best place to live, now and for the next few years, would be a small town, and the maximum population would be about 80,000, but much smaller might be better. That community should be small enough that you can get out of town easily. In other words, you should be living roughly on the border between urban and rural. That way you can take advantage of both worlds, or rather you would have a choice of two, if there was a danger that required making such a decision.
The other major criterion seems to be that one should be living in a country with a relatively normal, healthy form of government. I suspect people who already live in such countries are rather puzzled by such words as "corruption," since they may have seen such a thing on only a rather mild scale, e.g., an occasional politician handing out a contract to a crony, and not realized what it is like to live in a world where every minute of one's life is infested with dishonesty and unfairness.
Those two criteria, a smaller community within a country with a fairly healthy form of government, have other implications. I think many people live in big cities, not because of the restaurants and theaters, but because that's where the money is concentrated. But the downside is considerable. Big cities are expensive. The traffic and parking are terrible, yet public transport is usually dismal and hence not much of an alternative. And there is never a balance between urban and rural: food, clothing, and shelter are entirely dependent on how fast you can whip out a credit card or a debit card, so any concept of self-sufficiency is purely a fantasy. Don't try growing potatoes on a high-rise balcony --- although, yes, I confess I've done it myself.
As our familiar sources of energy start to vanish, we'll be entering a strange world. So the longer we can stretch out any "plateau" in fossil-fuel production with exotic, non-conventional hydrocarbons, and the longer we can hold off any dramatic decline curve, the better it is for people such as I, who are past their youthful days. If we can keep turning every bit of turf into automobile fuel, then we may be able to enjoy our pensions and whatever. After that, who cares? Besides, the young people of today are too busy with their iPhones to notice anything in the real world.
On the other hand, if we reach 70 or 80 years of age, and it's also at that point that we reach the big cliff of petroleum production, so that we suddenly find the supermarkets empty, the lights going out permanently, and the police taking early retirement to protect their families, then we might be in trouble. Hitchhiking along the Alaska Highway at that age might not be so much fun.
And what if we're wrong about that gentle "plateau" of oil production? What if we find that the curve is much sharper than we had expected? And what if "urban survival" is just not an option, for me or for anyone else, and we really do have to head for the hills? To make the countryside inhabitable again, all the realities would have to be dealt with, including some that weren't there in the 1970s, the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement: the countryside now has much greater population density, property is much more expensive, and the economy is such that you can't just change your mind and go back to being a guitar flunky in the big city. What it would take is a far greater sense of community, one that was based on an understanding of such essential matters as science and engineering, one that approached the countryside with the attention to detail of a good accountant.
Even when money ceases to have any meaning, there will still be the enormous question of who is going to have access to any of the arable land that exists on this planet. Let's even assume that the human population stays at a "plateau" (like the one said to be true of oil production) of about 7 billion, more or less, for the next few decades, with famine preventing any upward swing. The CIA and the FAO give slightly different figures, but they both say there are about 15 million square kilometers of arable land on this planet, which is pretty close to 10 percent of the world's total land surface. That means there are about 470 people per square kilometer of arable land -- which would perhaps be "do-able" in post-petroleum times, but it would be one hell of a squeeze.
II: A Room of One's Own
There is so much confusing information about real estate these days. But it seems that one cannot buy a liveable or usable house with a few acres of land in the rural parts of Canada for much under $60,000 plus annual property tax, repairs, and so on. It would actually cost less per year to rent an apartment in town.
However, it also seems that a careful search of the Internet will reveal large "acreages" -- land without houses -- that are cheap because they are described as having only a "right of way" or merely "deeded access (easement)," both of which really mean no proper road, perhaps just a trail, or perhaps just the legal right to walk in a certain direction to get to that property. (I'm not talking about "landlocked property," property listed as having absolutely "no access." Something listed as having "no road access" might be slightly better than something described simply as having "no access.") The line that appears on the map, however, might not match what you encounter on the ground. As I know from experience, the imaginary line might lead you right into a beaver swamp, with too much many water for wading and too many alders for canoeing.
But a mere trail -- or something even less visible -- might be fine, since it would actually keep strangers away better than a road. A road is only necessary if you're thinking of bringing in building materials for a house. My plan at the moment is to forget about a house of the usual design, and the 5-figure cost of building it, and to go back to my plan of much earlier years and put up a log cabin. I've built a few simple ones over the years, and I'm now very tempted to do it again.
In particular, I like the idea of having no road because I don't want building inspectors showing up and telling me that my house doesn't meet the standards of the Canada Building Code. Sod, birch bark, and straw aren't listed in the Code as roofing materials, I regret to say, even if they were used in Europe for centuries. Yes, all of Canada is subject to the Canada Building Code or a provincial variation thereof, and that means modern plumbing and modern electrical wiring, all very expensive. Speaking again from experience, though, I can say that building inspectors don't like walking miles through the bush in search of a log cabin that may or may not exist. It's also true that the further you are from the more settled parts of Canada, the less likely you are to find building inspectors even if you went looking for them.
I would also like to have land that would support a garden -- arable land. That's where it gets far more expensive. Most of Canada is rock, sand, or swamp, and the arable land is therefore not readily available. In this country, the first step would be to look at the maps of the Canada Land Inventory, the series called "Land Capability for Agriculture." They're no longer being published, but it might be possible to find copies in a government office or a big library, and they tend to come and go on the Internet. Other countries have similar maps.
I think if I can't find cheap arable land, I'd like to try living on deer, fish, and blueberries. The question there is whether there would be too many other people with the same idea. I've known a few people who've spent their lives more-or-less off in the bush, and their favorite techniques for bringing a dead deer home aren't something you'd read about in a glossy magazine. A desk jockey with his first rifle could hardly compete with such people.
It seems that land on the East Coast is cheaper than in Ontario, after all my efforts to get back here to Ontario. But the catch to the East Coast, besides the remarkable storms, is the terrible unemployment, poverty, depopulation, etc., which have had the result that most people who now live there are like the legendary wreckers, people who supposedly lit fires on the beaches to lure ships off their right course and then took whatever they found in the resulting wrecks. The East Coast is evidence of the fact that as times get harder, the problem won't be crime exactly, but a matter of dealing with people who have what is called "an uneasy relationship with the law." Well, okay, I still have my socks and underwear, so I shouldn't complain about the year I spent in Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, I'd rather stay in Ontario, the Land That Time Forgot, the land that will only get devastated by systemic collapse a few decades after most other parts of the world -- perhaps.
III: The Tighter-Grid Option
Whether you believe it would be better to live "off-the-grid" or to live "tighter grid" -- raising chickens in the country vs. finding a room in a downtown core -- depends on your view of the collapse. If you believe the collapse won't even come, that it's just a case of putting solar panels here, there, and everywhere, and then you can focus on "sustainability" and forget about mass famine and so on. Which means, yes, go for the high-rise apartment and the monthly subway pass. If, on the other hand, you believe that the Dark Ages will begin tomorrow, then you have to accept the fact that there will be no heating fuel and no electricity to keep those high-rise apartments going. (Dmitry Orlov once mentioned such problems with regard to the collapse of the Soviet Union, since Moscow is mostly apartment buildings.)
The same sort of dichotomy can be seen chronologically. Even if you believe that the collapse is coming, if you feel that there is a probable waiting period of a few years, then again it might make sense to go for the tighter-grid -- staying put in the center of a city. The reality is that tighter-grid -- at the moment, at least -- is cheaper than off-the-grid. The fact that it's cheaper reflects the fact that it has a smaller ecological footprint. It's easier to pack 500 people into a high-rise than to pack 500 people into several hundred houses. I've tried various modes of living, and I've found that it costs much more to live off-the-grid than to live tighter-grid, contrary to popular belief. (Out in the country, even if you have a small house, the costs of the well, the septic system, and the land itself might kill you. And consider the amount you pay for gasoline when driving in the country.) Of course the figures depend on all sorts of variables. A lakeside cottage an hour north of a city isn't as cheap as a log cabin built with an axe up in the Yukon. But the brief "waiting period" of living tighter-grid is still a dangerous one. Nothing will change the fact that in a genuine collapse, with fossil fuels, metals, and electricity all gone kaput, the center of any city will be a death trap.
The contrasts can be extended. I won't dwell on the fact that living tighter-grid might also mean listening to Elvis Presley at 3 a.m. and getting used to having plastic flowers on the chest of drawers. Personally, I like a bit of elbow room. A telephone-company employee once said to me in black-fly season, as he and I poked around to see if I could plant a row of cedars near some underground cables: "Bugs are good. Bugs keep people away." I was inclined to agree.
A master plan might be somewhat as follows:
Don't buy a house with land. Just buy land. That will save some money.
Don't live in a modern house, build a log cabin. Modern houses will soon become anachronisms. A much smaller dwelling is much easier to heat. Electricity will not be available, so the wiring and plumbing of a modern house would be useless. A log cabin also requires far less money to build. (There are other dwellings that might also be suitable, from plywood sheds to small mobile homes.) Just hope the economy collapses quickly enough that all the building inspectors get laid off before they discover where you're living.
Gardening is a good idea, but try at least to supplement your diet with hunting and fishing. Land that's good enough for gardening is very expensive and very crowded, and competition for such land will only get worse. In any case, if you grow food there's a good chance people will try to steal it.
Instead of buying a huge acreage of your own land, buy a slightly smaller property that's on the edge of government land -- but don't buy a property so small that you can see or hear any neighbors. By living next to government land you'll have countless acres of hunting and fishing land for which you won't have to pay a penny. If you have a criminal mind, it might even occur to you to take firewood off that government land, rather than paying a great deal of money for a private wood lot -- and as government collapses, the word "illegal" will be less meaningful anyway.
Don't forget that with any sort of property you'll need water. Some sort of stream, at least, would be necessary, or perhaps a well. A small river would be even better than a stream, especially if the river is too shallow for motorboats but suitable for canoes. A lake is no good, though, because lake property is both crowded and expensive.
Obviously if you already have a modern house, with all the trimmings, out in the country, then there's no point in getting rid of it. But if I'm a typical case, then I'd say that for people who have yet to build their survival bunkers the real bind in the next few years will be the shortage of cash, so any plan would have to have a reasonable price-tag.
And finally, unless you're so far from the rest of the human race that the question is irrelevant, try to make friends. The locals will always regard you as an extraterrestrial, but try to ensure that they consider you a harmless and possibly useful one. And if you have anyone coming to live with you or near you, it's generally best for them to be people with whom you are related by ties of blood or marriage.