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This gives an extreme advantage to those few who move first, long before they must. The financial advantage for first movers is equally extreme.
Moving is a difficult decision, so we hesitate. But when the window to do so closes, it’s too late. We always think we have all the time in the world to ponder, calculate and explore, and then things change and the options we once had are gone for good.
Moving to a new locale is difficult for those of us who are well-established in the place we call home. Add in a house we love, jobs/work, kids in school, a parent living with us and all the emotional attachments to friends, extended family, colleagues and favorite haunts, and for many (and likely most) people, moving is out of the question.
Many of us have fond memories of moving when we were in our late teens or early 20s–everything we owned fit in the backseat and trunk of a beaten up old car, and off we went.
Once you put down roots in a home, work/enterprise, schools, neighborhood and networks, it’s a herculean task to move. Moving to another state or province isn’t just a matter of the physical movement of possessions and buying / renting a new dwelling, itself an arduous process; the transfer of medical and auto insurance, finding new dentists and doctors, opening local bank/credit union accounts, obtaining local business licenses and a staggering list of institutions and enterprises that require an address change is complicated and time-consuming.
Knowing this, I don’t ask this question lightly: Should You Move While You Can, Or When You Must? The question is consequential because the window in which we still have options can slam shut with little warning.
The origin of the question will be visible to those who have read my blog posts in 2021 on systemic fragility, our dependence on long, brittle supply chains, the vulnerabilities created by these dependencies and my polite (I hope) suggestions to fashion not just a Plan B for temporary disruptions but a Plan C for permanent disruptions.
My new book Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United Statesis a result of realities few are willing to face: the extreme inequality we now have in the U.S. leads to social collapse. That’s the lesson of history. So to believe as if collapse is impossible is to ignore the evidence that social collapse is inevitable when inequality reaches extremes. Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.
Social collapse has consequences, and so we have to ask: where do we want to be in the vast human herd when social order unravels?
My new book also addresses the transition that’s obvious but easily denied: we’ve transitioned from an era of abundance to an era of scarcity. There are many historical examples of what happens as scarcity diminishes living standards and puts increasing stress on individuals, families, communities and nations.
There are ways to adapt to scarcity (that’s the point of my book) but nation-states and the elites who run them are optimized for abundance, not scarcity, so they lack the means to adapt to scarcity. Their default setting to is keep pursuing a return to higher consumption (“growth”) by increasingly extreme means–for example, printing trillions of dollars and giving it to wealthy elites and corporations, and printing additional trillions to give away as bread and circuses (stimulus) to the masses.
There is no historical evidence that this vast, endless creation of currency is consequence-free or successful.
This delusional pursuit of endless “growth” that is no longer possible due to resource depletion and soaring costs of extraction, transport, etc. also leads to collapse. This is the modern-day equivalent of squandering the last resources available on ever-more elaborate (and completely unproductive) temples in the hopes of appeasing the gods of “growth.”
As I also detail in the book, the status quo is fantastically wasteful and ineffective. It now takes 20-25 years to build a single bridge or tunnel, and each project is billions of dollars over budget, yet we’re assured that the entire nation will seamlessly and painlessly transition away from hydrocarbon fuels to alternative energy in 20-25 years.
Never mind that this would require building a new nuclear plant or equivalent every month for the next 20 years; skeptics are just naysayers.
While a successful transition to a degrowth economy and society is certainly physically possible, the current status quo lacks the will, structure, leadership or desire to manage such a transition.
While no one is entirely independent of long supply chains and energy-intensive industrial economies, the lower one’s dependency and one’s exposure to the risks of social disorder, the better off one will be. Put another way, the greater one’s self-reliance and independence from global supply chains, the lower the impact should things break down.
The closer one is to local sources of energy, fresh water, food, etc., the lower the likelihood of losing all access to these essentials.
The wealthiest few hedge their risks by having one or more homes they can escape to if urban life breaks down. When risks rise, the wealthy start buying rural homes sight unseen for double the price locals paid a few months earlier.
Here’s the problem: roughly 81% of Americans live in urban zones (270 million people), and around 19% (60 million people) live in rural areas.
About 31% of urban residents live in dense urban cores, about 25% live in suburban counties and the remaining 24% live in urban clusters and metropolitan areas–smaller cities, etc.
Rural regions have plenty of land but relatively few dwellings due to the low population density. Much of the land is owned by government agencies, corporations or large landowners, so a relatively small percentage is available for housing. Many rural economies have stagnated for decades, so the housing stock has not grown by much and older homes have deteriorated due to being abandoned or poorly maintained. Few building contractors survived the stagnation and so finding crews to build a new home is also non-trivial.
So when the wealthiest few rush out to buy second or third homes in desirable rural areas in Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, North Carolina, etc., they find a very restricted supply of homes available. This generates a bidding war for the relatively few homes considered acceptable and prices skyrocket, pricing out locals who soon resent the wealthy newcomers’ financial power and fear the inevitable rise of the political and commercial power their wealth can buy. (Cough, billgates, cough.)
At present, few anticipate urban America becoming a dicey place to live and own a home. But inequality and the hollowing out of the economy by globalization and financialization has left cities entirely dependent on diesel fueled trucks to deliver virtually everything.
This is also true of rural communities, of course, but some rural areas still produce energy and food, and given the lower population density, these communities are less dependent on global supply chains and are therefore more self-sufficient. Rural households have more opportunities to raise animals, grow vegetables, etc., and more opportunities to have supportive relationships with neighbors who actually produce something tangible and essential.
Dependence is a matter of scale: if you can get by on 5 gallons of gasoline a month, you’re much more likely to put your hands on enough fuel to get by than if you need a minimum of 50 gallons of fuel to survive. The same is true of food, fresh water and other essentials: the less you need, the more you supply yourself, the lower your vulnerability to supply disruptions.
Lower population densities lend themselves to greater self-sufficiency / resilience and to community cohesion. Roving mobs are less likely to form simply because the low density makes such mobs difficult to assemble.
As I explain in my book, social cohesion is a combination of civic virtue, shared purpose, agency (having a stake in the local economy and a say in decisions which affect everyone) and moral legitimacy, i.e. a community that isn’t divided into a self-serving elite that owns the vast majority of the wealth, capital and political power and a relatively powerless majority (i.e. debt-serfs and tax donkeys).
In my analysis, social cohesion in most urban zones has already eroded to the point of no return. The tattered remnants will crumble with one swift kick.
The conventional view is the urban populace will continue to grow at the expense of rural regions, a trend that’s been in place for hundreds of years. But this trend exactly parallels the rise of hydrocarbon energy. Large cities existed long before hydrocarbon energy, but these cities arose and fell depending on the availability of essential resources within reach.
Imperial Rome, for example, likely had 1 million residents at the apex of its power, residents who were largely dependent on grain grown in North African colonies and shipped across the Mediterranean to Rome’s port of Ostia.
Once those wheat-exporting colonies were lost, Rome’s population fell precipitously, reaching a nadir of perhaps 10,000 residents living amidst the ruins of a once great metropolis.
More recently, economic and social shifts hollowed out many city cores in the 1970s as residents and jobs moved to the suburbs.
A reversal of this trend in favor of small cities/towns and rural areas may already be gathering momentum under the radar.
All this is abstract until the attractions of city living fade and economic vitality declines to the point of civic and financial bankruptcy. Cities have cycles of expansion, decay and decline just like societies and economies, and it behooves us to monitor the fragility, dependency and risk of the place we inhabit.
At nadirs, homes and buildings that were once worth a fortune are abandoned, or their value drops to a fraction of its former value.
Putting these dynamics together, the problem boils down to a systemic scarcity of housing in attractive, productive rural towns and regions and a massive oversupply of urban residents who may decide to move once urban zones unravel.
Let’s assume that a mere 5% of urban residents decamp for rural regions. Given that there are about 130 million households in the U.S. and 81% of that total is 105 million households, 5% is 5.25 million households. Given that the number of rural communities that have all the desirable characteristics is not that large, we can estimate that it might be difficult for even 500,000 urban households to relocate to their first choice, never mind 5 million.
This gives an extreme advantage to those few who move first, long before they must. The financial advantage for first movers is equally extreme, as they can still sell their urban homes for a great deal more money than they will fetch once conditions deteriorate. (The value of homes can drop to zero, as Detroit has shown.)
Those few who decide to join the early movers even though the difficulties are many have all the advantages. Those who wait until conditions slip off a cliff may find their once valuable home has lost most or all of its value and the communities they would have chosen are out of reach financially.
Most people reckon they have plenty of time to act–decades, or at least many years. The problem with systemic fragility was aptly described by Seneca: “Increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid.”
My own expectation is a self-reinforcing unraveling that gathers momentum to breaking points by 2024-25, only a few years away. Rather than fix the systemic problems of inequality and scarcity, the status quo’s expedient fixes (printing trillions out of thin air and hoping there will be no adverse consequences from distributing free money to financiers and bread and circuses) will only accelerate the unraveling. There may not be as much time as we think.
New readers pondering these dynamics may find value in one of the more widely read of my essays, The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States (June 27, 2008) which discusses the importance of being a helpful and productive member of a tight-knit community and the futility of having an isolated “bug-out” cabin as Plan C.
The vista of solid ground stretching endlessly to the horizon may turn out to be a mirage, and the cliff edge is closer than we imagine.
This essay was first published as a weekly Musings Report sent exclusively to subscribers and patrons at the $5/month ($54/year) and higher level. Thank you, patrons and subscribers, for supporting my work and free website.
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Entropy intensifies (26:52 min., with Max Keiser)
Tune in (to degrowth), drop out (of hyper-consumerism and debt-serfdom) and turn on (relocalizing capital and agency)
A Grand Strategy to Address the Global Crisis (54 min., with Richard Bonugli)
XI’s GAMBIT: A Bridge Too Far? (41 min, with Gordon Long)
My recent books:
A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).
The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake$1.29 Kindle, $8.95 print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)