This is by far the most commonly asked question I receive. I'm going to answer it in two parts, first, broad regional issues, and next I'll do the city/suburbs/country question. Or rather I'm not going to answer it at all - that is, I don't think that there's only one good answer to this question, so I'm not going to try and provide them, so much as offer some things to think about.
First let us dispense with the obvious. I assume you know that the north is cold, the south is warm and that this is mostly a matter of personal preference. That is, you can live quite well on little or no energy in the very cold north, or the very hot south. You might not like it, but it will not kill most people. Every time I say this, someone argues that heat and cold do kill. This is true - they just don't have to, for the most part.
Yes, there are a few medical conditions that make you especially sensitive to one or the other. And yes, you can die from both heat and cold. But even without powered heating, people are designed to tolerate a lot of cold - if they weren't, we'd never have survived until the invention of central heating. If you dress warmly, bundle up when sleeping, wear a hat, layer, sleep with another human or a dog, and move around during the day, you can live with no supplemental heat. You probably won't like it very much, but you will do fine. It is worth noting that the Lapp people routinely slept out in -50 temperatures in tents heated only by our body heat – if they can do that, we make a four-poster bed and layer up and do the same at night. During the day, just keep moving. People who freeze to death in their homes are generally elderly or children and don’t know how to respond to growing hypothermia – they may even feel warm and take off their clothes. The best cure for this is being together, and adults watching over the very vulnerable, and making sure they get enough calories and are protected from the worst of the cold.
The same is true of heat. Yes, people die of heat stroke - but mostly they are elderly or disabled people who are alone, muddled by the heat's affect on their bodies, who lack the ability to do simple things like put their feet in a bucket of water or hydrate adequately. As in the cases in California recently, most of the people who die of heat stroke or cold, die because they are isolated, not because of the weather per se. Have close communal ties and a system of support for those without family, especially those with medical conditions, infants and the elderly, and understand the basics of physiology and treating the early stages of hypothermia or heat exhaustion, and such deaths could be greatly reduced or eliminated.
All of which means that temperature in and of itself is largely a matter of personal preference. My personal preference is that I will gladly live with minimal (I sleep already in a room heated only by the ambient heat of a distant woodstove, as do my children) heat all winter than live in a place with 90+ degree temperatures all summer long.
This is a matter of taste - I hate the heat and like the cold. This is one of those pick your poison issues - snow, ice and cold or heat. You should be aware that all regions will get warmer gradually, so be prepared to live with not just what it is now but what it will be in a few decades. In the meantime, if you like neither extreme, there are some options there, too - the Pacific Northwest and the southern Appalachians, for example.
Then there's the matter of neighbor prejudice. This you can get in bulk at various websites and in various books, so I'll try and keep it to a minimum here. The idea that right thinking people don't want to live near conservative Christians, that scary Asian pirates will depopulate the Pacific Northwest, that Latinos will rule the Southwest with an iron hand, and that inner cities will be filled with "them" rioting and shooting all assume a. we are not whatever "them" we're worrying about and b. that this is going to be the defining feature of the future. I don't swear it isn't true, but I also think the whole thing is probably rather overstated.
There are some people who probably will have good reason not to pick certain regions - but there will be many people who find those regions compelling precisely because of a scary-to-others immigrant population or religious culture. Since I know there are various “thems” of all sorts among my readers, I’m going to suggest that instead, you find communities that you feel secure in – gay readers may not prefer to live in the conservative Christian south, but they might be happy among the terrifying them of flannel shirt wearing lesbian Vermont farmers, while an African Methodist reader might find the whole idea of Vermont horrifying. Pick your poison.
Having grown up in New England, personally I think reserve, protestant work ethic and a tendency to wear winter hats with shorts and sandals is completely fine, but that is a matter of taste. My ancestors tend to be among those who heard the message "Go West Young Man" and rather thought, "Ayuh, it may be cold, and the land grows better rocks than corn, but clam chowder and not sitting on my behind on a wagon for six months look pretty good to me." Thus, I am no Westerner, either. But again, let us not mistake these things for knowledge, or truth, or anything but custom, comfort and habit. I'm all for indulging personal preferences - I think mostly people should live their lives where they are comfortable, where their community is supportive and where the climate suits them.
So what should you care about when choosing a place to live? Here's my own personal list of the most important factors:
- A PLACE TO STAY, to pass down and that you believe will be good for you and your family for the long term. The coming changes may well involve a great shift in how we regard natural resources like land and water. We are moving from a society that has invested enormous economic value in things far removed from the origins of their production, to a society that is probably going to be hyper-aware that wealth = natural resources. In a society where food is scarcer, water is short and resources are stretched to their limits, land and the resources on it, along with the capacity to do things like grow food and wood, are likely to be intensely valuable.
In many societies, ordinary people have been sustained by their access to the land and their long term ties to that land. Generally speaking, ordinarily poor people cannot buy much, if any land - instead, they inherit it - families steward land and pass it down from generation to generation. We do not do this in the rich world very much, but I think we may go back to it. While for a short while we may become a mobile society, with many refugees relocating, over the long term we may become more fixed, more bound by our investment in a place and the community ties we depend on.
So the first factor I personally take into account is a place to stay. This is not a perfect solution, of course - no one can know the whole future, and migration is always possible. But unless we stop and stay, we will not be able to feed ourselves from our land, and we will never become truly native to anywhere, with a native awareness and love for a place. So I would recommend an area that you have reason to believe will continue to be a good place to live not just next year, but in 50 and 100 years. This is difficult, given the impact of climate change - projections are uncertain. But generally speaking, if the map shows that your home will be under water in 25 years, you might want to consider moving before the rush devalues your home. Take a good and serious look at the long term.
WATER, and lots of it. I can't stress this one enough. Anything less than 20cm of rainfall a year is impossible to farm without extensive irrigation - don't bet on having the power to do this. Personally, if you think there's any chance at all that, due to pump failure, aquifer depletion, drought or competition from others that you might need to rely primarily on rainfall, I wouldn't take less than 20 inches of rain per year, evenly distributed. That is, if you have a dry season, where it doesn't rain for months on end, be absolutely sure you can fill your tanks sufficiently to get through.
Now I know there are people who worry about water less than I do. I have a friend doing remarkable things with dry land tree agriculture in Israel, and she, among others, has great hopes. I, however, have my doubts. The reality is that most very dry places have never supported large populations. Moreover, in such places, the foodshed is extremely large - Gary Nabhan, author of Coming Home to Eat required a local diet of 250 miles, rather than 100, simply because of limited availability. While some people will undoubtedly do very well in the dry plains, deserts or other low rainfall areas, the question becomes what kind of population the area will be able to support.
I personally would be very reluctant to live in much of the dryer parts of the American Southwest, parts of Australia and the driest parts of the Plains of Canada and America, unless I had full legal rights to reliable sources of water. Riparian water rights, as practiced in the Western US make water issues more contentious, and I would want to be absolutely sure that I could draw water from my source for a long, long time.
In addition, look for comparatively clean water. This is increasingly difficult to find all over the US - there is almost no drinkable groundwater, or freshwater that I'd like to take a lot of fish out of these days. We've contaminated our most basic resource beyond compare. Make sure that you get water tests from any well you might consider using, understand the basic pollutants in your area, and have a good idea what and who you are downstream from, and I would recommend that everyone have a high quality water filter, ideally gravity fed, like the British Berkefield or Katahdin filters. Even if you have to eat beans, dandelions and rice for a month to afford it, I'd consider this a worthwhile investment for anyone who has any spare cash at all.
At a minimum, unless your house has a spring as pure as ivory, I would never permit children or women who are or might become pregnant to drink unfiltered water from any source that has not been thoroughly and carefully evaluated. We cannot afford to damage future generations, and if we are to have fewer children in the future, their lives and health will be all the more precious.
NOT SITTING ON TOP OF MAJOR ENERGY RESOURCES. The next few decades are going present reasons to try and extract the last drops out of old oil wells, coal out of areas previously deemed too populated or dangerous to touch, etc... I do not want to be on top or very near any major energy source - natural gas, uranium, coal or oil. The toxic, environmentally disruptive nature of extraction of all sorts means that my own basic goals of reasonable security, minimal medical interventions, food self-reliance, can be utterly destroyed by one nearby mountaintop removal or uranium extraction. These projects contaminate water tables and streams, generate toxic air, noise and water pollution and generally make life miserable for the people around them. They are the price of our insatiable desire for energy.
So if the words "old coal mine" or "natural gas well" appear anywhere on your proposed property or near it, run like heck, unless you own every single mineral right and are sure that there is no other way to get at them (that no one can dig the coal from the next property over). Frankly, I don't even want to be the same region as most such enterprises – they don’t just pollute the immediate area, but air and water for miles around. The Supreme Court's recent removal of restrictions on eminent domain means that I would be very, very cautious even if I did own all the rights to minerals on my land. I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that my New England ancestors were probably right - the best land out there may be the land that nobody really wants too badly.
LOCAL FOOD SECURITY in a place where you can eat a diet you like, and where the region can mostly feed itself. I think we will find as we live and eat more locally that our diets change - sometimes dramatically. Most people who live regionally eat a few staple foods every single day. They have other special foods, but if we live regionally, we will eat regionally, as most human beings have through most of history, our cuisine will become localized as well. This is not a bad thing – people travel all over the world to experience local cuisines and their specialties.
When you are picking a spot, you probably should pick a place where you like the food, since food is a factor in quality of life. If you are "from" tortillas, and chilies, the potatoes, baked beans and fish of the Northeast may not be all that appealing to you. You can cook almost anything almost anywhere, with variations, but your kids will, to some degree, end up adapting to the culture and you will have to make do with what grows.You also should probably think hard about where your food is coming from. That doesn't mean that we all absolutely have to live in regions that can be self-supporting, but it is a matter of rational bet-hedging.
If you live in the I-95 corridor of the US, say in New York City, your 100 mile diet will run into the hundred mile diets of the heavily populated suburbs of Westchester, Long Island, Northern New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. You'll also run into the 100 mile foodsheds of Albany, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford, Newark, Trenton, etc...Etc... - all large cities with large populations. That is, there is simply no meaningful way that these regions can be fully food self-sufficient - their food is going to have to come from less populated areas.Now this in itself doesn't mean that everyone has to leave these areas - but you do need to have a local system for food, water and energy that can be sustained in the long term - it isn't enough just to say "oh, great, we'll get our food from nearby” – make sure you know that it is possible. You want to choose places that have a land around them, and the potential to produce a great deal of food.
NEAR THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE - the times that are coming are going to make us depend on one another more than we have. If there are people in the world who have your back, who love you, who you care about, be near them. Transportation is getting expensive, and all of us are going to need all the help we can get. This factor, in the end, may trump everything else.
A corollary of this would be “near people you like” – that is, if we are indeed entering into a less energy intensive and more localized world, your life is going to be shaped by your neighbors and immediate community. So pick a place where you feel comfortable – not necessarily where everyone is like you, but where it seems like community might be created.
Ok, next time, should you chuck it all and move to the country? Live in the city where the public transport is good?