Where To Live In Tough Times
By Peter Goodchild
27 December, 2009
As various chunks of the planet collapse, one big question is, “Should I start packing my bags?” There is probably no perfectly rational way for choosing a place to live, and we may well end up choosing the same country in which we have spent the most years. Nevertheless, if we are brave enough, or if we have already done some traveling, the factors listed below may be those we want to consider. Unfortunately a great deal of writing repeats certain misconceptions about emigrating to a foreign “paradise,” and we must therefore also look at this matter further on.
By far the largest issue is that of time frame. The systemic collapse of modern civilization will consist, I suspect, of 2 distinct phases, and the border between the 2 will be marked by the disappearance of money as a means of exchange. Each phase will entail separate considerations.
During the first phase, governments, law, and money will still exist in roughly their present form, and these will be some of the matters to consider in choosing a place to live. What I am listing below as the issues of economic stability, cost of living, and median income are therefore relevant to that first phase. Even during that first period, however, the much longer-term issues of arable land, climate, and family and friends will be very important.
The second phase will be that in which societal collapse has advanced further, and much of the world consists of bandit hordes riding across a wasteland. At that point I doubt that we will be very much concerned about the finer points of pension schemes or tax shelters. The list of qualities to consider in a place to live will then be much shorter, and the trivial will be discarded. The important matters will be little more than land, climate, and community.
We should also consider that the readily available information on other countries is mainly geared to tourists, but what such people experience on a 10-day package tour bears little resemblance to long-term residence in a country. Most tourists live in a silly and artificial world, and their lives are not entwined with those of the local people. In fact tourists are often hated because they regard other countries as their personal playground, and the citizens of that country as their servants. Even an “eco-tourist” daily consumes far more resources than a native, and vast amounts of fossil fuel are burned up in the airplane trips there and back.
Beware of the myth of the tropical paradise. Thailand, for example, has positive and negative aspects. Perhaps in the more rural areas it would be possible to live fairly cheaply. Public transport is usually available, at least for now, so you might not need a car. There would be no need for heating fuel or firewood in winter. Food would be cheap and good. But Thailand has serious problems with noise, heat, environmental destruction, and above all with overpopulation.
The issue of overcrowding, in Thailand and elsewhere, must also be considered in terms of other issues of societal collapse. If, in the future, the world economy has a “bang” that is much worse than the present one (starting in 2007 or 2008), I think I would want to be living in a country that has a good deal of uninhabited and undeveloped land where one could be somewhat independent of any and all money-based economies. In plain English, wherever I live I want to be able to head for the hills. For the same reason, I have no intention of living in a city.
One thing is certain: without motorized transportation, the crowding in the world’s cities will ensure that they eventually become death traps. Modern business methods only intensify the weakness: while business-management experts take pride in the cost-effectiveness of “just in time” inventory, they ignore the fact that “just in time” is only a step away from “just out of time.” During the Second World War, Leningrad turned to cannibalism when the city was besieged by the Germans, and such events were far more common in ancient times.
Population per Unit of Arable Land
More important than population density in the absolute sense is the ratio of population to the amount of land that can be used to produce crops. Eventually most people will be producing their own food, or at least relying on food grown nearby. A society based mainly on primitive subsistence farming can only support a population of about 4 people per hectare, i.e. 400 people per square kilometer. Many countries are already well over that density. A major question therefore is: Which countries have a fair amount of arable land? Of course, in terms of agriculture there are also related factors to consider, such as temperature, precipitation, and seasonal variations thereof.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the following 30 countries (in rank order) have the best ratios: Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Niger, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Argentina, Guyana, the United States, Belarus, Hungary, Zambia, Paraguay, Bulgaria, the Central African Republic, Togo, Turkmenistan, Sudan, Moldova, Finland, Romania, Denmark, Estonia, Mongolia, Namibia, Uruguay, Mali, and Chad. Roughly speaking, the worst areas for this ratio are the Middle East, most of southern and eastern Asia, the islands of the Pacific, and western Europe.
One might be tempted to suggest a sour-grapes theory of the population-to-arable ratio: one could argue that countries with better ratios are merely indicating poor living conditions of some other sort, such as bad politics or economic chaos. To a large extent this is true, but there are important exceptions. The UK and the Republic of Ireland, for example, are very similar in geographic respects, but the UK has 3 times the population-to-arable ratio; from the standpoint of subsistence farming, the Republic of Ireland would be a far more habitable country.
For my money, arable land is the most important consideration, with political matters perhaps in second place, while everything else would be far down the list, but I can see how other people could make other choices.
To some extent the choice of climate is rather a personal matter, depending on what one is used to. Extremes of climate, however, mean that life could become uncomfortable without our accustomed access to central heating or air conditioning. Central heating with fossil fuels could be replaced with a wood stove, but then you have to ask if you are really able to produce the fuel. A winter’s worth of firewood is not easy to accumulate with only hand tools such as axes and bow saws, although a well insulated house much smaller than average would also require much less fuel. The other option would be to use a chain saw, but then you are depending on fossil fuels to some extent, and you would need the money to buy the fuel and to maintain the machine, and you would need some means of transportation when you buy the fuel or have to take the machine in for servicing.
Because of climate extremes, one would ideally be living about halfway between the equator and the poles, but the catch is that many other people have already had the same idea.
There are many countries where the concept of civil liberty is completely absent. In fact there are many other big political issues one might want to consider: political equality, democracy, the whole concept of “open society” and western political ideals versus the apathy and despair of “closed societies.” Don’t underestimate the pleasures of living in a country with a relatively sane form of government.
Countries that rely heavily on exports can be quickly damaged by changes in the world market. A small country is generally in trouble if its income is based on a narrow range of goods or services. Excessive borrowing often leads to debts that cannot be paid. Monoculture and foreign ownership have ruined many countries, even if the facts are rarely printed in newspapers. Modern economics is a complex subject, and when disaster occurs it seems that no one even knows who to blame.
Cost of Living
Yes, the cost of living is obviously important, especially if you intend to have a job in that country, but also if you have a fixed income, or just fixed savings. The odd thing, though, is that the cost of living doesn’t really vary all that much from one country to another, contrary to popular belief. A hamburger is always a hamburger, it seems. The Finfacts Web site on the “global/world cost of living rankings 2006/2007” matches my own experience. The cost of living in Moscow, the world’s most-expensive major city, is 3 times as high as in Asunçion, Paraguay, the world’s least-expensive city, but generally the range is much less. The Finfacts Web site lists only cities, of course, and life in the countryside can be cheaper, but not greatly, and only in a relative manner.
The best way of dealing with the cost of living in any country is, quite simply, to reduce your dependence on money ― growing your own food, doing your own carpentry, and so on.
This is a serious issue if you plan to get a job in that distant country and you expect to be getting paid a local salary. Median income is also a consideration if you plan to hire workers. However, any figure for median income is always meaningless unless it is correlated with cost of living, and if both are defined in terms of international dollars or some other universal frame of reference. Making sense of such figures is not always easy.
For those dreaming of escape to distant places, the sad irony is that there is usually a positive correlation between cheap property and high crime rates. That’s true street-by-street, but also country-by-country. It’s hard to beat the odds on that one, but perhaps it can be done. Uruguay, for example, is said to have a low crime rate although it also has a low cost of living. And by high crime rates I don’t necessarily mean organized crime. A more common question may be the far more subtle issue of whether you will have as neighbors a group of people who have an uneasy relationship with the law. Even minor infractions can ultimately become heartbreaking for the victim.
These can be tough. New Zealand sounds wonderful, but don’t expect to just walk (or fly or sail) in. Many countries have laws stating that you cannot live there permanently unless you have proof of a guaranteed income. In many countries there may also be quotas that favor certain potential immigrants over others, and these laws are not always as unfair as they sound. We cannot complain about the “curse” of immigration into our own country, and then assume that we are granting a blessing when we want to turn around and do the same.
Learning a language does not require mental ability, only opportunity (e.g., living there) and determination. If you make an effort to learn some of the local language, you’ll be more comfortable. Learning a few words of a language, in fact, is one of the principal means of becoming accepted in that society. But obviously the language of the country, or (on the other hand) the likelihood that you will encounter people who speak your own language, will have many effects on your life there.
Friends and Family
Unless you’re a determined loner, you will probably want to consider the choices or necessities of any family members or close friends. If they will move with you, so much the better. If, however, they cannot or will not move, perhaps you will also not be able to. In any case, you may simply find that it’s just plain safer to stay where you are and remain living next to people you have known for years. Even if they are not perfect, you may at least have a good idea of what you can expect from them, whereas strangers in a distant land may offer too many unpleasant surprises.
Ultimately, then, you may find it impossible to give up your present social network. Homesickness can be truly crippling, although those who have previously led a nomadic life may have developed emotional strengths. The move itself could be painful: beside the emotional strain of traveling to a distant land, you could find yourself selling most of your possessions before moving to another country, and then buying replacement possessions when you get there ― and perhaps giving up two years later and moving back home again. Sometimes a little perseverance is the cure, however.
In poorer countries, attempting to copy the way of life of the natives is not a good idea. For example, various sources say that a westerner cannot really live comfortably in Thailand for less than about $10,000 a year, and that’s the minimum. Most native workers there, on the other hand, live on about $2,000 a year. What it amounts to is that westerners in Thailand would go mad if they tried to live the arduous life that is lived by most natives. Native life in modern times is really just manual labor at starvation wages. If you’re now 60 years old, then to go native you would have to start by being dead for the last 20 years.
I would say, also, that if it costs $10,000 to live in Thailand, then I would rather live in a modern western country such as Canada, which would probably cost about $15,000 for the same standard of living, but without the disadvantages. In general I have many doubts about putting on shorts and sandals and moving to tropical paradises. I’m sure there are westerners who find such countries pleasant, but my own preference would be for open spaces and a more northern climate.
So there really is no simple answer to the question of where to live. We must each weigh all of the factors, but the weights themselves become a personal or intuitive matter. F.H. Bradley once said, “Philosophy is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct,” and love of country has equally non-rational forces that cannot easily be ignored. We tend to look for reasons to “prove” that where we already are is the best. Thoreau said, “Though all the fates should prove unkind, / Leave not your native land behind.” My own home, Canada, is not entirely “native” to me, since I didn’t choose it until age 16, but after so many years there I will always look for reasons for keeping it as my base of operations. That does not mean it is not a land that can be both geographically and economically trying. Similar paradoxes are true for everyone else in every other country.
We should not lightly dismiss the importance of the emotional ties to one’s native land, even if we have only been “native” to such a land for only a few years. Such ties are not entirely irrational. Our reasons for putting down roots in a particular country may be somewhat accidental, but if we examine ourselves more closely we may find that when we have stopped our youthful wanderings there is a curious match between personality and landscape.
We must nevertheless remember that the reluctance to leave can be fatal. History is filled with stories of people who failed to heed warnings. The usual cry is, “It can’t happen here. This is a civilized country.”
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus [at] live.com.