The preppers are coming to town

Detail from a map by Will Lytle

Oh, New York Times real estate section, never change. 

The various lifestyle sections of the paper, whenever they make their way north to us, are reliably and entertainingly maddening. Last week’s juicy slab of fresh meat is no exception: a look at “millennial” land-buyers who are setting up second homesteads in the Catskills and other rural environs, in an effort to get ahead of the destabilizing world. It’s called “Climate Change Insurance: Buy Land Somewhere Else,” and it makes for a very satisfying rage-read. 

The story features 33-year-old Mark Dalski of Greenwich, CT, whose green-roof business — or perhaps some other un-remarked-upon source of ready cash — is enabling him to hedge his bets on the future of climate change with a few acres in Roxbury. He’s building a “simple, small and sustainable” 1,200-square-foot house there, as a backup plan for an uncertain future. If the sea comes for Greenwich, he plans to move to the slopes of Plattekill Mountain, where he will grow corn, collard greens and root crops. 

Why Roxbury? Because, as real estate writer Alyson Krueger points out, the area is “filled with natural resources.”

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“The land is at a high elevation but it is also in a bowl, so it collects precipitation. Also, there are creeks that run through the area year-round,” Krueger writes. 

From a distance of some 100 miles from New York Times headquarters in midtown Manhattan, I can’t discern whether she’s writing with tongue in cheek, but suffice it to say that “collecting precipitation” isn’t generally considered a desirable feature in a property around here. Seven years after the Irene floods, those of us who got a real taste of them still keep a wary eye out whenever it rains, like combat veterans unconsciously scanning every new room for strategic exits. 

Dalski’s plan to sustain himself through a dark future by growing vegetables seems a bit off, too. The idea that a person could grow enough carrots and rutabagas to live on, in the two-rocks-to-every-dirt Catskills, strikes me as howlingly far-fetched.

I admit to some hypocrisy on this front. There’s more than a little doomsday in me. When I think about the disruption climate change is wreaking on our communities, a thing I do with increasing frequency lately, I do a little mental calculation: the nearest stream is a few hundred feet from my door, I have a woodstove to heat the house and boil water on, we have farming friends. I indulge in prepper (post-apocalyptic survivalists) fantasies about the post-climate-apocalypse barter economy — and then they take a grimly realistic turn, and I wonder if I want to survive into that world. I think, over and over again, We will never run out of water.

This sort of thinking is so self-indulgently isolationist, though. Never mind the root cellar. What will it truly be like to live here when the accelerating pace of natural disaster scoops the vibrant, beating heart out of the community? We are already finding out.

The fact is, climate change is ravaging the Catskills now, not in some inventively apocalyptic future. Every building knocked down or standing empty because of flood damage, every flood buyout that skims a digit off the local population, every discouraged Florida-bound retiree who cashes out and sells their back forty to the New York City watershed takes a toll on the resilience and long-term livability of our communities. I doubt the average Catskills homeowner who takes a flood buyout check and moves to firmer ground thinks of him or herself as a climate refugee, but that’s what this is. 

Amid the prepper fantasies on display in the real estate section, there are also a few notes of sanity. Krueger also spoke to Vivek Shandas, an urban planner and founder of the Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab at Portland State University. Shandas isn’t big on the whole concept of setting up a remote bolthole in which to ride out a destabilizing future. 

“The most resilient have been those that have had communities of people working together to try to respond. Pulling away and isolating yourself is one of the most dangerous things you can do,” he told Krueger. 

They seem lost, these wealthy young climate escapists. There’s an earnestness to their befuddlement. It’s precious that they think they can build a stable long-term home for themselves out of collard greens and solar panels, without fully weaving themselves into the already-weakening social and economic fabric of our communities. 

If they truly want to build a future where the Catskills is a safe haven for anyone, they can start by being here now.

There are 5 comments

  1. Steven L Fornal

    Just a thought: Preppers that stockpile goods may think that’s the way to go. But, everyone in an area will eventually find out where the hoarders are and will come to take their stuff. When the end comes there will be a reversion to tribalism. The strong will crush the weak. The weak survivors will accrete to form tribes that will be fighting for no-holds barred survival.

    No, I don’t think that’s the world the preppers are envisioning. They think that rules of property/ownership will prevail; you know, “Sure, I’ve got mine but I prepared for this. Sorry you can’t have any.” and that’ll be that. Those in need/want will simply pout, shake their heads at their own lack of foresight and be on their way.

    No, if an apocalyptic end comes, you’d better be well armed, with lots of ammo and even then, how long will that last? At some point you’ll have to realize such living isn’t living at all. Whom among us would want to survive in a world without the rule of law, without society, without knowing whether you’ll be murdered for a can of corn you’ve stockpiled?

    Yeah, collards and root crops won’t sustain.

  2. CM

    Show me a prepper with less than 4 ARs and a thousand rounds for each one, and I will show you somebody that’s not prepped. Of course somebody will try to take what’s yours, you have to be willing and able to defend it.
    With the law as it is being enforced among the elite and politicians, a little lawlessness might cull the Hurd of some of the weak of mind and spirit. I don’t think I could be considered a prepper but living in the woods and survival are my everyday way of life. The lack of electricity would be be of little consequence to me. I find it hard to understand people that can’t find a drink of water unless it comes out of a faucet or a plastic bottle
    And no, I’ve never been a hiker. I’m a live in the woods hunter that has never called the law a day in my life, we take care of our own.

  3. Eddie Broyles

    Don’t know a lot about prepping. Growing your own food and animals was how I was raised. Those of us here in NE TN will be fine for the most part. Btw 4 ARs and 4k rounds of ammo is Saturday target practice. Most folks just don’t have a clue.

  4. Always Ready

    Ugh – the feeble American mind dribbles out in these comments – why does it always have to go directly to guns? To follow your ‘logic’ I’ll tell you when the amo runs out you would be hunting and fighting with hand-hewn bows and arrows and nothing more, perhaps a large rock.

    All of your gun talk is just macho swagger and nobody fears that – or you.

    And you’ve lost the ENTIRE point of the article. (And it’s exaggeration). “Preppers” are not flocking to the Catskills, people who want to hunt, grow their own food, live sustainable lives, or at least try to live sustainable lives are. THAT IS A PROFOUND DIFFERENCE.

    Further, those who choose to buy here vs. on the shoreline are smart folk who see the longer term investment and less hassle of ownership than our shore-bound peers.

    As for flood buyouts being directly linked to climate change – that’s a Yes AND A NO. Flood buyouts have been happenign for 50-years and more across the US, that’s more about land management and bad development choices that people realize are a losing game.

    Since the 30’s flood plain buyouts have been happening along the Missississippi, Missouri,
    Arkansas, Ohio and Tennessee River basins. This is because old thinking and much cheaper farm homesteads that repeatedly flooded finally realized you can farm the land but you can’t live there. Poor local and regional land-management – for example in cities like Houston – are the reason for so much flood damage today. They built knowing it will flood, and that trend continues today from the Jersey Shore to the Miami beach front and Texas coast.

    These buyouts are finally, finally taking hold because people are wising wipe to a multi-pronged issue: 1. Bad land management. 2. Over-development. 3. And lastly, the changing
    climate that is making these issues more pronounced than ever before.

    As for the over-heated swagger about guns…zip it, you sound like macho fools.

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