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.”
“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.