Adapting In Place Is Not a Choice For Most of Us

Sharon June 29th, 2009

A while back I wrote an essay arguing that while many people will lose their homes and have to move in with family or into rentals in the coming crisis, still more will end up trapped where they are, unable to sell their homes, unable to get credit to buy another, or even to find rental housing due to credit rating losses, and with other family dependent on the only stable home available to them.  That is, the flip side of disruption and movement is that many people are going to be adapting in place - only often with more people in the place than they thought.

 It seems that all of these things are probably roughly coming true.  There has been a substantial increase in the number of people combining housing, although it is hard to measure how much, because there are often prohibitions against such things.  More people are leaving homes and looking for rental housing, although many of them have a hard time finding it, because credit ratings are still important.  Meanwhile, the migration rate - the rate of people moving, has dropped like a stone.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, Frey said, as many as 20 percent of Americans moved in any given year. Mobility rates slowed to 15 percent to 16 percent during the 1990s. But in 2008, only 11.9 percent of Americans moved, he said.”

Meanwhile, some people are Adapting in Place without the amenities of utilities, as reports come in that more foreclosed houses are being squatted in by the original owners. 

Many of us, I think will go into these tough times not where we want to be, but where we are. Others will be the “brother in law on the couch” - moving in with family as needed (I’ve got a post in the works on being the BIL on the Couch, btw, for those who have requested it).  It won’t always be the best prepared person who ends up staying in their home, nor will it always be the best home - it may be the person who keeps their job longest or whose mortgage is smallest, or who happens to live in a place where there is still work. 

And while some folks already have the superinsulated straw bale house, the solar panels and everything else, most of us, well, we don’t.  We’re trying to cobble together our infrastructure, hoping desperately for a few more paychecks and discovering what exactly people mean by “red clay” “R-value negligible” or “fixer-upper” in world where there isn’t as much money, time or energy as we’d like. 

My belief is that in most places, for most people, the process of dealing with our collective crisis is going to be messy.  It will not be as graceful, elegant or smooth as we’d like.  It will involve making the best of what we’ve got, and it will probably involve extensive cursing of how we used our last great burst of wealth and energy.

The good news is that there really is a great deal you can do while you curse (far be it from me to suggest people stop cursing - I try not to advise anything I’m not willing to do ;-) ).  Did you always secretly want to be MacGyver, escaping from dangerous agents with baling twine and toilet paper (I’ve never actually seen this show, so I can’t tell if this is an accurate description, but I gather from pop culture references that it was something of the sort)?  Well, think what happens if you manage to survive peak oil, climate change and economic collapse with nothing but 1960s split level ranch, the stuff you can dumpster dive and your paycheck.  It may not be elegant, but you’ve got to admit, it is interesting.

Anyway, there’s no need to despair if you didn’t yet get the money to buy land, if the eco-village turned you down because you still use regular toilet paper, or if your present version of community mostly involves the local brewpub.  There’s probably land that’s underused around you, toilet paper can presumably be used for some MacGyver-like purpose, and beer remains the universal solvent to resistance to forming useful community groups.  Use what you have.  Adapt in place.


18 Responses to “Adapting In Place Is Not a Choice For Most of Us”

  1. Rain23 says:

    Bless you for this. This is what my family is already doing perforce,
    in a 1 bedroom apartment in the city, and it’s a challenge. It’s nice to
    see a viewpoint besides “You people in the city/on the grid/without a
    doomstead are all lost.” No, we’re not. We’re making the city adapt
    around us in fits and starts, not always gracefully or successfully, but
    we are doing it.

    I hope to live long enough to hear a child say “Great Auntie,
    is it true when you were little everyone had grass in front of their
    house but they didn’t let you have goats or chickens, and they
    wouldn’t let you grow food?” I’m going to wave my cane and say
    “Yes, that is true. But we garlic-growing, fresh-air-laundry-hanging
    rebels started this revolution, you see…”

  2. Jenn says:

    One thing I’m trying to do right now is to set up my apartment in a way that will allow people to stay with me if they need to, and (more likely) will allow me to move out (and in with family, most likely) if I need to. This means stocking up on useful things, but trying not to spend much money on things that can’t or won’t be moved if the time comes.

    Given that my family isn’t really thinking about preparedness, it’s an interesting balancing act, especially in terms of thinking about what multiple people will need and whether that stuff will be at all transportable if and when the time comes. Unfortunately, kilos of beans, piles of wool blankets, low-energy kitchen appliances, and everything else don’t move all that easily without a big truck with gas in it. But, as always, there’s hope and, more than hope, there’s necessity. And whether it’s messy or not (and I agree that it’s far more likely to be the former than the latter),we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.

  3. Mo says:

    Great thoughts Sharon, applicable to so many of us who have all the best intentions, and yet seldom enough time/ money/ energy to implement them. This has to be an inclusive process for us all to pursue in any way that we can, whether big, or seemingly rather small.

  4. risa b says:

    When they start bulldozing whole neighborhoods for lack of tenancy, like in Detroit, get down to City Hall and fight to reclaim all that as farm land. It’s a start. Why have tent cities full of idle misery when we could have polytunnel villages in the same spots??

  5. Andrea says:

    Add a wad of chewing gum and a rusty paper clip to your baling twine and toilet paper and you’ve totally got the idea behind MacGyver. Wow. Could he work a mullet LOL.

  6. Heather G says:

    Definitely seeing that around here too.

    MacGyver was also into eating healthy food and building community ;)

  7. Avec Frites says:

    Actually, toilet paper will be one of things in short supply.

    If we’re going to adapt in place in our split-level houses, the most important thing is to get the neighbors on board. If everyone can share tools, watch the free-range children, keep an eye out for strangers, swap food for wood, etc., then a neighborhood has a much better change of surviving. The challenge so far is getting anyone (not “everyone”, but “anyone”) to take seriously the notion of long-term decline, so we can accelerate the learning and sharing process.

    So, what I’d like to read more about is:
    1) How one molds a (say 100 house) neighborhood into a kind-of-self-contained village — what does it look like when it’s working; and
    2) How one starts the process without everyone thinking you’re a nut and refusing to have play dates with your kids?

  8. Susan says:

    Darn, Andrea beat me to it…but you forgot the tic tacs. Great as incendiary devices when ground up and placed into the paper from the chewing gum.

    That really was a great show, too bad he was such a $h!t in real life.

    My middle son and his girlfriend are back living with her mom, about 25 miles from me. They used to have goats, chickens, rabbits, and a very large garden. They don’t any more because her mom can’t afford the water bill. I have actually thought about buying the rabbits and planting the garden, and paying the extra in water for them so that I could use the land — it seems a shame that it goes to waste. I keep our house stocked with bedding, towels, food, places to sleep etc. on the chance that I may be having more people living with us at some point. There’s no place for us to go, other than to my husband’s dad’s house 45 miles away but he’s over his head in mortgage payments and there’s NO place to grow food so I would rather squat here if need be.

  9. Malin says:


    I really see the point of learning to adopt in place - the no-choice for many. Still if I think of a map, where most people live and where droughts/floods/etc are increasing, it would make sense for those who can to move back to the rural areas.

    If we can choose which couch to surf, can we find relatives or friends in rainy agricultural regions?


  10. Jerry says:

    It is not to hard for me to adapt to living in place because it’s the only place I,ve ever lived. I have about 100 acres of good farmland some wet and some dry so its a good mix in both dry and wet years. I,m also ashamed to admit that although I know a lot about cows I have no knowledge of working animals. We as a nation have lost so much knowledge of how to survive in an oil short world. I think back of my grandfather who passed away 23 years ago and all the knowledge that he had on working horses. At least I pasture my cows coming full circle to the way they farmed around here 60 years ago.

    We also have a large brick farmhouse that could fit plenty of people if times get really rough. They of course would have to help run the farm.

  11. AnneT says:

    We bought the house we have nearly 14 years ago because it was on a 160′ by 55′ lot and I could walk to work from it. We could also walk to downtown and about 80% of the shopping we do. The house is paid off — we put in more in bumper payments each year than we did in actual mortgage+taxes payments and got it paid off in ten years — we could afford it because I had a very good job and we were able to sell off some property (we had to buy the house from scratch initially because I couldn’t sell our old house in another city right away and we also were carrying a high interest loan on a business loan) by the third year we were into it. We had to replace the major roof, do extensive renovations, go from 100 amp service to 200 amp and gradually move to better appliances because the ones we got with the house died. We paid $75,000 for the place and that was $5000 less than we had credit room for. Fortunately my husband qualified for a “first-time home owner’s” subsidy on the down payment — I’d gotten the other house before we married.

    I grew up working-class (and on a farm — we didn’t own, my father was a hired worker) so I’ve been adverse to heavy debt and carrying debt for a long time. That house was the longest debt I ever had. I’m good with math and always kept financial records. It served us well.

    I did the homestead thing for a while in Nova Scotia over thirty years ago. Then my first husband and I split and sold the place. I got another, moved a house on to it, lost it in a property line dispute, and went on to computer work and living in cities. In Sault Ste Marie I lived 20 minutes out of town and hated having to have a car to go to work, shopping, cultural events, etc. For me solving the rural/urban conundrum meant getting a small house on a big lot in a small city where I could walk or bike to most everything.

    I started adopting in place about 14 years ago! The two years before I retired I made the garden side of things a big capital investment. Doing more with it now involves a lot of creative reuse (people still throw good things out), bargain hunting, and investing my time and energy in projects.

    Capital investment this year (with some savings and grants) is to making the house tighter and more energy efficient. Ontario and the Canadian government has some good rebates for that sort of work — so we’re taking advantage of it.

  12. Julien Peter Benney says:

    Interesting thought.

    Have you realised the problems Australia’s farmers, the most efficient in the world, will face as global warming turns their wheatfields into deserts where the only rainfall occurs when wheat is not growing? What irrigation farmers will do once the Murray and Murrumbidge go years without a drop of runoff is a similar dilemma.

    Your point that people are becoming less mobile is true, though I am less sure whether it applies to Australia where development laws are less restrictive. However, the water shortages of southern Australia’s cities are worse than those farmers face, and the soils of the well-watered north have proved an insurmountable obstacle to farming since long before European settlement.

  13. Sharon says:

    I agree there will be a lot of migrants, but I’m not actually sure this precludes adapting in place - a lot of people aren’t ready or able to leave their place yet, and will only do so when the situation gets dire - that is, they will adapt in place as long as they can, and then migrate. Others will migrate earlier, and then adapt in place. It isn’t really an either/or thing, so much as a continuum.


  14. andy says:

    we migrated 6years ago, are building food forests, and have bought yurts and caravans so we can house up to 20 family members and friends.

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