Skip to content
Equinox greetings: pioneers, arbitrageurs, and river rats
March 19, 2024 11:06 pm ET
March 19, 2024

From a young age, I was raised to leave home. No one ever explicitly said to me, “You should move away from this place where you’re growing up and find a new place of your own,” but somehow I internalized that message so thoroughly that my 18th birthday was the last day I considered myself living in my “hometown.” Most people in the world are raised to have the opposite perspective. When adults say to children, “This is your home,” the “and you will live nearby for the rest of your life” part is usually so obvious that it remains unspoken.

Observing distinctions between those who leave and those who stay, those whose eyes are always on the horizon and those who notice what’s nearby, those who start new things and those who maintain and repair existing ones is hardly new. But in the context of a warming planet, the already complicated relationships between these groups will largely determine both how peaceful and prosperous the world is in the future—and how much land is worth.

Pioneers and River Rats

My hometown was Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I tell this to people who aren’t from Ann Arbor, they ask cheerily, “Did you go to the University of Michigan?” No—I wanted out. When I meet someone from Ann Arbor, however, the conversation starts differently. They ask: “Did you go to Pioneer or Huron?” 

I doubt that I ever gave much conscious thought to the names of the two big high schools in my hometown when I was young, but I now see them as brilliant distillations of American ambivalence to place. The American dream and the American model of local economic development (it’s always called “development”) is a dynamic tension between moving and staying. And today, exactly 200 years after Ann Arbor was officially founded in 1824, the big high schools are still sending the city’s children mixed messages.

The first high school in Ann Arbor was opened in 1856. Signaling Ann Arbor’s politics at the time and in the future, it was called the Union School. After the Civil War, the school was renamed Ann Arbor High School. At some point, the school chose a nickname for its students and graduates, an identity for its teams, a mascot: the Pioneers.

The school’s name honors the presumably brave, farsighted, wise people who came to Ann Arbor when it was supposedly vacant, full of unrealized potential. Valorizing pioneers is as old as the United States itself, but it’s an interesting choice for a school identity. To be a pioneer is to be the first to explore or settle a new area. Pioneers are the people who aren’t satisfied with where they live, who don’t think it’s worth staying, and who would rather go out to parts unknown in search of prosperity. Of course, the term can be metaphorical, as one could pioneer new fields of inquiry, new approaches to things, etc., but the logo of the Pioneers is hardly metaphorical. Two cows pull a covered wagon. A man in a hat walks with the cattle, and two figures, presumably a woman and a child, ride in the wagon as it makes its way toward some hopefully better future somewhere else.

Despite Ann Arbor High’s encouragement to move to the frontier, the city grew decade after decade as more people, like my parents, moved there from elsewhere. Here is a graph of Ann Arbor’s population from 1860 to 2023 when it reached 122,000:

By the 1960s, the growing city needed a second high school. A location was chosen on the banks of the Huron River, and in 1968 the new school was christened Huron High. Across town were the Pioneers of the renamed Pioneer High. Administrators decided that Huron High should be home of the Hurons, members of the Indigenous Huron-Wyandot Nation, whom pioneers in New York, Ohio, Ontario, Quebec, and Michigan had pushed out of temperate, fertile lands and killed with weapons and disease. It shouldn’t be a surprise in that era of rebellion and political protest that this name didn’t go over well with the students. Instead, they embraced a rebellious identity. From the Ann Arbor School District’s website:

Before the school even opened, [Pioneer] students who were not going to be relocated to Huron came up with the nickname “River Rat.” They used the name as a joke to refer to their newly rivaled classmates who would attend a school built on the Huron River and near an old medical waste site. But the Huron students turned the joke around, and they, too, began referring to themselves with pride as River Rats.

Unlike the earnest Pioneer Pioneers, the Huron River Rats logo was cartoony and defiant. It reminded me of the character Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s beloved novel The Wind in the Willows. Ratty loves the river and the area around it. He is constantly extolling the virtues of life on the river. When the waters rise and flood his home, he repairs and rebuilds without considering leaving.


Decisions like where to build a school, how big a school to build, and how much money to invest in education for a community’s children feature prominently in local politics. Nearly every local and state government in the developed world seeks to make their city or region more prosperous for its residents and attractive to migrants who would bring money and activity with them. They hope their city attracts people who explore and turns them into people who tend. The playbook to make a town a “winner” developed over the past couple of centuries. It goes like this:

  1. People settle in a location because there is something attractive about it.
  2. Once their settlement reaches a certain scale, they create a government of some kind.
  3. The government and developers borrow money from outside the location to build infrastructure, housing, and commercial buildings.
  4. Through advertising and word of mouth, signals are sent to the wider world that life is good in the location.
  5. People and businesses in other places are enticed to move away from their current locations to this place.
  6. In-migrants take out mortgages to buy land and buildings from the government and developers.
  7. The in-migrants become committed residents and invest not just in their homes but in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities.
  8. Children grow up wanting to stay.
  9. Property values rise.
  10. The government and developers repay their loans with proceeds from sales, fees, rent, and taxes.
  11. Repeat 3 through 10 forever.

Fueled by the expansion of the university, Ann Arbor was a moderate success story, but nearby Detroit was a boomtown. A small group of pioneers had settled on the Detroit River, and some of them made machines, including boats and bicycles. William Ford emigrated from Ireland, married the daughter of Belgian immigrants, bought farmland near Detroit, and had a bunch of children. The eldest son, Henry, hated rural life and loved machines. He moved to the city to apprentice as a machinist, later learned to operate steam engines, and eventually developed combustion engine automobiles that transformed the city, broader civilization, and the atmosphere. 

It is hard to imagine how promising the future must have seemed in Detroit, as high wages and hype lured more than a million people to the city between 1910 and 1950. Among them were Berry Gordy II and his wife, Bertha. In his 20s, their son, Berry Gordy III, found several gifted musicians among the new, young Detroiters like himself. In a matter of years, Motown Records was a global business.

Detroit was the model modern city, the fourth biggest in the country, and still rising. Motown (as the whole city was quickly branded) was a place where restless people elsewhere could imagine a better future. 

Today, the fastest-growing part of the country is Florida. Here is the state’s population, which is now at 23 million: 

This is the kind of trend that attracts hype. From the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s website:

Florida’s story is just beginning… While agriculture, tourism, and construction continue to serve as the foundation of Florida’s economy, our increasingly global economy is setting the stage for a more diversified economy through life sciences and biotech, energy, international trade, advanced manufacturing, and space technologies.

By 2030, Florida is expected to be home to more than 4 million new residents. Nearly 5 million new drivers will commute on our roads and cars will drive themselves. More than 150,000 million visitors will travel our roads and many on high-speed trains. And Florida will need to create and fill nearly 2 million new jobs.

Graphs that go up and to the right are exciting. It is easy and fun to extrapolate, to imagine how past success is a stepping stone to more. But what if the cycle of optimism leading to investment leading to more optimism is disrupted? What if there are new, unanticipated costs? What if what drew people to the place (e.g., mild weather) changes? 

When cities face decisions about how to prepare for climate change, its residents will need to commit—show up to the meetings, volunteer on committees, and pay taxes. If new residents were promised smooth sailing, how will they react when they discover more risk than return?  What if, having recently felt the thrill of moving, of breaking ground in a new place, of seizing a new opportunity, of getting in on a good thing, the Pioneers and their children keep looking to the horizon for something better? What if they don’t settle, don’t build networks and communities, don’t become river rats? When the going starts getting a bit tougher, who will stay put, and who will split town?

I am particularly interested in Florida because I wonder both what will make people start actually planning for the well-known climate risks and what will happen when the millions of recent migrants are asked to start doing anything inconvenient. When I hear governments and chambers of commerce aggressively promise prospective migrants a future of comfort, prosperity, low regulation, and very low taxes while refusing to acknowledge climate change, I wonder if people are noticing the mascots of Florida’s marquee colleges: the University of Florida Gators, the Florida State Seminoles, and the Miami Hurricanes. They include a dangerous tropical reptile that has survived 37 million years and would thrive in a hotter, wetter climate, an Indigenous tribe that was decimated by fortune-seeking pioneers, and a type of storm that is growing more powerful as the ocean and atmosphere warm.

Picking winners and losers

It’s tempting to put people into two categories—pioneering Pioneers and committed River Rats—but there are also people who are simply doing cost-benefit analysis. They are not concerned with joining a community, let alone building, strengthening, or repairing one. They are simply arbitrageurs—free agents moving for a better deal, for lower taxes, for less obligation, for good vibes only. Even if the locals decide to commit to a place, financiers—professional arbitrageurs—may decide that the place’s future isn’t so bright and back away. As climate change increases costs, risks, and uncertainties, everyone may be forced to follow the money. 

This January my colleague, Alison Smart, and I went to Park City, Utah. We had been invited by JP Morgan’s Real Estate investment banking division to speak to and spend time with 70 CEOs who ran large companies that owned and/or managed all manner of real estate enterprises: retirement homes, nursing homes, self storage facilities, marinas, apartment buildings, logistics centers, warehouses, etc. We figured that if we could give this audience some climate literacy, help them understand the stakes of their decisions, and get them to start talking with one another about the challenges posed by climate change and the ways we can prepare for it, we could do some good. 

We started our presentation with a quick review of the roadmap for successful local economic development. And then we reviewed how local economies go bust:

  1. Aging/failing infrastructure and social programs require more spending
  2. Governments increase taxes and fees
  3. The perception of the location to outsiders stops being so positive
  4. In-migration slows
  5. Property prices stop rising/fall
  6. Construction jobs disappear
  7. People and businesses sell/leave (the rich usually leave first)
  8. Government revenues fall, limiting the ability to maintain infrastructure and social programs.
  9. Repeat 1 through 8 until bankrupt

The audience was engaged and inquisitive as we explained how infrastructure and all institutions were built on the assumption of a stable climate. We explained why new ranges of heat, precipitation, drought, etc., would strain infrastructure and increase risks. A CEO whose company owns senior living facilities across the US asked, “Is this why I now have to go to London to get insurance?” Another asked, “Is this why our brand-new facility in Florida can’t get any insurance?” A third told me about how the insurance bill for his home in Texas had gone up from $10,000 a year to $100,000 a year. He explained that he had negotiated his insurance down to $30,000 a year, but to do so he had to accept a $1 million deductible. “It’s a big house, and I can afford it, but I don’t know what other people in the area are going to do,” he said.

At the last equinox, I wrote about insurance markets. Since then, the issue has been in the mainstream news quite a bit. What I haven’t seen in the news, however, is a specific explanation of how more expensive insurance affects home values. This winter, the climate risk company FirstStreet held a webinar during which it did the simple, profound math of how much a changing insurance bill means.

In the “Current” column of the below table, FirstStreet took a representative property that generates $21,000 in annual rent, has an insurance bill of $1,436, and has other costs (property taxes, fees, maintenance costs, etc.) of $4,734. It applied a capitalization rate (reflective of the opportunity cost of providing financing for the property) of 5%. Through a net operating income model, it calculated that the property is worth $296,600. This is all representative of the median home in much of Florida.

In the neighboring column, it calculated the change in value of the property if insurance costs go from $1,436 to $3,200, reflecting changes that have already happened in much of Florida. The property’s value falls by $35,280. In the third column, it made two changes: It readjusted the insurance rate for the expected increase in insurance from fully pricing in future risks (up to $5,426), and it adjusted the capitalization rate from 5% to 6%. The latter change reflects the likelihood that investors will see these returns as fundamentally more risky and demand a higher rate of return. These two changes cause the value of the property to fall by a massive 39%.

The only unrealistic part of the above exercise is the “Other building costs” line, which remains steady, presumably far into the future. The increase in insurance costs represents a change in flood, wildfire, or other risk. Like most similar analyses, the FirstStreet exercise implies that this change in costs is isolated, specific to this property. In reality, owning real estate involves sharing responsibility for the infrastructure in the city, town, and state. As climate change weakens infrastructure, either someone is going to pay for the new costs of climate stress (cleaning up after floods or fires, retrofitting buildings, repairing and replacing water, electricity, and transportation infrastructure, etc.), or the infrastructure will deteriorate and fail. Either way, costs will rise.

Snow as wealth

Clinical spreadsheets with big negative numbers are the opposite of lines that go up and to the right. They focus the attention of decision-makers. Yet there is also something unreal about them. Everyone knows that they can be manipulated, the assumptions are too simplifying, and there might be more to the story. That’s what talking to investors about climate change used to be like: They could see data on a screen, but it felt abstract and theoretical. Connecting people to climate change in vivid, resonant, useful ways is why we founded Probable Futures. We help people see how changes in the physical world will affect them and their communities. At this conference, we invited the attendants to consider their immediate surroundings: the Stein Eriksen Lodge, the luxury resort named after a world champion skier, where the event was held. 

Utah’s state motto is a registered trademark: the Greatest Snow on Earth. When we arrived in Salt Lake City this January, home to the 2002 Winter Olympics, it was 42°F and drizzling, there was no snow on the ground, and we couldn’t see the higher mountains because they were shrouded in fog. Over the ensuing four days, the temperatures in Park City (elevation 8,800 ft.) dipped below freezing only at night. That same week, a paper by Justin Mankin and Alexander Gottlieb at Dartmouth University was published in the journal Nature. The authors explain that predicting mountain snowpack has been tricky for climate models, as snow formation is a complex process, and while rising temperatures generally reduce snowfall, they can occasionally go the other way, since warmer air can contain more moisture. This much was well-known in the science community. What got the paper into Nature is their finding that above a certain temperature threshold, it gets a lot easier to predict the future. In their words:

Most crucially, we show a generalizable and highly nonlinear temperature sensitivity of snowpack, in which snow becomes marginally more sensitive to one degree Celsius of warming as climatological winter temperatures exceed minus eight degrees Celsius. Such nonlinearity explains the lack of widespread snow loss so far and augurs much sharper declines and water security risks in the most populous basins. 

In other words, once the average winter temperature of a place rises above -8°C (18°F), snowpack starts declining irreversibly, with losses accelerating with each further increment of warming. Utah’s mountain ranges used to be slightly below that threshold—cold enough to build snowpack but warm enough to get lots of snow—but are now above it. 

Snowpack is a form of wealth for billions of people around the world. Reserves of frozen water build up during the colder half of the year and melt gradually during the warmer half, filling rivers in sunny lands. Water supply for billions of people and farms, including all the folks in Utah, has come from snowpack for millennia. From an article in The Atlantic:

“We’re in for a bad time,” Brian McInerney, a former senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Salt Lake City, Utah, told me over the phone after reading Gottlieb and Mankin’s paper. “Just look at the Great Salt Lake, look at Lake Powell, look at Lake Mead.” All of those water bodies—the last two are crucial reservoirs for the West—have been in dire straits for years. Utah [has] already leaped over the snow-loss cliff described in the paper and is now in free fall.

You can see this change for yourself in the map of average winter temperature below from the Probable Futures website. The areas in green are below the -8°C (18°F) threshold, while those in blue are above it. Move the slider back and forth to see the change from 0.5°C (1971-2000) and 1.5°C which the world breached last year. 

The implications of decreasing snowpack for life as we know it in much of the world are mind-boggling in their complexity and importance. The implications for skiing aren’t nearly as hard to think through. 

I asked one of the investment bankers if he knew the value of the Stein Eriksen Lodge. “This is a $2 million a key property,” he told me. With about 180 rooms, that makes it a $360 million investment that depends primarily on snow. 

Pioneers keep pioneering

Powered by cars and music, Detroit’s fortunes seemed bright. But all of those people moving to one place in a hurry turned out to have different views of what their futures should be and how hard they should try to get along. Many of the people who built houses in Detroit made more money and decided to build new, bigger houses in areas just outside Detroit where taxes were low. This weakened the city’s tax base. The demographics of the city started changing, and, instead of integrating new in-migrants gracefully and profitably, both fight and flight accelerated. Detroit started having hard times. The city still had so much going for it, surely people would stay committed, work together, and get the city back on track. Instead, the city’s population, which peaked around 1.8 million and is now down to slightly more than 600,000.

A recent paper by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia informs this question. The authors asked: Are some people just more likely to move than others? For example, in the case of Detroit, was there something about all the people there that made them particularly likely to leave?

At all ages and skill levels, Americans living in their birthplaces are significantly less likely to migrate than transplants from other places. Moreover, the intensity of one’s home attachment predicts differential migration rates among natives. More deeply “rooted” natives, measured as those born to locally-born parents, are less likely to leave than unrooted natives.

Detroit is still associated with the Supremes, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Vandellas, and The Pips, but Motown Records started moving to Los Angeles in 1969, less than 10 years after the company was incorporated. Almost every single one of its artists quickly followed. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been surprising. While Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, and others grew up in or near Detroit, all of their parents, like the Gordys, had been born in the South and had only moved north recently. Marvin Gaye, the members of The Temptations, Gladys Knight, and others had only moved to Detroit to be part of the profitable music scene that Berry Gordy III was helping create. The migration paper notes that in the 1960s, Los Angeles residents were almost all newcomers. Fewer than 20% of the US-born residents of the city had even been born in California.

HOA Pioneers!

Part of the romance of pioneering in 18th- to 20th-century North America was the sense of exploring a frontier. In superficial stories, through hard, noble work, rugged individuals and families tame wild land, grow food for sustenance and income, and build homes. When looked at closely, however, it’s startling how many of these stories are fundamentally about money. At the beginning of Willa Cather’s great novel O Pioneers!, a drought is bankrupting farmers in Nebraska. Most of the characters are constantly considering moving somewhere where life might be easier. One family decides to remortgage their farm to buy out several neighbors, betting that the drought will end. The climate cooperates, and they wind up prosperous. Even so, life remains difficult, and most of the characters continue to dream of leaving. Cather is forever associated with the prairie, but she was born in Virginia and only lived in rural Nebraska from ages 9 to 16 before moving first to Lincoln, Nebraska, then to Pittsburgh to write for Home Monthly magazine, and then to New York City to be in the center of publishing.

Today, few people who move into new American houses could be called pioneers. For one thing, the frontier is long gone—trampled, uprooted, and developed. If anything, it would likely be better for future generations if we rewilded land and expanded forests. Yet populations continue to grow, many people want to leave their hometowns, and it is often easier and cheaper to build new housing in places where no one is around. The early pioneers were sold tall tales of easy farming and pleasant weather, but they understood that they had to do the work. Today, developers assure prospective buyers that they will have relatively few responsibilities. The HOA will take care of the rest. 

Over 80% of the new homes built in the last decade in the fastest-growing states in the US are in homeowners associations (HOA). The HOA is a fascinating legal innovation. A property developer buys a large parcel of land on the edge of a city or town and proposes to build an entire neighborhood. For the town, this is quite attractive, because, in addition to building and landscaping the houses, the developer does almost all of the work that government would have had to do in the past: Install the sanitary sewers and the storm sewers, connect the water system, grade and pave the roads, and build community amenities like swimming pools and parks. For the developer, this system is attractive because the entire project can be coordinated and houses can be standardized and built at scale, which limits complications. Buyers like HOAs because they can purchase a new house in a neighborhood in which everything is brand-new. Presumably repairs and replacement costs will be low, and homes will be easy to sell when it’s time to move again.

The Villages, a planned retirement community in Central Florida
Developed suburbs at the edge of land in Scottsdale, Arizona

Yet a homeowners association is more than a mere “association.” It’s a quasi-government whose constitution was written by the developers who sold the homes to the owners. The HOA is responsible for upkeep and repairs of the shared spaces like sidewalks, trees, etc. They are usually also responsible for the roads, sewers, and water supply, and sometimes even the electricity supply. What if the roads melt and buckle when temperatures rise beyond past ranges? What if more intense rainfall overwhelms the storm sewer and floods homes? What if the trees all die because they are not suited to the new climate? What if water supply turns out to be a problem? All of this is the HOA’s problem, not the municipality’s. Importantly, what if all of these problems could have been avoided? I spoke with a lawyer recently and asked if HOAs and their members could sue developers for negligence if they didn’t consult publicly available climate data, leaving the HOA members to repair or replace expensive infrastructure. “That’s basic tort law,” she replied.

I didn’t get a chance to talk with any of the CEOs of homebuilding companies at the real estate conference. I wanted to know if they were using climate data to inform their choices of building materials, grades of asphalt, capacity of storm sewers, species of trees, size of heating and cooling systems, and locations for development. Were they factoring in prospective heat, drought, flood, and fire risks? It would probably seem reasonable for them to answer, “We just build and sell. We don’t have long time horizons.” I don’t think the courts will agree. Ten years ago, when people would ask me what profession would be in high demand in the future, I would reply, “HVAC technician.” Now I say, “HVAC technician and property lawyer.” 

Home values

When people ask where I live now, I tell them that my wife, Lisa, and I have lived on the same block in Boston’s South End neighborhood for 29 years. It’s a way of signaling that we committed to this place, that we consider it home. Yet their first reaction is almost always about prices. The brash among them come right out and ask, “How much did you pay for your place, and what’s it worth now?”

I get it. While talking about “unseasonable” weather has grown awkward, talking about real estate prices has grown commonplace. I fully confess to checking out other people’s homes on Zillow. Still, I used to stubbornly avoid talking about money and tell people that we moved to the South End not because we expected prices to go up but because we loved the sense of community and diversity. Our neighbors were eccentric and full of surprise. Our street had bake sales and spring-cleaning sales to pay for repairs to the common areas. We had block parties and potlucks. It was fun, and we were in it together.

Increasingly, however, I answer them directly: “Prices have gone up, but it wasn’t a great financial investment.” In fact, had I not wound up in an unexpectedly lucrative job, we would have had to sell long ago. I explain that our building was built by developers who put up thousands of row houses at the same time in the late 1840s and early 1850s. It was reasonably well-built, but the maintenance over the ensuing 170 years was often terrible. Lisa and I decided from the beginning that we would invest in the house so that it could last another 170 years, so that it could withstand the stresses of the future. We had no idea how expensive that would prove to be. 

When we renovated the small backyard, we installed cisterns, French drains, and backflow valves so that neither heavy rain nor overwhelmed sewers would cause flooding. We bought out our upstairs neighbor because he was preventing our HOA from replacing the leaking, structurally damaged roof. We went to Boston City Hall to get the first permits in our neighborhood for solar panels on the roof and made other efficiency improvements. And we paid taxes, condo fees, insurance, and all other manner of costs to live here. If you take what we paid to buy the unit and what we have spent since, you get a number pretty close to what realty websites calculate our place is worth. 

Yet having put all of this effort, care, and money into the home where I am now sitting, Lisa and I wonder if we are pioneers turned river rats, arbitrageurs, or simply people who don’t know where they should live. Only a few of the folks who lived on our block or even in our neighborhood twenty years ago are still here, and none of the kids we watched grow up are nearby. Even our most committed neighbors were pushed out by higher rents or sold their homes to secure a retirement. People come and go in the city. Indeed, even Boston’s mayor and many of our local friends are, like us as well as the Motown greats, transplants whose parents had moved as well.

I was recently invited to speak to the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. This is a group of CEOs of local companies together with religious, political, and cultural leaders. The commission’s website states: “The Green Ribbon Commission accelerates Boston toward a climate-safe, carbon-free, equitable future.” This ethos is a big part of why Lisa and I have stayed in Boston. Those are good, forward-looking ideals. As I prepared for my talk, I investigated the commission’s members’ pasts. Were they locals? It turned out that all but two of them had grown up somewhere else. Like me, they want to stay and make the city resilient. But it won’t be easy, especially as both temperatures and the Atlantic Ocean rise.

We need bigger rainy day funds

The heaviest snowstorms tend to occur when temperatures are a few degrees below freezing: cold enough for snow but warm enough for the air to hold quite a lot of moisture. Just a bit of global warming can transform storms that used to bury roads into ones that flood homes. 

Kids in Massachusetts went to bed on January 9, 2024, excited for a snow day. The decision to cancel school was made when forecasters said that the high winds off the ocean and temperatures slightly below freezing would bring between six and ten inches of snow. I awoke before dawn to the sound of heavy rain. Temperatures had stayed above freezing. I went downstairs to my home office to check the US Geological Survey’s website, which offers frequently updated estimates of water table levels. Unfortunately, there isn’t a monitoring site near our house, so I chose a few other locations. They were surging. Here’s the graph from January 1 to January 16 for a town further south whose homes sit at about the same elevation as where we live:

The blue line is the level of the water table. The gray, dashed line is the historical median level of the water for that day. At midnight on January 10, the water table in this location was 8.19 feet below the ground. Twelve hours later, it was three feet higher. A few days later, more rain fell, and the water table surged another foot in just a few hours. A friend who works on climate change texted me from his kid’s basketball game about the conversations among the parents on the sidelines: “Everyone’s basement is flooded.” I think it’s worth noting that these flooded basements were flooded from below. Lisa and I got lucky. The water table just barely reached the level of the tiled hallway floor when the tide was at its peak and the ocean was refusing to let the rain flow into the sea. I had to do a little bit of mopping, but there was no damage.

A few days later, I met someone who asked me where I lived. I told them. They had the typical “what a great investment” response. I was surprised to find that instead of being annoyed, I was relieved. I realized that subconsciously I was preparing for the question everyone in low-lying areas will be asking before long: “Does your place flood?” 

Avoiding stereotypes and embracing hybrids

Climate change poses a challenge to civilization. If we fail, I think it will be because we succumb to inflexible ideas and opposed identities. When I contemplate the current prevalence of brutal rivalries, divisions, and hatred, I am reminded of the art critic Dave Hickey who wrote:

There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers… and farmers hate pirates.

If we don’t engage with climate change, pioneers and arbitrageurs will lurch from place to place, fleeing a rising tide of trouble and chasing dwindling fortunes. Actual farmers will keep trying to grow the same crops in the same fields, and metaphorical ones will build bigger and bigger fences to keep out desperate migrants. River rats will go broke rebuilding after each predictable flood, fire, drought, or heat wave. And piracy will be an increasingly attractive business. 

But climate change is anticipatable and comprehensible. We just need to bring it into our lives. Well-informed investors, owners, and residents and well-regulated markets can produce price signals that decrease risk and reward resilience. Climate-aware agriculture can connect farmers to the land, to science, to cooks, and to one another. And clear-eyed citizens and government officials can honestly debate how to help people whose homelands no longer sustain them.

Over dinner on my last night in Utah, a young CEO asked me the question that wealthy people most frequently ask: “What places are the biggest winners and losers from climate change?” In this instance I had a moment of clarity. Yes, there are some places that will almost certainly have to be abandoned. But for everywhere else, the future depends only partially on what the climate will do. The bigger uncertainty is how people will engage with climate change. I gave an answer that went something like this: “The biggest losers will be places where people in power aren’t committed, the wealthy sell and split town, and the insights from climate science are used by professional arbitrageurs who are doing their jobs but not by HOA board members or government officials who are failing at theirs. The winners will be places where leaders take their responsibilities seriously, chitchat about flooding, heat, snow, water, and fire leads to substantial conversations and good decisions, and the adults work together to prepare all the children in the community for the futures that lie ahead. It’s less about where to go and more about how to get along.”

Strong identities present people as one-dimensional individuals, but we are all complex, both in our personalities and in our connections. Consider the person who just moved into a new house in a new development. She is simultaneously a homeowner, a neighbor, an HOA member, and a citizen of a municipality, a state, and a nation. She is probably also a friend, an employee, a consumer, and—in at least some small way—an investor. There are multiple places and people to ask, “How is climate change likely to affect things we care about?” “What am I/are we doing to prepare, adapt, and be more resilient?” “Whom can I/we help?” and even “What should I/we plant?” These are the questions I encourage you to ask of the people in your home, neighborhood, social organization, workplace, city council, or anywhere else. Maybe even at your high school reunion.

I did not attend either Pioneer or Huron High. Instead, I went to Greenhills, a small school that was then a somewhat experimental haven for nerdy misfits. How nerdy? Not only were we not particularly good at sports, but the mascot was a gryphon—a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head, wings, and talons of an eagle—a hybrid of two fearsome beasts that intimidated no one.

Thank you for reading. I hope the coming season brings you joy.




The website Massey Ratings offers an online mascot database. Among American high schools, there are 106 Pioneers, Huron-Ann Arbor is the only home of River Rats, and there are 256 Pirates, 12 Farmers, and 15 Gryphons.

My favorite pieces of visual art about moving are the paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. If you have a chance to see them in person, I highly recommend it.

My father gave me North Woods by Daniel Mason, which tells the stories of the people, plants, animals, and ghosts that inhabit a particular plot of land in Western Massachusetts from the 17th century into the future. It’s a remarkable and enjoyable book.

Pirates and Farmers by Dave Hickey. Note: I strongly prefer and recommend Hickey’s book Air Guitar.

If you wonder what investing in climate adaptation looks like, consider this project, reported on by Bloomberg: “Spain’s Catalonia Is Spending $2.6 Billion to Survive Without Rain”.