Would Vermont be a good place to ride out an apocalypse?
It’s a scary thought, to be sure. Brave Little State considers a few apocalyptic scenarios, including some that have already begun. And: Just how neighborly would we be, really, if the world were ending?
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio above! But we provide a written version of our episode below.
I don’t want anyone to panic, but if you look around right now, it kind of feels like the end of the world.
Between climate change, a pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it’s safe to say we’re not having a utopian experience on this planet we call earth. And I’m not the only one noticing.
“I would end up going rural, you know, like, I’d just go to the middle of the woods and like hoping that nobody contacts me or finds me,” says Morgan Alise, a senior at the University of Vermont.
Morgan, who uses she/they pronouns, says they already have a plan in place, should this stuff get worse: “You know, bring a small group of people with me, obviously, because you have to have resources. [You] can't survive alone. That's literally impossible.”
Or maybe, if you decide to stay on the grid, you’d start drinking. Like Simon Bourque and William Belisle, who I ran into at Four Quarters brewery in Winooski. They’re visiting from Montréal. And they think, if stuff gets worse? Vermont would do alright.
“Well you know, [Vermonters] all have Subarus, all-wheel drive vehicles,” Simon points out. “I think they're good on their own, farming, [stuff] like that. Most of them look like they’re, how do you call that? Not fisherman, the other type. Hunter. So they might be good to survive an apocalypse.”
“For real, Vermont is like our Québec countryside,” William adds. “It's nice. We are home here.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the question…” Simon replies.
The question. Ah yes. A listener wrote into Brave Little State, VPR’s people powered journalism show, nearly two years ago – just as the pandemic was starting – and asked:
“Would Vermont be a good place to ride out an apocalypse?”
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Back at Four Quarters Brewery, William Belisle offers an answer: “Oh, the question, the question if we have an apocalypse, I think this is a good place. You're autosuffisant — how do you say it in English?”
“Self-sufficient,” Simon offers.
The question about how Vermont would fare during an apocalypse came to us anonymously. I wasn’t able to get the asker on the record, but they did email a little more insight as to their reason for asking:
“The question first bubbled into my mind in the early days of the pandemic. If sh— really hit the fan, how would Vermont fare? Winters are long, could we feed ourselves? Heat our homes? What would life be like here if, for one reason or another, we couldn’t rely on the rest of the world for all of the things we take for granted.”
The word apocalypse begins at the beginning. With the Bible. It’s defined by Merriam-Webster as:
“One of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 B.C. to A.D. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.”
Sound familiar? Devastating tornadoes, record floods and outrageous fires throughout the U.S. If there is a higher power, they’re pissed.
So let’s focus on our brave little state, Vermont. How would we do? Turns out, Vermont as an apocalyptic refuge has been thought about before. Even in Hollywood. You might remember this Will Smith classic from 2007:
“The movie I Am Legend came out a bunch of years ago. You have people sort of escaping from this plague filled New York City, to Vermont, because … you know, it's isolated, there's not very many people here,” says Andrew Liptak.
Andrew, who’s from Barre, writes science fiction. And he says he finds that the exercise of writing about the end of the world is like looking into a big scary societal mirror.
“Anytime you're talking about an apocalyptic fiction, you are talking about a type of story that is reflected on the concerns of the day,” he adds.
So to any of you out there thinking of zombies: I don’t blame you. But I do feel like with things like climate change, a global pandemic and now the possibility of a nuclear war? Zombies are the least of our concerns.
...But real quick, let’s talk a little bit about zombies. In case you’re curious, here are the five best places in Vermont to survive a zombie apocalypse, according to Onlyinyourstate.com, which is, full disclosure, some delicious clickbait. The ranking goes as such:
1. Burton Island
2. Mt. Mansfield
3. The Northeast Kingdom
4. Northwest correctional Facility
5. Green Mountain Coffee Facility
…What? Coffee? I can only assume that copious amounts of caffeine would be vital to staying alert in a zombie apocalypse.
But, back to reality, people here and elsewhere have been navigating man-made versions of an apocalypse for quite some time.
“Even looking back into our past, Indigenous Americans, like, they literally faced that apocalypse, you know, in here in North America and Central America,” says Andrew Liptak. “You know, these things are … not just imaginative things.”
And currently speaking, the fight for survival persists. You can’t turn on the news without hearing about the war being waged on Ukraine and its people. And it’s raising an uncomfortable question for everyone: Do we need to worry about a nuclear apocalypse?
I asked Staff Sergeant Christopher Ward from the Vermont National Guard what would happen in Vermont if a nuclear bomb were dropped in Boston or New York. He couldn’t really answer my question.
“I don't think that even that person at the highest level of that field is going to truly be able to accurately tell us what that's going to look like, or how that's going to impact us,” says Chris. “Because once again, luckily, we haven't had to deal with it, you know?”
Chris is an infantry squad leader at Alpha Company, Third Battalion, which is known as the Mountain Battalion. He cannot tell us much about a nuclear fallout, but he knows a thing or two about survival in extreme conditions. He’s spent a lot of time in the Arctic.
“I guess what drew me to the Arctic, first and foremost, is everything around you is trying to kill you,” Chris says. “It is an extremely adverse area to try to live in, let alone thrive in. And so that unique challenge of the whole world around you not being survivable … You're going to go with a snowmobile, a big sled with your tent, and a stove, some fuel, some food, and a couple changes of clothes. And you're going to go out there, and you're going to survive.
“And the best part about where I'm at in the military hierarchy is sometimes I don't really know how long I'm going to be out there. So best to plan for being out there as long as I can, right?”
It’s hard not to see the similarities between Vermont and the Arctic. They’re both pretty isolated, with a small population and, you know, winter. Lot’s of winter.
“There's only so much wood fuel you can burn to keep yourself warm,” says Dr. Michael Shank. He teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and lives in Montpelier.
When Michael was looking for his next home, he factored in climate refuge. Since moving here, he has seen some trends that worry him that Vermont may not be so safe after all.
“I do think we'll see more storms,” he says. “I mean, we're seeing heavier rains, more flooding, more of this melt, freeze, melt, freeze, melt, freeze in winter, which creates icier conditions, more dangerous conditions, more salt budgets for towns to clear the roads.”
And, he adds, “we’ll see our infrastructure hit harder and harder by increasingly ferocious storms. And so the roads and bridges, repairing those, keeping those up to date is going to be critical.”
To Michael’s point, with the severe uptick in extreme weather, another major concern is surviving Vermont's coldest months. Not everyone has a wood stove and solar panels.
Our reliance on gas and oil imports puts us in a difficult position. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 60% of Vermont households heat with petroleum products.
“How do we be reliant only on the energy we can provide here in the state?” Michael asks. “Because imagine these oil and gas pipelines getting disrupted by conflict or war in the end times, or in a climate change scenario.”
While I was reporting this episode, I met Zachary Cummings, a barista at Scout and Company espresso bar in Winooski.
“I play a few Apocalypse games, such as 'Half Life' or 'Fallout,'" he told me. “And those franchises have just gone into this thinking about what if an apocalypse were to happen and whatnot, and how would our little state and community hold up to those respectively?”
Zachary's not your traditional expert. But even if only virtually, he has spent the past few years thinking about the ability to survive the end of the world.
“I do believe that the Vermont people and our ability and willingness to focus on a local scale — I'm pretty sure Vermont would harbor a pretty good local economy, if a financial apocalypse were to happen as well,” he says.
And Chris Ward from the Guard thinks, if we’re lucky, the fact that we are Vermonters might be our saving grace.
“Vermont as a whole, like the geographic boundaries of Vermont, might not necessarily be the best physical place to run out an apocalypse,” Chris says. “But doing it with Vermonters or as a Vermonter is probably one of your most likely successes, right?"
“So, your ace in the hole," Chris says, "is either being with Vermonters or being a Vermonter yourself.”
Community & sustenance
At the start of the pandemic, when there were concerns about food shortages, BLS did an episode about whether Vermont could feed itself. Back then, we talked to Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens. He said that if we’re just talking straight calories to survive, say, 3,000 per person per day?
“It would only take 50,000 acres of potatoes to provide all the calories for the whole state of Vermont for the whole year, and that’s about a tenth of our total agricultural land.”
So, potatoes. All day, everyday. And also, some corn and kale, as they grow well here too. I know that diet may not sound the most appetizing, but we’re talking about an apocalypse here. Eat the kale.
And we now have experienced something that tests Pete’s theory: a pandemic. It gave us a big picture of what our food systems look like in times of desperate need.
“We were able to get food to people on a curbside delivery in this really scary time. And we were able to let the farmers know that we were there for them, and that we were trying to help them make their markets when everything was shut down,” says Lindsey Berk of ACORN, the Addison County Relocalization Network.
Lindsey says a big part of the reason she lives in Vermont is that she thinks it’ll be a climate refuge.
“I do think Vermont is a good place to ride out any sort of apocalypse,” she says, “whether it be zombie, climate, pandemic or nuclear — well, that’s to be determined, I guess."
A huge part of Lindsey’s job is bridging the gap between farms, distribution avenues and Vermonters. So how would Vermonters eat if the world were ending?
“Worst case scenario, we're gonna have to drive around, we’ve got our Local Food and Farm Guide on paper, so we'll have a map of how to get to all the farms. And we'll make it work on our bicycles, or on our sleds, our horses,” Lindsey says with a laugh. “I don't know how far down this rabbit hole we're going.”
Worse comes to worst, Lindsey says she has some very prepared friends that she can stay with.
“They have all the things. They've got the chest freezers full of meat, and they've got their fruit trees, and they're at the end of a dirt road, where there won't be a lot of people up there,” she says. “And the community up there is pretty solid. People look out for each other."
One through-line I heard while reporting out this episode is that we as Vermonters are kind of famous for looking out for each other. Even our doomsday preppers are community-minded. Well, at least the one that I talked to – and he didn’t even like that phrase.
“I don't consider myself to be a ‘doomsday prepper’ in the traditional sense. I consider myself a teacher,” says Tom Tailer. “I think most people view preppers as people that stockpile guns and ammo and food, and if things get bad, they're going to isolate themselves in their house."
Tom, who lives in Jericho, has taught geology and earth science in the United States and abroad. He considers survival often. But he says that stockpiling food and ammo is not enough.
“Working in community is — in Vermont, there's still a lot of people that know how to store food, can food, salt food, and make venison jerky,” says Tom. “So there's a lot of knowledge in Vermont, people know how to do those things."
“My wife and I have also worked with quite a few refugee families. And people that are from other cultures are much more knowledgeable about different survival skills and different food skills," Tom adds.
I get why Tom doesn’t like the title “doomsday prepper.” I often associate the label with fear. People who are living in fear and preparing for the worst — which sounds like a terribly anxious way to live.
But as we’ve heard, all sorts of apocalypses seem possible right now. So, I wonder: Should we not be afraid? Does fear in fact spark our most primal survival instincts?
Chris Ward again, from the Guard, says survival is a tricky thing.
“How often do I think about the end of the world? I wouldn't say all that often. It's not on the forefront of my brain, I'm not gonna lie to you,” says Chris. “I do think about, very consciously and deliberately, things that could adversely affect me. I don't think about it all that time. And when I do, I guess, it's really just cursorily. Humans aren't a big fan of understanding their own mortality."
Chris says if an apocalypse happens, there are some basic essentials we should be prepared to think about.
“Food, water, shelter — or fire, water, shelter, right? … When I go out, that's what I'm thinking about,” Chris says. “How I'm going to sleep, what the weather is, where I'm going to sleep, how I can make water or make water safe to drink, and how I can either gather food, hunt food, or carry my own food, and when and how I'm going to be able to sparse that out for as long as I need to survive.”
But, Chris says, preparing mentally can be just as important:
“Even outside of the military, there's — some call it a prayer, some call it a saying — but it's thinking about the things that you can affect, right? And the things that you can actually go into and start changing or, you know, reinvest in. And so living within your own circle within your own spectrum, and understanding where you are, and not being so concerned with the things that you can't change."
So, would Vermont be a good place to ride out the apocalypse? After all my reporting, it’s still scary to think about it. But I think Vermont would be a good place. At least, it’s definitely not the worst.
“We have the people, and we care about them, and we have the land, and we care about it,” Chris Ward says. “I think that we're going to be just fine, no matter what the world puts at our plate.”
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Thanks to our anonymous question-asker for the great question.
This episode was reported by VPR News Fellow Marlon Hyde. It was produced and mixed by Myra Flynn, with help from the rest of the Brave Little State team: Josh Crane and Angela Evancie. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Anne Watson and Lt. Nathan R. Rivard of the National Guard.
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