Hold on to your tender civic ego, fattened on four decades of top scores in various “livability” indices. Gallup this month released a new list with a twist: state ratings of future livability, based on "13 metrics encompassing economic, workplace, community, and personal choices.” Those metrics range from “economic confidence” and pace of job creation to how nicely (or not) employers treat workers, whether residents think their city is “getting better” or worse, whether they have easy access to clean drinking water and “a safe place to exercise,” whether they smoke, are obese, or saw a dentist in the past year, and whether they “learned something new yesterday." That last seems a rough measure of the creative and intellectual capital that’s been much touted lately as the engine of civic success.
The shocker: Washington doesn’t even place among the top 10 states overall. It rates highly in many health and lifestyle indicators —third-lowest in smoking, sixth-highest in clean water, eighth in “learning something new,” 10th in managers who “treat you like a partner.” But it ranks much worse in economic outlook and general expectations: 36th in job creation, 32nd in share of workers with full-time jobs, 34th in perceived standard of living, and 22nd in whether a city or area is generally “getting better” or not.
Crunch these all together and Washington comes in 12th among the states, just behind Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Dakota and narrowly ahead of Kansas, which never got such plaudits since Dorothy clicked her ruby slippers and recited “There’s no place like home.” But it’s well behind Utah, Gallup’s runaway winner as best place to live in the decades to come. Minnesota, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, and Hawaii round out the top eight. West Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi come in last, in this as in so many other rankings.
It’s no surprise that North Dakota, whose unemployment rate is lower than Mitt Romney’s taxes, tops the economic indicators. Nor that Utah, with so many abstemious Mormons and overcompensating Outside readers, scores lowest in smoking and high in other health indicators. But these findings should still be taken with several grains of salt.
First, coming from Gallup, they’re based on self-reporting rather than data crunching or expert prognostication. That opens the door to all sorts of cultural and regional biases, as in the famous factoid that suicide rates were higher in Scandinavia than anywhere else. (Turns out they’re lower there than in many other European and Asian counties, and much lower than in the ex-Soviet Union. The Scandinavian authorities were just more forthright about recording suicides than those elsewhere. Even now, some rates reported by the WHO sound suspiciously low.) Does Mormon confidence undergird Utah’s great expectations, and does Midwestern stoicism put a better face on prospects in the Plains states?
Second, the criteria considered are something of a grab bag, as Gallup itself concedes: “The selection of the 13 metrics was not based on any statistical model, but rather on their presumed relevance to future livability.”
Most important, Gallup did not consider the factor that will likely make the biggest difference in livability, in the fullest sense of the word: climate. If a place gets too hot and dry and storm-wracked, or becomes inundated by rising seas, it won’t support the same life and lives it does now. And dental visits and bosses’ attitudes will seem like trivial matters or fond memories. (Remember when people had “jobs”?)
This summer has brought another foretaste of climate changes to come, as drought and near-record heat seared the heartland and southland. In June and July, national weather maps became exercises in schadenfreude: While most of the country blazed in the orange and red of 90- and 100-degree-plus temperatures, two tongues of cool green reaching down the coasts of Maine and Washington, plus a sliver in the high Rockies, beckoned tantalizingly. An old friend in New Mexico whom I hadn’t seen in decades showed up in Seattle, saying he’d looked at the map and decided it was time to finally visit the Pacific Northwest. My neighbor met a woman who’d just moved here from Texas. “Climate refugee?” he joked, but she didn’t laugh or give him a WTF look. “Of course,” she said.
The changing climate won’t wear easy on us either. The best projections say we’ll get wetter winters, with more floods and less snowpack, and hotter, drier summers. But our temperatures won’t rise nearly as much as those almost everywhere in the country. We won’t face the chronic drought threat that looms over most of the country’s southern half, from California to Nebraska and then down to Florida. Washington’s wet side won’t turn to desert, as most parts of the West that aren’t already arid may, even if present trends merely continue.
Instead, we’ll face 50 million desperate, gun-toting climate refugees from the new Super Sunbelt, clamoring to eat our last berries and roots. The new livability.