The Final Paving of Paradise


Accommodation is not the answer to California’s surging population

This column was first published in 2007 by the Los Angeles Daily News.

Californians were recently given something that might have saved many victims of the tsunami that lashed the Indian Ocean: early warning of an approaching tidal wave.

But it’s not a towering wall of seawater that threatens to swamp the Golden State, rather it’s a rolling surge of people that will bring California’s population to 60 million by mid-century—a net gain of 25 million people from the state’s current census.

The swell of that wave can be seen more clearly now in Irvine, a city that has been instructed by the Southern California Association of Governments to plan for more than 35,000 new homes in the next seven years. If that number seems startling, consider that across the six counties that make up Southern California, a total of 700,000 new homes are planned—almost half of them to be for low income or very low income families.

The projections by the state’s Department of Finance clinically forecast a California that will be virtually unrecognizable from the fairly idyllic place that once captured the world’s imagination. Indeed, one need not be a biologist, sociologist or demographer to grasp that a state already struggling to maintain even its most basic obligations to its current population faces collapse under the weight of such an epic influx of people.

The good news is we’re not there yet.

The bad news is that since the DOF’s projections were released earlier this month, the reaction from civic leaders across the state has been to stress how best California can accommodate this many people; not even considering whether the state should try to prevent it from happening.

Relentless population growth and the rampant development that it fuels have become such powerful dynamics in California that the state’s leaders apparently can’t envision any alternative other than to live with it.

Population growth, imbued as it is with race, culture and religion, is a minefield that politicians are loath to enter.

Such was the case when Ventura City Manager Rick Cole recently dissected the critical environmental issues facing the state and rightly noted that the “feel good stage” of living green must now give way to dramatic changes if we’re serious about preventing a climate catastrophe.

Yet Cole didn’t mention population—and specifically overpopulation—even once as he explored the burdens our cities and suburbs face as the health of the environment steadily erodes.

While Cole will undoubtedly be commended for his apparent willingness to move beyond bumper-sticker slogans to confront the challenges facing California, his decision to avoid the issue of population growth is absolutely intellectually dishonest. It’s the equivalent of charting a course for the future of Iraq without discussing the insurgency.

And it’s that refusal to seriously consider California’s population growth that has brought the state to where it finds itself today: facing an infrastructure that is crumbling, social services stretched to capacity and a looming water crisis stemming from severe drought conditions.

If this refusal to seriously consider the core impacts of population growth continues for much longer, then its not difficult to imagine California reaching the point of no-return within the next few decades, becoming a place where basic survival has long supplanted quality of life concerns.

This in fact is the day-to-day reality in many, many places around the globe already.

And yet in California most of our leaders continue to embrace and encourage the delusion that it simply won’t happen here, even as they indulge virtually every garish whim of the developers while carefully avoiding the population issue with all the aplomb of a reveler in Pompei marveling at the glow of the distant magma.

Unlike the residents of Pompei or the victims of the 2004 tsunami, historians and archeologists will not be able to absolve today’s Californians by saying we never saw it coming.

The writing is indelibly on the walls all around us.

If Californians don’t soon demand a sober, honest discussion of the population issues facing the state and push for reasonable alternatives to endless growth that’s not sustainable, then those historians will be right to conclude that not only did we see it coming; but we had it coming as well.