Immigration directly and indirectly accounts for more than two-thirds of population growth nationwide, but Feinstein says that trying to stem the ever-rising count is not a topic of discussion in the U.S. Senate. Though the earth's population doubled to 5 billion in a mere 37 years (1950 to 1987) and will more than double again in this century, many countries, particularly in Europe, now have low fertility rates, relatively low immigration levels and are losing population. In sharp contrast, the U.S., at more than 292 million the world's third-most populous country behind behemoths China and India, will soon glide past 300 million en route to 400 million before mid-century. In this respect, America stands alone in the developed world. United Nations projections show just eight countries accounting for half of the planet's population increase between now and 2050. Seven of them come as no surprise: China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other country is the United States, largely because of its generous immigration policies.
By the time Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown began his eight-year reign in 1959, most of the infrastructure for which he is now remembered was already in the works. His gift was in taking the handoff and driving the state downfield. He did so repeatedly, erecting college campuses, building new highways and constructing the grand State Water Project.
"There was clearly a burst of infrastructure that hasn't been replicated in the years since," says journalist Ethan Rarick, who recently wrote a soon-to-be-published book on Brown. "When he was governor, he would always say that he didn't necessarily believe that all the growth was a good thing, but he believed that it was unavoidable. There was no way to stop it, and whether it was good or bad was irrelevant. The state had to plan for it, had to deal with it."
Whatever Brown's private feelings may have been, publicly he touted the state's population as a cause for pride. In late November 1962, the governor held a news conference to announce that California's population had finally surpassed that of New York, which had been America's most populous state since the early 1800s. He declared Dec. 31, 1962, a state holiday and called for a four-day celebration touted as California First Days.
Warren, by then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, offered a dissenting opinion. "Mere numbers do not mean happiness," he cautioned.
But what did Warren know? Growth was glorious.
"It was kind of a triumph of the West and of California," says Rarick. "California had always wanted to grow and get bigger ever since the Gold Rush."
In retrospect, this was like residents of 1st century Pompeii celebrating their good fortune to live at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. It's hard to imagine Californians celebrating 25 years from now when the state's population hits 50 million.
By the time Pat Brown's son assumed the governorship 16 years later in 1975, the state had grown by more than 40%. The sociopolitical climate had changed. Jerry Brown was 36, the youngest governor in modern state history. The environmental movement had bloomed, and he identified with it. In McClintock's view, Brown introduced "a radical and retrograde ideology into California public policy" that has left the state ill-equipped for what's to come.
Brown, of course, remembers it differently. "When my father was governor, there were 15 million people," recalls the former governor, now in his second term as Oakland's mayor. "You had a lot more open space. You had a lot more water to move around. It was easier to do things." Instead of building new freeways, Jerry Brown emphasized maintaining the existing ones. He resisted pressure to build nuclear power plants and guided California into what he termed the "era of limits."
New-age nonsense, McClintock calls it. "It was essentially a policy that said if we stop building things, people won't come. So we stopped building highways, we stopped building dams, we stopped building power plants, we stopped people from building houses. And people came anyway. That's essentially the problem that California faces today. It is a governing agenda that has survived two Republican and two Democratic administrations. You cannot stop growth by refusing to meet the needs caused by growth."
One might hope that in Sacramento the issue would be top of mind, or at least somewhere in mind. For reassurance on that count, don't look to your state legislators. Sen. Ross Johnson, a Republican from Irvine, offers a terse reply when asked if the Legislature might be looking at the numbers and trying to figure out how to deal with the infinite ingress. "No. We look at the next election rather than the next generation," he says. "It is disgraceful."
This isn't a case of lawmakers rearranging the deck chairs. That at least would indicate a recognition of the worsening situation and the need for action. Sure, California remains afloat and under its own power, if listing, and has yet to strike anything immovable. But why is no one focused on the ice?
"I think it just hasn't been a priority because it's so easy to move it off the table because it appears that there's always one crisis after another," says Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City). Ten minutes into a recent conversation about mounting population pressures, Wesson stopped himself. "You have re-reminded me of something that I knew was a problem that I have just moved off the table myself. So I think that I will have some discussions and see if we can't jump-start the creation of some commission, panel, task force—something to try to highlight the seriousness of the situation."
Democratic Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins of Santa Rosa heads a group she started four years ago called the Smart Growth Caucus, which 47 of the state's 120 lawmakers have joined. The name sounds promising, but Wiggins laments how difficult it has been to accomplish anything meaningful. California's continuing population growth, she says, will constitute "a problem if we don't plan for it."
But we're planning for it, right?
"Not very well."
John Vasconcellos, Democratic state senator from San Jose, says the Legislature's by-now renowned dysfunction ensures that "the government isn't capable of looking long-term at anything. The state is truly in dire straits. I'm not a pessimist and I'm not a doomsayer, but I've never felt so frightened by the prospects of the state in all my 37 years of serving the Legislature."