By birth, by foot, by automobile, from other states and other countries, legally and illegally, people have arrived in California for decades in unrelenting swells, human surf breaking steadily on a vast shore. Occasionally a big set rolls in and harasses state and local officials trying to determine how many new classrooms to build or where to bury the trash, but Californians take it in stride. You can complain, but what good would it do? You can complain about winter, too, but it comes anyway.
We tolerate endless strip malls, foul air, contaminated runoff, window-rattling boom boxes and the weekend crush at Costco and Home Depot. We remain composed in the face of runaway housing prices, electricity shortages, crowded schools and—well, maybe not crowded schools. That one rankles. But what we suffer even less well than crowded schools, the thing that makes even the most tolerant Californians notice that their cities have become overstuffed, is all the endless, miserable, stinking, standing traffic. In Los Angeles, in San Diego, in Sacramento, in the Bay Area, freeway traffic sits like an automotive still life, then inches along as we fume in the fumes. On a roadside in San Jose after a fender bender, a driver grabs another driver’s small dog, Leo, and throws the helpless animal into oncoming traffic.
This is what it has come to in California. We live in the Age of Leo.
If projections through 2040 by demographers in the state Department of Finance prove accurate, conditions will only get worse. Much worse. New residents continue to wash over California’s borders, but the state is neither attempting to restrain growth nor building adequate infrastructure to accommodate it. And the boat continues to fill.
During the last half of the last century—an epoch encompassing most of the baby boom and, a generation later, all of the boom’s echo—the state’s population grew by more than 24 million. The next 24 million—more than the population of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska combined—will arrive more quickly, inflating the total to nearly 60 million within 36 years. Barring the long-overdue mother of all earthquakes, a tightening of federal immigration policy, or the Rapture, California’s population, currently at 36 million, likely will double within the lifetime of today’s schoolchildren. A close look at the numbers suggests that the 1990s began a pattern in which California receives more new residents each decade than it did the previous one. The 2020s will witness the greatest 10-year increase in state history, and the numbers in the 2030s will be greater still.
“Come to California,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the world more than once in his State of the State address this month. But most residents are not happy about this trend. In a 2001 statewide poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, half of the respondents said they considered the previous decade’s population growth a “bad thing.” More than four of five said that continued growth would make the state a less desirable place to live.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein isn’t happy about the numbers either. “I find them very distressing and I’ll tell you why. If the growth comes before the ability to handle that growth, what you inevitably have is a backlash. That’s what drove Proposition 187,” she says. That 1994 ballot measure, overwhelmingly approved by voters but later gutted by the courts on constitutional grounds, sought to deprive illegal immigrants of most state-funded social benefits. “I think growth is California’s No. 1 problem, and how that growth happens is critical to the future of the state,” the Democratic senator adds. “The problem is that most of the growth is concentrated on the West Coast and in cities.”
One of the best remedies would be to improve north-south transportation, Feinstein says, specifically by building “a rail spine down the center of the state so that you would be better able to diffuse population instead of having huge congested cities growing all the time with more stress and more strain. I do a lot of flying over California. There is a lot of space in California.”
In other words, there’s plenty of room at the Hotel California as long as everyone doesn’t keep checking into the same overused rooms.
The Eagles were right: This could be heaven or this could be hell. But the more closely you examine California’s plight, the more the heaven part looks iffy. No other state has so many residents (Texas ranks second, but with almost 40% fewer people), and no other state comes close to matching California’s annual net population increase. In Los Angeles County and five surrounding counties—Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Imperial—the population now stands at more than 17 million. That’s nearly 6% of the U.S. population, one in every 17 Americans, all within a four-hour drive—if you can find four hours when the traffic isn’t bad. At least 20% already live in crowded housing, and poverty levels have increased steadily for three decades. Yet during the next 25 years the region is projected to grow by 6 million.
This is not exactly a formula for a Golden State.
Most of the conversation about growth these days revolves around principles of growth management—"smart growth” in planning-speak. Schwarzenegger is heading down this road, rhetorically anyway. Smart growth emphasizes increasing density in cities as an alternative to sprawl, enabling people to live close to where they work, minimizing environmental impact, preserving open space, and encouraging public transit, bicycling, and walking rather than driving. But the discussion is always about accommodating growth, never about slowing, limiting, or stabilizing it. Mention the idea of somehow trying to limit the population and politicians react as though you have suggested that our society eat cats and dogs instead of cows and pigs. Curb population growth? The very notion is unthinkable because—well, this is America.
“How do you do it?” Feinstein asks. “Are you going to tell people not to have children? I don’t think so. I have never had a single county official say, ‘We have decided we want to slow growth in our county, and here’s how we want to do it, and we need the federal government’s help.’ ”
If, as Feinstein says, growth is California’s no. 1 problem, the root of that problem is immigration. It would be better if this were not so, because it sets up an us-versus-them tension that debases everyone within its reach, but the raw numbers leave little room for debate. Demographic studies after the 2000 census revealed that from 1990 to 2000, immigrants and their children accounted not for just some, or even most, of California’s growth. They accounted for virtually all of it. Of the increase of 4.2 million people during those 10 years, the net gain generated by the native population was just 90,000, fewer than attend each year’s Rose Bowl game.
Immigrants—specifically Latinos, who constitute the majority of the state’s more than 9 million immigrants—inflate the population not just by coming to California but by having children once they’re here. While the combined birthrate for California’s U.S. citizens and immigrants who are not Latino has dropped to replacement level, the birthrate for Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America averages more than three children per mother.
Changes in federal policy since 1965 have elevated the number of immigrants legally admitted to the U.S. annually from a few hundred thousand to more than 1 million in recent years. California has long received far more immigrants—legal and illegal—than has any other state. This has worked out well in some respects (cheap labor supply, ethnic diversity, Schwarzenegger), not so well in others (social welfare costs, increasing poverty, Schwarzenegger). While the costs are significant, the benefits are so vast and varied—from critical high-tech expertise in Silicon Valley to breathtaking multicultural richness—that anyone but an unrepentant xenophobe would agree that they are incalculable. None of which alters the fact that immigration, more than any other factor, will probably determine how crowded and environmentally unsustainable California becomes in the years ahead.
Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), the most prominent of several population-control groups around the state, wants the federal government to crack down on illegal immigration (various estimates place California’s illegal immigrant population at more than 2 million) and reduce the number of immigrants permitted to legally enter the United States. “We’re just sick and tired of the fact that nobody will address this issue,” says CAPS President Diana Hull. “I am simply baffled by the timidity of the politicians on this.”
Earlier this month, President Bush announced his plan to relax U.S. immigration policy. The president said he wants to create legal status for many of the estimated 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants who live and work in the U.S.—a proposal some feel rewards those who have ignored the law and may encourage more illegal immigration.
And what of the current limits on legal immigration? Asked recently if she is comfortable with those numbers, Feinstein, who serves on the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, hesitated. “Well, I have to take another look at that before I answer that question,” she said. “I don’t want to answer it off the top of my head.”
This is a tricky issue for a senator representing a state where more than one in four residents was born outside the United States.
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.
California has not prepared itself for what’s coming. “I think that we bear a striking resemblance to Edward Gibbon’s description of the last generations of Rome,” said state Sen. Tom McClintock, the conservative Republican rhetorician from Thousand Oaks, not long after he lost his bid last year for the governor’s chair. “He called them ‘decent, easy men living from the gifts of the gifts of the founders.’ ” The problem, he says, began in the mid 1970s with former Gov. Jerry Brown, who, by McClintock’s reckoning, lacked the wisdom of his predecessors. “It was Earl Warren [governor from 1943 to 1953] who recognized that California was poised for explosive economic growth and required an infrastructure sufficient to accommodate and make possible that prosperity,” McClintock says.
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.”
Vasconcellos is nicely positioned to address those frightening prospects as co-chair of a joint legislative committee called Preparing California for the 21st Century. The perils of unending population growth would be a fine place to start, but in its first three years the group instead has examined the intricacies of racial diversity and the implications of new technology. Fine subjects both, but it’s disconcerting to think that in a Legislature with a select committee dedicated to professional sports and another focused exclusively on the horse-racing industry, no committee exists to examine a mounting population burden that threatens to degrade every quality that makes California so ... California. The topic “would be fitting for our agenda,” Vasconcellos says, “but right now our agenda and our staff are at capacity.”
So, perhaps, is California. Overshadowed by the state’s long-term fiscal quagmire is the less publicized neglect of aging infrastructure that wasn’t designed to serve current population levels, let alone a population projected to be nearly two-thirds larger within 36 years. The state relies on a staggering array of dams, canals, pipelines, pumping plants, levees, reservoirs, highways, bridges, parks, forest fire stations, agriculture inspection facilities, prisons, crime labs, mental hospitals, colleges and universities to maintain social and economic order. One would hope that the state would protect this investment of hundreds of billions of dollars, but the Legislative Analyst’s Office reported just over a year ago that “appropriate maintenance ... has been a chronic problem,” resulting in “deterioration of facilities and an accumulation of ‘deferred maintenance.’ ” Not only does California have insufficient funds to correct the situation, it can’t afford to do what’s necessary to keep from falling still farther behind.
And that’s just the stuff we already have. To handle the anticipated yearly increase of 600,000 new residents—equal to three new cities the size of Glendale—the state must engineer and build billions of dollars of new infrastructure and facilities. Seemingly earnest efforts are underway, including water desalination proposals, road-widening projects, and new classrooms, but just catching up to current population needs would require a Herculean effort—Sisyphean, actually, given the task’s uphill, never-ending nature. Los Angeles’s ratio of freeway space to cars ranks worst in the nation, one-third too small to meet existing demand. Since the mid-1970s, the number of miles driven by Californians has more than doubled while lane mileage has increased by less than 10%. One study predicts that by 2020, Southern California drivers will spend at least half their driving time making exactly as much forward progress as they would sitting on the living room sofa.
Water? The state should have no trouble keeping its head above it—because there isn’t much. For the past three decades, California’s population has severely outstripped the state’s ability to store water. Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources, claimed three years ago that the state lacked sufficient storage capacity to get through two consecutive dry years. Even with continuing conservation efforts and occasional wet Sierra Nevada winters, experts agree that California will face chronic water shortages in the near future unless something changes.
“The electricity crisis [of 2001] should be a wake-up call for all of us with respect to water in California,” Feinstein says, implying that water rationing is no less plausible than power shortages. “We will not have enough water unless we begin to build the necessary infrastructure, the desalination, the recycling, the conservation that’s really necessary for 45 [million to] 50 million people.”
The Assn. of California Water Agencies warns that as early as 2010, yearly demand could exceed supply by 4 million acre-feet, an amount equal to what 20 million residents use in a year. You won’t be reduced to drinking from your rain gauge, but your water bill may get your attention, and green lawns, clean cars and full swimming pools could become as rare as a Dodgers appearance in the post-season. And that’s in a good year. Even now the Colorado River, a prime source for Southern California, is so thoroughly tapped by seven states and Mexico that its waters rarely reach the sea.
Schools? In addition to his role with the Preparing California for the 21st Century joint legislative committee, Vasconcellos chairs the state Senate Education Committee. “We’re so far behind now that if we build something like 100 schools a year for the next 10 years, we wouldn’t catch up,” he says. (Actually, the state only looks five years ahead. The California Department of Education calculates that meeting anticipated enrollment will necessitate the construction of 19 new classrooms every day, seven days a week, for the next five years. That’s about 230 new schools per year. An additional 22 aging classrooms per day will need modernizing.) “We know that we’ve got a million more students coming to higher ed. We’ve known that for 10 years, and we’ve done almost nothing about it. The no-tax crew have had their way, so we’re turning away 170,000 community college students this year alone.”
Human proliferation touches everything. Air traffic is expected to double in the next 25 years. Los Angeles currently can deal with its garbage, but the county can foresee the day when it will have to ship it elsewhere. Developers convert at least 50,000 acres of California’s farmland to home sites and other urban amenities every year, a phenomenon with no end in sight. The state already has lost 90% of its coastal wetlands. “To me the issue most fundamentally tied to population growth is loss of habitat and endangered species,” says former CAPS President Ric Oberlink, who still consults for the organization. “You can talk about air quality, and there may be technological solutions for at least part of the problem—and in fact we have improved air quality in most cities over the last several decades. But when it comes to wildlife habitat, there’s no turning back.”
Ben Zuckerman, a Harvard-educated UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, serves on the board of directors for both CAPS and the Sierra Club. “I have thought quantitatively through my whole career in the sciences, and I just look at the numbers, the extrapolations of the current trends, and they’re just horrific both for the United States and for California,” he says. Zuckerman advocates immigration reductions, but in doing so he takes pains to make clear that he doesn’t speak for the Sierra Club, which officially abandoned that position in 1996. In the past decade, most other U.S. environmental groups have backed away from the issue as well—the “deafening silence,” Zuckerman calls it. It’s a paradoxical shift given that human population growth underlies virtually every environmental problem.
“Environmental groups are not talking about it anymore,” says Oberlink. “There’s been a retreat from even identifying it as an underlying issue. And if they’re not talking about it, the legislators are not going to delve into this issue if they’re not being pressured. It’s what we call an unholy alliance of leftists concerned about human rights considerations and right-wing libertarians who don’t think there should be any government interference in anything.”
Moreover, any stance against immigration, no matter how well articulated, guarantees cries of racism, elitism, all the old ad hominems.
And then there is the pesky little matter of conventional economics. “To create a sustainable and prosperous set of communities with zero population growth requires a different economic system than we have,” says urban planning analyst William Fulton, who has written extensively on California growth and development. “Whether your population is increasing or decreasing, it creates a set of problems. I grew up in a depressed area where people didn’t have jobs, where there was hardly any demand for anything, and where the quality of community life eroded day by day because population was stagnant and the economy was in decline. The way I look at it, which set of problems do you want?”
Can this be true, that to prosper we must increase population and consumption indefinitely, a feat quite impossible no matter how clever we think we are? The self-corrective, of course, is that as a place becomes less livable, people leave. That has already happened in California, though not in numbers great enough to matter. As long as other places are worse, people will come to California.
The state has “a spending crisis,” Schwarzenegger said in this month’s State of the State message. But the state also has an evolving crisis of shifting demographics as immigration expands the underclass, which pays a lesser share of the tax burden. The Southern California Assn. of Governments’ 2003 State of the Region Report found that the region’s position “is slipping in nearly every performance category related to socio-economic well-being, including income and educational attainment. Among 17 major metropolitan areas nationwide, the region ranks 16th or worse in ... attainment of high school degrees, per capita income, persons in poverty, and children in poverty.”
Researchers at the Rand Corp. think tank spotted these troubling trends in 1997 after studying 30 years of economic and immigration data. Rand’s review concluded that “the large-scale of immigration flows, bigger families, and the concentration of low-income, low-tax-paying immigrants making heavy use of public services are straining state and local budgets.”
The lifeboat keeps sitting lower, water spilling over the gunwales, provisions stretching thin. Yet we keep taking on more passengers, and nobody’s doing much bailing. Is this any way to run paradise?
“All I can tell you,” says Jerry Brown, “is that when you try to retard growth, you have an immediate negative economic impact, and the forces of the economy will resist those efforts. In the capitalist system there is no alternative to unceasing growth.”
But to what end? Shall we just paint ourselves into an overcrowded corner and then see if we can figure a way out?
There is more at stake here than mere comfort and convenience. Apply enough stress to any biological system and eventually it falters. Or as Brown puts it: “The economy is inside an environment—the environment is not inside an economy. Which is to say, the laws of nature will ultimately prevail over the laws of economics.”
But if the people entrusted to lead the state are not having this discussion, if they’re not grappling with these issues, then who is? That’s a fine thing to think about the next time you’re stuck in traffic. Which should be soon.
Lee Green lives in Ventura. He last wrote for the magazine about the U.S. ban on hemp cultivation.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.