Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Trying Times Ahead

The Prospect of 60 Million Californians

In the NYTimes, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes:

Recently, the California Department of Finance projected that there will be some 60 million people living in the state by 2050. At present there are 36 million. The numbers in themselves are frightening enough, but what I find terrifying is the bland assumption that a two-thirds increase in population is inevitable and that the main problem will be creating the infrastructure necessary to house, feed, educate, transport and govern all those people. To me, the main problem is how to keep them from showing up in the first place.

Somehow the numbers in themselves don't really suggest the sobering weight of this projection. To say that for every three Californians now there will be five in 2050 doesn't capture the scale of change. If you said that for every three houses now there will be five in 2050, or for every three cars, ditto, you might be getting a little closer to the visceral feel of the thing. But when it comes to houses and cars, California is a land of loaves and fishes, always multiplying in the most unexpected ways. To live in the state is to live with unrelenting change, whether you like it or not, and it has been that way for decades.

But this population increase will mean more than filling up San Bernardino, Riverside and Kern Counties and paving the entire midsection of the state and creating impromptu day-schools and conference centers in stopped traffic. We tend to talk about humans as if they were interchangeable -- as if the Californian of 1957 were somehow equivalent to the Californian of 2007. But today's Californian consumes far more, if you consider consumption in its broadest sense. Draw pictures of those two Californians to the scale of their consumption, and the present-day resident would dwarf his ancestor.

There's a chance that a mid-21st-century Californian will look back in horror at the enormous consumption footprint of someone living in the state right now. That sense of horror would be good news -- a sign that the coming generations had taken to heart that the way we live now, even in its current dimensions, is unsustainable. The trouble, of course, is that a population projection like this one more or less takes it for granted that not much will have changed by 2050. Otherwise, there wouldn't be 60 million people in the state.

The point of thinking about the future is to help us think about the present. This population forecast is a vivid reminder of the assumptions that make meaningful change so hard. We can't help believing in growth. We can't help believing that the way to create change is simply to buy different stuff, so growth doesn't stop. And we refuse to think seriously about the number of human beings on this planet, a kind of growth that somehow seems ''natural'' to us. It makes no difference how little each of those 60 million Californians will consume in 2050. The number cannot be negative. It's nearly impossible to imagine how they could meet their water needs alone.

And then there is the impact of all those people on the other species with which they might have shared the Golden State. In 2007, we remain blindly impervious to the life-claims of almost all other forms of life -- to the moral stipulation that their right to life is equivalent to ours. How it will be then I do not know, but if there are indeed 60 million people living in California in 2050, there will be nothing meaningful to be said on the matter, except as a subject of nostalgia.

We like to take it for granted that we're moving ahead in environmental consciousness. We like to hope that the curve of our environmental awareness will catch up to the curve of our economic growth and things will somehow come into balance. But faith in our progressive enlightenment seems a little misplaced to me, especially when I remember a speech that James Madison gave to his local agricultural society nearly 190 years ago.

Madison said, simply, that we have no reason to suppose that all of Earth's resources, which support so much living diversity, can rightfully be commandeered to support mankind alone. It seems incredible to me, in 2007, that a former president could articulate such an environmentally sound principle of conscience. But it's a principle that should move to the very center of our thinking. It should cause us to re-examine not just how we shop and what we drive and who we elect but also how our species reproduces. It should cause us to re-imagine that once and future California, which lies only 43 years away, and make sure that it isn't barren of all but us humans.