Jewish World Review August 6, 2004 / 19 Menachem-Av, 5764
One last chance to control the nation's population and preserve their quality of life
RIVERSIDE, Calif. Richard Nixon was born 22 miles from this historic, graceful city. As president and a Southern Californian, Nixon saw the threat posed by a rapidly growing population. He warned Congress in 1969 that if America continued to expand at current rates, the nation's "social supplies the capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government may be grievously strained."
It's probably just as well that Nixon isn't around to see what has happened since. The population of California has grown 70 percent. Here in Riverside County, it has tripled. And the Riverside-San Bernardino area ranks No. 1 in Smart Growth America's sprawl index. The Southern California Association of Governments expects the region to add 1.56 million people between 2000 and 2020 rivaling the growth expected for all of Georgia or Washington State.
It's also a good thing that Nixon isn't hearing today's political debate. While the people of California, Colorado and other fast-sprawling states obsess over their population explosions, neither President Bush nor Democratic nominee John Kerry has a word to say on the matter.
In Nixon's day, most population fears centered on how many children the massive baby boom generation would have. Today, the key factor in population growth is immigration. Both parties think an honest discussion of the subject will cost them the Latino vote (even though Hispanics themselves are highly conflicted on the issue).
Besides, environmental groups are not pressing them. The Sierra Club, for one, remains frozen in cowardice. Its official position on immigration is that it has no position.
In Southern California, a surging population has aggravated congestion and forced housing prices to astronomical levels along the coast. This has set off an amazing movement of working people out of Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties. Some have gone to Colorado, Nevada and the Northwest, causing new sprawl in those places. And many others have simply moved inland.
Newcomers to the "Inland Empire" do get a break on the coast's high house prices, but certainly not on its bad air. On most days, a brown haze darkens the mountain views. And commuters to Los Angeles and San Diego face harrowing traffic jams. Meanwhile, suburban development now threatens to cut off the wildlife in the Joshua Tree National Park from the surrounding mountains.
There are "smart growth" advocates who think that better land-use policies can help the nation accommodate more people while controlling sprawl. But even good planning and there's precious little of that can't hold back sprawl when people arrive in tidal-wave numbers. Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles, has worked really hard to control growth, but its efforts are crumbling under the onslaught of people leaving Los Angeles.
For voters who care about this, the choices are pretty dismal. Benjamin Zuckerman, vice president of Californians for Population Stabilization, finds both Kerry and Bush to be "about equally bad" on immigration. However, the UCLA professor of astronomy prefers a Kerry presidency for strategic reasons. A lot of conservative Republicans who want less immigration have held their tongues, lest they be seen opposing their president, Zuckerman explains. "It would probably be better for Kerry to be in office, because that would give some Republicans a chance to say what they actually believe."
And on global population, Zuckerman sees Kerry as head and shoulders above Bush. Kerry would reverse the Bush administration's "gag rule," whereby the United States denies funds to international family-planning groups that offer abortion services, counseling or referrals.
Whether they call themselves conservative, liberal or other, Southern Californians generally subscribe to a strong environmental ethic. It must pain people here to look upon their jammed-up freeways and ugly sprawl-scapes and see new losses pile up daily. But on the occasional good-air day, they can still gaze over the city's lovely old Spanish-style buildings and see the San Bernardino Mountains shimmering in clear focus. They still have much to save.
Richard Nixon said 35 years ago: "When future generations evaluate the record of our time, one of the most important factors in their judgment will be the way in which we responded to population growth." Nixon's contemporaries failed to act. That leaves Americans with one last chance to control the nation's population and preserve their quality of life.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, The Providence Journal Co.
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