The 2020 census revealed that, for the first time since becoming a state in 1850, California had a decline in population.
The loss — significant enough to cost California one congressional seat — was attributed to a combination of net out-migration and the state’s low birth rate. Only California’s permissive policies on illegal immigration kept the population loss from being greater.
The hand-wringers are warning of economic calamity if the state keeps losing population. Relax, Cassandras, economies adjust to market size, and California’s economy was vibrant when it had half the population it has now.
And, it’s unlikely that there will be a sudden mass exodus. A decrease in population is more likely to be gradual.
The conventional wisdom posits that insufficient housing is the primary reason California has a growing horde of homeless and why so many people are leaving the state. Those leaving are mostly lower- and middle-class citizens relocating to more affordable states.
For some, the remedy seems obvious: have the state mandate more housing construction — denser, higher and without regard to local zoning ordinances, current residents’ concerns or resources, especially water and essential infrastructure.
NIMBYs be damned. If everyone can’t live in a single-home neighborhood, then no one can. Just pack them in everywhere.
But isn’t that what California has been doing over the past 50 years, packing them in? Where has that gotten us?
Sure, California is the nation’s most populous state with the world’s fifth largest economy, but its infrastructure, built to accommodate a population of 20 million, strains and struggles to handle 40 million. There’s never enough housing and it’s never affordable enough for everyone who wants it.
Aggravated by climate change, the state’s water sources are rapidly being depleted and becoming less reliable.
Groundwater, now perilously overdrawn, provides 40% of the state’s needs, a greater percentage than that of any other state, while much of the remaining supply comes from mountain snowpacks that are dependent on increasingly undependable precipitation.
Most of the state has been in severe drought eight of the last 10 years. After a two-year reprieve from the last long desiccating drought, California is right back into severe drought again this year.
Since 1975, droughts have become more frequent, more enduring and more severe. Drought may well be the new normal for the state, and desertification its future, making California more like Morocco than Provence.
In the state’s misguided mission to keep packing them in, housing construction has been allowed to encroach into fire-prone wildlands, where about a quarter of the population now lives.
As a consequence, the conditions conducive for wildfires of biblical proportions now ravage the state year in and year out, poisoning the air, incinerating towns and threatening California’s world-renowned national parks.
It is foolish to build and rebuild vast tracts of housing in the highly fire-prone wildland interface. Eventually, the risk is too great for insurance companies to offer fire insurance for homes built in these areas.
The majority of wildfires are ignited by human activity. Electricity transmission lines in the urban-wildland interfaces have sparked some of the most hellishly destructive wildfires, prompting utility companies to impose pre-emptive power shutdowns whenever weather is hot and windy.
Meanwhile, hydroelectric power is in jeopardy as water levels plummet behind dams, even as hotter weather increases demand for electricity to run air conditioners.
These are all good reasons for the state to move away from massive power grids and promote development of micro-grids and programs to solarize homes with robust battery storage.
Rising temperatures and enduring droughts threaten California’s gargantuan agriculture industry, and as aquifers are pumped down to brackish levels to irrigate crops, more Californians will join the million-plus who are already without potable water.
And yet, many of the state’s politicians are obsessed with providing more housing to accommodate even more population while they encourage the relentless influx of people by declaring California a sanctuary state for foreign nationals here illegally. Illegal immigrants and their fecundity have accounted for most of the state’s population increase over the past several decades.
What are these politicians thinking?
I recall an interview with an eminent scientist who, when asked how he reconciled his strong religious beliefs with fact-based science, replied that he didn’t try to reconcile them, he compartmentalized them within his mind.
While that may be a convenient workaround of cognitive dissonance, it is ultimately self-delusion.
And, that is what California’s politicians, or any of its citizens, do when they support policies that promote or encourage increasing population while the realities that the state has exceeded its carrying capacity are glaringly obvious with every wildfire, dry well, mud-puddle reservoir, power outage, constipated highway, homeless encampment, polluted beach, crowded classroom and over-packed prison.
Few of California’s vexing problems and threats would not be significantly mitigated, even eliminated, by lowering the state’s population to an environmentally sustainable level. That isn’t done by building more housing or welcoming immigration.
To decry environmental degradation and the ravages of climate change while encouraging increased population isn’t just cognitive dissonance, it is destructive hypocrisy that self-delusionary compartmentalization can’t sidestep.
Rather than mandate more housing, while asking current residents to yet again reduce their water usage (below already reduced levels), and forcing them to give up their single-home neighborhoods in order to stuff ever more people into the state, California should hang out the “no vacancy” sign.
Continuing to pack in more people is neither sensible, nor farsighted. California’s recent drop in population, modest as it was, is something to celebrate, not fret over. Hopefully it will be a continuing trend.
— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.