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December, 2003

The Sinking Boat
By Jeanette Pontacq

   As a student at Washington High School in San Francisco, I vividly remember a particular science-class project: using a large cardboard box, we placed ten mice inside and then put a plate of glass over the top so that we could observe what was happening. Over two days, the ten mice worked out a method of living together and all was well. So we added ten more mice. The twenty mice worked together well as they all had just enough space for themselves. Upping the ante, we put in twenty more mice for a total of forty....that was the point when the mice society started to break down.
   Disorientation and confusion reigned. Adding more mice, mouse society turned on itself with random violence and a life/death struggle for a dwindling amount of available food and water. Ugly incidents multiplied. Sound familiar?
   In rural West Marin, we can pretend that California has not already passed the point of no return on overpopulation. We can even ignore the further huge projected increases over the next twenty years. But we need to ask, "where are those additional residents going to live and what resources will be impacted?"
   Recent fires in Southern California highlight the problem... the powers-that-be have given up trying to keep people from building in fire-prone areas (somewhat like giving up on trying to stop building on the shores of rapidly eroding beach areas). It is estimated that we add the population of a Fresno or a San Francisco in California every year... which is a lot of people no matter how you count them!
   Who are "they"? The answer is everyone from those who are building mega-mansions on each hill top east of Fresno to the middle class homes pushing up against wildness and agricultural lands everywhere to low-income workers demanding low-cost housing. Add to those the truly massive influx of legal and illegal immigrants into California, and you get a general picture of the new reality.
   Universally, with sanitation practices and modern medicine, we (the people of the world) have multiplied our numbers faster than ever before, going from 1 billion to 2 billion in only 123 years. As is the nature of unchecked growth, the momentum then accelerated and the world went from 5 billion to 6 billion in only 12 years, ending in 2000. If you think it is crowded out there now, think what more growth will mean for the general environment, health and livability in just a few more years. It is unsustainable. Both in California and the rest of the world.
   To watch California itself implode, all one need do is drive across the Sacramento or San Joaquin Valleys. Analogous to a metastasizing cancer, homes of all sizes are covering huge expanses of once-productive agricultural lands. The vast tract homes of Tracy, Manteca and beyond are now within "commute" distance of the Bay Area. "Smart Growth" advocates are pushing for more density in urban neighborhoods everywhere, while here in Marin the county is open to changing zoning protections to accommodate both affordable housing developments and mega-mansions.
   So here we sit, thinking that we can save West Marin as the rest of Marin and California max out under the present pressure... not at all understanding that the biggest push for population increase has yet to happen... but will occur in the next two decades as more arrive... and many of the new arrivals have kids. Be they rich, poor or in between, they take up finite space.
   Those few who see what is happening right here in California are often bashed by the Right for dissing the mega-mansions, and then labeled "racist" by the Left for even mentioning that we need a rational conversation on immigrants of all kind. Not to mention the bashing from fundamentalist churches for wanting to decrease births. This is a Perfect Storm situation.
   Let's think of California as a rowboat... it holds ten people in safety. But because of pressure from people swimming in the waters around it, it takes on an additional fifteen people. It holds and does not sink. But more and more people swim to it, demanding to be allowed aboard. Because the people on board cannot seem to make a decision on a sustainable population, they put their hands out to fifteen more, then twenty, then thirty. The boat sinks all aboard. All are lost.
   This is a cautionary tale. Make of it what you will, but the fact remains that we are adding the population worth of a Fresno or San Francisco in California every year now, but could escalate to adding a Los Angeles periodically over the next twenty years. Why are we accepting that? Can we at least rationally talk about this? Or are we just too dumb?
 

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