In his prescient book The Destruction of California, ecologist and native Californian Raymond F. Dasmann recounts that in 1963, while driving across the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland, he saw a sign that upset him.
It was erected to sensationalize the “race” between California’s rapidly growing population and New York’s. Dasmann wrote:
"In just the few minutes required to drive past, the figures increased disturbingly. There were those who found joy in this race, and celebrated California’s supposed victory. But to some of us there seemed scant cause for rejoicing…"
As evident from its strident title, The Destruction of California was a lament and a call to action from a native sone who was deeply concerned about his favorite state. Unfortunately, in Dasmann’s words, California had already become “a not so golden state.”
Dasmann wrote passionately but with a scientist’s erudition about the annihilation of California’s tall timber, the loss of its grizzly bears and other wildlife, the disappearance of native prairies, the bitter struggle for water, and the assault on air quality from ever more vehicles belching fumes. All at a time when California’s population was only half of what it is today.
The book’s message resonated well beyond the borders of California. Enthusiastic reviewers in Massachusetts, Indiana, Texas and Alabama all cited its relevance for their own respective states. It was widely used in university ecology courses in the 1960s and 70s. And it influenced a generation of young scholars and activists like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb several years later in 1968.
Raised in a working-class San Francisco neighborhood, Dasmann entered UC Berkeley but saw his college education interrupted by World War II. After serving with the Army in Australia and New Guinea, he resumed his education, eventually earning his doctorate at Berkeley under the distinguished wildlife biologist A. Starker Leopold, son of the pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold.
Over the course of his career, Dasmann worked for the Conservation Foundation in Washington, DC and the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Switzerland. But he eventually returned to his beloved and beleaguered California, teaching ecology at UC Santa Cruz until his retirement.
Dasmann indicted population growth in the destruction of California. In a chapter ominously called “The West Ends Here,” he wrote:
"The greatest reality in California today is the population problem. It touches on every facet of the land and its life, from the conservation of wilderness and national parks to the restoration of meaning and pleasure to life in the cities."
In the end, while Dasmann’s jeremiad stirred many in the state and beyond, it was not enough to alter California’s tragic demographic trajectory. One man’s protest – a haunting cry in the wilderness, really – could not overcome the powerful vested interests that profited from population growth…and that had the means and motivation in the first place to erect a large sign crowing about California’s dubious “victory” in the race to overpopulate.
Before Dasmann passed away in 2002, the once “tentative optimist” seemed to succumb to pessimism about prospects for his state and the Earth. A visitor to his nursing home remembered him saying “so many struggles, so many struggles…” And he wept.
But the good fight and the uphill struggle continue. There is too much at stake to throw in the towel. And the prophetic insights of Dasmann continue to instruct and inspire:
"Unless the rate of population increase can be checked…there can be no good answer, only stopgap emergency measures for preserving the landscape and making life bearable in this once-golden state."