A Tale of Three States

Published on February 4th, 2014

Half a century ago, California’s movers and shakers were giddy that the Golden State was about to surpass the Empire State – New York – as the most populous in the land.

At that time, California’s population was less than half of what it is today. And man, oh man, have we ever reaped the “rewards” for the honor of Most Overpopulated State:

  • Biblical levels of traffic congestion
  • Smog smothering blue desert skies and even blighting the Giant Sequoias and Sierra Nevada
  • Sprawl spreading for 200 miles in SoCal
  • Crowded beaches, parks and campgrounds
  • Gang-and-graffiti-dominated urban terror zones
  • Epic drive-by shootings
  • Absurdly unaffordable housing
  • Disappearing water supplies
  • Besieged farmlands
  • Orange groves replaced by strip malls and car lots
  • A wicked, widening chasm between haves and have-nots
  • A sickly (now slowly recovering) Mono Lake and a diseased Salton Sea
  • Raging wildfires consuming entire neighborhoods encroaching upon fire-prone habitats
  • Majestic Yosemite National Park converted into an amusement park every summer
  • And to top it all off, More Endangered Species Than Any Other State!

It’s enough to make California’s boosters and boomers burst with pride.

Arroyo Seco Parkway after 1940 completion, and Arroyo Seco Parkway today.

Now history is repeating itself. And once again, the slower-growing Empire State, gathering rust and icicles Up North, is being deposed, this time dropping from Third Place to Fourth Place. (Another Sunbelt State – ever “bigger is better” Texas – long ago passed New York and claimed Second Place.)

And the up-and-coming state is? None other than Florida, the Sunshine State. Florida’s bulging numbers – nearly 20 million and counting – have been juiced for decades by a steady stream of newcomers – both domestic retirees and foreign-born immigrants – looking for their ever-more-crowded place in the sun.

Joe Bish of the Population Media Center monitors the national and international media for coverage of population. Recently, he reported with dismay that:

Despite my best efforts, I have been forced to share with you ‘the big news’ that Florida is nearly set to pass New York and become the United States’ third-most-populous state. If I have not seen over 100 article headlines on this story in the past few days, I have not seen one. Of course, this begs the rhetorical question: why is this such ‘big news’?

The answer, as most of us know so well, but perhaps don’t keep in the forefront of our minds as much as we should is this: a fantastic proportion of people do not perceive population growth as a problem at all. Not environmentally. Not economically. Not at all…because you now have ‘bragging rights.’

One of the delicious ironies, according to the program director for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, is that:

Florida has New York to thank in part for its growth, as New Yorkers account for the state’s single largest group of new residents from within the United States…

Note the pro-growth bias implicit in use of the word “thank” instead of “blame.”

Aside from the bragging rights, the real reason people revel in rapid population growth is that it reflects prosperity and job creation…good times, in other words. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all that jazz. And this may be true, to a point, and for a while. Until the bills come due, as they inevitably do, in terms of higher taxes, a lower quality of life, and a battered and bruised environment.

Cities, regions and states – growth junkies all – clamor for more growth and then find themselves on a growth treadmill, so that they have to run faster and faster, adding ever more people and jobs, just to stay in the same place. At the start of a boom, unemployment may stand at say, 8 percent; two decades later, as the boom matures or fades, the unemployment rate may stand at 5 percent, but because the population has doubled, the absolute number of jobless has actually increased.

This boom-and-bust cycle has played out time and again, and not just in mining towns of the Old West. In desperately seeking the mirage of perpetual population growth, America is committing itself in effect to a short-sighted vision that will amount to little more than a boom followed by the inevitable bust.

And we will learn anew, the tough way, that: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Not much elbow room left. Extent of development in Florida in 2008 (left) versus that projected for 2060 (right). Will there be any space left for wildlife? Green patch at bottom is Everglades National Park. But will it have enough fresh water, as opposed to salt water, courtesy of a rising sea level?

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