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Population and Downsizing the American Dream

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
March 14, 2001


"Community vision fades before a future of endless growth." — Eben Fodor

Critical habitat is considered to be habitat that is vital to the survival of a species. For example, without coastal sage scrub the California Gnatcatcher will cease to exist. Centuries of evolution has hard wired this small bird into it's environment, if the environment is lost so too the bird. Sadly not only is coastal sage scrub a critical habitat it's also a habitat in critical condition.

For the past hundred years the biotic community known as coastal sage scrub has been under assault by immigrants. Not only was the California dream golden, it was infectious. The environment that attracted people to Southern California was removed to make room for those seeking it. Rivers were dammed, cities were built, and natural processes altered to make the place more tolerable.

Slowly but surely, native habitat gave way to rural farm communities. A quicker transition was between agriculture and our manicured suburban habitat. Pockets of open space made it all seem tolerable as did a culture that embraced the casual. Faster yet was the shift from sleepy beach towns to crowded cities of freeway focused commuters. Unchecked, growth is overburdening the carrying capacity of the region. And still the people come.

As population increases, the amount of space provided shrinks in response. More people living with less is something we should all get used to. Residents from Oceanside to the Mexican border live on top of each other atop crumbling bluffs. Leucadia is now experiencing Cardiffication, with beach cottages being replaced with single family hotels. And as older homes on larger lots are sold and those lots subdivided, densification continues unchecked.

Soon those homeowners with significant yards will be a privileged class. Most new homes are being built with postage stamp lawns if any. Residential development taking place in Carlsbad, especially along the coast highway, is an example of the crowded conditions to come. How soon before coastal San Diego County is indistinguishable from Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco? How soon before homes are stacked like Legos as they are in Tokyo, Singapore, or Rio De Janeiro?

Providing housing for a million more people will only be possible if future housing is limited in size as to reflect a growing lack of space. Three-thousand square foot homes are a thing of the past. Although you wouldn't know it by judging the McMansions being built all over the county. From bluffs to back country massive, resource intensive, homes are now the preferred status symbol.  Again I ask. "What energy Crisis?"

The private enclaves of Cielo, the latest Rancho Sante Fe gated community are building luxurious tract villas along ridge lines, some as large as 7,768 square feet.  While touring the first enclave all I could do is laugh at the environmental autism represented by this nouveau riche attempt to pass 528 homes, on 1,750 acres, off as anything other than human encroachment. Having recently visited this sprawling development I can assure you that conspicuous consumption has never looked so...out of place.

Needed is an environmental ethic where small is always better, and simplicity preferred. Sustainability should be the first consideration when choosing a home, not status. Also needed as part of this new environmental ethic is the understanding the bigger the house the bigger the impact on the community. McManions require more energy , more water, and more income to maintain. As population continues to grow, learning to live with less will be a challenge we will all face, regardless of our socioeconomic standing.

When Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond to live in small cabin he did so deliberately, seeking to live "free from an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, ruined by luxury and heedless expense." The polar opposite of Thoreau's commitment to living lightly on the land is the Californian commitment to consumption. Heavy is the weight of millions of people trying to acquire as much o the American dream as physically possible. Slaves to the material trappings that make up our lives, we fail to protect an environment we have no time to enjoy.

Now is the time for elected officials to make the difficult decisions and create policy that scales down the size of future homes. Builders build to regulations and homeowners buy what builders build. If Southern California is going to accommodate millions more into our already overcrowded cities something has got to give. Sooner or later environmental balance  will be restored, the only question remaining? Will it be a result of deliberate restraint, or systematic collapse?

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