"Too many people spoil everything," my mother said. This when Phoenix passed the intolerable level of 600,000 residents and America 200 million. Now we're more than 100 million beyond that and it's difficult to argue we're that much better as a nation. The suburban apologist Joel Kotkin has written a book entitled, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His thesis, as Publisher's Weekly puts it: "a very sunny...forecast for the American economy, arguing that despite its daunting current difficulties, the U.S. will emerge by mid-century as the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in human history. Nourished by mass immigration and American society's proven adaptability, the country will reign supreme over an industrialized world beset by old age, bitter ethnic conflicts, and erratically functioning economic institutions." Funny, that dystopia sounds much like America in 2010. The success like America in 1970 or even 1990.
Thank God I saw the West when it was still relatively empty, when Arizona was such an exotic locale that most Americans had only seen it in Westerns. That's gone forever, especially in my home state, replaced by unmitigated ugliness almost every place that has been touched by human hands.
Interestingly, the decade's 9.7 percent growth rate nationally is the lowest since the Great Depression. Arizona clocked in as the nation's second-fastest growing state, at 24.6 percent, to reach 6.4 million. It probably would have seen an even larger population if not for the white-right war against Hispanics. Yet it is hardly 24.6 percent better by any other measure, certainly those involving quality of life or economic competitiveness. It barely made a dent in paying for the infrastructure to accommodate the 35-percent rise in the 1980s and the 40-percent rate of the 1990s. Nevada, No. 1 in growth this decade (35.1 percent), is an economic, social and environmental disaster. The nation as a whole is poorer, deeply in debt, mired in imperial adventures and falling behind the advanced nations of the world.
Much crowing was heard about the continuing Sun Belt migration. It's undeniable and promises us much pain from the political gains the right is rightly counting on. In the short term. Across the Sun Belt, population increases have not led to similar growth in incomes, productivity, educational attainment or great achievements of a civilization. These states are merely examples of Say's Law at work, thanks to a huge inventory of cheap suburban tract houses, and warm weather kept under control, for now, by air conditioning. They cannot solve their increasingly urban problems, the rising carrying costs of large populations, because most are ruled by the right. They are insulated by reality by being, for the most part, net takers from the federal Treasury, all the while fighting socialism!! By contrast, slow-growing Massachusetts (9.8 percent) is a prosperous magnet for talent, capital and cutting-edge enterprise.
Things may look differently in the next Census, by which time the consequences of climate change, water shortages and much higher energy prices kick in, and particularly kick around this vulnerable region. It would be nice to think climate change will mean cooler temperatures and more rain in Phoenix. It would be nice. But it's not going to happen. At some point, the migration will reverse with a vengeance. Washington state is already preparing contingency plans for "climate refugees" from the Southwest. (Don't come: It rains all the time and you'll freeze your hindquarters off).
The reality is that the planet is rapidly reaching its carrying capacity, if it hasn't already surpassed it. Millions of unemployed, desperately poor young men make easy recruits for terrorism, piracy and drug-running. We're in for an era of increasing tension as nations race, and even fight each other, to lock up increasingly scarce resources. Things we took for granted, say water and food, will become geopolitical flashpoints. While the Kotkins of America imagine single-family-home Plano, Texases, and Gilbert, Arizonas, from sea to shining sea, the environmental, social and economic troubles caused by our current population should give pause. The America that won World War II had 132 million people, a rising middle class, the world's largest industrial base. Today's America has a pampered financial sector selling swindles, a devastated sprawl housing economy, millions unemployed and millions more dry-firing their weapons and nursing grudges fed to them by talk radio, Uncle Rupert and the theocrats over at the megachurch. Another hundred million in this favored land? Say goodbye to the National Parks, if not the nation.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the city numbers come out. Most Americans dream of their little English manors in suburbia and can't appreciate cities or their potential. Seattle's population was 557,000 in 1960 (a little larger than the city of Phoenix). In a 2006 estimate, it was 582,464. Boston went from 697,000 in 1960 to 590,763 in 2006. For Denver, the numbers are 494,000 to 566,974. And yet, by any measure except individual taste, they are infinitely better cities than Phoenix with its 1.4 million. Indeed, my old Phoenix has been destroyed by population growth. This being America in the age of cars, sprawl, cheap gas and credit, all these cities are surrounded by much sprawl, with all its costs and ugliness. But the fact remains that the three cities I mentioned with low population growth have managed very strong economic growth, not to mention their cultural assets, attraction of world talent and quality of (urban) life. They have even managed to do a jiu jitsu with the suburbs and leverage them to the city's advantage.
Our well-functioning cities and non-Wal-Marted small towns could teach us something. But most Americans don't want to hear. Don't want to have a serious discussion about growth. About anything. Why, Bristol Palin's bought in Maricopa! I can see another housing boom just around the corner!