L.A. is here to stay


Paul set his mug of wine down and glowered at me over his glasses. Los Angeles? Why would any magazine editor include Los Angeles in a special issue on environmental sustainability?

My friend and former professor had good reason to ask. The camper Paul calls home, where I had stopped for dinner that October night, is parked on the upper edge of the sprawling sage-furred desert of California's Owens Valley. In the early 1900s, L.A. drained the water from Owens Lake, about 80 miles south of here, to feed its own booming growth and glitz. Its thirst left behind toxic dust storms and a bitter grudge among the area's rural residents.

I encountered similar sentiments when I told others about the stories of urban environmental innovation I was editing for High Country News' annual Future issue. Las Vegas? A city like that in a desert is a crime against nature, an environmentalist friend scoffed to me at the local brewery. Phoenix? That, too. Even our student-writing contest got a rise: "While I am very interested in writing an essay that would further our efforts to achieve sustainability in Western Colorado, there is one big problem," wrote one prospective participant. "A modern industrial society will NEVER be sustainable (here). Virtually all our essential supplies are imported from outside our area."

These folks are, in part, reacting to the use and abuse of the already vague word "sustainability" for corporate greenwashing. But they're also right. It's impossible to argue that places like Vegas and L.A. and Phoenix and even the West's far-flung small towns don't have massive impacts. Put lots of people anywhere, especially an arid anywhere, and you're going to deplete local water sources or obliterate native species or compromise air quality or spew greenhouse gases. You will probably do all of the above. Even so, concluding that a community is inherently unsustainable, that its very existence is historically and environmentally wrong, leads to some tricky ethical places once you try to move beyond intellectual exercise to concrete action.

No one is simply going to declare, "No more Vegas," and bulldoze the place, any more than anyone is going to force people to stop having too many babies. And it would be quite a struggle to find a community that isn't chugging along in precarious opposition to its immediate surroundings in some way. Think of the epic flash floods and fires on Colorado's Front Range, San Francisco's earthquakes, the Arctic vortex that recently inhaled the Midwest and Northeast.

Any meaningful conversation about how to solve the West's, and the world's, environmental ills has to start with the recognition that our Vegases and Phoenixes and L.A.s aren't going anywhere. That they will likely only grow. That, in fact, the planet's most gluttonous country's most gluttonous cities may be some of our best laboratories for new ideas, as they are already colliding with very real resource limitations.

We should remember the Owens Valleys of our past, lest we repeat the same mistakes in our future. But we should also remember that most historic wrongs will forever be impossible to undo. There's no going back: What we have is what we have to work with. What we build from it now is up to us.

Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Jan 26, 2014 10:03 AM
The U.S. fertility rate has been at or below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman since 1972, so there's no need to "force people to stop having too many babies." Our rapid population increase--more than 2 million a year--has a different cause now.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jan 27, 2014 09:32 AM
Hi Dennis--I was referring to global population increases. The explicit reference was cut due to space concerns. However, even at what you call a replacement rate, the population would continue to rise regardless of immigration.
Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Jan 29, 2014 11:32 AM
Replacement-level fertility (a standard demographic term) eventually stabilizes a population if there is no net migration. However, U.S. births continue to greatly exceed deaths, despite 40 years of low fertility, primarily because of the relative youth and higher fertility of immigrant women. Fertility rates can change very quickly. They are well below replacement level in Europe, East Asia, and North America, and have fallen dramatically in most Latin American countries. With the exception of China, this occurred without coercion. Mexico's rate dropped rapidly after the government reversed its natalist policy in 1973 and began to encourage smaller families. In Iran, the fertility rate rose quickly then fell quickly as a result of religious edicts. Demography is not a "tricky ethical question" but a critical mathematical subject that is intensely researched by government agencies. In the past, the relationship between population and sustainability was widely understood. But today it has become a taboo topic for the media, as evidenced in this issue of HCN.
Daryl A Scherkenbach
Daryl A Scherkenbach Subscriber
Jan 30, 2014 02:09 PM
Ms. Gilman
I can’t believe an editor at HCN is so cavalier about addressing rising population levels. To be dismissive about tackling that problem serves no one. Can you show me an environmental problem that is not caused by or exacerbated by rising population? As you state, forcing people to stop having babies is unpalatable, but we don’t have to subsidize people who have more than one or two children with tax advantages and state supported education for more than one or two children. There are other social pressures that could be applied once we agree on the problem. People need to be educated about the impacts having children.
There are many serious scientists who think we have already surpassed the long term carrying capacity of this planet. Clearly we can have 7 billion people on this planet but at what average standard of living is that sustainable for more than even 20 years? I will bet it will not be in the manner that the populations of LA, LV or Phoenix are accustomed to. There are ever more people with rising living standards competing on a global scale for fixed or diminishing resources.
You state that any meaningful conversation about the West’s environmental ills has to start with major western cities not going anywhere. I find that to be a meaningless conversation. Those cities won’t go anywhere, but the people will, and based on human history that can happen very quickly.
At a level of 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere we have not begun to see what climate change has in store for us. The average person, who even thinks this is a problem, is thinking well it will get warmer. The last time the atmosphere reached 400ppm CO2 (the PETM about 58 ma ago) there was a major extinction event and there were a species of redwood growing near the arctic ocean. This years west coast weather shows us how that can happen and how quickly it can happen. Have you watched the temps in AK this winter and the rainfall in CA and OR? Water planners in CA look to weather a drought of 7 years. I don’t think they will weather even a three year draught very well and we have about one year of weather pattern that may be what the PETM looked like for 10’s of thousands of years.
In my opinion, not seriously and repeatedly addressing these problems at every level in our society is just choosing a seat with a slightly different view of that huge iceberg.
Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Jan 31, 2014 04:08 PM
In the 1960s through 1980s, the population problem was widely discussed. Leaders from Martin Luther King to Dwight Eisenhower warned about it. Students in geography, biology, and environmental science courses learned the principles of demography. Bumper stickers urged parents to "Stop at 2," and most did. In 1972, a bipartisan congressional commission concluded that the U.S. should strive to stabilize its population.

But in the 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the whole subject became politically taboo. As a result, the younger generation of Americans seems to be quite ignorant about it. Scientists talk about it among themselves, but are afraid to publish. The media--conservative and liberal--won't touch it. From the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, from the Economist to the Arizona Republic, there is now a denial about population that is greater than anyone's denial of climate change. An enormous amount of population data is available online from federal, state, local, and international agencies. But journalists may lack the time or math skills to analyze it, or rely on someone with a political agenda to "interpret" it.

Ironically, non-Americans don't seem to have such a hangup about population. Just yesterday, buried in the 24th paragraph of a New York Times story on Iran's acute water crisis, a local environmental official concluded, "there are just too many people nowadays." I no longer hear American bureaucrats making such statements to reporters.

I was surprised to find, in an anonymous survey, that my numerous Chinese students almost unanimously support their government's 1979 birth policy. Most Americans dismiss it as totalitarian, but young Chinese recognize that their astonishing rise in living standards was made possible by the rapid drop in fertility. And they remember their grandparents' stories of the horrendous 1958-62 famine, when 30 million people starved to death--something totally unimaginable to spoiled, politically correct Americans.