Opposite of Growth: The incredible shrinking state seems to be goal for conference of "us vs. them."
(The Oregonian, February 16, 1997)
By Richard H. Carson
I laughed when an Oregonian columnist recently noted that a "no growth" coalition is putting together a conference titled "Strategies for a Smaller, Better Oregon"" I wanted to ask, "Is someone leaving Oregon? Perhaps the conference organizers."
Then I stopped laughing. I am tired of the rhetoric about no growth and the lemming-like attitudes that the no-growth advocates exhibit. It is time we question what no growth is really about: The small-minded politics of them.
Who do you think is causing growth? Is it your children growing up to buy a house, or your friends and family moving here? Of course not -- it's them.
We Oregonians have a history of blaming other people for our problems. In the mid-1990s it was government employees. In the 1980s and early 1990s it was the homosexuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, all those horrible Californians got to be them. Remember the John Blaine Society, Gov. Tom McCall's quote and the "Don't Californicate Oregon" bumper stickers?
Before it became both illegal and socially unacceptable, it was the foreign-born immigrants who were them. According to historian E. Kimbark McCall, one prominent Portland politician went so far in 1920 as to claim that within 30 years California would be "equally composed of Japs and whites unless some radical measures were taken." At least one person had enough sense to point out that "he doubted the Japanese were any more prolific than Americans."
Unfortunately, this fear of growing minority populations led to the Ku Klux Klan flourishing here and ranting for years about the alien Catholics, Jews, Negroes and Asians.
Small is not always so beautiful
My second concern about the smaller Oregon proposition is that all it seems to translate into is smaller lots, smaller streets and higher densities. I am beginning to feel like I live in Lilliput. Should we demand smaller people?
One of the gurus of urban design and planning, Ian McHarg, recently spoke at Metro about the need for urban design. What he didn't point out were his ideas on "pathological togetherness" (Design With Nature, 1969). In his words, "as density increases, so do social pressures, which
manifest themselves in stress diseases."
Another key factor in this pathology is "reduced mobility." The combination of increased density and reduced mobility results in the highest incidence of "deviance," "asocial" behavior and "extreme mental pathology." In other words, the inhabitants get violent, stop reproducing, become vegetables and die.
Why are the no-growth conference organizers trying to herd Oregonians into high density, "neotraditional" reservations? Is the best way to save nature simply to isolate the human parasites on as little land as possible and make them less mobile by making them take the bus, ride a bike or just walk?
The smaller-government theme
There is also a belief that decreasing the size of government further will slow population and economic growth. The same column also noted that "they're actually talking about putting the brakes on economic development."
A recent survey done by Portland says as much. A poll of 405 people put economic development and planning in second and third place, behind the arts, as the programs most favored to get the Ballot Measure 47 budget ax. Why? More than one-third of those polled felt it was time to quit planning for growth.
The pollster's explanation was that, "They're saying we've had enough growth, and maybe if we cut these services it will curtail growth.
However, making a place smaller does not make it more livable. When we stop providing for the economic well-being and stop planning for the future of a place, then the place loses quality-of-life.
From the 1940s to 1970s, much of the local infrastructure was paid for with funding aid from the federal government. However, President Reagan succeeded in pushing such costs back to the state and local governments. The aftermath of Ballot Measures 5 and 47 is that there is very little local money to pay for growth or anything else. The focus should be on acknowledging that growth exists and then to work toward a fair system of allocating 100 percent of the costs between the new residents of a community and the existing residents.
The real issues of growth
Any valid discussion of growth should begin with the "carrying capacity" of human and wildlife species populations. We need to ask if there is an optimum population and geographic size for any urban area where:
- People still feel they are part of a definable and understandable community.
- Social and economic issues are still manageable.
- And air and water quality is still good for humans and wildlife.
It is pointless to start a discussion with Kerr's comment that, "Population growth is the ultimate environmental issue." The focus should not be that population growth in Oregon is inherently good or bad. Such statements simply cut off any rational or substantive debate on the real issues.
I have several hard questions to ask "Smaller Oregon" conference attendees: Who are the people creating this growth? How will you keep them from coming here? By what right do you stop them? How will you get rid of them?
I suggest a new no-growth conference theme. To paraphrase that small philosopher Pogo on the first Earth Day, "We have met the enemy, and -- we are them."
Richard H. Carson is the community development director of Oregon City and managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.