Creeping sprawl targets farmland

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Last week I read an article in the Fresno Bee about a workshop sponsored by the Fresno County Farm Bureau. The focus was on how to stop urban sprawl and save farmland. Projections are that in the next 25 years six more Fresnos will be added to the San Joaquin Valley alone, and state-wide California can expect a new San Jose every two years. Fresno has a population of almost half a million, San Jose one of about a million.

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the bread baskets of the world, producing over 250 different crops and about 25 per cent of the United States agriculture output by dollar value. Once it was a place of small cities and few people, but now it is one of the fastest growing areas in California. In 1960 the population of the valley was around 1.4 million, by 2000 it had risen to 3.3 million and is projected to reach 4.2 million by 2010, and almost 8 million by 2050. This growth has come not only at the cost of vast acres of arable land, but has deteriorated regional air quality and put increased demands on water in an area that gets only between 5 to 14 inches of rain per year. No wonder farmers are worried.

Unfortunately, despite their concerns, the farmers at the workshop failed to address the issues that matter to solve their problem. Instead of focusing on ending and even reversing development, they accepted the idea of growth and instead discussed ways to redirect it away from farmland.

Urban sprawl and the paving over of land (one sixth of all land development in California since 1850 happened between 1990 and 2004) are not the problem, they are merely a symptom of the problem. The problem is an economic and social system out of whack that is consuming itself because the predominant ethos in society values growth without much regard for the cost. It is a system in a downward spiral.

Instead of looking for ways to channel development away from farm land the farmers, and all of us, should be asking why allow development at all. Why aren't we thinking about the carrying capacity of any given region and then putting policies in place that limit population and activity in that region to what the carrying capacity can sustainably support?

Developers and most politicians (many of whom are bought and paid for by developers) and those who profit from development, will take the position that we have to develop to meet the needs of a growing population which in turn requires a growing economy to support it. End of story. But within that model there is a serious flaw. Resources are limited, and to be sustainable renewable resources can only be exploited to the limit that allows them to replenish themselves. 50 some years ago on our planet we were consuming at a rate well within the sustainable limit. Today we are well beyond it.

If we are to maintain our civilization as we have developed it over the past ten thousand years, we need to change our thinking about economics and population, and turn from a growth model to one that gradually reduces our numbers and our impact on the ecosystem. We need to choose leaders that promise not more jobs and ever large gross domestic products, but which promise to repair our environment and to redistribute wealth by taxing those that have large amounts of it, and then putting it to work to provide for the most vulnerable affected by a retracting economy.

The farmers in Fresno don't appear to see this reality yet. They will waste lots of time trying to fix a seriously flawed system with band-aids without ever coming close to what their real problem is. Unfortunately for all of us, they are not alone.

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