Thinning the herd

When we lived in L.A. for a few years in the first part of the new millennium, the wife and I often made the observation that California would be a heck of a nice place if it only had about half as many people. We were part of the problem, of course, but none-the-less …

Earlier this week on an outing to Safeway for groceries, I thought twice about whether I should risk it. It was about 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and my instinct told me this was still prime time for the condo and second-home dwellers who come out not just to purchase food, but to loudly plan their meals while standing in large groups in front of the display cases.

But the phrase “beef stroganoff” was stuck in my head for some reason and I needed the ingredients. Inside the store, a choir of angels greeted us in the form of well-stocked shelves being perused by a modest population of locals mixed with, I believe, a few early leaf-peepers.

It made me think of those poor schmucks in California, who never get a time of year when significantly fewer people in the area translates into a respite at the grocery store ” or anywhere else. It also reminded me of this piece I read on Slate.com about something called “the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.” The idea behind it is that there are simply too many people on this relatively tiny planet, and if everyone would simply stop having babies, we’d shed billions of people in just a few generations and everything would be hunky-dory ” a gloval version of High-Country supermarket aisles in September.

As a species, we may argue about how we got here, but the baseline “why” has always been pretty clear: We’re here to reproduce. At a mall in Colorado Springs recently, I was watching our 6-year-old crawl around on one of those mall play areas with about 700 other children, mostly under age 5. I turned to the 16-year-old and said: “You see? That’s what you get when you have sex.” He nodded, and I saw in his eyes something like comprehension. I mean, of course he knows the basics, but seeing so many crawling, squalling, snot-nosed kids in one place may have been the picture worth a thousand parental exhortations about abstinence.

Although I recognize his point, I’m afraid Les U. Knight, the guy promoting Voluntary Human Extinction, has a bit of an uphill battle. Even in the U.S., where the number of families with three or more kids has declined in past decades, big families are coming back into vogue. One need only visit one of the many home tours or home “parades” going on in the mountains right now to realize most new homes are being built to accommodate Brady Bunch-like populations. Those timber mansions are going to see empty and downright cavernous if you don’t fill them up with a few curtain crawlers.

Funny thing is, of course, that’s not really true. The reason they have 5,000 square feet of space, six bedrooms, two dishwashers and two laundry rooms isn’t to accommodate a family like mine. I believe it has something to do with the reason behind why people buy 8-passenger SUVs knowing they will likely never have more than four people in the car: because they can afford it, because they can. But watching these big homes sit empty on the hill most of the year is nothing short of painful for mountain communities full of local families who could really make use of all that space.

But, hey, that’s America, right? If we tolerate outsiders decimating the home market for locals, it’s only because we believe in our hearts that some day we, too, will have that two-dishwasher home. And who knows, if the housing market really does go south and all the trees fall down because of the beetles, we’ll be moving into those homes ” if only for a few months before realizing all the jobs went bye-bye with the second-home owners.

In the meantime, we’ll take this temporary voluntary extinction of tourists from now until Thanksgiving or so. Let’s celebrate by waltzing in the cereal aisles.

Vail Daily, Sept. 19, 2007

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