Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
By Mike Davis
Metropolitan Books; 466 pages; $27.50
Let me make one thing clear, before I cruelly attack this book: I admire Mike Davis. His 1990 jeremiad, City of Quartz, was a classic of well-directed rage. In macho prose, with obsessive reporting, Davis all but predicted the date and street address of the 1992 riots. He attacked the Los Angeles Police Department, the corporate boosters’ whitewashing of city history, the absurd and isolating layout driven more by greed than geographical logic. He displayed a rare awareness of Latinos in the region, both past and present. (I’d love to know what he thinks of Bulworth, with its literally black-and-white take on racial strife.)
Above all, Davis was humane. He was fascinated by the abstract weirdness of contemporary Los Angeles, but he didn’t get off on it like some silly French postmodernist. Instead, he got angry. Sometimes too angry, seeming to argue that all reformers were elitists, all whites closet racists.
Over the past eight years, that anger has mushroomed into panic. It’s hard to describe Davis’ new book, since it flits among several genres. At its best, it’s a sequel to City of Quartz, using the environment as a window onto Los Angeles’ social problems. At its weirdest, it’s a diatribe shot through with millennial overtones, so that its reach is much larger than just the environment–it’s about the ultimate doom of mankind, or something like that. And then there are whole chapters that smell like old articles Davis wrote a while back in the alternative press and recycled to fill out a volume.
The book shuttles back and forth in a wacky dialectic. Thesis No. 1: Los Angeles’ ecological system is more likely than any place on earth to suffer earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, fires, grizzlies, rabid squirrels, and killer bees. Even tornadoes, which are generally thought to prefer the Midwest, spin threateningly on the horizon. But, of course, Los Angelenos, world champions of denial, are ignoring the situation. The fools assume that the aberrant quiescence of the past 50 years is the norm. Thesis No. 2: Los Angelenos are excessively paranoid. Natural disaster is all they think about–it’s their guiding legend, muse, and inspiration, as well as a great way to avoid thinking about race and class.
Davis believes both Thesis No. 1 and Thesis No. 2, though they seem to contradict each other. Take the following dance: “Middle-class apprehensions about the angry, abandoned underclasses are now only exceeded by anxieties about blind thrust faults and hundred-year floods. Meanwhile, Caltech seismologists warn that the Pacific Rim is only beginning its long overdue rock and roll: the Kobe catastrophe may be a 3-D preview of the Los Angeles 2000. And waiting in the wings are the plague squirrels and killer bees.” First Davis accuses the bourgeoisie of misdirected anxieties, then he urges them to wake up and worry.
The disconnect here seems to represent a conflict basic to Davis. The reporter and lover of nitty-gritty facts rubs up against the acolyte of the Frankfurt School. At one point Davis borrows Walter Benjamin’s melancholy idea that history is a dialectical fairy tale–a bunch of contradictory stories people tell about themselves, “linked together by strange ironies.” Attempts to put such notions into practice send Davis off the deep end.
He’s much more persuasive as a reporter. A great mini-chapter on the history of Los Angeles floods shows how at a critical moment city authorities rejected the idea of zoning to avoid floods. Instead they went with the notion of flood control, which gave them a nice pork barrel budget for public works and allowed rich people build a house wherever they damn well felt like it. A rather heartbreaking section argues that similar greed-based zoning has endangered the lives of firefighters. Unable to use their usual firefighting techniques for fear of endangering the property next door, they’re forced into a futile house-by-house battle in what is essentially one huge firetrap. Davis tells you more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the hunting lobby and security at the Calipatria State Prison, where a surrounding fence is rigged to zap human beings but welcome cute little squirrels and birdies. And he has an eye for grotesque detail: In January of 1995, swarms of writhing snakes washed up on beaches from Tijuana to Santa Barbara. It isn’t clear what this fact proves, but it’s alarming and memorable.
Plus it has biblical resonance, and there are biblical implications to the story Davis is telling. The ecosystem in the world that most resembles Los Angeles’ is the Mediterranean, he tells us–and the best natural history of the ancient Mediterranean is found in the Bible. Davis seems to think that the four horsemen of the Apocalypse will arrive via the Pacific Coast Highway. Chapter 3 is titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” I fear that Davis really wants this to happen. Maybe a good fire will shake things up, his thinking seems to go–take the rich people out of their game. It’ll accomplish what the Los Angeles riots and all the striking unions and political protests in the world failed to do: It’ll bring on a revolution.
There’s despair in this notion, and frivolity–it’s a good 20 minute riff at a cocktail party but not the stuff of a book. Even Davis seems to realize this. He runs out of gas about two-thirds of the way through and turns into an armchair academic. The last few chapters are truly disappointing–slack, dated, and filled with tired ideas. Davis surveys disaster stories set in Los Angeles, but he’s an insecure literary critic, and his emphasis on the fairy tale aspect of natural disaster undermines the facts that have gone before. His argument appears to be that fictional disasters stand in for racism. He appears to have missed the Will Smith phenomenon, whereby a masculine and not deracinated black man repeatedly saves the world.
Upon finishing this book, I was seized by a deep feeling of stuckness. “The 1990s in particular have been a funereal decade, interring many of the hopes and fantasies of the earlier twentieth century,” Davis intones. Funereal, indeed. I’m not saying Davis should stop complaining and suck it up, but this decade has seen the birth of new fantasies, and he fails to take them on. There’s no mention of the Internet here, though surely it must have some effect on the way people define their loyalties and civic duties. Ecology of Fear reads like a book written in the middle of the 1992 recession. There’s no sign of an economic boom or increased optimism (whether justified or not) about technology.
Also, Davis needs to get over his Los Angeles exceptionalism. Segregation on Chicago’s South Side is as vicious as it is in Compton, and if you’re talking about criminalizing the poor and turning public space over to Disney, then Rudolph Giuliani’s New York City would seem to be the current industry leader. Scary rodent-borne viruses are making a comeback across the country, not just in Southern California. And what about floods in North Dakota and Iowa or fires in Oakland, Calif., and Daytona Beach, Fla.? Maybe Los Angeles isn’t the scariest place on earth after all.