Davis, _Ecology of Fear_ (LA and disaster), rev by Orsi (fwd)

Frances Bolton (PHI) fbolton at chuma.cas.usf.edu
Fri Dec 4 15:32:31 PST 1998

> Jared Orsi calls Mike Davis's _Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the
> Imagination of Disaster_ a modern-dau jeremiad, but one that sees no hope
> for repentence. The review, like the book, is sure to disturb many
> readers.
> The review first appeared on H-Urban.
> Rich Tuerk <Richard_Tuerk at tamu-commerce.edu>
> Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (September, 1998)
> Mike Davis. _Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of
> Disaster_. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998. 484 pp. Tables,
> maps, notes, photographs, and index. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN
> 0-8050-5106-6.
> Reviewed for H-Urban by Jared Orsi <jporsi at students.wisc.edu>,
> University of Wisconsin-Madison
> A Los Angeles Jeremiad: Mike Davis' _Ecology of Fear_.
> The jeremiad is a favorite form of American public discourse.
> Imitating the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who bemoaned Israel's
> sins even as he prophesied the coming of God's Kingdom, American
> rhetoricians from Jonathan Edwards to Martin Luther King, Jr. have
> attacked society's flaws while still retaining hope for the
> possibility of reform. With a gracefully written new book, _Ecology
> of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster_, Mike Davis
> adds another work to this classic American genre. In the first six
> chapters of the book, Davis grippingly describes the various types
> of disasters that plague southern California today and traces the
> historical sins and blindnesses that have created the present
> hazards. In the final chapter, he outlines his vision of Los
> Angeles' future. On the whole, this latest work from the author of
> the widely-read _City of Quartz_, is an eye-opening jeremiad in need
> of somewhat more nuanced historical analysis.[1]
> Davis' central claim is that the citizens of Los Angeles have
> imagined disasters through a lens of fear and misunderstanding and
> that the result is a profoundly inegalitarian society that is
> apocalyptically out of balance with its environment. He begins with
> a chapter tracing the historically cataclysmic character of the Los
> Angeles environment and arguing that the city we know today emerged
> during a fluke period of environmental quiescence. During this
> span, the region suffered none of the mammoth earthquakes or
> two-hundred-year droughts that mark the geologic record.
> Consequently, Angelenos severely underestimate their environment's
> potential for violence. But catastrophe in Los Angeles, Davis
> argues, is ordinary and inevitable. He forecasts "higher body
> counts and greater distress" (p. 55) in southern California's
> future.
> In Chapter Two, "How Eden Lost Its Garden," Davis explains how Los
> Angeles got into this predicament. "Selfish, profit-driven
> presentism" (p. 65), he maintains, has historically deafened
> southern Californians to the admonitions of prophets who have warned
> of impending environmental crises and suggested ways to avert them.
> Chapter Three links the environmental crises to social injustice.
> Davis juxtaposes wildfires in upscale Malibu, which receive a full
> measure of media attention, high-tech fire-fighting, and public
> financial relief, with urban tenement holocausts that go largely
> unnoticed and unabated. In Chapter Four, "Our Secret Kansas," Davis
> documents Los Angeles' tornado history, a problem that
> image-conscious boosters have managed to keep under wraps, despite
> an incidence of tornadoes twice as high as Oklahoma City's. Davis
> explores in Chapter Five the growing paranoia over attacks by
> mountain lions and other beasts. Here he suggests that the recent
> spate of clashes with the wild kingdom, which have elicited
> comparisons to drive-by shootings and mass murders, are logical
> outgrowths of urban encroachment into wild areas. Davis completes
> his critique in Chapter Six, "The Literary Destruction of Los
> Angeles." In this chapter, he lists, categorizes, and summarizes
> dozens of books and films that involve disaster in Los Angeles. The
> Los Angeles disaster genre, with its invading Asian hordes and
> anthropomorphized extra-terrestrials, he concludes, reflects
> regional racial anxieties.
> In the final chapter, "Beyond Blade Runner," Davis adopts the role
> of visionary. Instead of predicting cataclysmic doom or a world of
> technology gone berserk, Davis constructs his vision by
> extrapolating the present. He begins by tweaking Ernest Burgess'
> famous Chicago school of sociology model that diagrams urban
> concentric land use zones. According to Davis' version of the
> model, southern California's future geography will consist of an
> urban core of homeless people, a violent inner-city, blue-collar
> crime-watch suburbs, affluent gated communities, and a gulag rim of
> prisons on the outskirts. He bases this scenario on current
> anti-democratic tendencies rooted in fear. Among those he cites are
> comprehensive surveillance of downtown space, private vigilante
> security forces, prison-like schools, public preference for
> replacing social spending with prison budgets, white flight from
> older suburbs into edge cities, and social control districts for
> abating everything from prostitution to graffiti. Such disturbing
> trends indicate to Davis the willingness of wealthy white southern
> Californians to curb civil liberties in order to allay their social
> fears, a tendency he projects into terrifying future. Unlike other
> practitioners of the American jeremiad, Davis sees no hope for
> repentance on the horizon.
> In addition to revealing horrifying injustice and potential
> cataclysm that threaten the city's social and physical environments,
> this book makes two additional contributions. One is to illustrate
> the connections between social affairs and environmental change. In
> recent years, social scientists have documented the ways in which
> the arrangement of society determines who is most likely to be hit
> by a disaster and how badly.[2] Not surprisingly, damage from
> catastrophes is often distributed along race, gender, class, and age
> lines. In _Ecology of Fear_, Davis illustrates for a general
> audience how this works. Enormous public resources, for example,
> have been spent to preserve Malibu homes from fire while
> comparatively little goes to protecting urban tenements. Also,
> after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Congress began funding
> disaster relief by making comparable cuts in social spending. As
> Davis demonstrates, social arrangements may not cause fuel to
> combust or ground to shake, but they do distribute the costs of
> those events.
> A second contribution of the book is to recast the way we think
> about the Los Angeles environment. Again, Davis' success along
> these lines lies in making accessible a body of technical
> scholarship. Citing a variety of scientific literature, he
> illustrates the many instabilities of the Los Angeles environment.
> In contrast to the humid eastern United States, where nature at
> least appears orderly and predictable, southern California's
> Mediterranean environment is subject to sudden and often violent
> nonlinear events that stem from complex environmental interactions.
> Swirling hemispheric weather systems interact with Pacific Ocean
> temperatures to deliver years of extreme rainfall or searing
> drought. Scientists now believe earthquake faults in southern
> California may be "wired" so that slips on one could trigger a
> chain-reaction turning the entire Los Angeles basin in a giant
> epicenter. A recent spate of mountain lion attacks (nine of this
> century's ten have occurred since 1986, including five in 1994) may
> be attributable to habitat changes that induce radical shifts in the
> lions' behavioral patterns. Together, such phenomena illustrate how
> small and remote causes can multiply through feedback loops with
> calamitous results. Scientists call such phenomena "chaos," or
> "nonlinearity." Davis calls it "Walden Pond on LSD" (p. 14).
> This book is also likely to raise controversy. Davis' intemperate
> language will turn off some readers, as will his overtly
> left-leaning politics. Some of his audience will delight in the
> color and candor of phrases like "architectural Stalinism" (p. 12)
> and "blood-thirsty Orange County Republicans" (p. 131) and in his
> borrowed Russian dolls metaphor linking California Governor Pete
> Wilson to talk show host Rush Limbaugh to terrorist Timothy McVeigh
> (p. 410). Other readers, however, will question Davis' objectivity
> and protest that much in the book is overstated. Davis himself
> would likely deny that objectivity is what he is after. No one ever
> accused Edwards or King of being objective. Objectivity, after all,
> is not the stuff of which great jeremiads are made.
> A deeper criticism that many historians are likely to raise concerns
> Davis' use of history. To be fair, his purposes is not to
> illuminate history itself, but rather to use it as a window of
> insight into the present. Even on those terms, however, the book
> feels oddly ahistorical. In Chapter Two, for example, Davis blames
> selfish development-oriented elites, specifically the owners of the
> _Los Angeles Times_ and the Southern Pacific Railroad, for "killing"
> (p. 68) the visions of the city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.,
> who sought to preserve human and natural habitat by building public
> urban greenways. Instead, the villains placed the environment in a
> "concrete straightjacket" (p. 69). Davis is factually correct, but
> there is a richer story here than a mere struggle between saints and
> sinners.
> Although elites were perhaps guilty of the greed and
> shortsightedness that Davis charges them with, their rapaciousness
> is not the most historically interesting thing about them. A more
> nuanced treatment of history, I would suggest, would consider the
> economic, political, social, and environmental conditions that made
> the elites' visions make sense at the time. The _Times_, for
> example, opposed "concrete straightjacket"-style flood control in
> 1917, supported it in 1924, opposed it again in 1934, and supported
> it thereafter. The owners' greed and shortsightedness presumably
> remained the same throughout the period, so we need something more
> to explain such behavior. In fact, the newspaper's flood-control
> stance flip-flopped in response to drought, economic conditions, and
> corruption at the Flood Control District. Elites, then, like Davis'
> "'nonlinear' mountain lions" (p. 179), apparently respond to
> environmental changes with sudden and extreme behavioral shifts.
> Society just might work as chaotically as nature. The contingency
> and non-linearity that Davis so deftly explains with regard to the
> natural environment, however, do not figure as much in his
> discussions of human activities.
> These criticisms aside, Davis offers a compelling counterpoint to
> the widespread assumption that humanity's environmental challenges
> are separate from its social problems. Despite much evidence to the
> contrary, we insist on believing that natural disasters arise from
> extraordinary behavior of nature and that humans have little
> complicity in the damage. Just last month a _Chicago Tribune_
> editorial lamented the "dread and destructive fury" of hurricanes.
> We "can do little," editors said, "but watch in awe the 'great
> mischief' of Mother Nature."[3] Davis warns us not to blame Mother
> Nature. His work, in contrast, compels us to see hurricanes as
> ordinary parts of the environment, to ask why people live in the
> paths of hurricanes, and to question society's mechanisms for
> distributing the costs of the "dread and destructive fury." The
> _Tribune_ editorial exemplifies the sort of thinking against which
> Davis has directed this jeremiad. He is attacking a paradigm whose
> fall is long overdue.
> Notes
> [1]. Mike Davis, _City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los
> Angeles_ (London: Verso, 1990; New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
> [2]. For examples, see Kenneth Hewitt, "The Idea of Calamity in a
> Technocratic Age," in _Interpretations of Calamity from the
> Viewpoint of Human Ecology_, ed. Kenneth Hewitt (Boston: Allen &
> Unwin Inc., 1983); Kenneth Hewitt, _Regions of Risk: A
> Geographical Introduction to Disasters_ (Essex, England: Addison
> Wesley Longman Limited, 1997); and J. M. Albala-Bertrand,
> _Political Economy of Large Natural Disasters, with Special
> Reference to Developing Countries_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).
> [3]. "Mother Nature's 'Great Mischief'", _Chicago Tribune_, 27
> August 1998, sect. I, p. 22.
> Copyright (c) 1998 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work
> may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
> is given to the author and the list. For other permission,
> please contact H-Net at H-Net.MSU.EDU.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list