Mike Davis Takes On LaLa Land For Round Two.
By Christopher Weir
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, by Mike Davis (Metropolitan Books). Cloth, $27.50.
IF ANYONE COULD make the Book of Revelation sound like an afternoon of miniature golf, it's urban prophet Mike Davis. His previous screed, City of Quartz, essentially predicted the Los Angeles riots through a brilliant navigation of the region's poisonous social history. Now, in Ecology of Fear, Davis deconstructs a socio-environmental Apocalypse that's not only galloping across Southern California, but may also be coming to a city near you.
Remember, it's all fun and games until your metropolis is burning so hotly that a passing satellite records "an exceptionally large thermal anomaly extending over more than 85 square kilometers."
Ecology of Fear begins with a provocative twist on the natural disasters that have pounded Los Angeles over the past decade: Things could--and in fact should--be a lot worse. Through an exhaustive investigation of regional environmental history, fire ecology, seismic research and heavy weather phenomena, Davis illustrates that recent disasters have transpired during a period that, historically speaking, has been "anomalously mild and, therefore, atypical."
Thus, Southern California's oversold identity as the peaceful Land of Sunshine is "part fluke, part myth." The ensuing mindset, writes Davis, "simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof of a malign and hostile nature."
According to Davis, another component of the disaster dynamic is social injustice. By juxtaposing Malibu's inevitable firestorms with Los Angeles' preventable tenement fires, he reveals that wealthy hillsiders receive millions of dollars in politically enhanced disaster relief while local officials struggle to impose basic fire-prevention codes on the city's slumlords. In other words, while children fry in downtown's avoidable infernos, Malibu residents employ "disaster amnesia" as a "federally subsidized luxury."
Ecology of Fear identifies more unsettling ironies through an exploration of the region's decimated and dysfunctional wildlife, from marauding mountain lions to killer bees, plague-vectoring rats to the mythical chupacabra (the allegedly alien "goatsucker" from Latin America). As suburbia flees the "wild" environment of urban life, it urbanizes outlying wildlands. In the ensuing confusion, wayward street youths are characterized as animals while troublesome mountain lions are compared to drive-by gunmen. Nature, Davis observes, becomes a malevolent refraction of the inner city.
Unfortunately, a subsequent chapter on Southern California's role in disaster fiction fails to build upon the book's considerable momentum. Though comprehensive and intriguing, this chapter reads more like an essay than an integral or essential aspect of the book's overall thesis.
Here, Davis also brokers a fixation on racism that is, at best, old news and, at worst, gratuitous. For example, he seems scandalized by a 1943 novel that engages idiotic racial stereotypes while depicting a Japanese invasion of Southern California. However, Davis conveniently neglects to mention any concurrent context for the regional ecology of fear: the bombing of Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the mysterious Los Angeles air raid (during which 1,500 anti-aircraft rounds were fired at unidentified flying objects in early 1942), and Japanese submarine attacks on the coast of California, including the shelling of an oil field in Santa Barbara and the sinking of a lumber barge near San Pedro.
One doubts that even the enemy Japanese would have been surprised to find themselves portrayed as an invading force and fictionalized according to contemporary stereotypes.
Davis regains his formidable footing when he returns to the present nonfiction world and delivers blistering observations on how alienation and racism are exacerbated by paranoid urban planning. In the omniscient Los Angeles metroscape, skyscrapers have brains, public space is a fantasy, and Machiavellian architecture orchestrates passive segregation. Meanwhile, city schools are "little more than daytime detention centers for an abandoned generation" while California becomes the "proud owner of the third largest penal system in the world (after China and the United States as a whole)."
The unnerving implication is that greater Los Angeles might possibly represent the shape of things to come across the urban nation, a premonition of like-minded megacities trampling over community, compassion and common sense. With vast intellect, startling prose and a subversive sense of humor, Davis ultimately delivers a message that few want to hear: "Despite the wishful thinking of evangelicals impatient for the Rapture or deep ecologists who believe that Gaia would be happiest with a thin sprinkling of hunter-gatherers, megacities like Los Angeles will never simply collapse and disappear. Rather, they will stagger on, with higher body counts and greater distress, through a chain of more frequent and destructive encounters with disasters of all sorts."
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives
| © 1995-98 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth