Ecology of Fear

I just finished Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis. The bottom line is that this a wonderful and well-written book. Read it.

Davis’s prose is hyperbolic and consciously stylized with many slick instances of alliteration, wordplay and outrageous diction, but everything moves easily and some sentences are just downright great.

The book comes off as well researched, but I couldn’t help having the impression that a lot of the points were mere rhetoric couched in Davis’s unbelievably persuasive and smooth writing. Davis himself is unabashedly liberal and he has nothing but bad things to say about republicans of every sort. Still, I don’t think his partisanship is that pernicious due to its obviousness, but it did tempt to think he was exaggerating in a lot of places.

In terms of big picture points, there is  A LOT to take away from this book. On the most obvious level, the book is just a kind of social/political/ecological history of L.A., but with a definite ax to grind, which is that L.A. is the most grandiose representation of urban failure. One gets the sense that L.A. is just too big not to fail, and of course Davis lays all the blame at the hands of republican leaders of various stripes, when in reality it seems that a breakdown of people’s ability to manage such a large area of human habitation is at work.

The book first starts out by layering on various levels of analysis. First is a geological analysis of the underlying rock near L.A.. The conclusion is that the valley is really dangerous and that earthquakes will only increase in the future, but the opening chapters lay out the theme of the book, which is that natural disasters are socially constructed. That phrase gets bandied around about pseudo-intellectuals, but I here I want to make my use of it clear: the impact of “natural” disasters are not so natural, and in fact have a clear relationship to the politics and urban development of the cities that they strike. For instance, Davis tracks down L.A.’s reluctance to require building improvements and enforce zoning regulations designed to lower the death tolls of earthquakes that are certain to hit the area in the future. There are also some hysterical claims here too which started to make my suspicious about Davis’s intentions. For example, he quotes a real gloom and doom seismologist advocating more anti-earthquake measures and also a new 1% take on buildings to finance more seismological research. Seem boldly self-interested, especially considering that Davis NEVER cites any figures suggesting how effective such “earthquake proofing” techniques actually are. I may just sound callous here, but the body counts he gives for earthquakes don’t seem so staggering, and again, I wonder how many of them would have been prevented by the types of measures he advocates. Are politicians ignoring the earthquake threat? Maybe, but given the imprecision of the science and the hysterical position he takes on earthquakes, one wonders if anything all that nefarious is going on here other than politicians not caring about risks that can’t really be stopped, can’t be predicated, and are really rare in any case. That said, L.A. is going to be big time fucked if an earthquake hits in the right place.

Next Davis gives a brief history of the weather of L.A. which is apparently Mediterranean and extremely fickle and complex, which is compounded by the complexity of the flora and fauna around L.A. If you carefully designed a city, it could take advantage of the natural surroundings to help preventing flooding, fires, and animals incursions, but of course, no one did any of that. Again, Davis blames land speculators, but as he consistently shows, the problem is deeper: government, by subsidizing public works projects such as sewers and interstates makes it profitable to build houses where no houses should rationally be placed. As Davis puts it, L.A. had a chance to grow responsibility around the turn of the century, but they missed that window and it’s been downhill ever since. (Interesting side note, someone who had an environmentally sustainable plan for L.A. was Frederick Law Olmsted, who planned a lot of Boston.)

This brings up another theme of this book, which is that we subsidize a lot of REALLY dumb city planning decisions at the federal level. Basically, the politics of natural disasters dictates that cities must be rebuilt as quickly and resolutely as possible, sometimes with the help of federal money, (and actually Davis is fair on this point, implicating Clinton’s aid to L.A. as a political strategy designed to secure votes). This encourages people to live in really bad places, like L.A., which shouldn’t have nearly the number of residents that it has.

This gets tied into a nice discussion of fire fighting, the next natural disaster Davis discusses. I think his case is quite good here. Basically, really rich people build homes where there are a ton of fires, and then, when these homes unsurprisingly burn down, they whine to their powerful friends on the city council. Poor people end up paying to endlessly rebuild homes in Malibu. Also, fire fighting crews are pressured to protect homes, when they should just be focusing on putting out the flames. This makes more firemen die, some of which are volunteer CONVICTS who courageously serve on firelines, which I found interesting. All of this firefighting is also done while ignoring the inner city fire hazards of poor zoning and lack of building inspections.

Next Davis goes on to show that there are a lot of Tornadoes in L.A. even though locals deny that there are any. There’s a lot of denial on this issue.

Following that, there is a discussion of cougar attacks and wildlife displacement, which isn’t that interesting.

The best chapter by far though is chapter 6 in which Davis thoroughly tracks apocalyptic themes in literature and film, and shows that L.A. is the centerpiece of our apocalyptic obsession. He makes so many interesting points here that it’s hard to keep up, but his close reading of this literary genre reveals that L.A. is destroyed countless times in our collective imagination — he has a great table showing all the ways that L.A. has been destroyed. 49 times by nukes, but many other ways too including slow digestion by a creeping bermuda grass monster (and his analysis of this work is fascinating). Again there are ties to Boston. In one text he looks at, zombie surfer dudes come to the east coast where proud Bostonites fight them off. Never have I been so proud to live in Boston — this book makes L.A. seem like the worst place to live on earth. The section armageddon is where Davis also develops another fascinating theme, which is that cities are psychological entities that can serve to repress fictions about social or class relations or our relationship to nature. The “urban jungle” starts to blur with the real frontier and so gang members are represented as mere animals stalking the concrete jungles and mountain lions are imagined to be akin to serial killers or criminals. The meditations on the meaning of wilderness and its relationship to the urban environment are JUST EXCELLENT. Also, Davis digs up some unbelievably genocidal and overtly racist fiction from the 20th century  concerning the end of the world (there’s some texts he cites from the turn of the century in which weird steampunk airships carry virus bombs which are gleefully used to eradicate every non-white race on earth or something like that. He makes the parallel to Nazism very concrete for anyone who missed it.

All told, this is very, very good book, and it halfway confirms something I’ve been paying more and more attention to, which is that everything matters. From who L.A. was originally planned, to how it is sustained, to how it is IMAGINED, everything has an effect.


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