Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis

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Flood, drought, urban sprawl, fire, tornadoes, snakes, cougars, bears, mountain lions, and marauding mice--and that's just the first part of this book! Davis' tour of woe supports his idea that LA's environment is "Walden Pond on LSD" (p. 16). Rather than exhibiting variations along relatively predicable lines, LA's hydrology, topography, and biota swing in great deviance and complexity made all the worse by human settlement and public policy that perversely baits the dangers, rues the results, ignores the connections, and then recovers with even worse ideas.

Davis illustrates his points with vivid descriptions that show how human actions and the environment interact, with often dire results. For example, he shows how the official policy in Southern California of "total fire suppression" (p. 101) essentially builds huge stockpiles of fuel--chaparral--conveniently placed near homes in landscapes buffeted by hot, dry winds--perfect for huge, debilitating fires that destroy homes and humans. The fire practice for the urban areas is similarly dire: LA's policy of not enforcing fire codes in tenements made for hellish firetraps that consistently killed human beings in fire after fire. And, to complete the cycle, Davis shows how these disasters lead to more of the same: money to rebuild after the fires creates more houses in more precarious positions next to even more supplies of fuel drying in more hot, dry winds. Davis similar coverage of floods shows how politicians harness these natural forces as a way to return recovery money to the disaster victims, thereby buying votes for the next election with a largesse that feeds the cycle of the "Apocalypse Theme Park." All this operates within denial so thick that journalists and LA boosters refuse to admit that tornadoes--yes tornadoes--wreck havoc on LA's inhabitants in destruction every bit as terrible as tornadoes in Kansas.

Davis' sixth chapter, "The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles," explores LA's destruction in novels and film by hordes, nukes, quakes, cults, monsters, bombs, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, plagues, riots, aliens, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, freeways, distopias, and more (pp. 280-281). I took the significance of Davis' account this way: the fiction is an obsessive exploration of unconfronted dangers in fantastic terms, and it perhaps reflects a desire to break through the denial locking LA in a system of doom.

Davis' final chapter presents his titular diagram--"The Ecology of Fear"--that is an update of Ernest W. Burgess' urban zone diagram from the 1920's (pp. 363-365). Burgess' "dartboard" shows the social hierarchy of a city (Chicago) sorted into zones of housing types concentric on the city center and spreading out in rings of residential hotels, ethnic enclaves, worker homes, apartments, single family dwellings, and commuter bungalows. Davis' update is one based on "padding the bunker": his wheel-and-spoke system includes an inner city hub given over to zones of fear--prostitution, drugs, homeless--inside a wheel of blue collar suburbs of neighborhood watches. On the outer rim: edge cities spiking out from gated suburbs walled off from a gulag rim of prisons. Davis analyzes his geometry along the theme of misperception, fear, and public policy that destroys the urbanity of the city in favor of the sprawl of the suburbs in a system he portrays as in the end as "combustible" (p. 422).

I don't think Davis reveals the forces that power his diagram in the same way that he did so deftly in the first part of his book. There, he showed political power actually flowing out of natural disasters and perversely feeding their destructiveness. Isn't public policy often deliberately making urban life worse (See, for example Norquist 1998 or Orum 1995)? Isn't public policy creating a system in which urban crises and danger serve as a kind of fuel for political power? For example, "the war on poverty" provided funding for politicians to destroy cities with dim-witted plans that made urban problems far worse. Is the result of worsening urban conditions even more political power accumulating in a disfunctional spiral that dooms inner city residents onto an electoral plantation where their only purpose is to show up at the polls in order to elect the same machine that entraps them?

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