Los Angeles has become a magnet for the American apocalyptic imagination. Riot, fire, flood, earthquake...only locusts are missing from the almost biblical list of disasters that have struck the city in the 1990s.
From Ventura to Laguna, more than one million Southern Californians have been directly touched by disaster-related death, injury, or damage to their homes and businesses. Middle-class apprehensions about angry underclasses are exceeded only by anxieties about blind thrust faults underlying downtown L.A. or about the firestorms that periodically incinerate Malibu. And the force of real catastrophe has been redoubled by the obsessive fictional destruction of Los Angeles--by aliens, comets, and twisters--in scores of novels and films. The former "Land of Sunshine" is now seen by much of the world, including many of L.A.'s increasingly nervous residents, as a veritable Book of the Apocalypse theme park.
In this extraordinary book, Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz and our most fascinating interpreter of the American metropolis, unravels the secret political history of disaster, real and imaginary, in Southern California. As he surveys the earthquakes of Santa Monica, the burning of Koreatown, the invasion of "man-eating" mountain lions, the movie Volcano, and even Los Angeles's underrated tornado problem, he exposes the deep complicity between social injustice and perceptions of natural disorder. Arguing that paranoia about nature obscures the fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm's way, Davis reveals how market-driven urbanization has for generations transgressed against environmental common sense. And he shows that the floods, fires, and earthquakes reaped by the city were tragedies as avoidable--and unnatural--as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets.
Rich with detail, bold and original, Ecology of Fear is a gripping reconnaissance into the urban future, an essential portrait of America at the millennium.
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About the Author
Mike Davis, it is said, "holds the keys to understanding the city of Los Angeles and much else" (Lingua Franca). A former meatcutter and long-distance truck driver, he has taught urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, was a fellow at the Getty Institute, and was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. The author of Prisoners of the American Dream and City of Quartz, he writes regularly for The Nation, Grand Street, Sierra Magazine, L.A. Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times. Born in Los Angeles, he now lives in Pasadena.
Historian Mike Davis, “America’s most incendiary urban critic,” (London Review of Books) is the author of many books, including the bestselling City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and a professor at the University of California at Irvine, Davis lives in San Diego.
Read an Excerpt
Ecology of Fear
Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
By Mike Davis, First Edition 1998
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Mike Davis
All rights reserved.
THE DIALECTIC OF ORDINARY DISASTER
Once or twice each decade, Hawaii sends Los Angeles a big, wet kiss. Sweeping far south of its usual path, the westerly jet stream hijacks warm water-laden air from the Hawaiian archipelago and hurls it toward the Southern California coast. This "Kona" storm system — dubbed the "Pineapple Express" by television weather reporters — often carries several cubic kilometers of water, or the equivalent of half of Los Angeles's annual precipitation. And when the billowing, dark turbulence of the storm front collides with the high mountain wall surrounding the Los Angeles Basin, it sometimes produces rainfall of a ferocity unrivaled anywhere on earth, even in the tropical monsoon belts.
The two-week-long Kona storm of January 1995 differed little from the classic pattern, except perhaps in the unusual intensity of rainfall in the South Bay area — forcing the evacuation of low-lying neighborhoods in Long Beach, Carson, Torrance, and Hawaiian Gardens — and in Santa Barbara County where 10 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Otherwise, the scenes were those of ordinary, familiar disaster: Power was cut off to tens of thousands of homes. Sinkholes mysteriously appeared in front yards. Waterspouts danced across Santa Monica Bay. Several children and pet animals were sucked into the deadly vortices of the flood channels. Reckless motorists were drowned at flooded intersections. Lifeguards had to rescue shoppers in downtown Laguna Beach. Million-dollar homes tobogganed off their hill-slope perches or were buried under giant landslides.
1. APOCALYPSE THEME PARK
[Southern California], often to its own surprise, has developed a style of urbanization that not only amplifies natural hazards but reactivates dormant hazards and creates hazards where none existed.
Wesley Marx, Acts of God, Acts of Man (1977)
What was exceptional was not the storm itself (a "20-year event," according to meteorologists), but the way in which it was instantly assimilated to other recent disasters as a malevolent omen. As a Los Angeles Times columnist put it, "There's no question that [we are] caught in the middle of something strange ... maybe God, as the biblical sorts preach, is mad at us for making all those dirty movies." Divine wrath or not, there is widespread popular apprehension that the former Land of Sunshine is "reinventing" itself, to use a fashionable gerund, as a Book of the Apocalypse theme park. First the natives rioted, then nature. In fewer than three years, the megalopolis endured three of the ten most costly national disasters since the Civil War.
The destructive February 1992, January 1993, and January 1995 floods ($500 million in damage) were mere brackets around the April 1992 insurrection ($1 billion), the October–November 1993 firestorms ($1 billion), and the January 1994 earthquake ($42 billion). When damage accounting was finally completed in 1997, the Northridge earthquake emerged as the costliest natural disaster in American history, more destructive, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesperson, "than the combined impacts of the Midwest floods, Hurricane Andrew, the Loma Prieta earthquake and South Carolina's Hurricane Hugo."
From Ventura to Laguna, nearly two million Southern Californians were directly touched by disaster-related death, injury, or damage to their homes and businesses. The Northridge earthquake alone, according to the California Seismic Safety Commission, "affected the lives of more people than any previous natural disaster in the United States." Cataclysm has become virtually routine. As Peter King, the Los Angeles Times's analyst of California trends, wryly noted after the 1995 storms, "A sort of disaster fatigue has set in. Politicians have run out of fresh, Churchillian sound bites for the rubble walkthroughs. ... Even victims sometimes seem to be going through the motions, dutifully struggling to reduce the sum of their misery to a pithy sentence or two."
For some unlucky souls, disaster has been a relentless, Job-like ordeal. Los Angeles firefighter Scott Miller, for example, was shot in the face during the 1992 riots while riding in his fire truck. He spent months in the hospital and was dismissed from the fire department due to disability. Two years later, his Granada Hills home was wrecked in the Northridge earthquake. Then, in early 1996, his new four-bedroom home in the Ventura County suburb of Newberry Park was destroyed by fire.
This virtually biblical conjugation of disaster, which coincided with the worst regional recession in 50 years, is unique in American history, and it has purchased thousands of one-way tickets to Seattle, Portland, and Santa Fe. After a century of population influx, 529,000 residents, mostly middle-class, fled the Los Angeles metropolitan region in the years 1993 and 1994 alone. Partly as a result of this exodus, the median household income in Los Angeles County fell by an astonishing 20 percent (from $36,000 to $29,000) between 1989 and 1995. 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 Los Angeles 2000. And waiting in the wings are the plague squirrels and killer bees.
It is still unclear, moreover, whether this vicious circle of disaster is coincidental or eschatological. Could this be merely what statisticians wave away as the "Joseph effect" of fractal geometry: "the common clustering of catastrophe"? Could these be the Last Days, as prefigured so often in the genre of Los Angeles disaster fiction and film (from Day of the Locust to Volcano)? Or is nature in Southern California simply waking up after a long nap? Whatever the case, millions of Angelenos have become genuinely terrified of their environment.
Paranoia about nature, of course, distracts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm's way. For generations, market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and a responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets. In failing to conserve natural ecosystems it has also squandered much of its charm and beauty.
But the social construction of "natural" disaster is largely hidden from view by a way of thinking that simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof of a malign and hostile nature. Pseudoscience, in the service of rampant greed, has warped perceptions of the regional landscape. Southern California, in the most profound sense, is suffering a crisis of identity.
2. DEEP MEDITERRANEANEITY
This is a landscape of desire. ... More than in almost any other major population concentration, people came to [Southern California] to consume the environment rather than to produce from it.
Geographer Homer Aschmann (1959)
No belief is more deeply rooted in the Southern Californian mind than the self-serving conviction that Los Angeles would be Death Valley except for the three great aqueducts that transfer the stolen snowmelt of the Sierra and Rockies to its lawns and pools. The city is advertised as the triumph of superengineers like William Mulholland who built rivers in the desert. A corollary of this promethean claim is the idea that beneath the artificial landscape is something sinister and barren, incapable on its own of sustaining even a tiny fraction of the current multitudes. As Boyle Workman, one of Los Angeles's pioneer real estate developers, put it, "Every tree, every lawn, every blade of grass in this section as it exists today, is a forced growth, made possible by man's ingenuity in bringing water to what otherwise would be a treeless waste."
Although catastrophic drought has episodically posed a threat to human culture in Southern California, Los Angeles, for most of the Holocene (the past 11,000 years) at least, has been no more a "treeless waste" than Valencia or the Côte d'Azur (which have the same annual rainfall). In fact, the earliest written descriptions of the region, the eighteenth-century diaries of the Franciscan padres, eulogized its waterscapes and natural fertility.
"All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted," Father Juan Crespi wrote in 1769. "We went west, continually over good land well covered with grass. ... All the land we saw this morning seemed admirable to us." The diaries of Fathers Francisco Palou and Pedro Font also extolled the "abundant springs (cienegas)," "beautiful rivers," and the valleys "green and flower-strewn." After crossing the true deserts of Sonora and Antigua California, these Mediterranean men (mainly from Majorca) were delighted to come upon familiar oak savannas and "the infinity of wild rosebushes in full bloom." From their cultural perspective, it was land "well-watered."
However, three-quarters of a century later, Anglo-American conquistadors were riven by confusion and ambivalence. Boosterism coexisted with an irrational fear of aridity, and from the 1850s into the 1870s, there were great debates about whether California as a whole was Eden or worthless desolation. Yankee morale tended to wax and wane with changes in the cycle of wet and dry years. The new settlers found it almost impossible to form a consistent picture of the capricious climate or protean landscape. As for other frontier ecologies of the New World, description veered between images of garden and desert, fertility and sterility.
In the most fundamental sense, language and cultural inheritance failed the newcomers. English terminology, specific to a humid climate, proved incapable of accurately capturing the dialectic of water and drought that shapes Mediterranean environments. By no stretch of the imagination, for example, is an arroyo merely a "glen" or "hollow" — they are the results of radically different hydrological processes. The Anglos often had little choice but to preserve the more befitting Spanish terms although they failed to grasp their larger environmental context.
It was not until the discovery of great artesian basins — millions of acre-feet of subterranean water — during the 1870s, and the subsequent growth of the citrus industry, that it became possible for an Edenic vision of Southern California to bloom uncontested. Even then, it was initially advertised as a "subtropical" paradise: which to nervous eastern imaginations evoked nightmares of malarial swamps with green tree snakes coiled in mossy tree branches.
Ultimately, the railroad publicists and the chamber of commerce promoters repackaged the Los Angeles region as "Our Mediterranean! Our Italy!" For more than a century, this Mediterranean metaphor has been sprinkled like a cheap perfume over hundreds of instant subdivisions, creating a faux landscape celebrating a fictional history from which original Indian and Mexican ancestors have been expunged. The nadir of this specious historicism is probably southern Orange County, where the endlessly regimented rows of identical red-tiled townhouses (an affluent version of architectural Stalinism) are located on cul-de-sacs with names like "Avenida Sevilla" or "Via Capri."
This "Mediterranean" facade, moreover, has made it all the more difficult for Southern Californians to appreciate the profound ecological kinship between their regional landscape and the other mid-latitude regions of hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters (the classical Mediterranean, central Chile, and the coastal zones of South Africa's Cape Province and West and South Australia). Comprising but 3 to 5 percent of the earth's land surface, these Mediterranean littorals are the rarest of major environmental systems. Although the late-nineteenth-century pioneer of plant geography Andreas Schimper had marveled that all such regions "repeat in their [flora] essential ecological features of the Mediterranean vegetation," serious research on their similarities had to await the launching of the International Biological Program (IBP) financed by the National Science Foundation in the late 1960s. Thirty years of collaborative research, involving hundreds of scientists from more than a dozen nations, has illuminated what historian J. R. McNeill calls the "deep history of Mediterranean landscapes." This comparative perspective, in turn, has made it possible to decode the environmental specificity of Southern California, previously the subject of real estate hyperbole and apocalyptic cant, in a richly meaningful way.
We now know that there has been a spectacular convergence of plant evolution in each Mediterranean region, as entirely unrelated species have adopted identical strategies, especially sclerophylly (the development of small, tough evergreen leaves), as a defense against drought. Research has also revealed the far-reaching ways in which aboriginal human societies used fire to cultivate and modify each Mediterranean ecosystem. And, at least in the cases of California, Chile, and the Mediterranean Basin, similar climates acting upon comparable tectonics have produced distinctive torrential landforms and erosion patterns, as well as equivalent frequencies of floods, landslides, and earthquakes.
The Franciscans and their Spanish military escorts, of course, were intimately familiar with the dramatic landscape metabolism of the Mediterranean region and so were not shocked to discover similar "cataclysmic cycles" at work in Alta California. They recognized abundant evidence of recent great floods, and Governor Portola experienced such a violent earthquake that he named the stream he was crossing at the time Santa Ana de Los Temblores. Fathers Crespi and Palou both recorded their own memorable encounters with native seismicity while camped on the banks of the lovely Rio Porciuncula, as the Los Angeles River was originally called. With the example of southern Italy in mind, and noting the local abundance of asphaltum (brea), Palou speculated matter-of-factly that there were probably volcanoes nearby as well.
3. WALDEN POND ON LSD
If savannas are fuses, the Mediterranean landscapes are the explosives. Fire historian Stephen Pyne (1991)
But the hucksters of the 1880s who franchised "Mediterranean California" were selling sunshine, not earthquakes and deluges. Immigrants from the humid states, moreover, brought with them deeply ingrained prejudices about climate and landscape shaped by their experiences in the environmental continuum of northwestern Europe and the eastern United States. As the famous Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer once pointed out, the ecology of the original New England and Middle Atlantic colonies was simply a "lustier" version of that of England or Holland.
In most cases, the colonists were at no loss to identify the native plants and animals they found on the western side of the Atlantic. It would be impossible, indeed, to cross an ocean anywhere else and find as little that is unfamiliar in nature on the opposite side. In all the lands of earliest colonization, from Massachusetts Bay south to Virginia, flora and fauna were closely related to those in the European homeland and indicated to the settlers that they were still under familiar skies and seasons.
In these temperate and forested lands, energy flows through the environment in a seasonal pattern that varies little from year to year. Geology is generally quiescent, and it's easy to perceive natural powers as orderly and incremental, rarely catastrophic. Frequent rainfall of low and moderate intensity is the principal geomorphic agency, and the landscape seems generally in equilibrium with the vector of the forces acting upon it. Indeed, the canonical evocations of the English and New England countrysides — the Reverend Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne (1788) and Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854) — were microcosmic celebrations of nature's gentle balance (even as Thoreau sounded the tocsin against the potentially catastrophic environmental threat of the industrial revolution).
Excerpted from Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis, First Edition 1998. Copyright © 1998 Mike Davis. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
1. The Dialectic of Ordinary Disaster,
2. How Eden Lost Its Garden,
3. The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,
4. Our Secret Kansas,
5. Maneaters of the Sierra Madre,
6. The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles,
7. Beyond Blade Runner,
Also by Mike Davis,