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Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster [Paperback]

Mike Davis
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Aug 1999
"Graced with a bold political and environmental vision, much splendid phrasemaking and a multitude of facts. . . . A truly eccentric contribution."--The New York Times Book Review  

Earthquakes. Wildfires. Floods. Drought. Tornadoes. Snakes in the sea, mountain lions, and a plague of bees. In this controversial tour de force of scholarship, unsparing vision, and inspired writing, Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz, revisits Los Angeles as a Book of the Apocalypse theme park. By brilliantly juxtaposing L.A.'s fragile natural ecology with its disastrous environmental and social history, he compellingly shows a city deliberately put in harm's way by land developers, builders, and politicians, even as the incalculable toll of inevitable future catas-trophe continues to accumulate.

Counterpointing L.A.'s central role in America's fantasy life--the city has been destroyed no less than 138 times in novels and films since 1909--with its wanton denial of its own real history, Davis creates a revelatory kaleidoscope of American fact, imagery, and sensibility.  Drawing upon a vast array of sources, Ecology of Fear meticulously captures the nation's violent malaise and desperate social unease at the millennial end of "the American century."  With savagely entertaining wit and compassionate rage, this book conducts a devastating reconnaissance of our all-too-likely urban future.

"Dizzying. . . . In Mr. Davis's account, the world ends in fire, and the next time is now."--The New York Times

Product details

  • Paperback: 484 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (Aug 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706070
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706073
  • Product Dimensions: 2.6 x 13 x 20.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 806,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed Yet Totally Engrossing (Just Like L.A.) 3 Nov 1998
By A Customer
This book is not the tour de force that City of Quartz was, I think, because Davis is on shakier ground (pun intended) when he tries to prove his points with questionable use of statistics. However, it always makes a compelling and provacative read. By cynically asking where we are going and why, and examining where we have been and how we arrived here, Davis is bound to ruffle feathers. After over a century and a half of boosterism and Hollywood myths, it is past the time to ask the tough questions. Unlimited development and the unquestioned right for the rich to live on the ocean or in the chaparral are ideas that have been contradicted by events of the past decade. It is time to examine these outmoded ideas and scores of others. Ecology of Fear dares to present new and long overdue perspectives. This book required reading for anyone interested in the future of Southern California.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Biased? Yes, but contains simple, devastating truths. 4 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Point One - if Davis did indeed fudge his research, invent stories or fabricate evidence, then he's broken the ethical and intellectual standards by which historians are constrained. If such accusations are true, then let him drain the poisoned cup he mixed for himself.
To be fair to the author, I spent a few hours in the library checking his footnotes. No, I didn't have time to review the whole book, since I do aspire to something of a life beyond the stacks; however, I didn't find anything unsupported by the sources cited. If anyone is inclined to respond to this post, could you please point out just where he lied? I'd appreciate your insights, since I didn't unearth falsification myself.
Point Two - the moral of the story is simple, and one that no ad hominem attack (Communist! Socialist! Liberal! Leftist! Phony!), however venomous, can weaken. The moral has nothing to do, in fact, with Davis' obvious leftist leanings. Los Angeles today, more than any other single location in the developed world, represents a nearly total disconnection between what people imagine their lives to be and what physical reality is.
If you wracked your brain for weeks, you couldn't come up with a worse place for millions to live. A semi-desert to begin with, the city depends on the vagaries of the Sierra snowpack and the flow of the notoriously capricious Colorado, among other rivers. LA sits in the middle of one of the most seismically active regions on the planet. Toss in a continual, interlocking cycle of horrendous wildfires, torrential rains, flash floods and mudslides for good measure. The result is a violently dynamic land, subject to sudden change.
Yet the detachment of the good burghers of Malibu from their surroundings is such that they demand fire protection for each and every inaccessible house sited in tinderbox terrain while refusing to pay for improved water lines or widened streets. Willful ignorance of the geophysical facts of life prevails in Thousands Oaks as well, and in Orange County, and throughout the region. There's a handy English word for this kind of behavior - stupidity.
What this book does, and does superbly, is reflect the undying human desire to make uncomfortable facts vanish by fervently pretending that they do not exist.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Put Your Far Out Cap On... 27 Dec 2000
By A Customer - Published on
I read Ecology of Fear and City of Quartz in a college seminar on the American West, and was blown away by Davis' work. I gave it to my Dad, who tends to be right of center, and even he was enthused. I'm always interested by the people who discredit scholarship by claiming that the author is simply a "liar." Certainly Mike Davis has a distinct political, leftist view point, which he never tries to hide. But just as certainly, the authors of articles "discrediting" Davis also have poltical viewpoints. I believe one of the articles trashing Davis appeared in, ahem, The National Review, hardly a bastion of unbiased reporting. A reader should always go into a book with a certain level of skepticism, certainly. Just because you don't agree with someone, however, is no reason to claim that they're "lying." That said! Davis pulls no punches. You want to see someone kicking a** for the working class, read it. Basically Davis looks at how nature-made and man-made enviroments of southern california inluence race and class relations there. As an earlier reviewer pointed out, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn" is a particularly good piece. As the media and authorities madly scramble to save the playgrounds of the rich and famous, houses that should never have been built in the first place, tennements burn and children die in South Central and no one blinks an eye. Even if you don't agree with Davis (and I'm hardly asking people to join the revolution, particularly the person who pulled "pinko" out of the mothballs in his review) read him. Maybe he'll open your eyes, and maybe he won't, but man, he'll take you on one wild ride.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This sequel does not live up to the original 9 April 2003
By Joshua D. Hamilton - Published on
It's too bad Mike Davis settled for this book. After reading his first book, City of Quartz, I expected more. Ecology of Fears lacks the energy of City of Quartz, the writing style becomes more erratic, and the subject matter is nowhere near as compelling.
The events that took place in Southern California in the 1990's would have fit perfectly in Davis's world view that Los Angeles is a city fated by the gods to die an early and tragic death. Anyone who lived in Los Angeles through the 1990's knows that this was a dynamic period of big events and major changes - for good and bad. This decade deserves a good book worthy of its tumult and transformation. Ecology of Fear is not that book.
Unfortunately, what he produced ventured frequently into the bizarre and byzantine, and if the Los Angeles Times is to be believed, downright falsehoods. The book's basic premise was that Los Angeles is a land fraught with Mother Nature's castatrophies that has been misrepresented to the masses as an earthly paradise. To support his point, we get a chapter on Southland tornadoes, a chapter on man eating mountain lions living in the hills, and then a chapter on apartment fires of the 20th Century. Don't forget the chapter on L.A.'s propensity to flood where he repeats all the cliches about the Los Angeles River. Honestly, as an Angeleno, these are the last things I'm going to worry about (earthquakes, to which he also devotes a chapter, are another matter). It was as if Davis was trying to will his fantasies about the destruction of L.A. into existence through this book.
Now for the positive things about this book. The chapter on the destruction of the environment and the neglect of building an adequate park system is very good. This is surely one of the tragedies of Los Angeles. His chapter on the Los Angeles riots is excellent, and he has a section on Mayor James Hahn, who was then City Attorney, which was enlightening.
This is a good book to skim. Many of his statements have been proven to be false, and who really wants to read 50+ pages about the danger of tornadoes in Los Angeles? Davis could have done better than this.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If Fontana's not LA, neither is Malibu. 19 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on
After reading the numerous attacks on this book in our local LA media (mostly in the New Times, a local paper desperate to establish itself as the screaming tabloid alternative to the L.A. Weekly), I was fearful that upon finally buying this book (yes, I had to wait for paperback) I would find it to be just a compendium of outlandish claims and apocalypse hysteria. This is not the case at all.
I read the book, then went back and read the criticism, and I was disturbed to find that few critics actually refute any of the ideas in the book. Most of the comments on this page, for instance, boil down to "I heard he made it up" or "I heard he's a commie" or "LA's not as bad as he says."
Davis never says, "We're all going to be eaten by mountain lions." He never says, "We're all going to be carried off by twisters." These are brought up as part of a larger argument about a metropolis that ignores its own place in the environment of Southern California.
And Bunker Hill may be lovely, but it is indeed a very privatized space. Take a walk around the downtown highrises, and you will see plaques on the sidewalks which read: PRIVATE PROPERTY. The area is not a gated community; you won't see soldiers marching through on patrol; but why are there no homeless panhandling among the sculptures and fountains? After all, there's plenty of that going on down the hill on Spring street. Could it be that the plazas of Bunker Hill are not truly public?
And what's with the bashing of his Westlake chapter? I never thought I'd see so many people come out in defense of slumlords.
21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't believe the hype 4 Oct 2000
By "lexo-2" - Published on
I find the negative reactions to Mike Davis' book very interesting, since they're predicted by the very model of reactionary short-sightedness that Davis suggests is one of the reasons why LA has got itself into the state that it's in.
Davis' picture of a city in which the rich wield most of the power and the poor are regularly forgotten, marginalised and sacrificed to the needs of wealth is hardly a commie fantasy. That's how you make big cities! Face the facts, people! It's been happening in my own city, Dublin, albeit on a smaller scale, for the last ten years. I too lived in an under-maintenanced firetrap which ended up being burned out. I too have witnessed the construction of mass housing with severely under-code safety features bolted on in the name of a quick profit.
I don't know about the chapters about wildlife; we don't have anything nearly as lethal as cougars and rattlesnakes in Ireland. But, at the very least, the chapter on the role that LA plays in the cultural imagination as a sort of modern-day Sodom ripe for armageddon is worth the price of the whole book.
This is not, in the end, a book about LA in particular, although it's full of fascinating material. It's about blindness, paranoia, greed and inhumanity. As such, it's accurate about any First World city. The one-star reviewers are simply behaving like some of the characters in this book. (I wonder, sometimes, if non-Angelenos have any idea just what the rest of the world actually thinks about their city, and how weird and hallucinatorily awful we find it when we go there.)
According to the sources Davis cites, LA is due for a seriously major quake some time in the next quarter-century. I don't wish that on anyone, but I do hope that people can take the hint. In the meantime, the bad reaction is just the usual story - God forbid that anyone should suggest that the pursuit of the dollar is not the only value in the world. Davis has a sense of the worth of human life that puts him miles above his critics. This is a book that stops people like me from despairing entirely about America.
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