Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster Paperback – 1 Aug 1999
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The 1990s have not been kind to Los Angeles. As Mike Davis writes: "The destructive February 1992, January 1993 and January 1995 floods ($500 million 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)." But, he argues, the increasing fear about nature's reign of terror in Southern California reflected in Hollywood's preoccupation with apocalypse--L.A. has been destroyed on screen by everything from lava (Volcano) to nukes (Miracle Mile) to alien death rays (Independence Day)--is in reality a strong case of denial. Again, Davis himself says it best:
"For generations, market-driven urbanisation 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."As in City of Quartz, his earlier book about Los Angeles, Davis reveals the deeper ideological narratives behind historical events. Whether he's explaining the motivations behind the persistent refusal of civic leaders to admit that a tornado alley runs down the middle of the region, from Long Beach to Pasadena, or discussing, as one chapter refers to it: "The case for letting Malibu burn," he outlines his arguments with a fascinating amount of detail and a subtle sense of irony. There are wonderful chapters here, such as "Maneaters of the Sierra Madre," a zoology of the wild beasts Angelenos fear, including mountain lions that descend from the hills to eat joggers and small children, swarms of Africanised killer bees making their way across the deserts and El Chupacabra, the "goat-sucking vampire" that joined L.A.'s roster of faddish icons in 1996.
Although this book is specifically about Los Angeles, its lessons about the relationship between urban developments and natural ecosystems and about the dangerous influence of class politics on environmental safety policy are applicable to any city. Anyone with a serious interest in natural history or urban policy should make a point of reading this book. --Ron Hogan, Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Covering floods, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, mountain lions and even disaster movies as separate chapters in the context of development in Southern California, principally around Los Angeles.
Whilst it is gripping, fascinating and entertaining book in a very easy to read and follow format, it is very one-sided and leaves the reader wondering "it can't *all* be that bad?" and a sense of bitterness on part of the author on Southern California. This is why I believe it does not get the full 5-star rating it otherwise might have deserved - it is a good book to read but not as something to take to heart of all told in the book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
Every one in Los Angeles who has had any of these thoughtsmust read the Ecology of Fear. Anyone who has ever wondered just how urban sprawl came about must read this book. Mike Davis has done the perenially-new Los Angeles a favor by gathering together the facts and insights of this book. The Ecology of Fear reveals how this very real place and its problems are founded upon a number of very poor decisions. This book demonstrates how much of Los Angeles' disasters are simply a function of decisions that are poorly-made in light of the natural environment. Even though we have built and paved mightily, L.A.'s natural surroundings are not going away. Earthquakes, coyotes, hunters, xenophobia, fires (wild and otherwise), land grabs and twisters are all part of what makes up the fear ecology of Los Angeles. If you have ever addressed your local City Council, or worked on a general plan, or wondered why open space was vanishing, or even voted, you should read this book. It will open your eyes.