The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Ecology of Fear:
Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
By Mike Davis
New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998. $27.50

Reviewed by Adelheid Fischer

Book Review July/August 1999

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In the late 19th century, lumber barons liquidated the vast white pineries of the Great Lakes to supply wood for fast-growing midwestern cities. In the process they transformed green cathedrals built of towering trees into moonscapes of blackened stumps and tax-forfeited land—but not before turning one final profit. The land-development subsidiaries of lumber interests teamed up with state and federal agricultural agencies to lure tens of thousands of desperate settlers to the cutover regions of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan with false promises of agricultural bounty. In 1903 one Minnesota forester, Herman H. Chapman, risked his personal and professional reputation to blow the whistle on this heartless real estate scam after witnessing how only a few planting seasons exhausted the initial fertility of the newly cleared forest soils and the life savings of those who tilled them. “The main source of error,” he wrote, “comes from considering transient conditions [of fertility] as permanent conditions.”

Few people have so aptly summed up the thinking at the heart of many environmental disasters. A period of bountiful rainfall, for example, led thousands of hopeful farmers to plow up the Great Plains. When drought instead of rainfall followed the plow (not surprising in a place shaped over thousands of years by drought-and-flood cycles of precipitation), a panicked nation watched plumes of fertile topsoil darken the skies of cities as far away as Washington, DC, before drifting out over the Atlantic Ocean. 

Yet few people have mistaken transient conditions for permanent ones more completely than Southern Californians. If you’re in doubt, read Mike Davis’s new book Ecology of Fear. Los Angeles native Davis rose to national prominence in 1990 with City of Quartz, a vigorous expos? of the violent social strife and racial unrest that have long been the dark side of the sunny California idyll widely promoted by land speculators.

In Ecology of Fear Davis trains his remorseless lens on the foundation of ecological denial upon which Southern California is built. According to Davis, land speculators and chambers of commerce have lured people to the region by offering them a sunnier version of the geologically stable and climatically predictable places from which they came—”temperate and forested lands.” In regions like New England or the Midwest, Davis observes, 

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 forces acting upon it.

 Southern California, on the other hand, is characterized by what Davis calls “high intensity, low-frequency events,” known elsewhere as disasters—floods of biblical proportions, catastrophic fires, monumental earthquakes and, one of the region’s best-kept secrets, killer tornadoes. 

While trying to reconcile advertising with reality—the promise of a swimming pool and citrus tree in every backyard with a climate and geology from hell—Southern Californians are bound to get a few things scrambled. Take, for example, the millionaires who erect their mansions in scenic wildfire corridors and then capture national media attention (and the nation’s sympathy) as well as billions in insurance money and federal disaster relief when their properties go up in flames. Instead of admitting and correcting their ecological mistakes, these homeowners sought to pin the blame on arson by everyone from eco-terrorists and vagrants to Latino gangs. Meanwhile, routine Los Angeles tenement fires quietly claim poor people’s lives. The arsonists that cause these blazes have names. They are wealthy slumlords like Sidney and Frances Kaufman, whose flagrant violations of fire codes in one of their rental properties in 1993 burned to death 10 residents, including several Guatemalan immigrants. Needless to say, unlike their Malibu neighbors, the tenement-fire victims didn’t make the national nightly news.

If I have any quarrel with the innovative reasoning and muscular prose of Ecology of Fear, it’s that Davis could have done a better job of convincing non-Californians to care about Southern Californians’ exasperating ignorance, or denial, of the natural features of the place they live. Admittedly, it’s a hard job, given the deeply ingrained stereotype of Californians as the lunatic fringe who deserve everything that’s coming to them. 

But there are reasons to care. For one thing, the natural conditions that make life risky for urbanized humans in the region have created ecological diversity unsurpassed anywhere else in the US. And from a purely economic standpoint, California is now the world’s sixth largest economy and a major food supplier. Each time drought or earthquakes hit, mud slides, or fires rage, Americans will see their federal tax dollars at work—and if scientists are right, these dollars will be working overtime in the future. Davis points out that this civilization in the sun has been built in an anomalous era of relative calm. Recent studies of the climatic record, for example, show that in the past the region has experienced far more extreme cycles of rainfall and drought. In addition, scientists have discovered new geological conditions, known as blind thrust faults, that have intensified previous concerns about earthquakes. Moreover, the relative seismic calm of the last 210 years has built up a massive quake debt whose payment will probably come due without warning. You can bet the reverberations will be felt around the world.

Adelheid Fischer is co-author of the new book Valley of Grass: Tallgrass Prairie and Parkland of the Red River Region (North Star: 1998) winner of the 1998 Minnesota Book Award for Nature Writing. Next year, the University of Minnesota Press will publish her environmental history of the north shore of Lake Superior.

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