The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1999, Volume 45, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster.

By Mike Davis. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998. Photos, illustrations, maps, notes. 484 pages. $27.50 cloth;

Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California.

By David Wyatt. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Company, 1997. Photos, maps. vii + 288 pp. $25.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Matthew Bokovoy, Lecturer, Department of History, Temple University and doctoral candidate at Temple University.

Caution: End of the millennium California, more than any other state, is a petri dish of human and environmental catastrophe! At least this is the belief of both Mike Davis and David Wyatt, whose Ecology of Fear and Five Fires records the ways in which human settlement has altered the natural environment in the “Land of Sunshine” since 1769. And their report: unprecedented disaster, should Californians not change their ways. In these two books, “natural” historical actors include roaring flash floods and inundating rainstorms, swirly tornadoes, jolting earthquakes, gooey mudslides, the ravenous California wild oat (avena barbata), plague-ridden squirrels, and cunning mountain lions, who exhibit, in Davis’ words, “a lusty appetite for slow, soft animals in spandex” (p. 249). There are also human agents in both histories as well; prominent and ordinary Californians, members of all ethnicities and cultures, men and women, and the native-born and those who emigrated to the Sunshine state from distant lands. The earliest human encounters in the history of California transformed the state into a microcosm of pluralism, for “no issue has shaped life there more powerfully than the mix of peoples” according to Wyatt (p. 2). More importantly, the authors raise important questions about the human dimension involved in the escalation of natural disasters in the state, namely, the power playing, racial politics, gender conflict, and class struggles that lie underneath the industrialization, urbanization, and boosterism of California over the course of the late-nineteenth century to our own time.

Mike Davis quietly, yet forcefully, came onto the public intellectual scene in Southern California with the publication of his City of Quartz (1990). In that book, he argued that boosters who believe Los Angeles is the utopian city of the future were in denial about the metropolis’ long history of racial segregation, class conflict, and police brutality, but also recent deindustrialization, during the twentieth century. Los Angeles, thought Davis, would become an urban dystopia and he was right. With the publication of Ecology of Fear, Davis bears more bad news for Southern California, but with a new twist: the natural environment in which we live cannot sustain our current ways of life, due to the type of economic and (sub)urban development that characterizes post-World War II California.

Written for the scholarly-inclined and general reader, Davis has made a significant contribution to the literature of urban history through his integration of the environmental and earth sciences (paleohydrology, geomorphology, etc.) with traditional social and environmental history (writers like Donald Worster and Steven Pyne). In the lead chapter entitled “The Dialectic of Ordinary Disaster,” Davis assesses the 1994 Northridge quake, Malibu conflagrations, periods of intense rain during El Ni-o, and other catastrophes in order to understand how land use and urban planning, and suburban expansion, have contributed to the destructiveness and human casualties of earth-shakers and fires, drenches and droughts. As a result of generations of “market-driven urban urbanization,” these short-sighted practices have opposed “environmental common sense” (p. 9). For Davis, “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” (p. 9). Southern California underwent unprecedented expansion and growth, from 1860 onward, during “one of the most unusual episodes of climactic and seismic benignity since the inception of the Holocene” (pp. 37, 38).

Throughout the Ecology of Fear, Davis describes how Los Angeles became an expanded and high-density suburbia after 1945, but considers paths not taken by the Los Angeles oligarchy during the 1920s and 1930s to accentuate the region’s “scenic capital” (p. 61). In the third chapter, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” the author compares the federal emergency relief subsidization of wealthy Malibuites and their burnt-down hillside mansions with the cyclical conflagrations that plague the sub-standard dwellings of inner-city and ethnic Angele-os, remarking that politicians have exploited catastrophe as an “ingenious strategy for recycling natural disaster as class struggle” (p. 51).

The climate and wildlife of Los Angeles are subject to critical ideological struggles as well. Davis characterizes the Los Angeles flatlands around Long Beach and Compton, even the flatlands south towards San Diego, as virtual “tornado belts.” Twisters and waterspouts have been under-reported, in name only, by the press and civil authorities throughout the century in order to advance the rosy “Land of Sunshine” image created by regional boosters. The expansion of suburbs in the region has also agitated Los Angeles’ “wild” edge and the result has been increased wildlife and human contact, creating a regional hysteria about “killer” coyotes and mountain lions, even “rabid” squirrels that carry a strain of bubonic plague.

Finally, Davis argues that catastrophe and natural disaster are key elements of the regional consciousness in Southern California, and he surveys the genre of “disaster fiction” about Los Angeles in print and film media. Comparing the popularity of Victorian disaster literature about London with that of Los Angeles, Davis concludes the former symbolized the “equivalent to the death of Western civilization itself. The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization” (p. 277). The final chapter, “Beyond Blade Runner,” is simply brilliant, offering a summation of Davis’ main concern, the interrelationship between environmental and urban planning and social injustice, echoing the very title of the book. Sampling the contemporary economic and cultural geography of the city, he argues that the politics of development and urban space in Los Angeles has been determined by the Watts rebellion in 1965 and by the South-Central “riots” of 1992. Security and defensibility are the standard features of architecture and urban planning in 1990s Los Angeles. Through his reconsideration of the famous spatial diagram depicting industrial Chicago created by the University of Chicago “urban ecologist” Ernest Burgess in the 1920s, Davis creates a spatial diagram of the contemporary Los Angeles region, where the remapping “preserves such ecological determinants as income, land value, class, and race but adds a decisive new factor: fear” (p. 363). Not a sunny picture for the Golden State.

David Wyatt, on the other hand, offers up Five Fires as hope that social injustice and racial conflict in California can be overcome, establishing Anglo California’s ambivalent relationship with its racial and ethnic “others” in the state’s historical record. Five Fires is a work concerned with personal sentiments and imagination that “not only state vividly the problem of race in California but that propose–through their tones, forms, images and strategies of narrative–ways of dealing with it” (p. 2). Wyatt’s account, using the writings and diaries of newcomers and natives of California, such as those of Pablo Tac, Richard Henry Dana, Arnold Genthe, Yone Noguchi, Chester Himes, Jade Snow Wong, and Anna Deavere Smith, to name just a few, strives for the “chance to feel our way into the heart of California’s history and to exchange distance and judgement for recognition and empathy” (p. 2).

Wyatt’s argument narrows in on a particularly thorny issue in California history; namely, how Anglo Californians have been mesmerized and truly vitalized by the culture and heritage of the state’s racial and ethnic “others.” Yet, Anglos often cannot transcend the racial sentiments of the times so that Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous peoples can enjoy the same rights and entitlements as their white neighbors. He begins Five Fires with Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840), reading carefully into Dana’s own ambivalence about the people he meets during his travels. Dana befriended a Sandwich Islander named Hope on his travels, and the two men became inseparable, Hope becoming Dana’s aikane, or trusted right-hand man. Wyatt rereads the high-tone of Dana, remarking “He comes to feel a strong affection for Hope and to prefer him to his own countrymen” and for Dana, California “was and is a place where borders meet and can drop away” (p. 5).

Similarly, Wyatt traces this racial ambivalence through events such as the Chinese immigration during the Gold Rush era, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Sleepy Lagoon Case and the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles during 1942, to the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles after the Rodney King trial. Wyatt believes the divisive issue of race in California can change if we “pay attention” to the cultural unconscious that is part of Southern California’s regional consciousness and public culture. “If we do so, if we enter into the offered dialogue, see beyond the catastrophes and through the spectacles, try to hear this place steadily and hear it whole, imagine its many communities and its many lives,” he says, “perhaps we can, in the quiet silences, negotiate a future” (p. 241).

Some readers may dislike the trenchant parochialism and bombastic tone that accompanies Mike Davis’ analysis of social and environmental injustice in Southern California (e.g.: more than any other city, Los Angeles). As of late February, Ecology of Fear had spent seventeen weeks on the non-fiction bestseller list since its release in August. After favorable early reviews, it has been savagely attacked in recent months by a portion of the booster oligarchy in Los Angeles as well as the high-profile national print media like the New York Times. Yet few critics have grappled with the book’s central thesis, and those that have find it professional and accurate, despite the dark tone of Davis’ analysis. Likewise, Five Fires often ventures into areas where Wyatt treats the category of race ahistorically, more interested in the textual nature of individual sentiment rather than the larger social, cultural, and political context. But the central arguments of these books stand on strong legs, both for their originality and boldness of thought. The readers of this journal who are interested in well-written and timely discussions of the racial and environmental politics of California will find it necessary to consider Ecology of Fear and Five Fires.