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Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster Paperback – September 7, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

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 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)." 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 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."

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 Africanized 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"I'm not summoning Armageddon," affirms Davis, a social historian and urban theorist whose 1990 NBCC-nominated, dystopian history of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, City of Quartz, is now a cult classic. Maybe so, but the portrait of a city on the brink presented in this powerful, if sometimes scattershot, follow-up volume is sure to remind readers of the Book of Revelations. The book takes Davis in a new direction?away from the politics of L.A. urban planning, toward geophysical threats to the city, ranging from earthquakes to fires, floods and killer bees. Davis's polemic will raise as many hackles as concerns: while L.A. officials proclaim each earthquake, flood, mud slide and wildfire as an exceptional event, southern California has been actually enjoying a benign climatic and seismic period, and more serious disasters lie ahead, he argues. These natural catastrophes have been compounded by the fact that in building L.A., developers have largely disregarded the region's topography and environment and built in areas prone to such ravages as wildfires and floods. As the population continues to spread into new areas, there will be, predicts the author, an increase in confrontations between the region's wildlife and settlers, a situation rendered more explosive by the widespread poverty and racial problems endemic to the city, and the vast disparities of relief services. As tense as the situation has become, it will worsen as the gap between the have and have-nots widens, he says. The future Davis envisions is credible and alarming, and his argument is bolstered by prose that is machete sharp and accompanied by an archive of stunning photos. Satellite photographs of L.A. during the riots of 1993 resembled those of an erupting volcano, he shows. Which, in Davis's blistering critique, is precisely what it is. Editor, Sara Bershtel (Aug.) FYI: Davis is a 1998 recipient of a McArthur Fellowship grant.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (September 7, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706070
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706073
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #243,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mike Davis is the author of several books including City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Late Victorian Holocausts, Planet of Slums, and Magical Urbanism. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in Papa'aloa, Hawaii.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 4, 1999
Format: Paperback
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.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
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.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Joshua D. Hamilton on April 8, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
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