California Noir

Michael Rogin

  • Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
    Picador, 484 pp, £18.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 330 37219 X

The first picture to greet the reader shows cars half-submerged under water, scattered in all directions as far as the eye can see. ‘January 1995 storm (Long Beach)’, the caption reads; ‘Apocalypse Theme Park’ is the heading that introduces the section to follow. Welcome to Ecology of Fear. Turn the page for the second photograph, which displays a collapsed freeway behind a ‘Los Angeles City Limit’ sign. Opposite this evidence of damage is a table entitled ‘Biblical Disasters?’ that lists the deaths and dollar-losses from three years of earthquake, fire, riot and flood in the mid-Nineties. Ecology of Fear throws just about everything at metropolitan Los Angeles: water, earthquake and drought (Chapter 1), concrete (Chapter 2), fire (Chapter 3), wind (Chapter 4), wild beasts (Chapter 5), science fiction (Chapter 6) and spatial apartheid (Chapter 7).

‘California has been given so many signs,’ we are told, ‘floods, drought, fires, earthquakes lifting mountains two feet high in Northridge. Yet people turn from His ways.’ These remarks are not by the author of Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis, but the Southern California congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, speaking on behalf of Jehovah. Although the Los Angeles Times reassured its readers that ‘as far as can be determined’, the dozens of large snakes deposited on Southern Californian beaches during the winter of 1995 ‘are not some Biblical curse visited on the region to punish the wicked and sybaritic’, Mike Davis responds that ‘native Californians might disagree.’ What is the difference between the Marxist urban social critic and the religious fundamentalist such as Seastrand? Is Mike Davis analysing the elective affinity between Los Angeles and apocalypse, or is he participating in it? Whose ‘Imagination of Disaster’ has taken over the Ecology of Fear?

Although the author offers one explicit answer to these questions, he also deliberately scatters clues to suggest another. The straightforward approach distinguishes symptom from diagnosis. Los Angeles is a crime against nature, Davis argues, because profit and fantasy-driven speculations have over-developed Southern California by violating the ecology of the region. Promoters and developers pretend that they can invade wild areas without the risk of destruction by fire, can build shoddily over a web of earthquake faults and not have their condominiums come crashing down. But their sanguine profiteering is only one mode of courting disaster, Davis shows. He is equally interested in the recurrent fascination with Los Angeles apocalypse which begins well before Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), extends through the Aryan racist tract The Turner Diaries (1978, the bible of the Oklahoma City Federal Office bomber, Timothy McVeigh), and which has managed to keep Ecology of Fear itself on bestseller lists in Los Angeles and around the United States for 18 weeks.

The ecology of fear erects physical barriers – paved river-beds, gated communities, prisons with electrified fences – against the return of the natural and social repressed. The symbiotic relationship between the developers who override nature in the name of the American dream and the fundamentalists who warn against the coming of Judgment Day depends on the latter’s imagination of disaster shifting the blame from the assault on the environment to racial and extraterrestrial aliens. (Nor is this particular combination confined to Los Angeles, as is illustrated by Peter Brimelow’s borrowing of the title of the 1988 science fiction film, Alien Nation, for the anti-immigrant tract he published seven years later.) Congresswoman Seastrand invokes Sodom and Gomorrah because ‘we probably have the most adulterers living here in California, child pornographers and molesters ... and divorce, family break-ups, all of that evil.’ Davis, too, returns to Biblical literalism because ‘the Bible, as three eminent seismologists recently pointed out, is superb environmental literature.’

Nineteenth-century geologists such as Charles Lyell rejected Biblical accounts of creation and catastrophe in favour of slow geological evolution, but Southern California’s Mediterranean-style desert ecology, Davis argues, with its ‘episodic bursts of natural energy’, produces ‘a revolutionary, not a reformist landscape’. Geographers have discovered devastating drought in Southern California’s medieval past and predict mammoth earthquakes in its future. The straightforward difference Davis proposes between himself and Andrea Seastrand, then, is the difference between science and religion.

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