'Ecology of Fear' -- Plagues upon L.A.

August 23, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

"Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster," by Mike Davis. Metropolitan Books. 466 pages. $25. Disaster buffs and die-hard California-haters will relish this book, a compendium of virtually every calamity visited on the Los Angeles Basin by implacable nature and imprudent humankind. Those seeking turn-of-the-millennium portents of a dark future for America's cities will also find bleak comfort here. But non-Angelenos who accompany author Mike Davis on his ecotour of the region's most hellish vistas should bring their own broader geographical perspective and whatever optimism they require for the journey, since Davis supplies neither.

Davis, a Southern California-based nonfiction writer and urban theorist, begins with a field guide to the effects of metastatic urban growth on a delicate and unstable landscape - and on the people who attempt, often futilely, to inhabit it. Here he covers ground trodden by many others including, most memorably, John McPhee in "The Control of Nature."

Backed by painstaking research, Davis walks the reader through the area's many plagues - earthquakes, wildfires, mountain lion attacks, even tornadoes - explaining how human folly has magnified the malignancy of each. His summaries of fault geology, fire ecology and the like are solid if not groundbreaking, and should be required reading for any American who plans to settle on a scenic barrier island, in a windswept mountain canyon or on the wilderness fringe.

Next comes a foray into literary criticism; Davis claims to have read every work of fiction featuring a Southern California disaster. His survey is proof that the genre contains many appallingly bad books.

Davis' keenest insights are often buried in an avalanche of facts. He is at his best when describing how settlers from more moderate Eastern climates failed to grasp the volatile Mediterranean nature of their new terrain. A section contrasting the generous wildfire aid offered to wealthy enclaves like Malibu with the decades-long neglect of the inner city's firetrap tenements is also strong. But too often, he fails to develop his ideas fully enough to make them compelling to non-Californians.

In the closing pages Davis turns to his most deeply-felt topic: an acid-etched portrait of life in the inner city and older suburbs. In Cassandra-like prose, he asserts that the region's mostly-white elite has doomed the region to a downward spiral by callously guarding only moneyed interests, consigning the city's poor people of color to a vicious cycle of joblessness, homelessness, gang warfare and prison.

The book is descriptive, not prescriptive. Readers seeking hope for Los Angeles or guidance for other problem-plagued cities will not find them. The best comfort Davis can offer is a detached sense of wonder - as in his closing description of a heat-sensing satellite's view of the 1992 riots: "Seen from space, the city that once hallucinated itself as an endless future without natural limits or social constraints now dazzles observers with the eerie beauty of an erupting volcano."

Heather Dewar has worked as a journalist for 20 years. She has worked since at The Sun since December 1997 covering environmental issues. She has covered environmental issues since 1989, for the Miami Herald and as a national correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. She has also worked as a certified docent at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.