Apocalypse Soon: All the Ways To Live and Die in L.A.

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster , by Mike Davis. Metropolitan Books, 466 pages, $27.50.

Maybe critics are more prone to Schadenfreude than other people, and my gleeful reaction to Mike Davis’ litany of Los Angeles disaster is a professional deformation: The reviewer in me applauds when God pans Hollywood hedonism. Or maybe New York has it in for Southern California, and my enthusiasm as I read Ecology of Fear is simply Manhattan chauvinism–take that, left coast losers. Or maybe the times cry out for chastisement, and we all feel the tug of apocalypse. To read about the many ways L.A. can snap, crackle and pop is to recognize egregious human folly and to accept well-deserved punishment.

Or maybe it’s just that Mike Davis has written a whale of a book, a brilliantly organized catalogue of catastrophe, swift and scorching at times–capable, indeed, of jolting you out of your chair. This is Jeremiah with a bullhorn, saying, “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.” So-called natural disasters, when not actually man-made, are covered with the fingerprints of greedy, small-minded idiots. People are dangerous, and what’s worse, they dangerously exacerbate the inevitable and already considerable dangers of living in this particular spot on the planet. If this book doesn’t make Southern California blush, nothing will.

Mr. Davis, who lives in Pasadena and has written another book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz , was among this year’s crop of MacArthur Fellowship geniuses. On top of being smart (sometimes even a smartass), he’s a hard worker. Ecology of Fear is packed with information, the fruits of concerted, wide-ranging research. He delivers hard facts about fire, flood, earthquake, drought, tornadoes, plague and race riots. For good measure, he throws in coyotes, killer bees and “man-eating” mountain lions. So many ways to hurt you.

Once the facts are established, he shifts into ruminating mode: He sorts through the fiction, the heap of books and movies in which L.A. is reduced to rubble, whether by volcanic eruption, tidal wave, nuclear strike, the invasion of space aliens, or mass attack by yellow or brown hordes.

The scariest factual information–you guessed it–is about earthquakes. Forget the San Andreas and other “classical ‘strike-slip’ faults,” the newest worry is the “blind thrust fault.” Buried thousands of feet down, “crustal blocks override one another”–and the result is mayhem you can’t predict. Mr. Davis warns that downtown Los Angeles may be perched atop a “dense thicket of buried thrust faults.” Which would mean that L.A.’s skyscrapers are planted like darts in the bull’s-eye of doom. Imagine the scene when a San Andreas quake sets off an entire thrust fault system: the Big One, with extra added just for you.

Turning to the fictional destruction of L.A., Mr. Davis detects a “Strangelovian logic” to the “happy holocausts” which clutter the pages of cheap novels and bathe countless screens in the lurid glow of special-effects catastrophe. “The abiding hysteria of Los Angeles disaster fiction,” he declares, “is rooted in racial anxiety.” Destroying the city usually involves people with one skin tone doing their best to annihilate people with another skin tone. Mr. Davis’ lengthy “genealogy” of the genre guides the reader through vast cesspools of fantastical muck. As a finale, he summarizes the white supremacist crap in Andrew Macdonald’s infamously influential novel The Turner Diaries . Fiction and fact merge in the riots of 1992, the horror-show fulfillment of decades of poisonous prophecy.

The best chapter in Ecology of Fear is called “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Mr. Davis tells the story of fire in the two parts of Los Angeles that are “the richest and poorest landscapes in Southern California.” On the one hand is the slum-strewn Westlake district and adjacent areas of downtown, where you find, according to figures cited by Mr. Davis, “the highest urban fire incidence in the nation.” Since 1945, 119 people have died in tenement blazes.

Thirty miles west, “where hyperbole meets the surf,” Malibu sits in a tinderbox. If there were no multimillion-dollar houses atop the hills and along the canyons, Malibu would burn, anyway. As Mr. Davis explains, the local vegetation–chamise, sage scrub, live oak–depends on fire. If you suppress the occasional smaller blaze, fuel accumulates and a mighty conflagration becomes inevitable. Add luxury mountaintop subdivisions to the mix, and you get a firefighter’s worst nightmare. “Malibu,” says Mr. Davis, “is the wildfire capital of North America, and, possibly, the world.”

Rich and poor face the flames, but oh, what a difference in the eyes of the nation, and in the help they get from local and Federal Government! In the week of Halloween in 1993, 15,000 firefighters fought the flames in Malibu and Laguna at a cost of $100 million. Three people died. Sean Penn and Ali MacGraw lost their houses. The media drooled. Eleven days later, fire killed three people in a squalid downtown hotel crammed with Mexican and Guatemalan garment workers. Let me guess: You read it here first.

While services are cut to inner-city areas, while fire code violations go undetected and slumlords slapped with citations go unprosecuted, Malibu benefits from the massive mobilization of firefighting manpower and technology. Once the flames have done their worst, the Federal Emergency Management Agency steps in to assure homeowners that they’ll receive, “all the aid they need to rebuild their homes and lives.” The county pitches in with tax relief. And the fire-bait houses are built again, in the path of the next conflagration.

In this chapter, as elsewhere, Mr. Davis excites the reader’s indignation while keeping his writerly cool. He never preaches. He just lays out information and nudges you, with calm authority, in judgment’s direction. What’s remarkable is the range of subjects he casually claims as his own. He is, by turns, historian and sociologist, investigative reporter and policy wonk, seismologist and game warden, weatherman and statistician, economist and ecologist. He sprinkles technical terms in his pages with childlike glee, no matter whether he’s measuring the “cranial capacity” of the opossum, or declaring that the “‘nonlinear’ behavioral models [of mountain lions] … incorporate elements of chaos theory,” or suggesting that “new wave Los Angeles fiction is fundamentally ergodic .” The jargon, oddly enough, serves a decorative purpose, little flourishes that enliven the prose without obscuring the meaning.

And meaning, not style, is the point here. Though Mr. Davis investigates locally, his findings are applicable worldwide. The reader emerges from this dunking in disaster having learned a valuable lesson: What we need to know about the place where we live goes way beyond environmental studies. To squat safely and sanely in our neighborhood, we’d better all be polymaths.

Mr. Davis’ best technique is the estrangement effect. Throughout his book he shows us from an alien perspective phenomena we thought of as natural–so that nature’s handiwork suddenly looks like the product of mankind’s ceaseless industry. In his closing chapter he turns all that upside down by showing us the view from outer space. A “multisensor, polar-orbiting satellite” looks down on Southern California on April 30, 1992, and registers “an exceptionally large thermal anomaly.” L.A. is burning, ignited by what we know as the Rodney King riots–purely human activity. From the heavens on that grim day Los Angeles “dazzles … with the eerie beauty of an erupting volcano.”

Apocalypse Soon: All the Ways To Live and Die in L.A.