Wednesday Book: The chaos of Los Angeles

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

BY MIKE DAVIS, PICADOR, pounds 16.99

IN THE late 20th century, Los Angeles represents an almost psychotic division in the American imagination. It is both a "landscape of desire", the final manifestation of the American Eden, and an apocalyptic hell on earth. It's a place where dreams come true (Hollywood) and nightmares are a reality (the LA riots). In this book, Mike Davis charts the movement of the city from an envisioned paradise to a region of terminal decline. Even for rich, white society, LA has now become a place of decay, danger and fear - a city of demons rather than angels.

The "ecology of fear", which Davis documents with an impressive breadth of evidence, occurs on different levels. First, Davis debunks the myth of the LA environment as a desert paradise with a perfect climate. On the contrary, the ecological portrait of LA suggests a disaster-prone region with earthquakes, floods, fires and tornadoes wreaking havoc on Angelenos.

The rose-tinted myth of LA has been promulgated (most often by self-interested land-developers) through the past two centuries, during a period of relative climatic and tectonic calm. Natural history tells us things are only going to get worse. If we take earthquakes, LA now has too great a "seismic deficit", and that debt will sooner or later have to be paid. Angelenos are right to fear the "big one".

The historical tendency in LA has been to explain natural disasters as aberrations from a relatively stable pattern. Davis utterly denies such reassurances. What defines LA is not ordered or predictable weather, but disorder. "The Southern California landscape epitomises the principle of non-linearity where small changes in driving variable or inputs... can produce disproportionate, or even discontinuous, outcomes."

In other words, the area's complex natural history points to chaos rather than order. LA's environmental dynamics might best be imagined alongside the unforgiving Old Testament prophecies of Zachariah. Davis recounts plagues of locusts (and mice and bees) to convince non-believers.

These catastrophic tendencies are made worse by the shapeless and unyielding urbanisation (and suburbanisation) of the past century. Over- confidence about the environmental stability of southern California has led to serious errors of judgement. There have been cuts in social spending for disaster relief; there is inadequate infrastructure to handle disasters; suburban sprawl has created costly targets for fires and tornadoes.

The destruction caused by natural disasters has been needlessly high. Those most adversely affected are, unsurprisingly, the disenfranchised - large immigrant populations and other poor communities. The strongest and richest survive in LA. Then they overdevelop the land even further, with no regard for ecological balance.

In a book filled with suggestive ideas, Davis really hits his stride when discussing the dialectic between the "wild" and the "urban". The sprawling development of LA into the surrounding mountains has created a situation unique in the topography of American cities. In LA, the urban brushes up absolutely alongside the wild. "Metropolitan Los Angeles, now bordered primarily by mountains and desert rather than by farmland as in the past, has the longest wild edge, abruptly juxtaposing tract houses and wildlife habitat, of any major non-tropical city", writes Davis.

Domestic pets are devoured by predatory mountain cougars and coyotes. Children playing in their back gardens are now at risk. The wild and the urban interact in ways that planners and developers never imagined, and the cliche of the "urban jungle" has taken on a new meaning.

For the suburban Angeleno, this interaction suggests chaos and unruliness. The disorder of the inner city has made its way to the edge, and there's nowhere else to go. One response has been to turn middle-class suburbs into secure communities, by use of extreme surveillance measures. Another - the most bizarrely post-modern - has been to construct a "parallel urban reality" called City Walk, a latter-day version of Disneyland's Main Street, built by the conglomerate MCA in Universal City. City Walk offers all the supposed pleasures of an urban downtown without any of the disturbing realities. It's clean, freshly painted,but with enough dirt to make it convincing. No riots, no gangs, no man-eating cougars, no hate crimes - but it's "the architectural equivalent to the neutron bomb: the city emptied of all lived experience".

The Los Angeles in Ecology of Fear is a grim, reckless and often paranoid city. Davis is a polemicist and his vision is dystopian but, at the very least, he makes us question the natural and social boundaries and divisions we create in our contemporary cities. It makes for sobering reading.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us