Still In the Ecology of Fear—Interview with Mike Davis—Radio Ecoshock 2019-01-16

When California burned in 2018, I thought of Mike Davis. In the early 1990s, Davis wrote books explaining why all this was inevitable. Davis grew up in Southern California, where he became a powerful Leftist voice and celebrated author. From “Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, The Ecology of Fear ” to “Planet of Slums” everyone has felt ripples from his work. Davis is a Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and an editor of the New Left Review.

Show by Radio Ecoshock, reposted under CC License. Episode details at https://www.ecoshock.org/2019/01/warming-faster-than-we-think.html

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SHOW EXCERPTS
Also important: “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster”. We may think the many dangers in every city, like Earth Quakes or nuclear power plants, would chase people away into the countryside. But Davis explains the ways that cities bind us to them, expressly in the atmosphere of fear, as part of an “ecology of fear”.

THE CALIFORNIA FIRES
In “The Ecology of Fear”, Davis wrote about human incursion into fire areas, and the inevitable blow-back of wildfires into suburbs and monster homes in Malibu. How does that feel after terrible fires hit both southern and northern California in 2018?

From the book: “a monomaniacal obsession with managing ignition rather than chaparral accumulation simply makes doomsday-like firestorms and the great floods that follow them virtually inevitable.”

Many of the burned out homes in Paradise California belonged to low income people. Few had fire insurance. Now Trump wants to cut off FEMA aid to California fire victims. As in Puerto Rico, the poor are set up for a big fall as climate disasters roll through unsustainable lifestyles.

We briefly discuss the relationship between his “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” and “Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, The Ecology of Fear”.

THE COMING MASS DEATHS
We discuss his “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World”. It is one of the few platforms to discuss an inevitable mass death in our future. I think of Russia closing grain exports during the 2010 heat emergency (while one third of Pakistan lay underwater). Will famine return, this time to a vastly larger population? As rising sea levels take away vast areas of delta croplands from 100s of millions of people, I can’t see any way we will avoid mass deaths in the next fifty years.

Davis warns: “In short we stand at the verge of a civilizational catastrophe and retrogression comparable to the Black Death of the 13th century or the Columbian genocide of the 16th century.”

ANGER OF THE UNDERCLASS
Will slum anger tear down the system, and if so, can it build something new? Where does that underclass anger fit into the election of climate-deniers like Donald Trump, or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or even protests against the carbon fuel tax by the Yellow Vests of France?

During the first UN Earth Summit in 1992, the police cleaned by murdering street kids. The downtown towers were surrounded by tanks. A coalition of the two most powerful groups in the slums, the Church and the gang leaders, organized a media tour through the Favelas, including television cameras. I was there. In a “school” (a single bare room with no desks or pencils) we found magazine photos mounted on the wall. The impoverished kids dreamed of Mercedes Benz cars and haciendas of the rich. It looked like everyone wanted to be a rich capitalist. Has that changed?

Mike documents how people can live in terrible slum conditions. I suppose when Miami floods regularly along with Shanghai, and other disasters tear away the fragile fabric of mega-cities that’s what we’ll get: more slums in developed countries. It is already happening in California.

MIKE DAVIS PROJECTS IN DEVELOPMENT
In this radio interview, Mike Davis shares his current projects with us:

1. A 700 page book, close to completion with John Wiener, the biographer of John Lennon. It is about his home town, a history of Los Angeles in the 1960’s

2. “the big red scrapbook, paper memories—the revolution and anti-colonialism” assembling found objects to express a past.

In this work, Davis is “letting the objects themselves tell stories” It will be mounted on the web site of Verso Books, posted in weekly or bi-weekly installments. He has 150 items already, so that could be a long-running virtual art project and social history. I want to see it.

I close with this classic quote from a description of his “Evil Paradises”:

“Davis and Monk have assembled an extraordinary group of urbanists, architects, historians, and visionary thinkers to reflect upon the trajectory of a civilization whose deepest ethos seems to be to consume all the resources of the earth within a single lifetime.”
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