Ecology of Fear: Human Agency and Nature Result in A Wave of Fear and Anxiety

Environmental histories seem to stress the relationship between human actions and their impact on the environment. Often, the relationship involves human exploitation of nature and the consequences that arise.

Mike Davis’s work is no different. His Ecology of Fear presents a similar discussion on human agency in nature. Davis opens his book with a quote from the Los Angeles Times that hints at the hope awarded to the city of Los Angeles in 1934: “No place on Earth offers greater security to life and greater freedom from natural disasters than Southern California.” The first six chapters of this book demonstrate only irony associated with this statement. Davis describes the natural disasters that hit southern California today and finds roots in past human agency that caused the current catastrophes. Los Angeles has such a varied plant life, landscape, and weather, and human settlement and agency combined with this diversity impacted the city greatly. While human actors play a large role in this narrative, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fire wreak havoc on LA. To recover from the disasters, money must be spent to rebuild the destroyed buildings impacted by disaster. A circle of chaos emerges, where money is spent to keep fixing disaster-stricken Los Angeles while the problems that cause the disasters never get fixed. Take, for example, the “total fife suppression” caused by placing fuel stockpiles near homes and allowing dry winds to wreak havoc on houses (101).

Davis’ central claim is that the citizens of Los Angeles have imagined disasters through a lens of fear and misunderstanding, resulting in a society that is catastrophically and consistently out of balance with the environment. He argues that, for a time, Los Angeles was not affected by some of the disasters like other places. This changed, however. In the first chapter, he argues that disaster in Los Angeles will result in “higher body counts and greater distress” in the future” (55).

The second chapter deals with the “selfish, profit-driven” attitudes that took over southern California, despite the people that warned against doom. Chapter three connects wildfires in Malibu with urban tenement houses that burned to the ground and received little media attention compared to the upscale city. He essentially connects environmental disasters with social inequalities. Chapter four focuses on tornadoes and the secretiveness of their existence, although they experience tornadoes at a rate twice as high as Oklahoma City. In chapter five, he discusses a growing fear of mountain lions and other animals as urban sprawl occurred and mankind moved in on the wilderness. In Chapter six, he discusses the “disaster genre” in cinema and literature. Specifically he talks about the Asian hordes, aliens, monsters, bombs, cults, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, riots, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, and plagues that frequently attack Los Angeles, and how this pop-culture reflects racial anxieties.

Davis finishes up his work with a discussion on how Los Angeles will eventually become an urban city of homeless people, violence, blue-collar crime suburb, affluent gated communities, and prisons surrounding the outskirts. He bases his beliefs on the current situation in LA that involves southern Californians giving up civil liberties to curb social fears and keep them at bay. He updates Ernest W. Burgess’ urban zone diagram from the 1920s, building on the social hierarchy of the city and the zones they occupy.

His work is left wing and political while also adding an interesting analysis of human nature as a whole. He appears to place more emphasis on mankind as the main actor and decision maker in a place where disaster and catastrophe are a normal occurrence in the environment. It is where humans decide to live, what they decide to do, that causes issues.

Davis does a nice job of creating a direct relationship between man and nature. One seems to directly affect the other. Humans impact their environment in a negative way through their market-driven, individualistic attitudes. The environment wreaks havoc on society, creating fear and paranoia that also reflects social attitudes of the times.  Davis sums it up referencing Henry David Thoreau’s work by calling Los Angeles “Walden Pond on LSD.” (14) Mother Nature should not be blamed for disaster, he says. Instead, wonder why humans decide to live in the path of disaster and what this can tell us about societal values and concerns. He decides to make nature an important actor in his work, but emphasizes that humans are the bigger actors at play here with their societal anxieties and public policy. Society can be just as chaotic as nature.

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