Challenging Nature: Southern California and the Subsidization of Disaster

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“And the mountains erupt, and the valley is sucked into cracks in the earth.”

There’s just something so incredibly ominous that permeates throughout the city of Los Angeles. Just yesterday, the nation’s second-largest city was ranked ninth by the Guardian in its list of the world’s highest-risk cities. Los Angeles’ location as a city is neither ideal nor safe. The city is built on the San Andreas Fault in a valley thickened by smog. L.A.’s lack of inherent water sources forced it to dry out the surrounding countryside through irrigation projects in the early 1900s, leading to lower rainfalls and rural drought (22). Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster attempts to determine why and how so many people populated a region so vulnerable. To Davis, shortsighted magisterial and economic decisions have put tens of millions of citizens at risk from earthquakes, drought, floods, wildfires, and a host of other disasters.

While Davis does not document a Gilded Age disaster, he argues that many policies adopted during the era had lasting impacts. Because the city had low seismic activity during its expansion period, urban planners had no idea that there would be more than 50 active faults underneath the city (27). The biggest problem of the age was the water supply, which city officials remedied by syphoning off water from rural rivers and lakes into aqueducts for the city (more research to come on that soon!). As a result, farmers and ranchers were dried out of their land and forced to move into the increasingly dangerous city limits (21). Economic interests were not deterred, but rather emboldened, by the possibility of disaster. The boosterism of the Gilded Age (as noted by Rozario) merely encouraged homeowners and businesses to rebuild right exactly where they were whenever disaster struck.

Like Dan noted earlier, L.A.’s short-term economic offerings always seemed to surpass its natural dangers for potential residents. Anyone who observes Davis’ sources would cringe at the thought of moving to Southern Cal: just look at the rainfall totals, the witness accounts of people “sucked into deadly vortices,” or the monetary damage of the floods, fires, and earthquakes in the last century (5). However, the city fortified itself ecologically, economically, and culturally as a city too big to be abandoned. In Ecology of Fear, Davis makes a vital argument against the economic systems that incentivize hazardous urban planning. L.A., a glaring example of the practice, is indeed a city challenging nature. At this very moment, it waits patiently and ominously for nature to respond to its defiance.

“L.A., uptight, city in the smog… Don’t you wish that you could be here too?”