I’m as much a fan of social historian Mike Davis as any other lefty who has attempted to figure out what’s been happening in Southern California – what with the fires – how our dichotomous social fabric has interacted with the particular ecology that we find ourselves in. When the wildfires hit our county in October, Davis sprang to mind as he has certainly developed a reputation for his forthright perspective on the wildfires that ravage our region on a regular irregular basis. Davis enunciates his view in “Ecology of Fear“, written just after the disasters that beset Los Angeles in the mid-nineties. I had read it a few years ago and found it very illuminating.
SURFERS SURFED WHILE MALIBU BURNED
I dusted off my copy of the hardback and cracked it open. Just what were Davis’ ideas on the wildfires? I knew generally that he critiqued building and urban development in fire zones, earthquake zones, and flood plains, that the building model utilized by SoCal developers in the West is based on an East Coast / European model where the seasons are generally more even — and this wrong-headed approach is much to blame for the destructive nature of the wildfires, floods, etc.
Davis has an entire chapter entitled, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” In 1993, wildfires burned through Malibu (again) all the way to the ocean. Mike described that Pacific Coast Highway’s asphalt was smoking — all the while, surfers surfed, while Malibu burned.
I know OB surfers surfed while San Diego burned. Hell, the water had warmed up, and there was a nice curl, small, but good form.
Davis’ Ecology of Fear was centered on Los Angeles — subtitled, “Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster” – written with fresh memories of the calamities that had befallen LA: the Rodney King riots in 1992, the wildfires of 1993 — including the one that burnt to the sea, and the deadly and costly Northridge earthquake in 1994. Apart from the specific disasters, everything he says about our behemoth neighbor to the north, we can apply it right here, as San Diego building and development patterns and trends follow those of Los Angeles.
Davis shows us that part of how our SoCal society views wildfires stems from an unnatural fear of nature and a gobbled understanding of our ecology.
Paranoia about nature, of course, distracts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm’s way. For generations, market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and responsible land ethic. As a result, 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. In failing to conserve natural ecosystems it has also squandered much of its charm and beauty.
Davis’ history lesson for us recounts how the Spanish Franciscan padres found the region’s climate and ecology very similar to that of the Mediterranean homes they had left, but the conquering Anglo Americans who arrived later had a fear of the arid nature of the land. Even their culture failed them ….
In the most fundamental sense, language and cultural inheritance failed the newcomers. English terminology, specific to a humid climate, proved incapable of accurately capturing the dialectic of water and drought that shapes Mediterranean environments. By no stretch of the imagination, for example, is an arroyo merely a “glen” or “hollow” – they are the results of radically different hydrological processes. The Anglos often had little choice but to preserve the more befitting Spanish terms although they failed to grasp their larger environmental context.
With time, the great artesian basins were discovered, and Southern California was sold to the rest of the nation as a Mediterranean paradise by the railroad and chambers of commerce public relations. This still goes on.
For more than a century, this Mediterranean metaphor has been sprinkled like a cheap perfume over hundreds of instant subdivisions, creating a faux landscape celebrating a fictional history from which original Indian and Mexican ancestors have been expunged. The nadir of this spacious historicism is probably southern Orange County, where the endlessly regimented rows of identical red-tiled townhouses … are located on cul-de-sacs with names like “Avenida Sevilla” or “Via Capri.”
Orange County, San Diego County. It’s all the same.
The Malibu surfers, at least, were detached, plus they had cool views of the flames.