Auto-destruction

Ecology of Fear

Mike Davis <em>Picador, 484pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 033037219X

Mike Davis is a great polemicist, who is sometimes unfair and sometimes, it is claimed, inaccurate in small things, but his books on the coming self-destruction of Los Angeles are impressive enough in their command of that city's past and present sins for him to have become a target for its power elite and their house journal, the LA Times. Seldom has there been a messenger so prepared to thrust himself forward with bad news in the certain knowledge that the great and good will not be happy.

His earlier report from the front line of riot, racism and environmentally unsound development, City of Quartz, took us through the history of what many think of as the last great capital of northern capitalism - the marginalisation of feudal Spanish landlords by their Yankee sons-in-law, the shabby deals about water, the creation of possibly the most brutal and arrogant police force in the US, the co-opting of Catholicism into the power structure of what is becoming, in large part, a Latino city with an Anglo ruling class, the preparedness of the black middle class to sell out the ghetto poor to the surveillance and prison industries.

The new book moves on to what is to be done. The answer is nothing - the greed and stupidity of the city fathers will ensure that it is destroyed without our intervention. Davis puts a good, if deliberately alarmist, case for the impending apocalypse. Los Angeles as we have known it has existed in a brief, dull lull in what has, throughout recorded history and geology, been the noisy playground of the elements. Recent earthquakes are signs that "Southern California is awakening from its long seismic siesta and the Northridge disaster - God help us - was little more than a yawn". The northern hills have always burned down to stubble regularly; as humanity moves ever deeper into their habitats, coyotes and cougars will take to prowling suburban streets with small children and pet animals targets; and killer bees, sheep-eating mice and plagues of squirrels will finish the job.

Recovery after the Northridge earthquake disaster was a typical example of the Clintonian doctrine of "double-effect manoeuvre". The president stroked the Californian electorate just before an election and he provided a quick Keynesian fix to a Southern Californian economy that had been sputtering even before the quake. As Davis is quick to point out, it must not be assumed that a later president would have the will or the money to do the same for a more apocalyptic disaster.

Ethnic diversity could be the city's strength but it is being turned into its nightmare; the popularity of right-wing survivalist fiction and racist killings - and the huge expansion both of the prison system and the range of crimes for which people can be sent there - are turning what can, on a good day, look like one of those 1930s pulp covers of the utopian city of the future into something that makes a movie such as Blade Runner look distinctly cosy. There is something particularly bracing about 400 pages of Mike Davis's righteous anger, but the inhabitants of other great cities, with their own great crimes, should read him in fear and trembling.