I recently read Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by the late Mike Davis. It is an intriguing book that switches from whimsical to dark and foreboding at the turn of a page. In fact, the last third of the book is particularly dark, given it was published in 1998, years before 9/11, Citizens United, Sandy Hook, increased nationalism, almost daily mass shootings, George Floyd’s murder, and the COVID pandemic.
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Perhaps, the book could be better described as foretelling? For it is said that; “As California goes, so goes the nation.” Well, the Ecology of Fear that germinated in Greater Los Angeles from all sorts of stimuli has certainly morphed into a national epidemic of fear today. One just needs to peruse the subject lines of posts on Nextdoor, Twitter, or Facebook to see the extent of abject fear and paranoia pervading our nation. You’d think everyone walking their neighborhood streets/sidewalks at night was a hardened criminal or terrorist!
The idea that America is an inherently unsafe place first struck home with me during our honeymoon train trip across Canada in 2014. During that beautiful excursion, the couple across the berth from us said they never plan to visit the United States because it is far too dangerous [from gun violence and the like]. Needless to say, we were taken aback by their fear and left questioning our own feelings about safety in American society.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently stated at his 1933 inagural; “All we have to fear is…fear itself.” Easier said than done when the 24-hour news cycle requires frightening headlines and grisly images to attract eyeballs, readers, clicks, and subscribers. Nor is it helpful when pundits, political action committees, dark money interests, and politicos themselves use divisiveness and fear as a weapon for garnering listeners, viewers, and voters. Worse yet, it’s obvious they don’t really intend to properly address the problems that instill fear and paranoia amongst Americans, because that would likely cost them future votes or viewers. Similarly, they will likely never admit to stoking much of the fear in the first place through lies, deceit, misstatements, misinformation, innuendo, and the like.
Having visited LA twice in the past year, I would like to say that I felt more hopeful than the book given the many positive experiences we’ve had there. While Mr. Davis’ Los Angeles evokes a dystopian sense of near-endless misery and woe inflicted by Mother Nature (wildfires, earthquakes, droughts, landslides, floods, and tornadoes), epidemics, inequity, racism, injustice, poor land use decisions, pollution, crime, economic decline, indifference, and police militarization.
However, we saw multitudes of diverse people enjoying Griffith Park, walking the beach, hiking the Baldwin Hills parklands, strolling through Hollywood, or just taking in sights and sounds of the big city. We saw lovely residential neighborhoods and dozens upon dozens of construction cranes lifting the city ever upward into the sky. We also met caring and thoughtful neighbors who help look after our elderly friend. And more recently we’ve been heartened by the love, empathy, and compassion expressed throughout Greater Los Angeles after the passing of Mountain Lion P-22.
Does this mean LA has turned the literal dystopian corner on a path towards renewed optimism? Not quite. For the number of homeless people seen was heartbreaking. The explosion of sprawl east and north from the city into the desert was mind-boggling. The stories of mass shootings and murders continue to fill the news. The inequity between the haves and have-nots continues to spiral out of control. And the notorious smog banks have moved eastward into the Inland Empire suburbs near San Bernardino and Riverside.
Upon weighing these competing factors, my hope that California, particularly Greater Los Angeles, will help lead our nation back to its collective common sense may seem excessive. The thing is, though, if we aren’t at least hopeful for the future, then we’ve already resigned ourselves to living amidst an Ecology of Fear. And that (losing all hope) would be the greatest disaster of them all.