Mike Davis is a brilliant writer and scholar. A socialist from a working-class background who turned his prodigious talents to exposing the underbelly of California and then the globe, Davis has influenced many people and pissed off nearly as many, especially the powerbrokers of his home state. The Boston Review had a great overview of his career recently, even if the review of his new book wasn’t so positive. But what everyone should read, especially now, is “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” This is a truly great piece of work. It was published in his seminal book, Ecology of Fear, and was despised by the LA elite. It points out the inequalities around fire in California and how every time Malibu burns, which happens a lot because of that ecosystem, it gets wealthier and wealthier and wealthier thanks to government subsidies. Meanwhile, when poor people die in fires, no one cares. Another great California writer, Gustavo Arellano, comments:
In other words, we now live in Mike Davis’ world. He has ascended to the pantheon of Golden State visionary authors like Helen Hunt Jackson, Upton Sinclair and Carey McWilliams who held up a mirror to us that we have ignored at our own peril.
“The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” depicted Malibu and other wealthy cities built in the boonies as created not for “love of the great outdoors or frontier rusticity,” but rather as “thickets of privacy” against L.A.’s working classes and people of color.
We enable this white flight into the mountains, he argued, by not just allowing development where there shouldn’t be any, but also subsidizing those affected by the inevitable wildfire in the form of cheap fire insurance and squadrons of first responders deployed around the clock at the hint of an ember.
He went through a litany of Malibu blazes over the last century, concluding with the Old Topanga blaze of 1993 — which consumed about 18,000 acres but destroyed 323 structures. Throw in climate change, Davis noted in a version of his essay that appeared in the L.A. Weekly, and the catastrophe “marked a qualitative escalation in fire danger, if not the actual emergence of a new, post-suburban fire regime.”
And, almost exactly 25 years later, here we are again.
Davis’ work on Malibu’s flames has aged far better than the criticism of it. Chapman University urban studies fellow Joel Kotkin, for instance, said of “Ecology of Fear” back in the 1990s that it “basically mugs Los Angeles” and is “truly nauseating stuff.” Yet by 2007, Kotkin told the Economist, in an article about the fires that fall that wreaked havoc from San Diego to Santa Barbara, that “nature still has a lot of power” in the once-unspoiled areas where we build homes — which is what Davis contended all along.
Then there’s former Malibu real estate agent Brady Westwater, who refashioned himself as a downtown L.A. booster. You couldn’t write about “Ecology of Fear” for years without mentioning Westwater, who hounded reporters with screeds and stats about Davis’ real and alleged errors until the press finally began to cite him as a legitimate critic.
In his own 1998 essay (whose titled described Davis as a “purposefully misleading liar”), Westwater predicted that “fire damage will decrease over the years” in Malibu because of better infrastructure and better-built homes. Of the Old Topanga disaster, he plainly declared: “That kind of fire can never happen again.”
And yet here we are again.
Davis remains persona non grata in Malibu, from Neptune’s Net to Pepperdine University. Malibuites took “The Case…” as a direct attack on their beliefs and ways of life.
Davis takes no satisfaction in seeing his analysis come true all over again. But the author, who’s recovering from cancer, stands by what he wrote.
“I’m infamous for suggesting that the broader public should not have to pay a cent to protect or rebuild mansions on sites that will inevitably burn every 20 or 25 years,” he told me. “My opinion hasn’t changed.”
Really, you owe it to yourself to buy Davis’ books.