Fact or fantasy?
Dead Cities By Mike Davis. The New Press, 2003. 432pp. £16.95
The dust jacket features a violent German Expressionist painting called Apocalyptic Landscape, overlaid with wonky lettering, making the book look like a 1950s schlockhorror novel about the end of the world.
This is not inappropriate. It is a collection of essays, written over the past 11 years, most of which document the various ways in which the US is destroying itself.
Several of them deal with issues of urban pathology in Davis'Californian home territory; issues familiar to readers of his 1990 book City of Quartz. They include the disenfranchisement of poor communities by rapacious commercial development; the contribution of de-industrialisation to urban poverty;
murderous racial antagonism; and the damage done to cities by partisan federal funding.
Here Davis, a leftwing patriot armed with batteries of facts and references to support his analyses, is at his fiercely critical best.
He also travels east to Nevada to describe the environmental desolation which the enormous and unsustainable growth of Las Vegas has caused. Rapidly destroying desert and wilderness in one of the driest parts of the US, Las Vegas daily consumes an astonishing 360 gallons of water per capita (60 per cent of which irrigates lawns and golf courses). Further north in Nevada is the aptly-named Pentagon Desert, where the military controls 1.6 million hectares of land, and where for decades it carried out nuclear bomb testing. Here Davis evokes almost unspeakable horrors of sterile landscape, rotting livestock, and an estimated 170,000 population exposed to contamination.
With eloquent and calm anger, Davis describes the hell that the US has created for itself, made from unchecked corporate greed, the corruption of democratic principles, racial prejudice and the power of the industrial-military complex. In his preface, the holocaust of the World Trade Center provides a useful topical focus for an apocalyptic vision of the end of American civilisation - Ground Zero indeed.
If the book had consisted of just this, it would have been convincing, despite a certain disjointedness resulting from its essays having been written for different contexts over a long period of time. But Davis goes further. In his final chapter, citing London, New York and Berlin, he proposes that the metropolis inevitably contains the seeds of its own destruction; that entropy is its natural state.
He is good at finding and quoting imaginative literature that presages cataclysm and decline. But while, for instance, HG Wells' The War in the Air (1907), with German airships destroying Manhattan, clearly has an added resonance after 9/11, does literary fantasy actually contribute to factual analysis? One begins to suspect that Mike Davis might be enjoying his catastrophic subject just a bit too much, and slipping into apocalyptic mood-making.
To document the ways in which the most advanced nation on earth is destroying itself and its natural environment, even if the facts are dramatised by the addition of fiction, is to make a consistent argument about the folly of humankind. But Davis will not rest there. He ventures into the natural sciences of geology and astrophysics, to construct a picture of our planet as a speck formed by millions of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids; 'an existential Earth shaped by the creative energies of its catastrophes'.
Here, I am afraid, I began to lose contact with the author. His claim that '(asteroid) impacts are the functional equivalents of wars and revolutions in human history' left me unconvinced of its logic, and feeling that I had wandered away from observable urban pathology into a cosmic X-Files episode.
Because of the essay format, there is no connecting narrative. There is only the implicit suggestion, through juxtaposition, that a race riot in South Central LA and a millions-of-years-old crater in Mexico are part of some common cosmic pattern. Sorry, but I can't see it. The urban documentary is excellent, as always. But the general thesis of catastrophism (Davis' word) goes too far.
Joe Holyoak is a partner in Axis Design Collective, Birmingham