The Mud This Time: Climate, Capitalism and Catastrophe in California, Prefigured

In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, socialist environmentalist Mike Davis has noted that capitalist urbanization in Southern California is on a collision course with nature that must inevitably -- and repeatedly-- generate human disasters.  The Los Angeles area in particular, Davis writes, has experienced generations of "market-driven urbanization [that] has transgressed environmental common sense."

In the process, Davis contends, “Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and flood plains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and a responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the [1992] beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets."

In the second week of January 2018, headlines in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere are providing a gruesome echo of Davis’s analysis.  As this article is written, wealthy suburban communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in California, just north of Los Angeles, are struggling to recover from floods, mud slides and flows of large rocks and other debris that have come down from mountains and hillsides scorched bare by recent fires in the area.

At Washington Socialist press time, at least 17 people have been killed by floods and mud and debris flows in California, and 100 homes have been buried in the wealthy Santa Barbara neighborhood of Montecito where celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Rob Lowe have estates. Police are using helicopters and armored personnel carriers to search for more than a dozen people still missing from the disaster.

In Burbank, authorities have issued mandatory evacuation areas in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes, and mud flows four feet deep have covered some streets.  Some cars have been swept away by the flood.

In Los Angeles County, well south of the burned area from last December’s massive Thomas Fire, a mud slide has forced the closure of part of the wealthy Topanga Canyon area, and at least one person has died in a flood-related traffic accident. Elsewhere in the region, authorities have closed around 30 miles of California’s scenic 101 freeway between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Climate change is part of a cascade of related natural factors that have produced this month’s mud and debris flows, although the problem is not uncommon in the LA region.  Last summer’s hot temperatures, almost surely connected to the fact that generally rising temperatures have made wildfires increasingly frequent across the arid West, generated the huge Thomas Fire last December.  Burning some 281,000 acres and destroying roughly 1,600 houses, the Thomas Fire was the largest in recorded California history.  In addition, it came in the wake of several other highly destructive fires that devastated much of California’s wine-growing area farther north in the state.

Adding to the risk of wildfires in 2017 was the fact that California had previously suffered from a severe multi-year drought, which may well have been the result of a changing climate.  Last year, however, the drought ended, which meant that the mountains and hillsides of the state over the growing season came to support a fuel-rich cover of new vegetation.  This added to the fire risks.

The fact that Los Angeles developers have spread upper-class residential housing into canyons around areas downhill from then fire-prone hills, an older problem of long standing, added  further to the danger of inhabited areas being visited by flames.

Another factor in last year’s fires, as long-time New Yorker writer John McPhee noted in 1998 in an article called “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” is the prevalence of chaparral vegetation on the mountainsides and hills.  Chaparral is rich in oils, and a big chaparral fire is immensely hot, so much so that it burns off the thin layer of soil covering the hills.

That thin topsoil layer is important, and its loss is highly destructive. Thanks to the tectonic plates that meet in the LA region and the frequent earthquakes that result, some of the mountains near Los Angeles – the San Gabriels, for example – are among the youngest and fastest growing in North America.  The rock at their peaks is extensively shattered.

Therefore, when an intense fire season is followed by seasonal winter rains, large pieces of debris from the unprotected, shattered rock – along with large mud flows from the action of rain on the remaining soils -- can sweep down mountains to fill backyard swimming pools, damage or demolish houses and cars, and kill unlucky homeowners in neighborhoods below.

It is expensive folly for Los Angeles residents and developers to site upper-class housing in the most exposed canyons and along the slopes of the hills, Davis notes.  Davis’s book is particularly contemptuous of the extravagance involved, since local governments need to squander time and money rescuing wealthier homeowners from the predictable and natural consequences of living in the hills, while revenues to care for the needs of poorer area residents are neglected.

McPhee in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” is much more sympathetic to the public officials involved than Davis and less inclined to target capitalism as the root cause of LA’s development follies.  He instead blames the ignorance of upper-middle-class homeowners who love living high in the hills, in close proximity to nature and with often with stunningly beautiful views, for much of the damage that occurs.

Even some of the geologists whom McPhee interviewed for his piece in 1998 reported that their colleagues and friends, although well aware of the risks, choose to live relatively high on the hillsides where they can enjoy the clean air and the views.  The folly of the homeowners, McPhee suggests, also is partly explained by the fact that destructive flows of mud and debris in a given neighborhood may occur only once in a generation or less, leading homeowners – and local developers and officials, too – to conclude that the mud and debris risks have been a problem in the past, but one that has now been solved.

Rather than avoid building or living in houses in the likely path of disaster, McPhee notes, public officials in some parts of the Los Angeles valley have taken to constructing debris and mud basins uphill of endangered neighborhoods, in hopes of catching future mudslides before they can do extensive damage.

Public officials in some places routinely go door to door warning homeowners in the path of a likely mudslide of the risks that winter rains are likely to bring. During this year’s mudslides, city officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for some neighborhoods.  But ignorant or foolhardy families sometimes ignore the evacuation orders, and McPhee’s article indicates that it’s debatable whether the catch basins can control really large debris flows.

Both Davis and McPhee conclude that the patterns of residential development that prevail in Los Angeles County and nearby areas, and the dream of “controlling nature” that has been such a powerful force in Western civilization for centuries, are guaranteed to bring more wildfire, flood and debris disasters to Southern California in the future.

Will this month’s deadly mudslides, and the memory of the Thomas Fire last year, lead politicians and area residents, not to mention developers, to heed the warnings that writers like Davis and McPhee have issued about learning to respect natural realities, rather than attempting to control or obliterate them?

Will the recent disasters prod at least a few mainstream politicians to revisit Davis’s analysis about commercial development under capitalism?  Democratic socialists with a sense of environmental realities can only hope – in addition, of course, to organizing.

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