California Wildfires: The Collision of Capitalism and Nature

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From Socialist Worker (U.S.), November 2, 2007

Despite their nonstop coverage, nearly all of the media accounts of the wildfires in Southern California missed the deeper causes of the catastrophe–years of destructive land development driven by the thirst for profit, and the failure of politicians to do anything to protect the environment or residents’ safety.Mike Davis grew up in the back country of eastern San Diego County, close to where the fires hit hardest, and lives in the city today. He has written extensively about California in such books as City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. He talked to Socialist Worker about this latest not-so-natural disaster in southern California.

The media verdict on this disaster seems to be that the federal government and the state and local authorities did a great job, and everyone who evacuated to the Qualcomm football stadium is getting the royal treatment. What’s left out of this picture?
There’s been a fractal class bias at absolutely every level of the coverage.

If you look at the international news, it’s all about the fires threatening Malibu. If you look at the coverage in San Diego, what gets the attention is the Witch Creek fire threatening Republican north county, rather than the Harris fire threatening more Democratic south county.

There are a lot of invisible victims who aren’t enjoying backrubs and nouvelle cuisine down at Qualcomm stadium.

This has turned into a carefully managed, semi-hysterical celebration of Republican values–all drawing a marked contrast to New Orleans. The Copley- and Murdoch-controlled media—which is the media, largely, in San Diego—is congratulating us that we have leaders with such fine law enforcement and military experience.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger was going around the stadium, saying people are happy, and everything’s wonderful—they have yoga, they have massage, they can get Padres autographs. When a newswoman had the temerity to confront him, he grabbed her arm so hard that it looked like he was going to break it, and he started shouting at her, “All you have to do is look around here and see how happy people are.”

The only discordant note is from Duncan Hunter, the right-wing Republican presidential candidate, who seems to think he’s in Iwo Jima and not San Diego County. He’s been blasting the authorities for not letting the Marines fight the fire—though the Marines have very little capability to do that.

But the consistent representation is—to use the words of Geraldo Rivera–that this is the “anti-Katrina.” Or as another Republican said, “We have a civilized evacuation.”

Can you talk more about the invisible victims?

There are basically four different kinds of society in the backlands of San Diego and Southern California.

First, there are the native Californians. San Diego has more Indian reservations than any county in the country, and I think five or six reservations have been burned or evacuated.

Then, there are the bikers and construction workers—ordinary working people, Mexican as well as anglo, who have lived in traditional small towns for generations. This is the kind of society I grew up in, on the edge of the back country in eastern San Diego County.

In addition, there are the new subdivisions—sprawling planned communities, some of them with biotech companies and so on, along the corridor of the I-15 freeway, which links San Diego with Riverside to the north. These have been some of the worst hit areas.

Finally, there are the luxury lifestyles—castles and Beverly Hills-like subdivisions somehow smuggled into the depths of some of the deepest canyons and most inaccessible back country.

Recently, I had a reunion with some of the guys I grew up with 50 years ago and haven’t seen since the Vietnam War. And we were incredulous at all the mansions on brush-covered hilltops where we had hunted rabbits as kids—in areas where wildfires were bound to occur.

Throughout this back country, there’s a long-running, low-intensity class struggle of the blue-collar residents trying to preserve not just rural lifestyles, but to be able to afford to live here–against the encroachment of the McMansions, the subdivisions and the traffic jams. It’s polo versus rodeo.

Some of the victims of this fire are people living in trailers or shacks, or on modest ranches. But their agony isn’t what the news focuses on. Instead, the news is focused on the solidly Republican suburbs and country mansions.

Rancho Santa Fe, which is partially burned, is one of the five or six richest communities in the United States. Chalmers Johnson’s wife Sheila told me that she heard what happened in Rancho Santa Fe was that when the rich people fled, they locked their electronic gates to keep looters out—forgetting that this would also keep the firefighters out. The firefighters couldn’t get in, and some of these unbelievably gigantic homes burned to the ground.

As always, the media are focused on how the fires started, rather than the deeper causes. Can you talk about some of the factors like development and climate change?

The Los Angeles Times had an article that said climate change wasn’t a factor in the fires. This is probably balderdash. Everything that’s happening, including the dramatic number of mega-fires in the rest of the West, accords with the simulations generated in the climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Not only are extreme events becoming more common, but it’s possible that the base climate of the Southwest and most of the rest of the West is itself changing. One of my old buddies who I saw at the reunion just retired from the state park service as a ranger, and he’s horrified by what he sees happening. He says that the pine forests in the San Bernardino Mountains are dead—they’re just fuel.

In other words, what we’re seeing are not simply extreme events, but epochal changes in the environment and vegetation.

On the other hand, the tendency—even among people who a few years ago were denying climate change—to blame everything on the climate is a kind of one-stop response that avoids any political responsibility.

The truth is that much of the fire destruction is the result of political decisions, backed up by the power of developers and real estate interests, to override any public opposition to controlling growth in the backlands and the spread of luxury lifestyles like a fungus across the landscape.

After the 2003 fire, a coalition of backlands people and environmentalists put an initiative on the ballot in San Diego to restrict development in the back country. They were crushed. They got outspent by 10- or 20-to-1 by an opposition that was supposed to be led by farmers. But when our local muckraking paper, the San Diego Reader, investigated, it turned out the opposition was funded by the large developers who want to open up the whole countryside to pink stucco and tile roofs.

The problem is essentially unsolvable unless you’re willing to deal with the political economy of land ownership and land inflation.

Property values have risen along the coast to such an incredible extent. In San Diego County, only 12 percent of the population earns enough to buy the median new house—at least before the mortgage meltdown.

So people are forced inland. But people who live on the coast are either so wealthy, or their wealth has been so augmented by the rise in property values, that they’re now buying second homes. Increasingly, you see these second homes throughout the back country—and not just cabins, but 4,000-square-foot houses.

So although I think climate change is a crucial part of the background, the real essence of the problem is this sprawl that’s ultimately driven by the lack of any real social regulation over land speculation and land inflation. And that, of course, is exactly the same issue that the Karl Marx of California, Henry George, was addressing in the 1870s.

When wildfires struck southern California in 2003, you pointed out how the Republican power structure’s obsession with keeping taxes low starved the local government for revenue, leaving San Diego County the only large county in the state without a unified fire department. Has this aspect of the situation changed at all?

Nothing has changed. The response to the devastation of 2003 was a series of thunderous “no” votes against controlling growth or enlarging firefighting resources.

The one positive thing was that an outspoken maverick named Mike Aguirre was elected city attorney partially because he appealed to people about the deterioration of services.

He pointed out that the city government doesn’t hesitate to throw tens of millions of dollars in tax subsidies to the Spanos family, extremely conservative Republicans who own the Chargers, or to John Moores, the Padres owner and Clinton supporter, for whom the city built a stadium. Meanwhile, you have potholes in your street, the fire chief quit because he’s so frustrated with the lack of resources, and there’s no affordable housing.

Recently, Aguirre has been crucified in the local newspapers, where we’re totally at the mercy of Copley press, except for one of the weeklies. They’ve been crusading against Aguirre because he dared to come out and say we need water conservation measures. I’m not sure my kids can even remember what rain looks like, but the mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders, who’s now being lionized as a great hero, said that was alarmist nonsense.

So you end up with this irony—the very Republicans who should be wearing sackcloth or running to hide in Paraguay are instead being treated like American heroes, whose conservative values have triumphed over tragedy.

All of this is drawn in a continuous, invidious and basically racist comparison with New Orleans and the victims of Katrina—even though, with the exception of blue-collar people in the eastern part of the country, the scale of loss isn’t close to the same magnitude.

Some right-wingers—like Duncan Hunter, the Republican presidential contender and representative to Congress from the San Diego area—are using the fires as an excuse to renew calls to militarize firefighting and essentially expand the domestic reach of the Pentagon.

Duncan hunter is a one-trick pony. He’s saying exactly the same thing he did in 2003–to send in the Marines, like we need to storm the beaches. And of course, people are pointing out in the background that the reason aircraft didn’t fly was because there were gusts of wind up to 70 miles an hour.

You just push a button, and you get the same response from him. But it’s very sinister to watch him, Brian Bilbray and Darrell Issa, the three suburban San Diego Republicans, smiling and gloating over this chaos.

Another dimension—homeland security linkage of all this—is that the Bush administration has sent in the FBI. There’s a big arson investigation of the fires in northern San Diego County and Orange County.

They’re probably going to have trouble blaming Iran for the fires. But I wouldn’t be surprised if an undocumented immigrant is arrested at some point.

Among the communities that burned, Escondido in north county is notorious nationally for trying to outlaw renting homes to people without proper papers. And there are other communities, like Fallbrook and Poway, where the Minutemen come to spit at Mexican day laborers in front of Home Depot.

But as my witty friend Sheila Johnson again pointed out, it’s going to be very ironic, because the same Mexican workers they’re trying to deport are going to be the very people they beg to rebuild their homes.

You’ve made the point that disasters like these won’t be solved with a technical or scientific fix, but by taking up the political and social questions involved. Why?

The solution has to lie in changing power relations within communities and within the region. In truth, the issues of affordable housing, job creation for youth, protecting the environment and dealing with congestion are all part of a single fabric.

The problem in the past has been that groups like the Sierra Club tend to be focused just on the open space and environmental side of it. They haven’t given answers to people who are worried about growth or jobs. Nobody’s making the elementary point that we need massive reinvestment in the inner cities, and making communities more environmentally stable, and more conservation and restoration work in the hills.

What’s needed is a populist politics that relates these issues and shows that at the end of the day, you have to fight to try to change the balance of power.

Once again, the Democrats are missing an opportunity because they’re not prepared to take on the real issues. They’re too gutless to attack the invidious comparison of the wildfires to New Orleans, or the self-celebration of these corrupt Republicans.

It may partially be the bias of the media, but on five local TV stations, I’ve yet to see a Democrat. That’s because they just yield the ground, just as over the war and everything else of fundamental importance. And besides, most of the Democrats here get money from the same developers.

What else to readMike Davis’ latest book is In Praise of Barbarians, a collection of essays about war and empire published this fall by Haymarket Books.Among his several books that focus on Southern California, Davis’ City of Quartz is a social history of Los Angeles that dissects its economy and political relations. In Ecology of Fear, he develops these themes in light of a series of natural and manmade disasters in California.

Davis is also coauthor with Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller of an alternative people’s history of San Diego called Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See.

After the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, Mike wrote “Who killed New Orleans? Questions for an autopsy” for the International Socialist Review, that documents the federal government’s official betrayal and hypocrisy in a different disaster.

Among his other books is Planet of Slums, which documents the scale of poverty among the increasingly urban population of the less developed world, and Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, which takes up the interplay of political, social, economic and ecological factors in the history of poor countries.