Letter From Claremont: Mike Davis is Dying
By: David Goldblatt
Indeed I live in the dark ages!
A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings.
Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
And he who walks calmly across the street,
Is he not out of reach of his friends
Bertolt Brecht, On Posterity
September 2022, Claremont, CA
All through the blistering heatwave that has held Southern California in a vice, I’ve been thinking about Mike. Mike Davis is dying. Esophageal cancer that won’t go away. Last month he opted for palliative care; the end can’t be too far off. The heatwave has another three days to run. Here, in Claremont, it has been around 78 degrees at dawn, climbing to a long hot afternoon plateau as high as 110. I could drive, air-con blazing, to other air-conditioned spaces, but even the short walks across searing hot car parks are unpleasant. Not so much the heat itself, but the deep sense it communicates, that something is very wrong.
I feel it, I think, somewhere deeper than the conscious mind, somewhere buried in the ancient brain stem that stores our trauma and turns it into networks of toxic neurons. So, teaching and food shopping aside, I’m just bunkering down in Professor Davina’s place with its clattering vintage air-con: yoga twice a day, a lot of stillness, just breathing, being in my creaky body… and thinking about Mike.
Mike Davis is one of my guiding stars. I’ve read everything he has ever written, much of it twice. When in 1991, as a grad student in England, I picked up City of Quartz, his polycentric history of Los Angeles, and I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by its account of the city’s illusions and mythologies, alongside the realities of its racist policing and its fortified architecture. I couldn’t believe sociology or history or theory (it intuitively shape-shifts) could be so smart and sassy, so sharp and stylish, saying it like it is, but wow, saying it like Raymond Chandler. Turns out Mike hates Chandler, for his misogyny, his racism, his small-minded individualism and his amoral fatalistic fascism, but he also can’t stop reading him. I can’t stop reading Mike, and though I’ve never met him, I have at least walked in his footsteps. Back in the 1990s, during one his many periods of financial difficulty and professional limbo, he came and taught at Pitzer college. And I have done much the same. In over a decade of living in and exploring Los Angeles he has been my constant guide and made this strange but extraordinary metropolis at least comprehensible.
A lot of writers might have just left it there. Whole academic careers have been sustained on slighter contributions than City of Quartz, but Mike was a late starter. A meat cutter, trucker and trade union activist in his late teens and twenties, he didn’t show up at UCLA for his degree until he was 30. Impressive as the book was, it was mere prelude, the curtain raiser to two decades of superhuman scholarship and activism. Magical Urbanism surveys the Latino transformation of the American city and its progressive political and aesthetic potential. Planet of Slums, by contrast, was a cadastral survey of the informal settlements that house more than three billion people, in the mega cities of the twenty-first century. Buda’s Wagon was a short and brilliant history of the car bomb and asymmetrical warfare, from Italian-American anarchists to al-Qaeda. Mid Victorian Holocausts is a masterpiece of environmental history, explaining the origins of the global south at the intersection of Victorian imperialism and the El Nino weather events of the era that generated famines, deaths and environmental degradation of such a scale that the gap between North and South became a chasm. In The Monster to Come, a short essay on coronaviruses, avian flu and epidemiology in an era of globalization, published in 2009, he accurately predicted the emergence and course of the COVID pandemic. I could go on…..and on.
His third book, Ecology of Fear sits on my desk. I feel right now like I’m not reading it but living it. So, I’m lucky that Professor Davina’s house, where miraculously I have landed, is a good antidote. Born in the rural Philippines in the 1920’s she arrived in California in her forties and lived here for nearly half a century. For thirty years she was the first Filipina professor of theology in California, teaching at Chaffey Community College. I drink my tea out of a college mug saying “we’re here to help”. The last couple of decades she was retired and mainly alone; three kids who had moved on and a second husband, Milt, who died fifteen years ago. Professor Davina died last year, and her daughter Dodi just didn’t have it in her to sort and clear the house: grief, Covid, losing her own partner just three months after her mother, and then breast cancer and surgery. So, the house has sat empty until I arrived, part caretaker, part tenant.
There are still a few reminders of Davina’s last couple of years—walkers gathering dust, mobility aids in her bathroom—but it’s the rest of her long life that is really present. Dodi told me she had tried to clear some away, but the house is crammed with ecumenical knick- knacks: a seder plate on the wall above the kitchen table, inspirational quotes from a Native American shaman on grubby fridge magnets, statuettes of Confucius and the Buddha, a chopping board from the United Methodists Church, Hindu figurines, Islamic banners. In her office and the living room a lifetime of study, encyclopedias of comparative religion, bibles, Korans, torahs….
One pleasing quirk of the house is the absence of plastic. Dodi said, “She was an environmentalist before her time. She hated plastic.” Look around, the house is full of wood and ceramics, textiles and glass, bamboo, rattan and metal, but literally no plastic. She preferred bone handled knives and wicker basket bins, and all in shades of white and beige and brown and bronze. Clingfilm was allowed, as a cupboard of maybe a dozen huge rolls testifies, but only as an alternative to using Tupperware. Sure, her computer kit and TV are plastic, but I sense they were not much loved. On the shelves in her office there are, carefully organized and catalogued, the products of old analogue technologies—cameras in leather cases, teaching slides in cardboard boxes dozens of photo albums, and half dozen metal rolodexes. On the inside of the food cupboard is an old, typed list, probably from the 1980s, of small environmental actions that we might take—use what you buy, write on both sides of your note paper, choose the lesser of two evils. Its tone is humble and practical, and although the advice feels hopelessly inadequate, it’s a better voice to listen to than my own sense of creeping doom.
It helps make the house a good place to hide from the heat through the long afternoons. Conscious of the antiquity of the air conditioning system—and the impossibility of getting it repaired right now—I try and nurse it, keeping the thermostat at 71 degrees, but as the sun passes from the front of the house over the roof and into the back garden it can’t keep up. The internal temperature climbs and climbs and I find myself dozing uneasily on the sofa, unable to move. Yesterday my siesta was broken by a series of noisy, unignorable urgent sounds from my British and American cell phones. It’s a text from California’s energy agencies letting us now that the level of demand for electricity is reaching break point. If, for the next few hours, we don’t all turn off everything short of the AC then we are looking at rolling outages and blackouts. I turn out the lights, leave my washing and cooking to later, light a few of the professor’s devotional candles and get back to Mike and Ecology of Fear.
The book’s basic premise is that to build a metropolis of near fifteen million people in a desert is not sustainable. Make it exclusively dependent on the private motor car, and you are really in trouble. Add the fire hazards on the wooded slopes of Los Angeles’ hills and mountains, and the insatiable demand for water that simply isn’t there and disaster looms. Now factor in another two decades of climate change since the book was written and the city, right now, is close to unlivable and only so at the price of more massive carbon emissions.
Then there is the San Andreas fault, the geological atom bomb that runs through the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Tremors are a dime a dozen here, though as I know from my own quivering disbelief on experiencing one, no less unnerving for that. The last time the fault really bared its teeth was the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. It is, by historic standards, due to do so again, sometime soon. Professor Davina had been making preparations. In the garage, beneath a dusty bunch of yellow plastic roses, I find the remnants of a basic earthquake stash—eight big plastic bottles of water, torches, batteries, first aid kit. I’m not sure any of it will be much use when the big one comes and make a mental note to assemble my own.
I sit inside nearly all day. After about 1:00 pm the sun has passed over the front of the house, and outside the front door there is a small pool of hot shade. The small park opposite is entirely empty. For a couple of hours after dawn there is a smattering of dog walkers and determined joggers, but then there is no one until dusk. Huge SUVs, sparkling white and black and silver, occasionally glide past. I listen to the rumble of the 210 freeway, just a hundred meters north of us, the hum of my neighbor’s air conditioner, watch the vapor trails of planes heading to and from LAX.
Only as the sun is going down do I make my way to the back garden. It’s still fearsomely hot, but at least I can look at the smog rainbow sunset and the San Gabriel Mountains. In past summers there still would have been a sprinkling of snow on the high peaks, but they are brown and bare. The smog is still with us. I can see that once the garden was a beautiful space with pomegranate, cherry and apricot trees and dozens of fabulous huge succulents. Since Professor Davina died the drip hoses and sprinklers have broken and there has been no watering at all. Southern California is in the midst of an unprecedented three-year long drought, so there hasn’t been much help from the weather. Now the apricot and cherry trees are dead, their few remaining leaves are crisped to a dark brown. The succulents, still just hanging on, have shrunk, and shriveled and shed what leaves they have held onto to survive. But they are a sorry sight—desiccated mutant versions of themselves. The pomegranate has, amazingly, hung on, and is even bearing fruit. I can’t bear to pick them. It seems, after such herculean botanical efforts, too cruel to take it. Dodi has arranged for landscapers to take out the dead, put in new drips and drought resistant plants, maybe save the pomegranate and the succulents. I tend and water my little collection of newly potted tomatoes and basil. They are surviving.
It doesn’t take much to join the dots here. But as the news from home, where the government is arresting people demanding that the country’s aging housing be fitted with better insulation suggests, the economic and political elites of this world are willfully refusing to do so. I’m reading Mike again, in what will probably be his last interview, and, as ever, he condenses my thoughts, and finds words to pierce my heart.
“Our ruling classes everywhere have no rational analysis or explanation for the immediate future. A small group of people have more concentrated power over the human future than ever before in human history, and they have no vision, no strategy, no plan.”
So, what to do? On one of the many occasional tables scattered around Professor Davina’s house, alongside a carved wooden cockerel from the Philippines and a dusty menorah, lies a small, cardboard oval. It is threaded with old string for hanging on a wall, but it has been left on the table. I didn’t notice it for the first week I was here. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped and looked at it. In thick embossed silver script it says “hope”. Its kitsch and its corny, but right now I’ll take corny.
Last week in a press conference PSG star Kilian Mbappe and coach Christophe Galtier were asked why the team took a private jet from Paris to Nantes, just a few hundred kilometers away and accessible by TGV. They both laughed. Galtier quipped, “This morning we talked about it with the company which organizes our trips and we’re looking into traveling on sand yachts.” I showed it my students. It was electric. For the next forty minutes we explored how sports is connected to the climate crisis and what it might do about it. The power and responsibilities of athletic celebrity, the inequality of carbon emissions and climate impacts, football in Africa in a heating world, how climate change affected their own play (lots them are on the college soccer team), and a dozen other things. They were a mix of amazed, curious, angry—and ignited. For all the detail what was really going on was the sound of hundreds of pennies dropping; the slot machine of education hitting the jackpot.
Afterwards, thinking about Mbappe laughing and his smooth ephebic forehead, I made the connection back to Brecht. Of course, it was Mike, whose breadth of reading has never ceased to amaze and please me, that got me back to On Posterity. In the time left to him he says he’s doing a lot of family time, watching Scandinavian noir and reading Brecht. He said:
“I’ve always been influenced by the poems Brecht wrote in the late 30s, during the Second World War, after everything had been incinerated, all the dreams and values of an entire generation destroyed, and Brecht said, ‘Well, it’s a new dark ages….how do people resist in the dark ages?'”
Brecht, in the end offers pretty thin gruel. He knows it and asks us, “Do not judge us too harshly.” I need more than that. Mike Davis, for me, just nails it, “Despair is useless.”
What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.
So, I’m writing this and sending it to you because I love you (and Mike Davis, and Professor Davina, and my Pitzer college students), and I’m trying not to bow my head, and to find my way to be a part of our mutual defiance, for what I’m worth. If you want to fight, I’m all ears, but love is also allowed, and if you want to go read some Mike Davis, then that’s good too.
Mike Davis left us in late October. The heatwave gave way to a long hot autumn, and then the cataclysmic storm and rains of late December 2022 and early January 2023. Professor Davina’s house held up and Dodi and I have made a start on sifting and sorting it.
David Goldblatt is a sports writer, broadcaster, sociologist, journalist, author, and visiting professor of sociology at Pitzer College.