The ecology of fear is the idea that predators impact the ecosystem by impacting the behavior of prey. The classic example involves ungulates, a mountain lion or two, and a riverbank covered in tasty grass. The ungulates would like to eat the grass, but they are afraid to spend too much time too far from cover because of the lions, so they don’t eat it all and the bank remains stabilized by grassroots. Remove the lions, and the ungulates chow down at the river’s edge with impunity, resulting in denuded banks and erosion (this is distinct from, albeit often happening in concert with, generalized environmental damage caused by the prey population explosion that likely also accompanied the removal of the lions.)

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis applies this concept to the human ecology of the City of Los Angeles and surrounding suburbs. Humans – particularly, as Davis is at pains to point out, wealthy white politically-connected humans – fancy ourselves the apexiest of apex predators (largely accurately) while still retaining a species memory of the fact that we are soft and made of tasty meat. In the catastrophic landscape of Southern California, where coping strategies suited to more gradual landscapes of the eastern U.S. and Great Britain often fail, triumphant industrial capitalists have reacted to the removal of normal constraint by figuratively grazing right down to the water’s edge. They build collapsibly on faults and floodplains, flammably in chaparral. They strew their children and pets promiscuously in the paths of returning mountain lions and coyotes. At the same time, they re-imagine events that are par for the Californian course as apocalypses (a self-fulfilling prophecy when failure to plan makes the inevitable earthquake or wildfire worse). And they treat the masses as a new predatory force, seemingly prepared to use the same principals of “vermin control” that they once applied to grizzly bears on any unruly element of the urban populations they exploit.

Though this book is now more than a decade old, it’s still remarkably applicable. And, judging by the online reviews, remarkably misunderstood. Some of this is to be expected; when a Malibu real-estate baron feels the need to attack you under a pseudonym, you know you’ve hit a nerve. But many of the positive reviews are also sort of point-missing. Notably, in one of the odder cases of Truffaut Effect that I’ve encountered, many readers seem to have approached the book as exactly the sort of pop disaster lit* that Davis is among other things actually analyzing, leading to criticisms that his coverage of killer bees and tornadoes is ludicrous rather than being, as it were, a vision of the ludicrosity inherent in LA itself.

But while not every landscape is as over-the-top as The Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the River of Porziuncola, the ecology of fear plays a role everywhere. The perceived possibility of predation has changed our airports and schools, the way we celebrate holidays, where we live, how we mate. And it impacts how we bird.

One of the fatal mountain lion attacks discussed by Davis was on a birder. Other birders have been killed by tigers, by heat and lack of water, by mountains and trees. But the stories we remember are often of attacks by our fellow humans.

I suspect that one considers this slightly more when one is (or presents as) a woman. People helpfully point out which parks I shouldn’t go to and when, remind me to be paranoid about the rides I accept (or the rides I forgo and the areas I walk through as a result), etc., etc., and this is constant and lifelong. It comes on both a personal and a societal level. It does get into one’s head. And it does, therefore, change one’s behavior. You do think twice before going down to the water’s edge.

On one level this is terrible. Not only does it make life more limited and less pleasant, but there’s something very un-humanist about taking your fellow humans as predators (let alone thinking of yourself as prey). And so very many aspects of the current human ecology of fear are ludicrously counterproductive, only serving to increase the general level of hostility and suspicion in a vicious spiral. And there’s always the temptation to victim-blame, to take the advantage of hindsight and turn it into an argument that the deceased was an idiot to take this or that previously-acceptable risk.

But neither is it useful to imagine ourselves invincible and immune, by virtue of our charming nerdish hobby, from the travails of the world. Like all ecologies, the ecology of our fear requires balance.

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*in full fairness, when I bought it that’s what I thought it was as well. But I managed to get past that impression in the interregnum between buying the book and writing about it by, you know, reading the damn thing.

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