As Hurricane Katrina revealed, these days natural disasters have plenty of human accomplices. Before Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast and the headlines, another “natural” menace—avian flu—had begun to surface in the media. Since 1997, the influenza strain H5N1 has killed dozens in Asia and forced the mass slaughter of chickens. The virus is, as urban-theory star Mike Davis tells the Voice, “the chief bioterrorist in our midst,” poised to explode into a sequel to the 1918–1919 flu epidemic that wiped out up to 5 percent of humanity. In
The Monster at Our Door, Davis provides an ominous account of the threat and advises against chalking it up to the whims of Mother Nature. Through dense urban poverty, the Tysonization of poultry farms, and the dithering of government, he argues, we have created this monster.
Davis, best known for his 1990 portrait of L.A. in City of Quartz, has written extensively about urbanization and its discontents. We spoke by telephone on August 31, just as the horrors of the Gulf Coast began to emerge. The parallels are conspicuous. Down South, a hurricane—which may have been intensified by human-induced climate change—destroyed a precariously located city. In the case of avian flu, Davis’s book explains in scientific detail how swelling slums and the industrial poultry model have fostered conditions ripe for a plague. “You’ve literally urbanized chicken populations,” says Davis. “And these huge population concentrations increase the speed of evolution of viruses, just like large concentrations of humans do.” He adds, “Slum populations are growing at the rate of 25 million people a year. We’re talking enormous, unprecedented concentrations of poverty, and public-health researchers and infectious-disease researchers are still racing to catch up with this phenomenon.”
Researchers, Davis says, “have been screaming at the top of their lungs about this since 1997.” Yet in the U.S., flu plans are tantamount to neglecting the levees and gutting FEMA. The Bush administration has belatedly acknowledged the flu threat but stockpiled only a fraction of the recommended doses of the anti-viral Tamiflu. (The administration now wants to buy more but will have to take a place in line behind other developed countries. In any case, since the virus could mutate, the drug’s effectiveness is far from guaranteed.) Meanwhile, our public-health system is enfeebled: Davis quotes a 2004 GAO report confirming that “no state is fully prepared to respond to a major public-health threat.” And Big Pharma shows little enthusiasm for the least profitable kinds of drugs: those that prevent or cure diseases. (Perennially purchased drugs like Viagra cause much more excitement.)
We are, then, inadequately armed to fight an epidemic. But poor countries, where it will likely strike hardest, are “utterly defenseless,” Davis says. In Monster, he compares world health resources to lifeboats on the Titanic: “[M]any of the first-class passengers and even some of the crew will drown because of the company’s skinflint lack of foresight; the poor Paddies in steerage, however, do not even have a single lifeboat between them, and thus, they are all doomed to swim in the icy waters.” Davis, who told me he sees himself above all as a political activist, stresses the moral necessity of aiding the Paddies as his book’s most urgent point.
For readers seeking an introduction to Davis’s provocative theories and vigorous prose, The Monster at Our Door probably shouldn’t top the to-read list. Ecology of Fear and City of Quartz offer better examples of his distinctive talents. Monster is, in his own words, a “spin-off” of his forthcoming book Planet of Slums, and at times it feels like an inflated magazine piece. But for those who wish to know more about the projected pandemic, this book makes a valuable contribution to disease lit, especially in its probing of the political, social, and ethical dimensions.
In addition to his slum study, the prolific Davis is working on an anthology of essays about utopias and a series of children’s books starring his 11-year-old son. “I’m basically becoming an old guy with a big family,” he says. Now a history professor at UC Irvine, Davis lives in San Diego with his wife and his two youngest children. “Don’t ask me how I got a professorship in Orange County,” the muckraker laughs. “I can’t imagine that someday the Orange County Republicans won’t wake up to it.”
The sensationally packaged Monster—the title glares in italicized red caps, the cover features a close-up of an unattractive rooster, and the inside flap promises “a terrifying story of a looming world pandemic that could kill 100 million people”—is a sobering read. But don’t call Davis a doomsayer. “The doomsayers,” he points out, “are the World Health Organization and the experts, and now officially the U.S. secretary of health and human services, as well as the CDC.” This time, Davis is merely reporting the scary consensus. Still, his work has an unmistakable apocalyptic bent, haunted by disasters and dystopias. Davis is, perhaps, a left-wing Jeremiah, labeled hysterical by political foes. But then, elements of the religious right also believe in imminent apocalypse. The difference is that Davis considers this fate undesirable and thinks it ought to be stopped.