The Space Race


Mike Davis must be tired of being pegged a disaster groupie. But apocalyptician isn’t a bad niche for a lefty cultural historian in these calamity-drenched days. Although his writing spans both natural and man-made disasters, Davis spends most of his time on the overlap between the two—tenuous spots where man has heedlessly taken up habitation, like the desert ecosystem of Los Angeles. Davis made his name there with the splendid 1990 urban history City of Quartz and two subsequent L.A. books, Ecology of Fear and Magical Urbanism.

At its best, Davis’s prose exudes a crusading fervor—if not exactly messianic, close enough. Anecdotes and data surge from every page, buoying his often radical arguments. Not everyone loves this unrepentant Marxist, though: A few years back, Davis was denounced in some quarters for taking liberties with his facts. Anticipating James Frey, he was even accused of fabricating a conversation in a 1989 piece he wrote for LA Weekly (with the interviewee’s permission, as it turned out). Davis left the West Coast for a while, and his subject matter went global with Late Victorian Holocausts, a tome about third-world environmental tragedies, followed last year by Monster at Our Door. A quickie treatise on avian flu, Monster proposed the looming plague as a consequence of human follies like industrial farming, rotten health care, and an impoverished global population dominated by germ-friendly slums.

Davis already had slums on his mind, since he was midway through the manuscript that became Planet of Slums, out next month. The book’s opening paragraph shows off his hyperbolic streak, predicting the birth of a baby who will mark “a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions.” Davis isn’t talking about the second coming of Jesus but a huge epochal shift—the moment when the planet’s urban population outnumbers the rural. American urban theorists have spent the last 20 years discussing sprawl and edge cities, but Davis argues that the process is taking place at hyperspeed in places like Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where cities are devouring the countryside. Soon we won’t be telling stories about the gulf between City and Country Mouse; there will only be Megacity and Small-City Mouse. China, he notes, “added more city-dwellers in the 1980s than did all of Europe (including Russia) in the entire nineteenth century!”

The problem is that bigger populations don’t automatically lead to growing economies, and a huge disconnect arises as poor people flood into cities with no infrastructure to support them. Karachi’s squatter population doubles every decade, and Davis predicts that black Africa will have 332 million slum dwellers by the year 2015. “The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood,” he writes. “Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor.”

Davis worries about a “fundamental reorganization of metropolitan space” around the world, with the rich often seceding from cities and retreating to the kind of gated communities familiar to Americans—very familiar, in fact, since Davis says they are “often imagineered as replica Southern Californias.” Hence an estate on the outskirts of Beijing called Orange County, complete with homes designed by a Newport Beach architect. While the poor have little say in where they live (and so end up atop garbage heaps or in disaster-prone zones), the prosperous can reside in an “elusive and golden nowhere.”

Planet of Slums rarely stops in one place long enough to let readers catch their breath, though. Each chapter gathers a virtual catalog of horrors suffered by the global poor, ranging from lack of access to toilets (in some places hundreds share one lousy pisser) to child exploitation. Buried in these pages are fascinating specifics, like Cairo’s City of the Dead, where a million poor folks live in sultans’ tombs and use grave markers as furniture. Some of the most brutal episodes stem from “beautification campaigns” designed to impress Western eyes, like Imelda Marcos’s displacement of 160,000 squatters in Manila to prettify the place for a Miss Universe pageant, a visit by Gerald Ford, and an IMF–World Bank meeting.

As in many of his books, Davis’s central point is that the slumification of the third world wasn’t inevitable but the upshot of political decisions. In the 1950s and ’60s, governments from Cuba to Tanzania vowed to provide health care and housing for the poor—a mission undercut by strictures imposed on debtor countries by the IMF and World Bank that reduced government programs and encouraged privatization.

One of the few writers capable of bridging divide between academia and mainstream media, Davis could have made this topic not just accessible but riveting, gracefully connecting the dots between NGOs and debt relief, cronyism and urban planning, favela dwellers and property developers. Yet Planet of Slums bears too little of the vivid prose or narrative thrust that fueled books like City of Quartz and Late Victorian Holocausts, and what eloquence he does muster is smothered by the avalanche of figures and charts herded onto every page. The dense crush of ideas and information makes you wonder if Davis wanted to replicate the claustrophobia of the slums themselves.

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