SAN DIEGO — Mike Davis, an author, activist and self-defined “Marxist environmentalist” whose greatest fears drove him to anticipate riots, fires and disease in such bestsellers as “City of Quartz” and “The Ecology of Fear,” has died at age 76.
Davis died Tuesday after a long battle with esophageal cancer, his friend Jon Wiener announced this week in an online posting for The Nation, a progressive magazine. Wiener, a historian who with Davis wrote “Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties,” told The Associated Press that Davis died in San Diego.
Davis, dubbed by the Los Angeles Times as the prophet Jeremiah of Southern California, had announced over the summer that he was terminally ill.
“Although I’m famous as a pessimist, I really haven’t been pessimistic,” he told the Times in July. “You know,(my writing has) more been a call to action. An attempt to elicit righteous anger against those whom we should be righteously angry against. But now, there is a certain sense of doom. This is not the time or history that my kids should inherit, you know?”
As noted in Wiener’s tribute, Davis was “a 1960s person” whose background was not privileged, but working class and conservative. Raised in San Diego County, he was a onetime member of the military oriented Devil Pups youth program, radicalized by the civil rights movement. He volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality, burned his draft card to protest the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, joined the Communist Party and became an organizer for the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society.
“I was like Zelig in the events of the period,” Davis told The New Yorker in 2020. “I was at every demonstration and several riots, just there in the crowd, rank and file.”
He was faulted for ideological bias and for various errors and fabrications — some acknowledged — but his dark takes on Los Angeles and broader subjects often proved justified. “City of Quartz,” published in 1990, condemned the race and class divides of Los Angeles and labeled the city a “carceral” society, prison-like and overseen by an oppressive police force. The police beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the riots following the 1992 acquittal of his attackers made his book seem like prophecy.
Davis’ “Ecology of Fear” foresaw the growing catastrophe of wildfires in California and “The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu,” published in 2005, warned that a deadly pandemic was increasingly likely. During his New Yorker interview, Davis called capitalism unfit to handle public health and environmental disaster, but still believed a better world was possible.
“This seems an age of catastrophe, but it’s also an age equipped, in an abstract sense, with all the tools it needs,” he said. “Utopia is available to us. If, like me, you lived through the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement, you can never discard hope.”