Mike Davis

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

Keep reading... Show less

Driving Through an Empty Tijuana in the Midst of the Swine Flu

"Since everyone is dumping on Mexico these days, you might as well help me do the real thing."

Keep reading... Show less

Can Obama Turn the Economy Around?

Recently, while traveling in the West, I had lunch at a modest-sized casino set in a wild, barren-looking, craggy landscape. On the hills above it spun giant, ivory white, modernistic windmills, looking for all the world like Martian invaders from War of the Worlds. I hadn't been inside a casino since the 1970s -- my mistake -- and the experience was eye-poppingly wild. Venturing into its vast room of one-armed bandits and other games was like suddenly finding oneself inside a giant pinball machine for the digital age, everything gaudily lit, blinking, pinging, flashing, accompanied, of course, by a soundscape to match.


It was (as it was undoubtedly meant to be) strangely exhilarating, riveting, totally distracting, and a curious reminder right now of just how distracting "casino capitalism" -- as Mike Davis calls it in today's post -- really has been. For years, with all the economic bells and whistles, all the mansions and yachts, all those arcane derivatives, all the high-tech glamour and glory, with Americans pouring into the stock market (or at least their pension plans and mutual funds doing it for them), you could almost not notice the increasingly barren, rocky world outside the American casino. You could almost not notice the shrinking of real value, of actual productivity in this country. These last weeks, Americans -- those who weren't already outside, at least -- have been rudely shoved into the real world to assess what their value (personal, national, global) actually is.



The next president will look out over a new, far less dazzling, far more forbidding landscape. Mike Davis, author most recently of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire, who is little short of a national treasure, offers his own incandescent view of the landscape, presidential, economic, and otherwise, from the ledge at the edge of the canyon. (While you're at it, check out a podcast of Davis discussing why the New Deal isn't relevant as a soluton today by clicking here.) Tom


Keep reading... Show less

The Era of Catastrophe? Geologists Name New Era After Human Influence on the Planet

Editor's note: This TomDispatch article has been edited for length. You can read the original here.

1. Farewell to the Holocene

Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary.

This February, while cranes were hoisting cladding to the 141st floor of the Burj Dubai tower (which will soon be twice the height of the Empire State Building), the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was adding the newest and highest story to the geological column. Although the idea of the "Anthropocene" -- an Earth epoch defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force -- has been long debated, stratigraphers have refused to acknowledge compelling evidence for its advent.

At least for the London Society, that position has now been revised. This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend ... and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In somber prose, they warn that "the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks." Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.


2. Spontaneous Decarbonization?

The Commission's coronation of the Anthropocene coincides with growing scientific controversy over the 4th Assessment Report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is mandated to establish scientific baselines for international efforts to mitigate global warming, but some of the most prominent researchers in the field are now challenging its reference scenarios as overly optimistic, even pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The current scenarios were adopted by the IPCC in 2000 to model future global emissions based on different "storylines" about population growth as well as technological and economic development. Some of the Panel's major scenarios are well known to policymakers and greenhouse activists, but few outside the research community have actually read or understood the fine print, particularly the IPCC's confidence that greater energy efficiency will be an "automatic" byproduct of future economic development. Indeed all the scenarios, even the "business as usual" variants, assume that at least 60 percent of future carbon reduction will occur independently of greenhouse mitigation measures.

The Panel, in effect, has bet the ranch, or rather the planet, on unplanned, market-driven progress toward a post-carbon world economy, a transition that implicitly requires wealth generated from higher energy prices ultimately finding its way to new technologies and renewable energy. (The International Energy Agency recently estimated that it would cost $45 trillion to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.) Kyoto-type accords and carbon markets are designed -- almost as an analogue to Keynesian "pump-priming" -- to bridge the shortfall between spontaneous decarbonization and the emissions targets required by each scenario. Serendipitously, this reduces the costs of mitigating global warming to levels that align with what seems, at least theoretically, to be politically possible, as expounded in the British Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change of 2006 and other such reports.

Critics argue, however, that this represents a heroic leap of faith that radically understates the economic costs, technological hurdles, and social changes required to tame the growth of greenhouse gases. European carbon emissions, for example, are still rising (dramatically in some sectors) despite the European Union's much praised adoption of a cap-and-trade system in 2005. Likewise there has been little evidence in recent years of the automatic progress in energy efficiency that is the sine qua non of the IPCC scenarios. Although The Economist characteristically begs to differ, most energy researchers believe that, since 2000, energy intensity has actually risen; that is, global carbon dioxide emissions have kept pace with, or even grown marginally faster than, energy use.

Coal production, especially, is undergoing a dramatic renaissance, as the nineteenth century has returned to haunt the twenty-first century. Hundreds of thousands of miners are now working under conditions that would have appalled Charles Dickens, extracting the dirty mineral that allows China to open two new coal-fueled power stations every week. Meanwhile, the total consumption of fossil fuels is predicted to increase at least 55 percent over the next generation, with international oil exports doubling in volume.

The United Nations Development Program, which has made its own study of sustainable energy goals, warns that it will require "a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050 against 1990 levels" to keep humanity outside the red zone of runaway warming (usually defined as a greater than two degrees centigrade increase this century). Yet the International Energy Agency predicts that, in all likelihood, such emissions will actually increase in this period by nearly 100 percent -- enough greenhouse gas to propel us past several critical tipping points.

Even while higher energy prices are pushing SUVs towards extinction and attracting more venture capital to renewable energy, they are also opening the Pandora's box of the crudest of crude oil production from Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy oil. As one British scientist has warned, the very last thing we should wish for (under the false slogan of "energy independence") is new frontiers in hydrocarbon production that advance "humankind's ability to accelerate global warming" and slow the urgent transition to "non-carbon or closed-carbon energy cycles."

3. Fin-du-Monde Boom

What confidence should we place in the capacity of markets to reallocate investment from old to new energy or, say, from arms expenditures to sustainable agriculture? We are propagandized incessantly (especially on public television) about how giant companies like Chevron, Pfizer Inc., and Archer Daniels Midland are hard at work saving the planet by plowing profits back into the kinds of research and exploration that will ensure low-carbon fuels, new vaccines, and more drought-resistant crops.

As the current ethanol-from-corn boom, which has diverted 100 million tons of grain from human diets mainly to American car engines, so appallingly demonstrates, "biofuel" may be a euphemism for subsidies to the rich and starvation for the poor. Likewise "clean coal," despite a vigorous endorsement from Senator Barack Obama (who also champions ethanol), is, at present, simply a huge deception: a $40 million advertising and lobbying campaign for a hypothetical technology that BusinessWeek has characterized as "being decades away from commercial viability."

Moreover there are disturbing signs that energy companies and utilities are reneging on their public commitments to the development of carbon-capture and alternative energy technologies. The Bush administration's "marquee demonstration project," FutureGen, was scrapped this year after the coal industry refused to pay its share of the public-private "partnership"; similarly, most U.S. private-sector carbon-sequestration initiatives have recently been cancelled. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, Shell has just pulled out of the world's largest wind-energy project, the London Array. Despite heroic levels of advertising, energy corporations, like pharmaceutical companies, prefer to overgraze the commons, while letting taxes, not profits, pay for whatever urgent, long-overdue research is actually undertaken.

On the other hand, the spoils from high energy prices continue to gush into real estate, skyscrapers, and financial assets. Whether or not we are actually at the summit of Hubbert's Peak -- that peak oil moment -- whether or not the oil-price bubble finally bursts, what we are probably witnessing is the largest transfer of wealth in modern history.

An eminent Wall Street oracle, McKinsey Global Institute, predicts that if crude oil prices remain above $100 per barrel -- they are, at the moment, approaching $140 a barrel -- the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council alone will "reap a cumulative windfall of almost $9 trillion by 2020." As in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, whose total gross domestic product has almost doubled in just three years, are awash in liquidity: $2.4 trillion in banks and investment funds according to a recent estimate by The Economist. Regardless of price trends, the International Energy Agency predicts, "more and more oil will come from fewer and fewer countries, primarily the Middle East members of OPEC [The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]."

Dubai, which has little oil income of its own, has become the regional financial hub for this vast pool of wealth, with ambitions to eventually compete with Wall Street and the City of London. During the first oil shock in the 1970s, much of OPEC's surplus was recycled through military purchases in the United States and Europe, or parked in foreign banks to become the "subprime" loans that eventually devastated Latin America. In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the Gulf states became far more cautious about entrusting their wealth to countries, like the United States, governed by religious fanatics. This time around, they are using "sovereign wealth funds" to achieve a more active ownership in foreign financial institutions, while investing fabulous amounts of oil revenue to transform Arabia's sands into hyperbolic cities, shopping paradises, and private islands for British rock stars and Russian gangsters.

Two years ago, when oil prices were less than half of the current level, The Financial Times estimated that planned new construction in Saudi Arabia and the emirates already exceeded $1 trillion dollars. Today, it may be closer to $1.5 trillion, considerably more than the total value of world trade in agricultural products. Most of the Gulf city-states are building hallucinatory skylines -- and, among them, Dubai is the unquestionable superstar. In a little more than a decade, it has erected 500 skyscrapers, and currently leases one-quarter of all the high-rise cranes in the world.

This super-charged Gulf boom, which celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas claims is "reconfiguring the world," has led Dubai developers to proclaim the advent of a "supreme lifestyle" represented by seven-star hotels, private islands, and J-class yachts. Not surprisingly, then, the United Arab Emirates and its neighbors have the biggest per capita ecological footprints on the planet. Meanwhile, the rightful owners of Arab oil wealth, the masses crammed into the angry tenements of Baghdad, Cairo, Amman, and Khartoum, have little more to show for it than a trickle-down of oil-field jobs and Saudi-subsidized madrassas. While guests enjoy the $5,000 per night rooms in Burj Al-Arab, Dubai's celebrated sail-shaped hotel, working-class Cairenes riot in the streets over the unaffordable price of bread.

4. Can Markets Enfranchise the Poor?

Emissions optimists, of course, will smile at all the gloom-and-doom and evoke the coming miracle of carbon trading. What they discount is the real possibility that a sprawling carbon-offset market may emerge, just as predicted, yet produce only minimal improvement in the global carbon balance sheet, as long as there is no mechanism for enforcing real net reductions in fossil fuel use.

In popular discussions of emissions-rights trading systems, it is common to mistake the smokestacks for the trees. For example, the wealthy oil enclave of Abu Dhabi (like Dubai, a partner in the United Arab Emirates) brags that it has planted more than 130 million trees -- each of which does its duty in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this artificial forest in the desert also consumes huge quantities of irrigation water produced, or recycled, from expensive desalination plants. The trees may allow Sheik Ahmed bin Zayed to wear a halo at international meetings, but the rude fact is that they are an energy-intensive beauty strip, like most of so-called green capitalism.

And, while we're at it, let's just ask: What if the buying and selling of carbon credits and pollution offsets fails to turn down the thermostat? What exactly will motivate governments and global industries then to join hands in a crusade to reduce emissions through regulation and taxation?

Kyoto-type climate diplomacy assumes that all the major actors, once they have accepted the science in the IPCC reports, will recognize an overriding common interest in gaining control over the runaway greenhouse effect. But global warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction. Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.

As the United Nations Development Program emphasized in its report last year, global warming is above all a threat to the poor and the unborn, the "two constituencies with little or no political voice." Coordinated global action on their behalf thus presupposes either their revolutionary empowerment (a scenario not considered by the IPCC) or the transmutation of the self-interest of rich countries and classes into an enlightened "solidarity" without precedent in history. From a rational-actor perspective, the latter outcome only seems realistic if it can be shown that privileged groups possess no preferential "exit" option, that internationalist public opinion drives policymaking in key countries, and that greenhouse gas mitigation could be achieved without major sacrifices in upscale Northern Hemispheric standards of living -- none of which seems highly likely.

And what if growing environmental and social turbulence, instead of galvanizing heroic innovation and international cooperation, simply drive elite publics into even more frenzied attempts to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity? Global mitigation, in this unexplored but not improbable scenario, would be tacitly abandoned (as, to some extent, it already has been) in favor of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth's first-class passengers. We're talking here of the prospect of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.

Of course, there will still be treaties, carbon credits, famine relief, humanitarian acrobatics, and perhaps the full-scale conversion of some European cities and small countries to alternative energy. But the shift to low, or zero, emission lifestyles would be almost unimaginably expensive. (In Britain, it currently costs $200,000 more to build a zero-carbon, "level 6" eco-home than a standard unit of the same area.) And this will certainly become even more unimaginable after perhaps 2030, when the convergent impacts of climate change, peak oil, peak water, and an additional 1.5 billion people on the planet may begin to seriously throttle growth.

5. The North's Ecological Debt

The real question is this: Will rich counties ever mobilize the political will and economic resources to actually achieve IPCC targets or, for that matter, to help poorer countries adapt to the inevitable, already "committed" quotient of warming now working its way toward us through the slow circulation of the world ocean?

To be more vivid: Will the electorates of the wealthy nations shed their current bigotry and walled borders to admit refugees from predicted epicenters of drought and desertification like the Maghreb, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan? Will Americans, the most miserly people when measured by per capita foreign aid, be willing to tax themselves to help relocate the millions likely to be flooded out of densely settled, mega-delta regions like Bangladesh?

Market-oriented optimists, once again, will point to carbon offset programs like the Clean Development Mechanism which, they claim, will allow green capital to flow to the Third World. Most of the Third World, however, probably prefers for the First World to acknowledge the environmental mess it has created and take responsibility for cleaning it up. They rightly rail against the notion that the greatest burden of adjustment to the Anthropocene epoch should fall on those who have contributed least to carbon emissions and drawn the slightest benefits from 200 years of industrialization.

In a sobering study recently published in the Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Science, a research team has attempted to calculate the environmental costs of economic globalization since 1961 as expressed in deforestation, climate change, over-fishing, ozone depletion, mangrove conversion, and agricultural expansion. After making adjustments for relative cost burdens, they found that the richest countries, by their activities, had generated 42 percent of environmental degradation across the world, while shouldering only 3 percent of the resulting costs.

The radicals of the South will rightly point to another debt as well. For 30 years, cities in the developing world have grown at breakneck speed without any equivalent public investment in infrastructure services, housing, or public health. In large part this has been the result of foreign debts contracted by dictators, payments enforced by the International Monetary Fund, and public sectors wrecked by the World Bank's "structural adjustment" agreements.

This planetary deficit of opportunity and social justice is captured in the fact that more than one billion people, according to UN-Habitat, currently live in slums and that their number is expected to double by 2030. An equal number, or more, forage in the so-called informal sector (a first-world euphemism for mass unemployment). Sheer demographic momentum, meanwhile, will increase the world's urban population by 3 billion people over the next 40 years (90 percent of them in poor cities), and no one -- absolutely no one -- has a clue how a planet of slums, with growing food and energy crises, will accommodate their biological survival, much less their inevitable aspirations to basic happiness and dignity.

If this seems unduly apocalyptic, consider that most climate models project impacts that will uncannily reinforce the present geography of inequality. One of the pioneer analysts of the economics of global warming, Petersen Institute fellow William R. Cline, recently published a country-by-country study of the likely effects of climate change on agriculture by the later decades of this century. Even in the most optimistic simulations, the agricultural systems of Pakistan (a 20 percent decrease from current farm output predicted) and Northwestern India (a 30 percent decrease) are likely to be devastated, along with much of the Middle East, the Maghreb, the Sahel belt, Southern Africa, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Twenty-nine developing countries will lose 20 percent or more of their current farm output to global warming, while agriculture in the already rich north is likely to receive, on average, an 8 percent boost.

In light of such studies, the current ruthless competition between energy and food markets, amplified by international speculation in commodities and agricultural land, is only a modest portent of the chaos that could soon grow exponentially from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality, and climate change. The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.

Who Really Set the California Fires?

You can't have too much of a good thing, so let me just quote Mike Davis from 1998 to introduce Mike Davis 2007 on the California fires. In Ecology of Fear, his 1998 book on southern California, he wrote just about everything you'd ever need to know if you didn't want to be surprised by the raging Santa Ana-driven wildfires of 2003 or 2007. After all, there's nothing new about the burning phenomenon on what Davis then dubbed "the fire coast." "A great Malibu firestorm," he wrote, "could generate the heat of three million barrels of burning oil at a temperature of 2,000 degrees." No wonder Cold War era researchers used those California fires to model the behavior of nuclear firestorms.

What remains eternally new (and yet utterly predictable, once you've read Davis) is the increasing amount of tinder we put in the way of such fires in "the suburban-chaparral border zone where wildfire is king" -- and then the fierce fire-suppression campaigns that new, wealthy homeowners in their privatized, gated communities, McMansions, and McCastles demand, which only build further the fuel for the fires that, even in the 1990s, were "becoming ever more apocalyptic." Oh yes, and another thoroughly predictable thing: After hundreds, or thousands, of houses burn, the search for villains begins not among the politicians and developers, pushing human habitation ever deeper into the lands of the firestorm, but for arsonists, "although probably not more than one in eight blazes is caused by arson." The shape of the shape-shifting arsonist has changed over the years: more or less in historical order, according to Davis, they have been Indians, sheepherders, tramps, Wobblies, Okies, "Axis saboteurs," and, in our own time, environmentalists, (indirectly) endangered and protected species, gays, and terrorists. The search for arsonists is, of course, on again -- and one has so far been identified, a boy, possibly only 10 years old, playing with matches whose case is now being turned over to the district attorney for possible prosecution.

And finally, it's predictable that "the essential land-use issue, the rampant, uncontrolled proliferation of firebelt suburbs," is ignored; while, in the rush to fight the ensuing fires, vast sums of taxpayer money are functionally spent on luxury enclaves and gated hilltop suburbs. As Davis concluded back in 1998, but might as well have written last night, "Needless to say, there is no comparable investment in the fire, toxic, or earthquake safety of inner-city communities. Instead, as in so many things, we tolerate two systems of hazard prevention, separate and unequal."

And the worst of it is that "fire itself accelerates gentrification" in those former wildlands. Charred hillside? All the better to build, my dear...

The fate of prophets is, of course, to be ignored. Nobody raises statues to them. -- Tomdispatch Editor, Tom Engelhardt

San Diego Builds a Statue to an Arsonist Developers with Matches

By Mike Davis

This August, just as the first Santa Ana winds bent the boughs of the eucalyptus trees in Balboa Park, 500 wealthy business people and Republican Party donors raised their champagne glasses to salute "Mr. San Diego," Pete Wilson, as he unveiled a bronze statue of himself in downtown's Horton Plaza. Wilson, of course, was the controversial, immigrant-baiting governor of California during the nineties; but the statute specifically apotheosizes his role as the political catalyst for San Diego's "downtown renaissance" during his earlier three terms as mayor of the city (1971-1983).

The 74-year-old Wilson, whose preppy appearance leads strangers to mistake him for an aging member of the Kingston Trio, recalled the bad old days -- before million-dollar condos and billionaire developers took over downtown -- when the nearby "Gaslight District" was a "haven for saloons and tattoo parlors." He praised the memory of his friend and crucial ally in remaking downtown, developer Ernest Hahn, whose statue adjoins his. But it was difficult to make out his words since, across the plaza, several hundred demonstrators, an inspiring coalition of young Latinos and gays, were beating drums, blowing whistles, and chanting "racist!" Some of Wilson's admirers blistered, but Mr. San Diego was characteristically gracious about free speech: "Horses asses," he laughed.

He was cheered by a small group of counter-protestors belonging to one of the Minutemen sects. Although far too scruffy to be invited to join the champagne drinkers, they nonetheless idolize the former governor as the Paul Revere of the Brown Peril (especially for his notorious television reelection ad: "They keep coming..."), as well as the chief megaphone for the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994 which -- had it not been stopped in the courts -- would have expelled immigrant kids from their kindergartens and kicked their mothers out of maternity wards.

It is unclear, however, whether either the immigrant-rights activists or their Minutemen opponents were aware that what they were protesting or applauding was actually self-deification. As the San Diego Union-Tribune (the Copley franchise that has had a total monopoly of the city's daily newspaper market since 1938) reported the next day: "The land under the Wilson and Horton statues is owned by the Irvine Co., the Orange County real estate giant that bought the property recently. Wilson is a member of the company's board of directors."

Most of my friends dream of the day when we can give that statue the same shove that brought down the Colonne de Vendôme in Paris in 1871 or Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003, but I demur. I think we should simply chisel the word "arsonist" in large letters at the base of the Bronze Pete.

No, I am not suggesting that the ex-governor was seen lurking in the shadow of Palomar or hiding behind an oak at Witch Creek as the fires began to burn -- although who knows what he does with his time when he isn't recruiting for Rudy Giuliani? But, as the protestors rightly won't let the world forget, he deliberately ignited California's nativist underbrush in the early 1990s and started a conflagration of immigrants' rights that now engulfs Latino communities across the United States.

With unctuous arrogance, he mainstreamed Mexican-bashing and opened a Pandora 's Box of California's vigilante past. The Minutemen are one bastard legacy of his; another is public gullibility in the face of absurd rumors and bogus "CNN" press releases ("Mexicans with Molotov cocktails" and the like) that are currently being blogged back and forth across dirty cyberspace. And we should not forget that Wilson was personal trainer, sage, and guru to Schwarzenegger in those early days of 2003 and 2004 when Arnie was praising the Minutemen as "heroes." (The Gubernator, of course, has since been reprogrammed to the political center by Maria Shriver and her technicians.)

But the Wilson legacy also includes an important, if more complex, responsibility for the pattern of urban growth in the San Diego region that now collides so catastrophically with wildfire. As a so-called liberal Republican, even "green" San Diego mayor during the 1970s and early 1980s, he was the chief architect of an enduring system of trade-offs, elite alliances, and sleights of hand that has simultaneously gentrified the downtown area at the expense of the poor and overrun much of San Diego's countryside with pyrophiliac gated suburbs and elite estates -- all the while winning accolades for state-of-the-art "growth management."

In the wake of the auto-da-fé of the city's old guard in the early 1970s (including the arrest and conviction of its two most powerful business figures), Wilson -- initially allied with wealthy Democrats -- skillfully overhauled a geriatric City Hall and soothed the alienation of angry neighborhood homeowners. He slowed piecemeal growth at the urban periphery, which impressed the Sierra Club and environmental voters, although the real logic behind these moves was to transfer control over metropolitan growth from smaller developers to giant companies with the financial resources to undertake the phased construction of upscale suburbs and edge cities.

Wilson's 1976 masterstroke, however, was to horse-trade development rights along the city's northern flanks for new investment in the downtown's faltering redevelopment scheme. Thus, he bartered the beautiful mesas across Interstate 5 from the University of California, San Diego, to (fellow statue) Ernest Hahn (who promptly constructed "University City") in exchange for the latter's agreement to redevelop Horton Plaza downtown. A similar quid pro quo was negotiated for the development of an adjacent "protected" open space as the Pardee Company's "North City West."

These were not just a set of ad hoc deals but a consistent template for an unmatched fusion of real estate and politics. The typical American big-city pattern is chronic competition and political friction between downtown interests and edge developers; in San Diego, by contrast, Wilson brought the suburban builders downtown and so created a unitary and powerful growth machine which, in turn, has greased his wheels and those of his many protégés and successors. (Indeed, Wilson's reputation as the "strongest mayor in San Diego history" is attested by the continued zeal with which all white, male Republicans, including the present mayor and his predecessor, profess loyalty to his achievements.)

This hypertrophying of developer power, which Wilson institutionalized and willed to future generations, has easily survived small popular insurrections against the impact of sprawl and congestion, just as it has surmounted unremitting scandal and corruption in local politics. Pete Wilson's successors have specialized in giving away one priceless city asset after another -- the former Naval Training Center, the Broadway pier, the Fairbanks Ranch, Petco Park, among many others) to the same small elite of billionaires. They are even discussing privatizing the management of San Diego's incomparable Balboa Park.

The imbalance of power is greater yet at the county scale. In the wake of the last round of firestorms in 2003, a grassroots alliance of environmentalists and old-time rural residents tried to slow the subdivision and trophy-home juggernaut by limiting residential density to one home per 100 acres: an initiative inspired by the famous precedent of Oregon's Willamette Valley. They were, however, utterly crushed at the polls (65% to 35%) by a flood of developer money, which disguised itself in ads on television as the voice of embattled "small farmers."

More recently, on the very eve of the new firestorms, county supervisors endorsed a so-called "shelter in place" strategy that will permit developers to build in the rugged, high-fire-risk backcountry without having to provide the secondary roads needed to ensure safe evacuation. Instead residents would be encouraged to stay in their "fire resistant" homes while fire-fighters defended the perimeter of their cul-de-sac. As scores of fire experts and survivors have pointed out in angry op-ed columns and blogs, this is a lunatic, if not homicidal, scheme that elevates developers' bottom-lines over human life. Those who have actually confronted 100-foot-high firestorms, driven by hurricane-velocity winds, know that the developer slogan -- "It's not where you build, but how you build" -- is a deadly deception.

Meanwhile, the new fire cataclysm seems to be rewarding the very insiders most responsible for the uncontrolled building and underfunded fire protection that helped give the Santa Ana winds their real tinder. While conservative ideologues now celebrate San Diego's most recent tragedy as a "triumph" of middle-class values and suburban solidarity, the business community openly gloats over the coming reconstruction boom and the revival of a building industry badly shaken by the mortgage crisis. And the Union-Tribune -- like London papers after the slaughter that was the battle of the Somme in 1915 -- eulogizes the very generalship (all Republicans, of course) that led us into disaster. I suppose these heroes already envision their statues in Horton Plaza.

Copyright 2007 Mike Davis

Global Warming Hits Southwest

The polar bear on its shrinking ice floe has become the urgent icon of global warming and runaway climate change. Even the flat-earther in the White House now concedes that the magnificent bears may be doomed to extinction as the sea ice melts and the Arctic Ocean is transformed into open blue water for the first time in millions of years. Humanity's "great geophysical experiment," as the oceanographer Roger Revelle long ago characterized the steeply rising curve of carbon dioxide emission, has knocked nature off its Holocene foundations in the circumpolar lands.

But the Arctic is not the only theater of spectacular and unequivocal climate change, nor are the polar bears the only heralds of a new age of chaos. Consider, for example, some of Ursus maritimus's distant relatives: the black bears that forage happily but ominously in the fabled Chisos Mountains of Texas's Big Bend National Park. They may be the messengers of an environmental transformation in the Borderlands almost as radical as that taking place in Alaska or Greenland.

While hiking en route to Emory Peak on a preternaturally warm day in January 2002, with my mind still haunted by the apocalyptic images of the previous September, I made the nodding acquaintance of an antic and harmless young bear in a trail camp. Apparitions of bears are always slightly magical, and I presumed the encounter was an affirmation of a still largely unspoiled wilderness. In fact, as I was startled to learn from a ranger the next day, the young bear was, so to speak, a mojado -- the offspring of recent undocumented immigrants from the other side of the Rio Grande.

Black bears had been common in the Chisos when it was the quasi-mythical redoubt of Mescalero Apache and Comanche raiders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but ranchers relentlessly hunted them to extinction in the early twentieth century. Then, almost miraculously in the early 1980s, bears reappeared amid the madrone and pine of Emory Peak. Astonished wildlife biologists surmised that the bears had migrated from the Sierra del Carmen in Coahuila, swimming the Rio Grande and crossing forty miles of furnace-hot desert to reach the Chisos, a promised land of docile deer and abundant garbage.

Like the jaguars that have re-established themselves in the border mountains of Arizona in recent years or, for that matter, the blood-sucking chupacabra of norteño folklore who has reputedly been seen in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the black bears are part of an epic migration of wildlife as well as people al otro lado. Although no one knows exactly why the bears, big cats and legendary vampires are moving northward, one plausible hypothesis is that they are adjusting their ranges and populations to a new reign of drought in northern Mexico and the US Southwest.

The human case is clear-cut: Abandoned ranchitos and near-ghost towns throughout Coahuila, Chihuahua and Sonora testify to the relentless succession of dry years -- beginning in the 1980s but assuming truly catastrophic intensity in the late 1990s -- that has pushed hundreds of thousands of poor rural people toward the sweatshops of Ciudad Juárez and the barrios of Los Angeles.

In some years, "exceptional drought" has engulfed the entire Plains from Canada to Mexico; in other years, crimson conflagrations on weather maps have crept down the Gulf Coast to Louisiana or crossed the Rockies to the interior Northwest. But the semipermanent epicenters have remained the basins of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, as well as northern Mexico.

By 2003, for example, Lake Powell had fallen by nearly eighty feet in three years, and crucial reservoirs along the Rio Grande were barely more than mud puddles. The Southwestern winter of 2005-06, meanwhile, was one of the driest on record, and Phoenix went 143 days without a single drop of rain. Rare interruptions in the drought, like the Noachian monsoon of last summer (parts of El Paso received an incredible thirty inches of rain), have been insufficient to adequately recharge aquifers or refill reservoirs, and in 2006 both Arizona and Texas reported the worst drought losses to crops and herds in history (about $7 billion altogether).

Persistent drought, like melting ice, rapidly reorganizes ecosystems and transforms entire landscapes. Without sufficient moisture to produce protective sap, millions of acres of pinyon and ponderosa pine have been ravaged by plagues of bark beetles; these dead forests, in turn, have helped to kindle the firestorms that have burst into the suburbs of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Denver, as well as destroyed part of Los Alamos. In Texas the grasslands have also burned -- nearly 2 million acres in 2006 alone -- and as topsoil blows away, prairies are reverting to desert.

Some climatologists have not hesitated to call this a "mega-drought," even the "worst in 500 years." Others have been more cautious, not yet sure whether the current aridity in the West has surpassed the notorious thresholds of the 1930s (the Dust Bowl in the southern Plains) or 1950s (devastating drought in the Southwest). But the debate is possibly beside the point: The most recent and authoritative research finds that the "evening redness in the West" (to invoke the portentous subtitle of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian) is not simply episodic drought but the region's new "normal weather."

In startling testimony before the National Research Council last December, Richard Seager, a senior geophysicist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, warned that the world's leading climate modelers were cranking out the same result from their super-computers: "According to the models, in the Southwest a climate akin to the 1950s drought becomes the new climate within the next few years to decades."

This extraordinary forecast -- "the imminent drying of the U.S. southwest" -- is a byproduct of the monumental computational effort that has been mounted by nineteen separate climate models (including the flagship outfits at Boulder, Princeton, Exeter and Hamburg) for the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPPC, of course, is the supreme court of climate science, established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to assess research on global warming and its impacts. Although President Bush now grudgingly accepts the IPCC warning that the Arctic is rapidly melting, he has probably not yet registered the possibility that his ranch in Crawford might someday become a sand dune.

Climatologists studying tree rings and other natural archives have long been aware that the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocates water to the rapidly urbanizing oases of the Southwest, is based on a twenty-one-year record (1899-1921) of river flow that, far from being an average, is actually the wettest anomaly in at least 450 years. More recently, they have gained an understanding of how persistent La Niñas (cold episodes in the eastern equatorial Pacific) can interact with warm spells in the subtropical North Atlantic to generate droughts in the Plains and Southwest that can endure for decades.

But, as Seager emphasized in Washington, the IPCC simulations point to something very different from the arid episodes catalogued in Lamont's North American Drought Atlas (a state-of-the-art compendium of tree-ring records from 2 BC to the present). Unexpectedly, it is the base climate itself, not just its perturbations, that is changing.

Moreover, this abrupt transition to a new, more extreme climate ("unlike any in the last millennium, and probably in the Holocene") arises not out of fluctuations in ocean temperatures but from "changing patterns of atmospheric circulation and water vapor transport that arise as a consequence of atmospheric warming." In a nutshell, the dry lands will become more arid, and the humid lands, wetter. And the drying of the West will be accompanied by blast-furnace heat: IPCC's new report includes an astonishing prediction that temperatures in the American West will increase by an average of nine degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

La Niña events, Seager added, will continue to influence rainfall in the Borderlands, but building from a more arid foundation, they could produce the West's worst nightmares: droughts on the scale of the medieval catastrophes that contributed to the notorious collapse of the complex Anasazi societies at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde during the twelfth century. (To make the bad news from the super-computers even worse, enhanced aridity is also forecast for much of the Mediterranean and the Near East, where epic drought is a well-known historical synonym for war, population displacement and ethnocide.)

Yet mere scientific pronouncement, even to the thunder of nineteen unanimous climate models, is unlikely to cause much of a flutter in golf-course suburbs of Phoenix, where luxury lifestyles consume 400 gallons of water per capita each day. Nor will it stop the bulldozers shaping monstrous strip suburbs of Las Vegas (a projected 160,000 new homes) along US 93 all the way to Kingman, Arizona. Nor, despite possible pumping out of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, the underground water resource lying under eight states in the Great Plains, will it prevent Texas from doubling its population by 2040.

Despite a lot of recent sloganeering about "smart growth" and intelligent water use, desert developers are still stamping out burbs in the same "dumb," environmentally inefficient mold that has blighted Southern California for generations. The trump card of the free-enterprise Southwest, moreover, is that the majority of the water stored within the Colorado River and Rio Grande systems is still dedicated to irrigated agriculture.

Even if "peak water" has now come and gone, desert sprawl can sustain itself in the medium run by killing cotton and alfalfa, while the big growers stay rich selling their federally subsidized water to thirsty suburbs. A prototype of this restructuring is already visible in California's Imperial Valley, where San Diego has been aggressively buying water entitlements. As a result, an attentive air traveler will notice a recent increase in dead squares within the Valley's emerald checkerboard of alfalfa and melons.

More futuristically, there is also the "Saudi" option. Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego, professor who has written extensively about water politics in Southern California, told me that desert developers in the Southwest and Baja California are confident that they can keep the population boom well-watered through the conversion of seawater. "The new mantra of the water agencies, of course, is incentivizing conservation and reclamation, but rapacious developers are casting covetous eyes at the Pacific Ocean and the alchemy of desalination heedless of the pernicious environmental consequences."

In any event, Erie emphasizes, markets and politicians will continue to vote for the kind of rampant, high-impact suburbanization that now paves and malls thousands of square miles of the fragile Mojave, Sonora and Chihuahua deserts. States and cities, of course, will compete more aggressively than ever over water allocations, "but collectively the growth machines have the power to wrest water from other users."

As water becomes more expensive, the burden of adjustment to the new climatic and hydrological regime will fall on subaltern groups like farmworkers (jobs threatened by water transfers), the urban poor (who could easily see water charges soar by $100 to $200 per month), hardscrabble ranchers (including many Native Americans) and, especially, the imperiled rural populations of Northern Mexico.

Indeed, the ending of the age of cheap water in the Southwest -- especially as it may coincide with the end of cheap energy -- will accentuate the region's already high levels of class and racial inequality as well as drive more emigrants to gamble with death in dangerous crossings of the border deserts. (It takes little imagination, moreover, to guess the Minutemen's future slogan: "They are coming to steal our water!")

Conservative politics in Arizona and Texas will become even more envenomed and ethnically charged, if that is possible. The Southwest is already sown everywhere with violent nativism and what can only be described as proto-fascism: In the droughts to come, they may be the only seeds to germinate.

As Jared Diamond points out in his recent bestseller Collapse, the ancient Anasazi did not succumb simply to drought but rather to the impact of unexpected aridity upon an over-exploited landscape inhabited by people little prepared to make sacrifices in their "expensive lifestyle." In the last instance, they preferred to eat one another.

The Weapon No One Can Stop

Despite heroic reassurances from both the White House and the Pentagon that the six-week-old U.S. escalation in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province is proceeding on course, suicide car-bombers continue to devastate Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, often under the noses of reinforced American patrols and checkpoints. Indeed, February was a record month for car bombings, with at least 44 deadly explosions in Baghdad alone, and March promises to duplicate the carnage.

Car bombs, moreover, continue to evolve in horror and lethality. In January and March, the first chemical "dirty bomb" explosions took place using chlorine gas, giving potential new meaning to the President's missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The sectarian guerrillas who claim affiliation with "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" are now striking savagely, and seemingly at will, against dissident Sunni tribes in al-Anbar province as well as Shiite areas of Baghdad and Shiite pilgrims on the highways to the south of the capital. With each massacre, the bombers refute Bush administration claims that the U.S. military can "take back and secure" Baghdad block-by-block or establish its own patrols and new, fortified mini-bases as a realistic substitute for local self-defense militias.

On February 23rd, for instance, shortly after the beginning of the "Surge," a suicide truck-bomber killed 36 Sunnis in Habbaniya, west of Baghdad, after an imam at a local mosque had denounced al-Qaeda. Ten days later, a kamikaze driver ploughed his truck bomb into Baghdad's famed literary bazaar, the crowded corridor of bookstores and coffee houses along Mutanabi Street, incinerating at least 30 people and, perhaps, the last hopes of an Iraqi intellectual renaissance.

On March 10th, another suicide bomber massacred 20 people in Sadr City, just a few hundred yards away from one of the new U.S. bases. The next day, a bomber rammed his car into flatbed truck full of Shiite pilgrims, killing more than 30. A week later, horror exceeded itself when a car bomber evidently used two little children as a decoy to get through a military checkpoint, then exploded the car with the kids still in the back seat.

In a demonstration of a tactic that has proven especially deadly over the past year, a car-bomb attack on March 23rd was coordinated with an assailant in a suicide vest and almost killed Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie, whose tribal alliance, the Anbar Salvation Council, has accepted funding from the Americans and been denounced by the jihadis.

When it comes to the development of suicide vehicles, however, the most alarming innovation has, without doubt, been the debut in January of truck bombs carrying chlorine gas tanks rigged with explosives. Of course, "dirty bombs," usually of the nuclear variety, have been a longtime obsession of anti-terrorism experts (as well as the producers of TV potboilers), but the sinister glamour of radioactive devices -- scattering deadly radiological waste in the City of London or across midtown Manhattan -- has tended to overshadow the far greater likelihood that bomb-makers would initially be attracted to the cheapness and ease of combining explosives with any number of ordinary industrial caustics and toxins.

As if to emphasize that poison-gas explosions were now part of their standard arsenal, sectarian bombers -- identified, as usual, by the American military as members of "al-Qaeda in Mespotamia" -- unleashed three successive chlorine suicide-bomb attacks on March 16th against Sunni towns outside of Falluja.

The two largest attacks involved dump trucks loaded with 200-gallon chlorine tanks. Aside from the dozens wounded or killed by the direct explosions, at least another 350 people were stricken by the yellow-green clouds of chlorine.

As in April 1915, with the first uses of chlorine gas on the Western Front in World War I, these explosions sowed widespread panic, underlining -- as the bombers no doubt intended -- the inability of the Americans to protect potential allies in al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. (The recent discovery of stocks of chlorine and nitric acid in a Sunni neighborhood of west Baghdad will hardly assuage those fears.)

The shock waves from the March dirty bombs also rattled windows on the Hudson River, where New York Police Department (NYPD) experts warned the media that poor security at local chemical plants raised the danger of copy-cat attacks using stolen ingredients.

An anonymous senior official in the department's Counter-Terrorism Bureau told Reuters that "the NYPD expected would-be attackers targeting New York to try to import the tactic." At the same time, New Jersey's two Democratic Senators -- Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg -- complained that the Bush administration was coddling the chemical industry by blocking New Jersey and other states from implementing tougher safety regulations.

Meanwhile, back in Iraq, the chlorine clouds and the truck bombs have deflected U.S. troops into a massive, desperate hunt for the "makeshift car-bomb factories" that Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for the Surge, claims proliferate in the gritty suburbs and industrial estates that ring Baghdad.

The image of a clandestine car-bomb industry, by the way, is rich with irony. Baghdad's factory belt contains hundreds of state-owned and private factories that once manufactured canned food, tiles, baby clothes, transit buses, fertilizers, commercial glass, and the like. Since the American invasion, however, the plants are idle, if not derelict, and their once integrated Sunni-Shiite workforces are bunkered down, jobless, in increasingly sectarian neighborhoods. Unemployment in greater Baghdad is variously estimated in the 40-60 percent range.

It is unlikely that the current raids -- using troops who would otherwise be securing streets and "winning hearts and minds" -- will uncover more than a tiny fraction of the city's bomb "factories." Indeed, the car bomb -- even more than the roadside bombs (IEDs) that are filling the Humvee junkyards -- has proven globally to be an almost invincible weapon of the ill-armed and underfunded, as well as the one weapon of mass destruction that the Bush administration has totally ignored. None of the American commanders in the field in 2003-2004, much less the imperial daydreamers in neoconservative think-tanks back in Washington, seem to have foreseen the ubiquity of its use.

According to a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, carried out by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Iraqi physicians (organized through Mustansiriya University in Baghdad), an estimated 78,000 Iraqis were killed by several thousand vehicle bombings between March 2003 to June 2006.

Moreover, as I explain in my newly-published history of the car bomb, Buda's Wagon, there is little hope for any technological fix or scientific miracle that will allow reliable detection of a stolen Mercedes with 500 pounds of C-4 in the trunk or a dump truck laden with chlorine tanks and high explosives idling in one of Baghdad's colossal traffic jams. (Checkpoints? Just a synonym for target of opportunity.)

In the meantime, the bombers are obviously wagering that if they can sustain current levels of carnage, the Shiite militias will be forced back onto the streets to protect their neighborhoods (as the American troops can't), risking a bloody, all-out confrontation with U.S. forces for the ownership of the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City and other Shiite areas in eastern Baghdad.

On the other side, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency expert and mastermind of the Surge, must shut down the car-bombers by the beginning of the summer or face a likely popular revolt in Sadr City. With each explosion, his chances of success diminish.

The Baby Boomer Border Invasion

The visitor crossing from Tijuana to San Diego these days is immediately slapped in the face by a huge billboard screaming, "Stop the Border Invasion!" Sponsored by the rabidly anti-immigrant vigilante group, the Minutemen, the same truculent slogan reportedly insults the public at other border crossings in Arizona and Texas.

The Minutemen, once caricatured in the press as gun-toting clowns, are now haughty celebrities of grassroots conservatism, dominating AM hate radio as well as the even more hysterical ether of the right-wing blogosphere. In heartland as well as in border states, Republican candidates vie desperately for their endorsement. With the electorate alienated by the dual catastrophes of Baghdad and New Orleans, the Brown Peril has suddenly become the Republican deus ex machina for retaining control of Congress in the November elections.

A faltering GOP hegemony, too long sustained by the scraps of 9/11 and the imaginary weaponry of Saddam Hussein, now has a new urgency in its appeal to the suburbs. Not since Kofi Annan conspired to send his black helicopters to terrorize Wyoming, has such a clear-and-present danger threatened the Republic as the sinister armies of would-be busboys and gardeners gathered at the Rio Grande.

To listen to some of these demagogues, one would assume that the Twin Towers had been blown up by followers of the Virgin of Guadalupe or that Spanish had recently been decreed the official language of Connecticut. Having failed to scourge the world of evil by invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Republicans, supported by some Democrats, now propose that we invade ourselves: sending the Marines and Green Berets, along with the National Guard, into the hostile deserts of California and New Mexico where national sovereignty is supposedly under siege.

As in the past, nativism today is bigotry as surreal caricature, reality stood on its head. The ultimate irony, however, is that there really is something that might be called a "border invasion," but the Minutemen's billboards are on the wrong side of the freeway.

The Baby Boomers Head South

What few people -- at least, outside of Mexico -- have bothered to notice is that while all the nannies, cooks, and maids have been heading north to tend the luxury lifestyles of irate Republicans, the Gringo hordes have been rushing south to enjoy glorious budget retirements and affordable second homes under the Mexican sun.

Yes, in former California Governor Pete Wilson's immortal words, "They just keep coming." Over the last decade, the U.S. State Department estimates that the number of Americans living in Mexico has soared from 200,000 to 1 million (or one-quarter of all U.S. expatriates). Remittances from the United States to Mexico have risen dramatically from $9 billion to $14.5 billion in just two years. Though initially interpreted as representing a huge spike in illegal workers (who send parts of their salaries across the border to family), it turns out to be mainly money sent by Americans to themselves in order to finance Mexican homes and retirements.

Although some of them are certainly naturalized U.S. citizens returning to towns and villages of their birth after lifetimes of toil al otro lado, the director-general of FONATUR, the official agency for tourism development in Mexico, recently characterized the typical investors in that country's real estate as American "baby boomers who have paid off in good part their initial mortgage and are coming into inheritance money."

Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, "The land rush is occurring at the beginning of a demographic tidal wave. With more than 70 million American baby boomers expected to retire in the next two decades... some experts predict a vast migration to warmer -- and cheaper -- climates. Often such buyers purchase a property 10 to 15 years before retirement, use it as a vacation home, and then eventually move there for most of the year. Developers increasingly are taking advantage of the trend, building gated communities, condominiums, and golf courses."

The extraordinary rise in U.S. Sunbelt property values gives gringos immense economic leverage. Shrewd baby-boomers are not simply feathering nests for eventual retirement, but also increasingly speculating in Mexican resort property, sending up property values to the detriment of locals whose children are consequently driven into slums or forced to emigrate north, only increasing the "invasion" charges. As in Galway, Corsica, or, for that matter, Montana, the global second-home boom is making life in beautiful, natural settings unaffordable for their traditional residents.

Some expatriates are experimenting with exotic places such as the Riviera Maya or Tulum in Quintana Roo, but more prefer such well-established havens as San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta. Here the norteamericanos make themselves at home in more ways than one.

An English-language paper in Puerto Vallarta, for instance, recently applauded the imminent arrival of a new shopping mall that will include Hooters, Burger King, Subway, Chili's and Starbucks. Only Dunkin' Donuts (con salsa?), the paper complained, was still missing.

The gringo footprint is largest (and brings the most significant geopolitical consequences) in Baja California, the 1,000-mile long desert appendage to the gridlocked state-nation governed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, Baja real-estate websites ooze almost as much hyperbole as those devoted to stalking the phantom menace of illegal immigrants -- just in a far more upbeat tone when it comes to the question of immigrant invasions.

In essence, Alta (Upper) California is beginning to overflow into Baja, an epochal process that, if unchecked, will produce intolerable social marginalization and ecological devastation in Mexico's last true frontier region. All the contradictions of post-industrial California -- runaway land inflation in the coastal zone, sprawling suburban development in interior valleys and deserts, freeway congestion and lack of mass transit, and the astronomical growth of motorized recreation -- dictate the invasion of the gorgeous "empty" peninsula to the south. To use a term from a bad but not irrelevant past, Baja is Anglo California's Lebensraum.

Indeed, the first two stages of informal annexation have already occurred. Under the banner of NAFTA, Southern California has exported hundreds of its sweatshops and toxic industries to the maquiladora zones of Tijuana and Mexicali. The Pacific Maritime Association, representing the West Coast's major shipping companies, has joined forces with Korean and Japanese corporations to explore the construction of a vast new container port at Punta Colonel, 150 miles south of Tijuana, which would undercut the power of longshore unionism in San Pedro and San Francisco.

Secondly, tens of thousands of gringo retirees and winter-residents are now clustered at both ends of the peninsula. Along the northwest coast from Tijuana to Ensenada, a recent advertisement for a real-estate conference at UCLA boasts that "there are presently over 57 real-estate developments... with over 11,000 homes/condos with an inventory value of over $3 billion... all of them geared for the U.S. market."

Meanwhile, at the tropical end of Baja, a gilded gringo enclave has emerged in the twenty-mile strip between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose de Cabo. Los Cabos is part of that global archipelago of real-estate hot spots where continuous double-digit increases in property values suck in speculative capital from all over the world. Ordinary gringos can participate in this glamorous Los Cabos real-estate casino through the purchase and resale of fractional time-shares in condominiums and beach homes.

Although Western Canadian and Arizona speculators have taken large bites out of Baja's southern cape, Los Cabos -- at least judging from the registration of private planes at the local airport -- has essentially become a resort suburb of Orange County, the home of the most vehement Minutemen chapters. (Many wealthy Southern Californians evidently see no contradiction between fuming over the "alien invasion" with one's conservative friends at the Newport Marina one day, and flying down to Cabos the next for some sea-kayaking or celebrity golf.)

Manifest Destiny, the Sequel?

The next step in the late-colonization of Baja is the "Escalera Nautica," a $3 billion "ladder" of marinas and coastal resorts being developed by FONATUR that will open up pristine sections of both Mexican coasts to the yacht club set.

Meanwhile, The Truman Show has arrived in the picturesque little city of Loreto on the Gulf side of the peninsula. There, FONATUR has joined forces with an Arizona company and "New Urbanist" architects from Florida to develop the Villages of Loreto Bay: 6,000 homes for expatriates in colonial-Mexico motif on the Sea of Cortez.

The $3 billion Loreto project boasts that it will be the last word in Green design, exploiting solar power and restricting automobile usage. Yet, at the same time, it will balloon Loreto's population from its current 15,000 to more than 100,000 in a decade, with the social and environmental consequences of a sort that can already be seen in the slum peripheries of Cancun and other mega-resorts.

One of the irresistible attractions of Baja is that it has preserved a primordial wildness that has disappeared elsewhere in the West. Local residents, including a very eloquent indigenous environmental movement, cherish this incomparable landscape as they do the survival of an egalitarian ethos in the peninsula's small towns and fishing villages.

Thanks to the silent invasion of the baby-boomers from the north, however, much of the natural history and frontier culture of Baja could be swept away in the next generation. One of the world's most magnificent wild coastlines could be turned into generic tourist sprawl, waiting for Dunkin' Donuts to open. Locals, accordingly, have every reason to fear that today's mega-resorts and mock-colonial suburbs, like FONATUR's entire tourism-centered strategy of regional development, are merely the latest Trojan horses of Manifest Destiny.

Who Is Killing New Orleans?

A few blocks from the badly flooded and still-closed campus of Dillard University, a wind-bent street sign announces the intersection of Humanity and New Orleans. In the nighttime distance, the downtown skyscrapers on Poydras and Canal Streets are already ablaze with light, but a vast northern and eastern swath of the city, including the Gentilly neighborhood around Dillard, remains shrouded in darkness.

The lights have been out for six months now, and no one seems to know when, if ever, they will be turned back on. In greater New Orleans about 125,000 homes remain damaged and unoccupied, a vast ghost city that rots in darkness while les bon temps return to a guilty strip of unflooded and mostly affluent neighborhoods near the river. Such a large portion of the black population is gone that some radio stations are now switching their formats from funk and rap to soft rock.

Mayor Ray Nagin likes to boast that "New Orleans is back," pointing to the tourists who again prowl the French Quarter and the Tulane students who crowd Magazine Street bistros; but the current population of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi is about the same as that of Disney World on a normal day. More than 60 percent of Nagin's constituents -- including an estimated 80 percent of the African-Americans -- are still scattered in exile with no obvious way home.

In their absence, local business elites, advised by conservative think tanks, "New Urbanists" and neo-Democrats, have usurped almost every function of elected government. With the City Council largely shut out of their deliberations, mayor-appointed commissions and outside experts, mostly white and Republican, propose to radically shrink and reshape a majority-black and Democratic city.

Without any mandate from local voters, the public-school system has already been virtually abolished, along with the jobs of unionized teachers and school employees. Thousands of other unionized jobs have been lost with the closure of Charity Hospital, formerly the flagship of public medicine in Louisiana. And a proposed oversight board, dominated by appointees of President Bush and Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, would end local control over city finances.

Meanwhile, Bush's pledge to "get the work done quickly" and mount "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" has proved to be the same fool's gold as his earlier guarantee to rebuild Iraq's bombed-out infrastructure. Instead, the Administration has left the residents of neighborhoods like Gentilly in limbo: largely without jobs, emergency housing, flood protection, mortgage relief, small-business loans or a coordinated plan for reconstruction.

With each passing week of neglect -- what Representative Barney Frank has labeled "a policy of ethnic cleansing by inaction" -- the likelihood increases that most black Orleanians will never be able to return.

Lie and Stall

After his bungling initial response to Katrina, Bush impersonated FDR and Lyndon Johnson when he reassured the nation in his September 15 Jackson Square speech that "we have a duty to confront [New Orleans's] poverty with bold action… We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."

In the event, the White House sat on its pledges all autumn, mumbling homilies about the limits of government, while its conservative attack dogs in Congress offset Gulf relief with $40 billion worth of cutbacks in Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. Republicans also rebelled against aid for a state that was depicted as a venal Third World society, a failed state like Haiti, out of step with national values. "Louisiana and New Orleans," according to Idaho Senator Larry Craig, "are the most corrupt governments in our country and they always have been… Fraud is in the culture of Iraqis. I believe that is true in the state of Louisiana as well."

Democrats, apart from the Congressional Black Caucus, did pathetically little to counter this backlash or to hold Bush's feet to the fire over his Jackson Square pledge. The promised national debate about urban poverty never took place; instead, New Orleans, like a great derelict ship, drifted helplessly in the treacherous currents of White House hypocrisy and conservative contempt.

An early, deadly blow was Treasury Secretary John Snow's refusal to guarantee New Orleans municipal bonds, forcing Mayor Nagin to lay off 3,000 city employees on top of the thousands of education and medical workers already jobless. The Bush Administration also blocked bipartisan measures to increase Medicaid coverage for Katrina evacuees and to give the State of Louisiana -- facing an estimated $8 billion in lost revenues over the next few years -- a share of the income generated by its offshore oil and gas leases.

Even more egregious was the flagrant redlining of black neighborhoods by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which rejected a majority of loan applications by local businesses and homeowners. At the same time, a bipartisan Senate bill to save small businesses with emergency bridge loans was sabotaged by Bush officials, leaving thousands to face bankruptcy and foreclosure.

As a result, the economic foundations of the city's African-American middle class (public-sector jobs and small businesses) have been swept away by deliberate decisions made in the White House. Meanwhile, in the absence of federal or state initiatives to employ locals, low-income blacks are losing their niches in the construction and service sectors to more mobile outsiders.

In stark contrast to its neglect of neighborhood relief, the White House has made herculean efforts to reward its own base of large corporations and political insiders. Representative Nydia Velazquez, who sits on the House Small Business Committee, pointed out that the SBA has allowed large corporations to get $2 billion in federal contracts while excluding local minority contractors.

The paramount beneficiaries of Katrina relief aid have been the giant engineering firms KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary) and the Shaw Group, which enjoy the services of lobbyist Joe Allbaugh (a former FEMA director and Bush's 2000 campaign manager). FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, while unable to explain to Governor Blanco last fall exactly how they were spending money in Louisiana, have tolerated levels of profiteering that would raise eyebrows even on the war-torn Euphrates. (Some of this largesse, of course, is guaranteed to be recycled as GOP campaign contributions.)

FEMA, for example, has paid the Shaw Group $175 per square (100 square feet) to install tarps on storm-damaged roofs in New Orleans. Yet the actual installers earn as little as $2 per square, and the tarps are provided by FEMA. Similarly, the Army Corps pays prime contractors about $20 per cubic yard of storm debris removed, yet some bulldozer operators receive only $1.

Every level of the contracting food chain, in other words, is grotesquely overfed except the bottom rung, where the actual work is carried out. While the Friends of Bush mine gold from the wreckage of New Orleans, many disappointed recovery workers -- often Mexican or Salvadoran immigrants camped out in city parks and derelict shopping centers -- can barely make ends meet.

The Big Kiss-Off

In the fractious, take-no-prisoners world of Louisiana politics, broad solidarity of interest is normally as rare as a boulder in a bayou. Yet Katrina created an unprecedented bipartisan consensus around twin demands for Category five hurricane protection and mortgage relief for damaged homes.

From conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats, there has been unanimity that the region's recovery depends on federal investment in new levees and coastal restoration, as well as financial rescue of the estimated 200,000 homeowners whose insurance coverage has failed to cover their actual damage. (There has been no equivalent consensus and little concern for the right of renters -- who constituted 53 percent of the population before Katrina -- and of public-housing tenants to return to their city.)

Yet by early November it was clear that saving New Orleans was no longer high on the Bush agenda, if it had ever been. As Congress headed toward its Christmas adjournment, the Louisiana delegation was in panic mode: A Category 5 plan had disappeared from serious discussion, and there were doubts about whether the damaged levees would be repaired before hurricane season returned. (In early March engineers monitoring the progress of the Army Corps's work complained that the use of weak, sandy soils and the lack of concrete "armoring" insured that the levees would again fail in a major storm.)

Congress ultimately voted to provide $29 billion for Gulf Coast relief. Yet as the Washington Post reported, "All but $6 billion of the measure merely reshuffled some of the $62 billion in previously approved Hurricane Katrina aid. The rest was funded by a one percent across-the-board cut of non-emergency, discretionary programs."

The Pentagon won approval for a whopping $4.4 billion in base repairs and other professed Katrina-related needs, but Congress cut out the $250 million allocated to combat coastal erosion. Meanwhile, Mississippi's powerful Republican troika -- Governor Haley Barbour and Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran -- persuaded fellow Republicans to support $6.2 billion in discretionary housing aid for Louisiana and $5.3 billion for Mississippi, with red-state Mississippi getting five times as much aid per distressed household as pink-state Louisiana.

Louisiana received another blow on January 23, when Bush rejected GOP Representative Richard Baker's plan calling for a federally guaranteed Louisiana Reconstruction Corporation, which would bail out homeowners by buying distressed properties and packaging them in larger parcels for resale to developers. Local Republicans as well as Democrats howled in rage, and the future of southern Louisiana was again thrown into chaos. Although the Administration eventually promised an additional $4.2 billion in housing aid, the appropriation continues to be fought over by Texas and other jealous states.

The Republican hostility to New Orleans, of course, runs deeper and is nastier than mere concern with civic probity (America's most corrupt city, after all, is located on the Potomac, not the Mississippi). Underlying all the circumlocutions are the same antediluvian prejudices and stereotypes that were used to justify the violent overthrow of Reconstruction 130 years ago.

Usually it is the poor who are invisible in the aftermath of urban disasters, but in the case of New Orleans it has been the African-American professional middle class and skilled working class. In the confusion and suffering of Katrina -- a Rorschach test of the American racial unconscious -- most white politicians and media pundits have chosen to see only the demons of their prejudices.

The city's complex history and social geography have been reduced to a cartoon of a vast slum inhabited by an alternately criminal or helpless underclass, whose salvation is the kindness of strangers in other, whiter cities. Inconvenient realities like Gentilly's red-brick normalcy -- or, for that matter, the pride of homeownership and the exuberance of civic activism in the blue-collar Lower Ninth Ward -- have not been allowed to interfere with the belief, embraced by New Democrats as well as old Republicans, that black urban culture is inherently pathological.

Such calumnies reproduce ancient caricatures -- blacks running amok, incapable of honest self-government -- that were evoked by the murderous White League when it plotted against Reconstruction in New Orleans in the 1870s. Indeed, some civil rights veterans fear that the 1874 Battle of Canal Street, a bloody League-organized insurrection against a Republican administration elected by black suffrage, is being refought -- perhaps without pikes and guns, but with the same fundamental aim of dispossessing black New Orleans of economic and political power. Certainly, a sweeping transformation of the racial balance-of-power within the city has been on some people's agenda for a long time.

The Krewe of Canizaro

Power and status in New Orleans have always been defined by membership in secretive Mardi Gras "krewes" and social clubs. In the early 1990s civil rights activists, led by feisty Councilmember Dorothy Mae Taylor, forced the token desegregation of Mardi Gras, and some of the clubs reluctantly admitted a few African-American millionaires. Despite some old-guard holdouts, Uptown seemed to be adjusting, however grudgingly, to the reality of black political clout.

But as post-Katrina events have brutally clarified, if the oligarchy is dead, then long live the oligarchy. While elected black officials protest impotently from the sidelines, a largely white elite has wrested control over the debate about how to rebuild the city. This de facto ruling krewe includes Jim Amoss, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune; Pres Kabacoff, developer-gentrifier and local patron of the New Urbanism; Donald Bollinger, shipyard owner and prominent Bushite; James Reiss, real estate investor and chair of the Regional Transit Authority (i.e., the man responsible for the buses that didn't evacuate people); Alden McDonald Jr., CEO of one of the largest black-owned banks; Janet Howard of the Bureau of Government Research (originally established by Uptown elites to oppose the populism of Huey Long); and Scott Cowen, the aggressively ambitious president of Tulane University.

But the dominating figure and kingpin is Joseph Canizaro, a wealthy property developer who is a leading Bush supporter with close personal ties to the White House inner circle. He is also the power behind the throne of Mayor Nagin, a nominal Democrat (he supported Bush in 2000) who was elected in 2002 with 85 percent of the white vote. Finally, as the former president of the Urban Land Institute, Canizaro mobilizes the support of some of the nation's most powerful developers and prestigious master planners.

In a city where old money is often as reclusive as Anne Rice's vampires, Canizaro poses as a brave civic leader unafraid to speak bitter but necessary truths. As he told the Associated Press about the Katrina diaspora last October: "As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city. So we won't get all those folks back. That's just a fact."

Indeed, it is a "fact" that Canizaro has helped shape into reigning dogma. The number of displaced residents returning to the city is obviously a highly variable function of the resources and opportunities provided for them, yet the rebuilding debate has been premised on suspicious projections -- provided by the RAND Corporation and endlessly repeated by Nagin and Canizaro -- that in three years the city would recover only half of its August 2005 population.

Many Orleanians cynically wonder whether such projections aren't actually goals. For years Reiss, Kabacoff and others have complained that New Orleans has too many poor people. Faced with the dire fiscal consequences of white flight to the suburbs, as well as three decades of deindustrialization (which has given New Orleans an economic profile closer to Newark than to Houston or Atlanta), they argue that the city has become a soul-destroying warehouse for underemployed and poorly educated African-Americans, whose real interests -- it is claimed -- might be better served by a Greyhound ticket to another town.

Kabacoff's 2003 redevelopment of the St. Thomas public housing project as River Garden, a largely market-rate faux Creole subdivision, has become the prototype for the smaller, wealthier, whiter city that Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back commission (with Canizaro as head of the crucial urban planning committee) proposes to build.

BNOB is perhaps the most important elite initiative in New Orleans since the famous "Cold Water Committee" (which included Kabacoff's father) mobilized in 1946 to overthrow the "Old Regulars" and elect reformer deLesseps Morrison as mayor. BNOB grew out of a notorious meeting between Mayor Nagin and New Orleans business leaders (dubbed by some "the forty thieves") that Reiss organized in Dallas twelve days after Katrina devastated the city. The summit excluded most of New Orleans's elected black representatives and, according to Reiss as characterized in the Wall Street Journal, focused on the opportunity to rebuild the city "with better services and fewer poor people."

Fears that a municipal coup d'etat was in progress were scarcely mollified when at the end of September the mayor charged BNOB with preparing a master plan to rebuild the city. Although the seventeen-member commission was racially balanced and included City Council president Oliver Thomas as well as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis (telecommuting from Manhattan), the real clout was exercised by committee chairs, especially Canizaro (urban planning), Cowen (education) and Howard (finance), who lunched privately with the mayor before the group's weekly meeting. This inner sanctum was reportedly necessary because the full-panel meetings did not allow a frank discussion of "tough issues of race and class."

BNOB might have quickly imploded but for a shrewd outflanking movement by Canizaro, who persuaded Nagin to invite the Urban Land Institute to work with the commission. Although the ULI is the self-interested national voice of corporate land developers, Nagin and Canizaro welcomed the delegation of developers, architects and ex-mayors as a heroic cavalry of expertise riding to the city's rescue.

In a nutshell, the ULI's recommendations reframed the historic elite desire to shrink the city's socioeconomic footprint of black poverty (and black political power) as a crusade to reduce its physical footprint to contours commensurate with public safety and a fiscally viable urban infrastructure.

Upon these suspect premises, the outside "experts" (including representatives of some of the country's largest property firms and corporate architects) proposed an unprecedented triage of an American city, in which low-lying neighborhoods would be targeted for mass buyouts and future conversion into a greenbelt to protect New Orleans from flooding. As a visiting developer told BNOB: "Your housing is now a public resource. You can't think of it as private property anymore."

Keenly aware of inevitable popular resistance, the ULI also proposed a Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation, armed with eminent domain, that would bypass the City Council, as well as an oversight board with power over the city's finances. With control of New Orleans schools already usurped by the state, the ULI's proposed dictatorship of experts and elite appointees would effectively overthrow representative democracy and annul the right of local people to make decisions about their lives. For veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement, especially, it reeked of disenfranchisement pure and simple, a return to the paternalism of plantation days.

The City Council, supported by a surprising number of white homeowners and their representatives, angrily rejected the ULI plan. Mayor Nagin -- truly a cat on a hot tin roof -- danced anxiously back and forth between the two camps, disavowing abandonment of any area while at the same time warning that the city could not afford to service every neighborhood. But state and national officials, including HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, applauded the ULI scheme, as did the editorial page of the Times-Picayune and the influential Bureau of Government Research.

The BNOB recommendations presented by Canizaro in January faithfully hewed to the ULI framework: They included an appointed redevelopment corporation, outside the control of the City Council, that would act as a land bank to buy out heavily damaged homes and neighborhoods with federal funds, wielding eminent domain as needed to retire low-lying areas to greenbelt ("black people's neighborhoods into white people's parks," someone commented) or to assemble "in-fill" tracts for mixed-income development a la River Garden. Other committees recommended a radical diminution of the power of elected government.

On the crucial question of how to decide which neighborhoods would be allowed to rebuild and which would be bulldozed, BNOB endorsed the concept of forced buyouts but equivocated over process. Instead of the ruthless map that the Bureau of Government Research wanted, Canizaro and colleagues proposed a Rube Goldberg-like temporary building moratorium in tandem with neighborhood planning meetings that would poll homeowners about their intentions. Only those neighborhoods where at least half of the pre-Katrina residents had made a committment to return would be considered serious candidates for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) and other financial aid.

Canizaro presented the report to Nagin in front of a public audience on January 11. The mayor said, "I like the plan," and he complimented the commissioners for "a job well done." But most locals found little charm in the Canizaro report. "I will sit in my front door with my shotgun," one resident warned at a jammed meeting in the Council chambers on January 14, while another demanded, "Are we going to allow some developers, some hustlers, some land thieves to grab our land, grab our homes, to make this a Disney World version of our homes, our lives?"

Predictably, Nagin panicked and eventually disavowed the building moratorium. Soon afterward the White House torpedoed the Baker plan and left BNOB with only the state-controlled CDBG appropriation to finance its ambitious vision of New Orleans regrouped around a dozen new River Gardens linked by a high-speed light-rail line.

But Canizaro doesn't seem unduly worried. He has reassured supporters that the ULI/BNOB plan can go forward with CDBGs alone if necessary; in addition, he knows that independent of the local political weather, there are powerful external forces -- lack of insurance coverage, new FEMA flood maps, refusal of lenders to refinance mortgages and so on -- that can make permanent the exodus from redlined neighborhoods. Moreover, as anyone versed in the realpolitik of modern Louisiana knows, nothing is finally decided in New Orleans until some good ol' boys (and girls) in Baton Rouge have their say.

Power Shift

Even before the last bloated body had been fished out of the fetid waters, conservative political analysts were writing gleeful obituaries for black Democratic power in Louisiana. "The Democrats' margin of victory," said Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, is "living in the Astrodome in Houston."

Thanks to the Army Corps's defective levees, the Republicans stand to gain another Senate seat, two Congressional seats and probably the governorship. The Democrats would also find it impossible to reproduce Bill Clinton's 1992 feat, when he carried Louisiana by almost exactly his margin of victory in New Orleans. With a ruthless psephologist like Karl Rove in the White House, it is inconceivable that such considerations haven't influenced the shameless Bush response to the city's distress.

New Orleans has always vied with Detroit when it comes to the violent antipathy of white-flight suburbs toward its black central city, so it is not surprising that representatives from Jefferson Parish (which elected Klan leader David Duke to the state legislature in 1989) and St. Tammany Parish have particularly relished the post-Katrina shift in metropolitan population and electoral power. Both parishes are in the midst of housing booms that may consolidate the hollowing out and decline of New Orleans.

For her part, Governor Blanco, a Democrat, has expressed little concern about this fundamental reconfiguration of Louisiana's major metropolitan area. Indeed, her immediate, Bush-like responses to Katrina were to help engineer a state takeover of New Orleans schools and to slash $500 million in state spending while sponsoring tax breaks (in the name of economic recovery) for oil companies awash in profits.

The Legislative Black Caucus was outraged at Blanco's "complete lack of vision and leadership" and went to court to challenge her right to make cuts without consulting lawmakers. But Blanco, supported by rural conservatives and corporate lobbyists, remained intransigent, even openly hostile, to black Democrats whose support she had previously courted.

Poor people have no voice inside the Louisiana Recovery Authority, whose gaggle of university presidents and corporate types appointed by Blanco is even less beholden to black New Orleans voters and their representatives than the Canizaro krewe. The twenty-nine-member LRA board, dominated by representatives of big business, has only one trade unionist and not a single grassroots black representative. Moreover, in contrast to Nagin's commission, the LRA has the power to decide, not merely advise: It controls the allocation of the FEMA funds and CDBGs that Congress has provided for reconstruction.

According to interviews in the Times-Picayune, leading members of the LRA believe that the sheer force of economic disincentives will shrink the city around the contours proposed by the Urban Land Institute. The authority has thus refused to disburse any of its hazard mitigation funds to areas considered unsafe, and presumably will be equally hardheaded in the allocation of CDBG spending.

At a special session of the legislature Governor Blanco emphasized that the state, not local government or neighborhood planning committees, will retain control over where grants and loans go. But Blanco and the elites may have overlooked the Fats Domino factor.

'No Bulldozing!'

Like hundreds of other flood-damaged but structurally sound homes, Fats Domino's house wears a defiant sign: Save Our Neighborhood: No Bulldozing! The r&b icon, who has always stayed close to his roots in working-class Holy Cross, knows his riverside neighborhood and the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward are prime targets of the city-shrinkers.

Indeed, on Christmas Day the Times-Picayune -- declaring that "before a community can rebuild, it must dream" -- published a vision of what a smaller-but-better New Orleans might look like: "Tourists and schoolchildren tour a living museum that includes the former home of Fats Domino and Holy Cross High School, a multiblock memorial to Katrina that spans the devastated neighborhood."

"Living museum" (or "holocaust museum," as a black friend bitterly observed) sounds like a bad joke, but it is the elite view of what African-American New Orleans should become. In the brave New Urbanist world of Canizaro and Kabacoff, blacks (along with that other colorful minority group, Cajuns) will reign only as entertainers and self-caricatures. The high-voltage energy that once rocked juke joints, housing projects and second-line parades will now be safely embalmed for tourists in a proposed Louisiana Music Experience in the Central Business District.

But this minstrel-show version of the future must first defeat a remarkable local history of grassroots organization. The Crescent City's best-kept secret -- in the mainstream press, at least -- has been the resurgence of trade-union and community organizing since the mid-1990s.

Indeed, New Orleans, the only Southern city in which labor was ever powerful enough to call a general strike, has become an important crucible of new social movements. In particular, it has become the home base of ACORN, a national organization of working-class homeowners and tenants that counts more than 9,000 New Orleans member-families, mostly in triage-threatened black neighborhoods.

ACORN's membership has been the engine behind the tumultuous, decade-long struggle to unionize downtown hotels as well as the successful 2002 referendum to legislate the nation's first municipal minimum wage (later overthrown by a right-wing state Supreme Court). Since Katrina, ACORN has emerged as the major opponent of the ULI/BNOB plan for shrinking the city. Its members find themselves again fighting many of the same elite figures who were opponents of hotel unionization and a living wage.

ACORN founder Wade Rathke scoffs at the RAND Corporation projections that portray most blacks abandoning the city. "Don't believe those phony figures," he told me over beignets at Cafe du Monde in January. "We have polled our displaced members in Houston and Atlanta. Folks overwhelmingly want to return. But they realize that this is a tough struggle, since we have to fight simultaneously on two fronts: to restore people's homes and to bring back their jobs. It is also a race against time. The challenge is, You make it, you take it. So our members are voting with their feet."

Not waiting for CDBGs, FEMA flood maps or permission from Canizaro, ACORN crews and volunteers from across the country are working night and day to repair the homes of 1,000 member-families in some of the most threatened areas. The strategy is to confront the city-shrinkers with the incontestable fact of reoccupied, viable neighborhood cores.

ACORN has allied with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP to defend worker rights and press for the hiring of locals in the recovery effort. Rathke points out that Katrina has become the pretext for the most vicious government-supported attack on unions since President Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.

"First, suspension of Davis-Bacon [federal prevailing wage law], then the state takeover of the schools and the destruction of the teachers' union, and now this." He points to a beat-up green garbage truck rattling by Jackson Square. "Trash collection in the French Quarter used to be a unionized city job, SEIU members. Now FEMA has contracted the work to a scab company from out of state. Is this what Bring New Orleans Back means?"

ACORN also went to court to insure that New Orleans's displaced, largely black population would have access to out-of-state polling places, especially in Atlanta and Houston, for the scheduled April 22 city elections. When a federal judge rejected the demand, ACORN organizer Stephen Bradberry said it's "so obvious that there's a concerted plan to make this a whiter city." The NAACP agrees, but the Justice Department denied its request to block an election that is likely to transfer power to the artificial white majority created by Katrina.

It would be inspiring to see in this latest battle of New Orleans the birth pangs of a new or renewed civil rights movement, but gritty local activism has yet to be echoed in meaningful solidarity by the labor movement, so-called progressive Democrats or even the Congressional Black Caucus. Pledges, press statements and occasional delegations, yes; but not the unfaltering national outrage and sense of urgency that should attend the attempted murder of New Orleans on the fortieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

In 1874, as historian Ted Tunnell has pointed out, the failure of Northern Radicals to launch a militant, armed riposte to the white insurrection in New Orleans helped to doom the first Reconstruction. Will our feeble response to Hurricane Katrina now lead to the rollback of the second?

Gentrifying Diversity

In a recent email to Louisiana officials, FEMA curtly turned down the state's request for funding to notify displaced residents that they could cast absentee ballots in the city's crucial February mayoral election. FEMA also declined to share data with local authorities about the current addresses of evacuees.

In the eyes of many local activists, FEMA's refusal to support the voting rights of evacuees is consistent with a larger pattern of federal inaction and delay that seems transparently designed to discourage the return of black residents to the city. As one Associated Press dispatch presciently warned, "Hurricane Katrina [may] prove to be the biggest, most brutal urban-renewal project black America has ever seen."

Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-style
In the weeks since Bush's Jackson Square speech, FEMA has alarmingly failed to advance any plan for the return of evacuees to temporary housing within the city or to connect displaced locals with reconstruction jobs. Moreover for lack of a tax base or emergency federal funding, local governments in afflicted areas have been forced to lay off thousands of employees and are unable to restore many essential public services.

Bush's promise to promptly help the region's unemployed--282,000 in Louisiana alone--has turned into slow-moving House legislation that would benefit less than one-quarter of those made jobless by Katrina. The powerful House Republican Study Group has vowed to support only relief measures that buttress the private sector and are offset by reductions in national social programs such as food stamps, student loans, and Medicaid.

The Republican leadership accordingly has blocked bipartisan legislation to extend Medicaid coverage to all low-income hurricane victims and has imposed unprecedented demands for loan repayment upon local governments. Katrina's victims, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, have been "nickel and dim[ed]" to an extent that casts grave doubt over whether large-scale reconstruction "will really materialize."

In the meantime more than two-thirds of FEMA contracts (according to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco) has gone to out-of-state firms, with a blatant bias toward Halliburton and other Texas-based investors in Bush Inc. Simultaneously, unscrupulous employers have saturated Latino neighborhoods in Houston and other southwestern cities with fliers advertising a cornucopia of jobs in New Orleans and Gulfport.

With Davis-Bacon and affirmative-action requirements suspended by executive order, immigrant workers--housed in tents and working under appalling conditions--have flocked to jobs sites in the city, largely unaware that tens of thousands of blue-collar evacuees who would relish these jobs are unable to return for lack of family housing and federal support. Ethnic tensions are artificially inflamed by speculations about a "population swap" and impending "Latinization" of the workforce.

New barriers, meanwhile, are being erected against the return of evacuees. In Mississippi's ruined coastal cities, as well as in metro New Orleans, Landlords--galvanized by rumors of gentrification and soaring land values--are beginning to institute mass evictions. (Although the oft-cited Lower Ninth Ward is actually a bastion of blue-collar homeownership, most poor New Orleanians are renters.) Civil-rights lawyer Bill Quigley has described how renters have returned "to find furniture on the street and strangers living in their apartments at higher rents, despite an order by the Governor that no one can be evicted before October 25. Rents in the dry areas have doubled and tripled."

Secretary of Housing Alfonso Jackson, meanwhile, seems to be working to fulfill his notorious prediction that New Orleans is "not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again." Public-housing and Section 8 residents recently protested that "the agencies in charge of these housing complexes [including HUD] are using allegations of storm damage to these complexes as a pretext for expelling working-class African-Americans, in a very blatant attempt to co-opt our homes and sell them to developers to build high-priced housing."

Minority homeowners also face relentless pressures not to return. Insurance compensation, for example, is typically too small to allow homeowners in the eastern wards of New Orleans to rebuild if and when authorities re-open their neighborhoods.

Similarly, the Small Business Administration--so efficient in recapitalizing the San Fernando Valley in the aftermath of the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake--has so far dispensed only a few million dollars despite increasingly desperate pleas from tens of thousands of homeowners and small business people facing imminent foreclosure or bankruptcy.

As a result, not just the black working class, but also the black professional and business middle classes are now facing economic extinction while Washington dawdles. Tens of thousands of blue-collar white, Asian and Latino residents of afflicted Gulf communities also face de facto expulsion from the region, but only the removal of African-Americans is actually being advocated as policy.

Since Katrina made landfall, conservatives--beginning with Rep. Richard Baker's infamous comments about God having "finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans"--have openly gloated over the possibilities for remaking New Orleans in a GOP image. (Medically, this might be considered akin to a mass outbreak of Tourette Syndrome, whose official symptoms include "the overwhelming urge to use a racial epithet.")

Republican interest in reducing the black Democratic vote in New Orleans--the balance of power in state elections--resonates with the oft-expressed desire of local elites to purge the city of "problem people." As one major French Quarter landowner told Der Spiegel, "The hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don't come back. The party's finally over for these people and now they're going to have to find someplace else to live in the United States."

Nor are downsizing and gentrification necessarily offensive to Democratic neo-liberals who have long advocated breaking up concentrated poverty and dispersing the black poor into older suburbs. The HOPE VI program, the showpiece of Clinton-era urban policy, demolished traditional public housing and 'vouchered out' residents in order to make way for mixed-use, market-rate developments like the St. Thomas redevelopment in New Orleans in the late 1990s that has become the prototype for elite visions of the city's future.

There exists, in other words, a sinister consensus of powerful interests about the benefits of an urban 'triage' that abandons historical centers of black political power like the Ninth Ward while rebuilding million-dollar homes along the disaster-prone shores of Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi Sound.

The New Urbanism Meets the Old South
Into this fraught and sinister situation now blunders the circus-like spectacle of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU): the architectural cult founded by Miami designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

Twenty years ago, when Duany was first barnstorming the nation's architectural schools and preservation societies, the New Urbanism seemed to offer an attractive model for building socially diverse and environmentally sustainable communities based on a systematization of older 'city beautiful' principles such as pedestrian scale, traditional street grids, an abundance of open space, and a mixture of land uses, income groups and building forms.

In practice, however, this diversity has never been achieved. Duany and Plater-Zyberk's Seaside--the Florida suburb so brilliantly caricatured in the 1998 film "The Truman Show"--was an early warning that kitsch would usually triumph over democracy in New Urbanist designs.

Despite the populist language of the CNU manifesto, moreover, Duany has always courted corporate imaginers, mega-developers and politicians. In the mid-1990s, HUD under Secretary Henry Cisneros incorporated New Urbanist ideas into many of its HOPE VI projects.

Originally conceived as replacement housing for the poor, HOPE VI quickly morphed into a new strategy for replacing the poor themselves. Strategically-sited public-housing projects like New Orleans St. Thomas homes were demolished to make way for neo-traditionalist townhouses and stores (in the St. Thomas case, a giant Wal-Mart) in the New Urbanist spirit.

These "mixed-use, mixed-income" developments were typically advertised as little utopias of diversity, but--as in the St. Thomas case--the real dynamic was exclusionary rather than inclusionary, with only a few project residents being rehoused on site. Nationally, HOPE VI led to a net loss of more than 50,000 units of desperately needed low-income housing.

Smart developers accordingly have been quick to put New Urbanist halos over their otherwise rampant landgrabs and neighborhood demolitions. Likewise, shrewd conservatives like Paul Weyrich have come to recognize the obvious congruence between political traditionalism and architectural nostalgia.

Weyrich, the founding president of the Heritage Foundation, recently wrote that the "new urbanism needs to be part of the next conservatism," a conservatism that remakes cities by purging their criminal underclasses. (After Katrina, Weyrich castigated New Orleans for "its welfare state and entitlement mentality… a prototype for Liberals" and questioned whether it should be rebuilt at all.)

Weyrich was the spiritual bridesmaid during the recent nuptials between the CNU's Andreas Duany and Harley Barbour, the sleazy former tobacco lobbyist and Republican chair, who became governor of Mississippi by wrapping himself in the Confederate battle flag.

Barbour, long King of K Street, is nobody's fool, and he is trying to extract as much long-term political and economic advantage from Katrina as possible. One of his declared priorities, for example, is bringing the casinos ashore into larger, more Las Vegas-like settings; another is to rapidly restore shoreline property values and squelch any debate about resettling the population on defensible higher ground (north of I-10, for example).

It was thus a rather brilliant stroke for Barbour to invite the CNU to help Mississippi rebuild its Gulf Coast "the right way." The first phase was the so-called "mega-charrette', 11-18 October, that brought 120 New Urbanists together with local officials and business groups to brainstorm strategies for the physical reconstruction of their communities.

Duany, as usual, whipped up a revivalistic fervor that must have been pleasing to Barbour and other descendants of the slave masters: "The architectural heritage of Mississippi is fabulous … really, really marvelous."

With Gone with the Wind as their apparent script, the CNU teams spent a frenzied week trying to show the locals how they could replace their dismal strip malls with glorious Greek Revival casinos and townhouses that would rival any of those that once existed on MGM's backlot. The entire exercise stayed firmly within the parameters of a gambling-driven 'heritage' economy with casinos "woven into the community fabric" and McMansions rebuilt on the beach.

In the end, however, what was important was not the actual content of the charrette, nor the genuine idealism of many participants, but simply the legitimacy and publicity that CNU gave to Barbour's agenda. Duany, who never misses an opportunity to push his panaceas to those in power, has foolishly made himself an accomplice to the Republicans' evil social experiment on the Gulf Coast.

Reprint queries can be directed to FeatureWell@featurewell.com.

Has the Age of Chaos Begun?

The genesis of two category-five hurricanes (Katrina and Rita) in a row over the Gulf of Mexico is an unprecedented and troubling occurrence. But for most tropical meteorologists the truly astonishing "storm of the decade" took place in March 2004. Hurricane Catarina -- so named because it made landfall in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina -- was the first recorded south Atlantic hurricane in history.

Textbook orthodoxy had long excluded the possibility of such an event; sea temperatures, experts claimed, were too low and wind shear too powerful to allow tropical depressions to evolve into cyclones south of the Atlantic Equator. Indeed, forecasters rubbed their eyes in disbelief as weather satellites down-linked the first images of a classical whirling disc with a well-formed eye in these forbidden latitudes.

In a series of recent meetings and publications, researchers have debated the origin and significance of Catarina. A crucial question is this: Was Catarina simply a rare event at the outlying edge of the normal bell curve of South Atlantic weather -- just as, for example, Joe DiMaggio's incredible 56-game hitting streak in 1941 represented an extreme probability in baseball (an analogy made famous by Stephen Jay Gould) -- or was Catarina a "threshold" event, signaling some fundamental and abrupt change of state in the planet's climate system?

Scientific discussions of environmental change and global warming have long been haunted by the specter of nonlinearity. Climate models, like econometric models, are easiest to build and understand when they are simple linear extrapolations of well-quantified past behavior; when causes maintain a consistent proportionality to their effects.

But all the major components of global climate -- air, water, ice, and vegetation -- are actually nonlinear: At certain thresholds they can switch from one state of organization to another, with catastrophic consequences for species too finely-tuned to the old norms. Until the early 1990s, however, it was generally believed that these major climate transitions took centuries, if not millennia, to accomplish. Now, thanks to the decoding of subtle signatures in ice cores and sea-bottom sediments, we know that global temperatures and ocean circulation can, under the right circumstances, change abruptly -- in a decade or even less.

The paradigmatic example is the so-called "Younger Dryas" event, 12,800 years ago, when an ice dam collapsed, releasing an immense volume of meltwater from the shrinking Laurentian ice-sheet into the Atlantic Ocean via the instantly-created St. Lawrence River. This "freshening" of the North Atlantic suppressed the northward conveyance of warm water by the Gulf Stream and plunged Europe back into a thousand-year ice age.

Abrupt switching mechanisms in the climate system - such as relatively small changes in ocean salinity -- are augmented by causal loops that act as amplifiers. Perhaps the most famous example is sea-ice albedo: The vast expanses of white, frozen Arctic Ocean ice reflect heat back into space, thus providing positive feedback for cooling trends; alternatively, shrinking sea-ice increases heat absorption, accelerating both its own further melting and planetary warming.

Thresholds, switches, amplifiers, chaos -- contemporary geophysics assumes that earth history is inherently revolutionary. This is why many prominent researchers -- especially those who study topics like ice-sheet stability and North Atlantic circulation -- have always had qualms about the consensus projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world authority on global warming.

In contrast to Bushite flat-Earthers and shills for the oil industry, their skepticism has been founded on fears that the IPCC models fail to adequately allow for catastrophic nonlinearities like the Younger Dryas. Where other researchers model the late 21st-century climate that our children will live with upon the precedents of the Altithermal (the hottest phase of the current Holocene period, 8000 years ago) or the Eemian (the previous, even warmer interglacial episode, 120,000 years ago), growing numbers of geophysicists toy with the possibilities of runaway warming returning the earth to the torrid chaos of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM: 55 million years ago) when the extreme and rapid heating of the oceans led to massive extinctions.

Dramatic new evidence has emerged recently that we may be headed, if not back to the dread, almost inconceivable PETM, then to a much harder landing than envisioned by the IPCC.

As I flew toward Louisiana and the carnage of Katrina three weeks ago, I found myself reading the August 23rd issue of EOS, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union. I was pole-axed by an article entitled "Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free State," co-authored by 21 scientists from almost as many universities and research institutes. Even two days later, walking among the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward, I found myself worrying more about the EOS article than the disaster surrounding me.

The article begins with a recounting of trends familiar to any reader of the Tuesday science section of the New York Times: For almost 30 years, Arctic sea ice has been thinning and shrinking so dramatically that "a summer ice-free Arctic Ocean within a century is a real possibility." The scientists, however, add a new observation -- that this process is probably irreversible. "Surprisingly, it is difficult to identify a single feedback mechanism within the Arctic that has the potency or speed to alter the system's present course." An ice-free Arctic Ocean has not existed for at least one million years and the authors warn that the Earth is inexorably headed toward a "super-interglacial" state "outside the envelope of glacial-interglacial fluctuations that prevailed during recent Earth history." They emphasize that within a century global warming will probably exceed the Eemian temperature maximum and thus obviate all the models that have made this their essential scenario. They also suggest that the total or partial collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet is a real possibility -- an event that would definitely throw a Younger Dryas wrench into the Gulf Stream.

If they are right, then we are living on the climate equivalent of a runaway train that is picking up speed as it passes the stations marked "Altithermal" and "Eemian." "Outside the envelope," moreover, means that we are not only leaving behind the serendipitous climatic parameters of the Holocene -- the last 10,000 years of mild, warm weather that have favored the explosive growth of agriculture and urban civilization -- but also those of the late Pleistocene that fostered the evolution of Homo sapiens in eastern Africa. Other researchers undoubtedly will contest the extraordinary conclusions of the EOS article and -- we must hope -- suggest the existence of countervailing forces to this scenario of an Arctic albedo catastrophe. But for the time being, at least, research on global change is pointing toward worst-case scenarios.

All of this, of course, is a perverse tribute to industrial capitalism and extractive imperialism as geological forces so formidable that they have succeeded in scarcely more than two centuries -- indeed, mainly in the last fifty years -- in knocking the earth off its climatic pedestal and propelling it toward the nonlinear unknown.

The demon in me wants to say: Party and make merry. No need now to worry about Kyoto, recycling your aluminum cans, or using too much toilet paper, when, soon enough, we'll be debating how many hunter-gathers can survive in the scorching deserts of New England or the tropical forests of the Yukon.

The good parent in me, however, screams: How is it possible that we can now contemplate with scientific seriousness whether our children's children will themselves have children? Let Exxon answer that in one of their sanctimonious ads.

The Coming Avian Flu Pandemic

Deadly avian flu is on the wing.

The first bar-headed geese have already arrived at their wintering grounds near the Cauvery River in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Over the next ten weeks, 100,000 more geese, gulls, and cormorants will leave their summer home at Lake Qinghai in western China, headed for India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and, eventually, Australia.

An unknown number of these beautiful migrating birds will carry H5N1, the avian flu subtype that has killed 61 people in Southeast Asia and which the World Health Organization (WHO) fears is on the verge of mutating into a pandemic form like that which killed 50 to 100 million people in the fall of 1918. As the birds arrive in the wetlands of South Asia, they will excrete the virus into the water where it risks spreading to migrating waterfowl from Europe as well as to domestic poultry. In the worst-case scenario, this will bring avian flu to the doorstep of the dense slums of Dhaka, Kolkata, Karachi, and Mumbai.

The avian flu outbreak at Lake Qinghai was first identified by Chinese wildlife officials at the end of April. Initially it was confined to a small islet in the huge salt lake, where geese suddenly began to act spasmodically, then to collapse and die. By mid-May it had spread through the lake's entire avian population, killing thousands of birds. An ornithologist called it "the biggest and most extensively mortal avian influenza event ever seen in wild birds."

Chinese scientists, meanwhile, were horrified by the virulence of the new strain: when mice were infected they died even quicker than when injected with "genotype Z," the fearsome H5N1 variant currently killing farmers and their children in Vietnam.

Yi Guan, leader of a famed team of avian flu researchers who have been fighting the pandemic menace since 1997, complained to the British Guardian in July about the lackadaisical response of Chinese authorities to the unprecedented biological conflagration at Lake Qinghai.

"They have taken almost no action to control this outbreak. They should have asked for international support. These birds will go to India and Bangladesh and there they will meet birds that come from Europe." Yi Guan called for the creation of an international task force to monitor the wild bird pandemic, as well as the relaxation of rules that prevent the free movement of foreign scientists to outbreak zones in China.

In a paper published in the British science magazine Nature, Yi Guan and his associates also revealed that the Lake Qinghai strain was related to officially unreported recent outbreaks of H5N1 among birds in southern China. This would not be the first time that Chinese authorities have been charged with covering up an outbreak. They also lied about the nature and extent of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which originated in Guangdong but quickly spread to 25 other countries. As in the case of SARS' whistleblowers, the Chinese bureaucracy is now trying to gag avian-flu scientists, shutting down one of Yi Guan's laboratories at Shantou University and arming the conservative Agriculture Ministry with new powers over research.

Meanwhile, as anxious Indian scientists monitor bird sanctuaries throughout the subcontinent, H5N1 has spread to the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet; to western Mongolia; and, most disturbingly, to chickens and wildfowl near the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk.

Despite frantic efforts to cull local poultry, Russian Health Ministry experts have expressed pessimism that the outbreak can be contained on the Asian side of the Urals. Siberian wildfowl migrate every fall to the Black Sea and southern Europe; another flyway leads from Siberia to Alaska and Canada.

In anticipation of this next, and perhaps inevitable, stage in the world journey of avian flu, poultry populations are being tracked in Moscow; Alaskan scientists are studying birds migrating across the Bering Straits, and even the Swiss are looking over their shoulders at the tufted ducks and pochards arriving from Eurasia.

H5N1's human epicenter is also expanding: in mid-July Indonesian authorities confirmed that a father and his two young daughters had died of avian flu in a wealthy suburb of Jakarta. Disturbingly, the family had no known contact with poultry and near panic ensued in the neighborhood as the press speculated about possible human-to-human transmission.

At the same time, five new outbreaks among poultry were reported in Thailand, dealing a terrible blow to the nation's extensive and highly-publicized campaign to eradicate the disease. Meanwhile, as Vietnamese officials renewed their appeal for more international aid, H5N1 was claiming new victims in the country that remains of chief concern to the WHO.

The bottom line is that avian influenza is endemic and probably ineradicable among poultry in Southeast Asia, and now seems to be spreading at pandemic velocity amongst migratory birds, with the potential to reach most of the earth in the next year.

Each new outpost of H5N1 -- whether among ducks in Siberia, pigs in Indonesia, or humans in Vietnam -- is a further opportunity for the rapidly evolving virus to acquire the gene or even simply the protein mutation that it needs to become a mass-killer of humans.

This exponential multiplication of hot spots and silent reservoirs (as among infected but asymptomatic ducks) is why the chorus of warnings from scientists, public-health officials, and finally, governments has become so plangently insistent in recent months.

The new U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told the Associated Press in early August that an influenza pandemic was now an "absolute certainty," echoing repeated warnings from the World Health Organization that it was "inevitable." Likewise Science magazine observed that expert opinion held the odds of a global outbreak as "100 percent."

In the same grim spirit, the British press revealed that officials were scouring the country for suitable sites for mass mortuaries, based on official fears that avian flu could kill as many as 700,000 Britons. The Blair government is already conducting emergency simulations of a pandemic outbreak ("Operation Arctic Sea") and is reported to have readied "Cobra" -- a cabinet-level working group that coordinates government responses to national emergencies like the recent London bombings from a secret war room in Whitehall -- to deal with an avian flu crisis.

Little of this Churchillian resolve is apparent in Washington. Although a sense of extreme urgency is evident in the National Institutes of Health where the czar for pandemic planning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warns of "the mother of all emerging infections," the White House has seemed even less perturbed by migrating plagues than by wanton carnage in Iraq.

As the President was packing for his long holiday in Texas, the Trust for America's Health was warning that domestic preparations for a pandemic lagged far behind the energetic measures being undertaken in Britain and Canada, and that the administration had failed "to establish a cohesive, rapid and transparent U.S. pandemic strategy."

That increasingly independent operator, Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), had already criticized the administration in an extraordinary (and under-reported) speech at Harvard at the beginning of June. Referring to Washington's failure to stockpile an adequate supply of the crucial anti-viral oseltamivir (or Tamiflu), Frist sarcastically noted that "to acquire more anti-viral agent, we would need to get in line behind Britain and France and Canada and others who have tens of millions of doses on order."

The New York Times on its July 17 editorial page, a May 26 special issue of Nature and the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs have also hammered away at Washington's failure to stockpile enough scarce antivirals -- current inventories cover less than 1% of the U.S. population -- and to modernize vaccine production. Even a few prominent Senate Democrats have stirred into action, although none as boldly as Frist at Harvard.

The Department of Health and Human Services, in response, has sought to calm critics with recent hikes in spending on vaccine research and antiviral stockpiles. There has also been much official and media ballyhoo about the announcement of a series of successful tests in early August of an experimental avian flu vaccine.

But there is no guarantee that the vaccine prototype, based on a "reverse-genetically-engineered" strain of H5N1, will actually be effective against a pandemic strain with different genes and proteins. Moreover, trial success was based upon the administration of two doses plus a booster. Since the government has only ordered 2 million doses of the vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, this may provide protection for only 450,000 people. As one researcher told Science magazine, "it's a vaccine for the happy few."

At the least, gearing up for larger-scale production will take many months and production itself is limited by the antiquated technology of vaccine manufacture which depends upon a vulnerable and limited supply of fertile chicken eggs. It would also likely mean the curtailment of the production of the annual winter flu vaccine that is so often a lifesaver for many senior citizens.

Likewise, Washington's new orders for antivirals, as Senator Frist predicted, will have to wait in line behind the other customers of Roche's single Tamiflu plant in Switzerland.

In short, it is good news that the vaccine tests were successful, but that does little to change the judgment of the New York Times that "there is not enough vaccine or antiviral medicine available to protect more than a handful of people, and no industrial capacity to produce a lot more of these medicines quickly."

Moreover, the majority of the world, including all the poor countries of South Asia and Africa where, history tells us, pandemics are likely to hit especially hard, will have no access to expensive antivirals or scarce vaccines. It is even doubtful whether the WHO will have the minimal pharmaceuticals to respond to an initial outbreak.

Recent theoretical studies by mathematical epidemiologists in Atlanta and London have raised hopes that a pandemic might be stopped in its tracks if 1 to 3 million doses of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) were available to douse an outbreak in a failsafe radius around the early cases.

After years of effort, however, the WHO has only managed to inventory about 123,000 courses of Tamiflu. Although Roche has promised to donate more, the desperate rush of rich countries to accumulate Tamiflu will be certain to undercut the World Health Organization's stockpile.

As for a universally available "world vaccine," it remains a pipe-dream without new, billion-dollar commitments from the rich countries, above all the United States, and even then, we are probably too late.

"People just don't get it," Dr. Michael Osterholm, the outspoken director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota recently complained. "If we were to begin a Manhattan Project-type response tonight to expand vaccine and drug production, we wouldn't have a measurable impact on the availability of these critical products to sufficiently address a worldwide pandemic for at least several years."

"Several years" is a luxury that Washington has already squandered. The best guess, as the geese head west and south, is that we have almost run out of time. As Shigeru Omi, the Western Pacific director of WHO, told a UN meeting in Kuala Lumpur in early July: "We're at the tipping point."

The Divisions Stay the Same

The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond's version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less – mainly Black – were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.


New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials conceded they had ten thousand body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the city's poorest or most infirm residents. The day before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, New Orlean's daily, the Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the "large group� mostly concentrated in poorer neighborhoods" who wanted to evacuate but couldn't.


Only at the last moment, with winds churning Lake Pontchartrain, did Mayor Ray Nagin reluctantly open the Louisiana Superdome and a few schools to desperate residents. He was reportedly worried that lower-class refugees might damage or graffiti the Superdome.


In the event, Ivan the Terrible spared New Orleans, but official callousness toward poor Black folk endures.


Over the last generation, City Hall and its entourage of powerful developers have relentlessly attempted to push the poorest segment of the population – blamed for the city's high crime rates – across the Mississippi river. Historic Black public-housing projects have been razed to make room for upper-income townhouses and a Wal-Mart. In other housing projects, residents are routinely evicted for offenses as trivial as their children's curfew violations. The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist theme-park New Orleans – one big Garden District – with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and prisons outside the city limits.


But New Orleans isn't the only the case-study in what Nixonians once called "the politics of benign neglect." In Los Angeles, county supervisors have just announced the closure of the trauma center at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital near Watts. The hospital, located in the epicenter of LA's gang wars, is one of the nation's busiest centers for the treatment of gunshot wounds. The loss of its ER, according to paramedics, could "add as much as 30 minutes in transport time to other facilities."


The result, almost certainly, will be a spate of avoidable deaths. But then again the victims will be Black or Brown and poor.


On the fortieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the United States seems to have returned to degree zero of moral concern for the majority of descendants of slavery and segregation. Whether the Black poor live or die seems to merit only haughty disinterest and indifference. Indeed, in terms of the life-and-death issues that matter most to African-Americans – structural unemployment, race-based super-incarceration, police brutality, disappearing affirmative action programs, and failing schools – the present presidential election might as well be taking place in the 1920s.


But not all the blame can be assigned to the current occupant of the former slave-owners' mansion at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The mayor of New Orleans, for example, is a Black Democrat, and Los Angeles County is a famously Democratic bastion. No, the political invisibility of people of color is a strictly bipartisan endeavor. On the Democratic side, it is the culmination of the long crusade waged by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to exorcise the specter of the 1980s Rainbow Coalition.


The DLC, of course, has long yearned to bring white guys and fat cats back to a Nixonized Democratic Party. Arguing that race had fatally divided Democrats, the DLC has tried to bleach the Party by marginalizing civil rights agendas and Black leadership. African-Americans, it is cynically assumed, will remain loyal to the Democrats regardless of the treasons committed against them. They are, in effect, hostages.


Thus the sordid spectacle – portrayed in Fahrenheit 9/11 – of white Democratic senators refusing to raise a single hand in support of the Black Congressional Caucus's courageous challenge to the stolen election of November 2000.


The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, steers a straight DLC course toward oblivion. No Democratic presidential candidate since Eugene McCarthy's run in 1968 has shown such patrician disdain for the Democrats' most loyal and fundamental social base. While Condoleezza Rice hovers, a tight-lipped and constant presence at Dubya's side, the highest ranking, self-proclaimed "African American" in the Kerry camp is Teresa Heinz ((born and raised in white-colonial privilege).


This crude joke has been compounded by Kerry's semi-suicidal reluctance to mobilize Black voters. As Rainbow Coalition veterans like Ron Waters have bitterly pointed out, Kerry has been absolutely churlish about financing voter registration drives in African-American communities. Ralph Nader – I fear – was cruelly accurate when he warned recently that "the Democrats do not win when they do not have Jesse Jackson and African Americans in the core of the campaign."


In truth, Kerry, the erstwhile war hero, is running away as hard as he can from the sound of the cannons, whether in Iraq or in America's equally ravaged inner cities. The urgent domestic issue, of course, is unspeakable socio-economic inequality, newly deepened by fiscal plunder and catastrophic plant closures. But inequality still has a predominant color, or, rather, colors: black and brown.


Kerry's apathetic and uncharismatic attitude toward people of color will not be repaired by last-minute speeches or campaign staff appointments. Nor will it be compensated for by his super-ardent efforts to woo Reagan Democrats and white males with war stories from the ancient Mekong Delta.


A party that in every real and figurative sense refuses to shelter the poor in a hurricane is unlikely to mobilize the moral passion necessary to overthrow George Bush, the most hated man on earth.


Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities: And Other Tales as well as Ecology of Fear and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See, among other books.

The New New Economy

September, 1, 1934: Millions of cotton spindles stopped spinning. Across the Southern Piedmont, mill whistles blew but workers didn't come to work. The most exploited industrial workforce in the United States – the "lint heads" of the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama – was on strike.

As mill owners appealed frantically for injunctions, tear gas, and the National Guard, a vast, peaceful army of textile workers demolished the image of Southern labor as culturally servile and unorganizable. With voices honed to spare beauty in the choirs of mountain Baptist churches, they sang, instead, powerful hymns of solidarity.

And they were robustly answered (often in Portuguese, Italian, or French) by the mill workers of New England who joined what became the first industry-wide general strike of the 1930s. It was also the most violently repressed. Before FDR (more concerned to appease the "lords of the loom" than to liberate their slaves) cajoled the national textile union to call off the strike, thousands had been beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested. Thirteen – mostly in the South – had been shot dead.

Now, seventy years later, with only a handful of moist-eyed veterans left alive to remember the heroism and heartbreak of the Great Textile Strike, cotton spindles in Dixie have once again stopped spinning. But this time they've stopped forever. The American textile and clothing industries are dying. Since the inauguration of George W. Bush in January 2001, 350,000 textile jobs – almost a third of the total – have been lost. Another 400,000 jobs are expected to disappear by the end of the decade.

Textile manufacture in the Piedmont, today as in 1934, is largely a monoculture, and as the mills close, towns die with them. Already too many Main Streets in the upland South are populated only by thrift stores, drug counseling services, and military recruiters. The parallel decline of the clothing industry is likewise eroding the survival economy of recent Latino and Asian immigrants in the tenement districts of downtown Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. Soon even sweatshops will be remembered with nostalgia.

Thus, another large segment of the American industrial working class is being fast-forwarded to that brave new world that Kurt Vonnegut predicted with such eerie prescience in his 1952 novel, Player Piano: a society of discarded laborers whose only option is enlistment in the imperial legions fighting wars for oil and other resources on distant frontiers. (Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 – particularly scenes of Marine recruiters trawling for Flint, Michigan's unemployed youth – is, of course, Player Piano in real time.)

This almost invisible tragedy – who talks about plant closures on Fox News or CNBC? – is part of a larger global jobs catastrophe that follows in the wake of trade liberalization. The final quota barriers protecting American textile and garment jobs will be dismantled next January. Since Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, its soft exports to the United States have doubled, and the British Financial Times predicts that China will grab the greater share of the global market in a breathtakingly rapid restructuring that will eliminate millions of jobs worldwide from Danville to Dhaka.

China's chief comparative advantage, as the AFL-CIO argued last March in a petition asking the U.S. trade representative to promote the rights of Chinese factory labor, emerges from the government's "unremitting repression of workers' rights" and the ruthless exploitation of an estimated 100 million rural migrants. Indeed, a recent article in Monthly Review claims that economic inequality in China, once amongst the lowest in the world, has now risen to "near Brazilian and South African levels."

The Bush administration, not surprisingly, rejected the AFL-CIO appeal to enforce the (non-binding) core covenants of the International Labor Organization; nor can labor expect much more solidarity from a Democratic Party that prides itself on NAFTA and the WTO. Certainly, John Edwards may strike some heroic poses outside shuttered textile plants in his home state of North Carolina, but that doesn't mean, to quote an absurd campaign slogan, "help is on the way." The dominant Party line, as argued on the op-ed page of the New York Times recently by William Gould IV (formerly President Clinton's chairman of the National Labor Relations Board), is instead "keep labor standards out of trade agreements."

In the eyes of most leading Democrats, the epochal achievement of the Clinton years was bringing the wealth and glamour of the "New Economy" into the party. No chance, then, that a Kerry-Edwards White House would risk biotech's intellectual property rights or Hollywood's lucrative royalties in the new capitalist China for the sake of some "lint-heads" in Georgia or undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles.

In the face of this free-trade juggernaut, unionized textile and garment workers (since 1995 fused together in a single union called UNITE) merged this summer with HERE, the dynamic hotel-workers union. Although UNITE HERE promises to devote half of its budget to new organizing, it may be too late to save the jobs imminently imperiled by trade liberalization. Edna Bonacich (coauthor of Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry) is both a leading academic expert and a respected activist. I asked her for a frank view of the situation. "UNITE," she said, "will likely lose a big chunk of its membership. Already the union has shifted focus from garment workers, believing it is hopeless to organize them because of the potential flight of the industry offshore."

"Certainly Los Angeles, as an apparel center and magnet for immigrants," she continued, "will suffer severe consequences. The victims will tend to be the newest and poorest of immigrants. Whatever of the industry remains in the United States is guaranteed to operate at the lowest levels of worker protection." Bonacich believes that heroic but localized fights against plant closure are doomed to failure. "This is too big an issue to handle on a piecemeal basis," she concludes, conceding that a recipe for globalized worker resistance to global capital – "the political question of our times" – remains elusive.

In Player Piano, the remnants of the skilled working class (like the last of the Plains Indians) form a millenarian resistance movement, the "Ghost Shirts," before final defeat and disorganization. On the forgotten anniversary of an epic strike, Vonnegut's cautionary tale has a new meaning.

The Pentagon as Global Slumlord

The young American Marine is exultant. "It's a sniper's dream,' he tells a Los Angeles Times reporter on the outskirts of Fallujah. "You can go anywhere and there so many ways to fire at the enemy without him knowing where you are."

"Sometimes a guy will go down, and I'll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies. Then I'll use a second shot."

"To take a bad guy out," he explains, "is an incomparable "adrenaline rush." He brags of having "24 confirmed kills" in the initial phase of the brutal U.S. onslaught against the rebel city of 300,000 people.

Faced with intransigent popular resistance that recalls the heroic Vietcong defense of Hue in 1968, the Marines have again unleashed indiscriminate terror. According to independent journalists and local medical workers, they have slaughtered at least two hundred women and children in the first two weeks of fighting.

The battle of Fallujah, together with the conflicts unfolding in Shiia cities and Baghdad slums, are high-stakes tests, not just of U.S. policy in Iraq, but of Washington's ability to dominate what Pentagon planners consider the "key battlespace of the future" -- the Third World city.

The Mogadishu debacle of 1993, when neighborhood militias inflicted 60% casualties on elite Army Rangers, forced U.S. strategists to rethink what is known in Pentagonese as MOUT: "Militarized Operations on Urbanized Terrain." Ultimately, a National Defense Panel review in December 1997 castigated the Army as unprepared for protracted combat in the near impassable, maze-like streets of the poverty-stricken cities of the Third World.

As a result, the four armed services, coordinated by the Joint Staff Urban Working Group, launched crash programs to master street-fighting under realistic third-world conditions. "The future of warfare," the journal of the Army War College declared, "lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world."

Israeli advisors were quietly brought in to teach Marines, Rangers, and Navy Seals the state-of-the-art tactics -- especially the sophisticated coordination of sniper and demolition teams with heavy armor and overwhelming airpower -- so ruthlessly used by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza and the West Bank.

Artificial cityscapes (complete with "smoke and sound systems") were built to simulate combat conditions in densely populated neighborhoods of cities like Baghdad or Port-au-Prince. The Marine Corps Urban Warfighting Laboratory also staged realistic war games ("Urban Warrior") in Oakland and Chicago, while the Army's Special Operations Command "invaded" Pittsburgh.

Today, many of the Marines inside Fallujah are graduates of these Urban Warrior exercises as well as mock combat at "Yodaville" (the Urban Training Facility in Yuma, Arizona), while some of the Army units encircling Najaf and the Baghdad slum neighborhood of Sadr City are alumni of the new $34 million MOUT simulator at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

This tactical "Israelization" of U.S. combat doctrine has been accompanied by what might be called a "Sharonization" of the Pentagon's worldview. Military theorists are now deeply involved in imagining how the evolving capacity of high-tech warfare can contain, if not destroy, chronic "terrorist" insurgencies rooted in the desperation of growing megaslums.

To help develop a geopolitical framework for urban war-fighting, military planners turned in the 1990s to the RAND Corporation: Dr. Strangelove's old alma mater. RAND, a nonprofit think tank established by the Air Force in 1948, was notorious for war-gaming nuclear Armageddon in the 1950s and for helping plan the Vietnam War in the 1960s. These days RAND does cities -- big time. Its researchers ponder urban crime statistics, inner-city public health, and the privatization of public education. They also run the Army's Arroyo Center which has published a small library of recent studies on the context and mechanics of urban warfare.

One of the most important RAND projects, initiated in the early 1990s, has been a major study of "how demographic changes will affect future conflict." The bottom line, RAND finds, is that the urbanization of world poverty has produced "the urbanization of insurgency" (the title, in fact, of their report).

"Insurgents are following their followers into the cities," RAND warns, "setting up 'liberated zones' in urban shantytowns. Neither U.S. doctrine, nor training, nor equipment is designed for urban counterinsurgency." As a result, the slum has become the weakest link in the American empire.

The RAND researchers reflect on the example of El Salvador where the local military, despite massive U.S. support, was unable to stop FMLN guerrillas from opening an urban front. Indeed, "had the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels effectively operated within the cities earlier in the insurgency, it is questionable how much the United States could have done to help maintain even the stalemate between the government and the insurgents."

More recently, a leading Air Force theorist has made similar points in the Aerospace Power Journal. "Rapid urbanization in developing countries," writes Captain Troy Thomas in the spring 2002 issue, "results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned."

Thomas contrasts modern, "hierarchical" urban cores, whose centralized infrastructures are easily crippled by either air strikes (Belgrade) or terrorist attacks (Manhattan), with the sprawling slum peripheries of the Third World, organized by "informal, decentralized subsystems, "where no blueprints exist, and points of leverage in the system are not readily discernable." Using the "sea of urban squalor" that surrounds Pakistan's Karachi as an example, Thomas portrays the staggering challenge of "asymmetric combat" within "non-nodal, non-hierarchical" urban terrains against "clan-based" militias propelled by "desperation and anger." He cites the sprawling slums of Lagos, Nigeria, and Kinshasa in the Congo as other potential nightmare battlefields.

However Captain Thomas (whose article is provocatively entitled "Slumlords: Aerospace Power in Urban Fights"), like RAND, is brazenly confident that the Pentagon's massive new investments in MOUT technology and training will surmount all the fractal complexities of slum warfare. One of the RAND cookbooks ("Aerospace Operations in Urban Environments") even provides a helpful table to calculate the acceptable threshold of "collateral damage" (aka dead babies) under different operational and political constraints.

The occupation of Iraq has, of course, been portrayed by Bush ideologues as a "laboratory for democracy" in the Middle East. To MOUT geeks, on the other hand, it is a laboratory of a different kind, where Marine snipers and Air Force pilots test out new killing techniques in an emergent world war against the urban poor.

Mike Davis is author, most recently, of the kids' adventure, 'Land of the Lost Mammoths' (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of 'Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See' (New Press, 2003) among other books.

A Deadly Plague of Slums

The narrowness with which we've defined "terrorism" on this planet since 9/11 can take your breath away. Weapons of mass destruction, for instance, are what a few "rogue" states have, or threaten to have, or may suddenly possess. In a sense, it's so convenient because they're so far away. And yet, if you blink a second and take another look, as law professor Jonathan Turley did in the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks back, you can see WMD of a sort rolling right through the center of heavily defended Washington DC. Quite literally, I'm afraid. CSX, a billion-dollar railroad company that has, in recent years, managed to pay no federal taxes (while receiving $164 million in tax rebates) and a major campaign supporter of our President, controls a stretch of track that cuts through the heart of the capital and the company runs on them "huge tank cars filled with poisonous chemicals, considered by the Department of Transportation as 'toxic by inhalation,'" Turley tells us.

"The same type of chemicals killed thousands of people in 1984 in Bhopal, India. For example, CSX routinely moves 90-ton tank cars of chlorine through the capital, above ground, within four blocks of Congress... Dr. Jay Boris, a senior scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory, recently revealed the expected casualties from just one of the 90-ton tanks of chlorine exploding in a terrorist attack or an accident in the heart of the capital. A poisonous cloud would cover an area within a 14-mile radius of the explosion -- an area made up of federal agencies, Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House. Projected deaths would occur 'at the rate of 100 per second'; an estimated 2.4 million people would be at risk."

While we're constantly on orange alert, grounding European airline flights weekly, and guarding bridges and landmarks day and night against Islamist terrorists, the Bush administration has given in to industry lobbyists and not forced CSX to reroute its trains. And really, that's just a modest example of how little our definition of terrorism fits what is most terroristic on this planet. In the piece that follows on the latest disease to spring to life and threaten our global well-being, Mike Davis lays out the ways in which a deeper terrorism has the potential to threaten us all. -Tom Englehardt, Editor, Tomdispatch


Mass death soon may be coming to a neighborhood near you, and the Department of Homeland Security will be helpless to prevent it. The terrorist in this case will be a mutant offspring of influenza A subtype H5N1: the explosively spreading avian virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) worries will be the progenitor of a deadly global plague.

The most lethal massacre in human history was the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that culled more than 2 percent of humanity (40-50 million people) in a single winter. Although never proven, many researchers believe that the pandemic was caused by a bird virus that exchanged genes with a human strain and thus acquired the ability to spread easily from person to person. Humans have little immune protection against such species' jumps.

The biological reservoir of influenza is the mixed agriculture of southern China where wild and domestic fowl, pigs (another influenza vector) and humans are brought into intense ecological contact in farms and markets.

Breakneck urbanization, a soaring demand for poultry and pork, and what Science magazine recently characterized as "denser concentrations of larger poultry farms without appropriate biological safeguards" create optimum conditions for the rapid evolution of viruses and their promiscuous passage from one species to another.

Influenza, indeed, is like a viral fashion industry: Every winter it changes styles (glycoprotein coats) to create new strains, but then, perhaps every 30 years, undergoes a revolution (species jump) that unleashes a virulent pandemic.

The last pandemic killed half a million people in 1968, but scientists interviewed by Nature and Science expressed fears that H5N1 might be on the verge of evolving into something more like the 1918-19 monster. Although so far we have confirmation only that it has been transmitted by direct contact with birds and especially their droppings, the current strain is far more lethal than last year's SARS epidemic that caused so much international havoc. As a result, a top researcher told Nature, "Everyone's preparing for the worst-case scenario." At this moment, WHO investigators are checking on the terrifying possibility that the first human-to-human transmission has already occurred in Vietnam.

Moreover H5N1 is spreading at a much higher velocity than previous avian flus. There have been outbreaks annually since 1997 -- a phenomenon that puzzled WHO researchers until they discovered that migratory birds are dying in large numbers across Asia. (It is chastening to recall that West Nile virus, also a bird disease, was able to "fly" across the Atlantic.)

H5N1's progress has also been abetted by poor monitoring and government secrecy in half a dozen countries, but especially in Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Chinese staunchly deny covering up an avian epidemic as they did SARS, but the eminent virologist Kenneth Shortridge, interviewed by Science, said all evidence points to "natural reservoirs in southern China" where the disease might have emerged as early as last October.

This winter's moderate flu epidemic, which overwhelmed emergency rooms and quickly used up supplies of vaccine, vividly demonstrated how ill-prepared even the richest countries are to deal with an imminent pandemic. Current vaccine production lines, which depend upon a limited supply of fertile hen eggs, couldn't meet even a fraction of potential demand.

But a true pandemic would probably overwhelm the world long before a vaccine could be developed and produced in large quantities. The potential accelerators of a new plague are the huge slums of Asia and Africa. Concentrated poverty, indeed, is one of the most important variables in any model of how a pandemic might grow.

The bustees of Kolkata, the chawls of Mumbai, the kampungs of Jakarta, or the katchi abadis of Karachi are, from an epidemiological standpoint, landscapes saturated in gasoline, only awaiting an errant spark like H5N1. (Twenty million or more of the deaths in 1918-19 were in poor, congested and recently famished parts of British India.)

Last fall the United Nations Human Settlements Program published a historic report, "The Challenge of Slums," warning that slums across the world were growing in their own hothouse, viral fashion. One billion people, mainly uprooted rural migrants, are currently warehoused in shantytowns and squatters' camps, and the number will double in the next generation.

The authors of the report broke with traditional UN circumspection to squarely blame the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its neocolonial 'conditionalities' for spawning slums by decimating public sector spending and local manufacturing throughout the developing world.

During the debt crisis of the 1980s, the IMF, backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations, forced most of the third world to downsize public employment, devalue currencies and open their domestic markets to imports. The results everywhere were an explosion of urban poverty and sharp fall-offs in public services.

A principal target of IMF austerity programs has been urban public health. In Zaire and Ghana, for instance, "structural adjustment" meant the laying off of tens of thousands of public health workers and doctors. Similarly in Kenya and Zimbabwe, implementation of IMF demands led to huge fall-offs in healthcare coverage and spending.

In South Asia, likewise, investment in public health has lagged far behind the growth of slums. The five largest cities of the region alone have a total slum population of more than 20 million, and standards of sanitation are symbolized by ratios of one toilet seat per 2000 residents in the poorest parts of Bombay and Dhaka.

Thanks to global neo-liberalism, then, disease surveillance and epidemic response are weakest precisely where they are most important: in the mega-slums of Asia and Africa. That's where the brushfire of H5N1 could turn into a deadly biological firestorm.

In that event, it would consume more than just the poor. Once a new pandemic had acquired the momentum of mass mortality in Asia it would inexorably spread to North America and Europe. It would easily climb the walls of gated communities and other fortresses of privilege.

Here, of course, is the rub. In the past, the rich countries, with few exceptions, have shown callous indifference to the monstrous human toll of AIDS in Africa or of the two million poor children annually claimed by malaria. H5N1 may be our unexpected reward.

Mike Davis is author, most recently, of the kids' adventure, 'Land of the Lost Mammoths' (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of 'Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See' (New Press, 2003). He is currently working on a book about the recent political earthquake in California, 'Heavy Metal Freeway' (to be published by Metropolitan Books).

Bush and the Great Wall

When delirious crowds tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989, many hallucinated that a millennium of borderless freedom was at hand. Globalization was supposed to inaugurate an era of unprecedented physical and virtual electronic mobility.

Instead, neoliberal capitalism has promptly built the greatest barrier to free movement in history. This Great Wall of Capital, which separates a few dozen rich countries from the earth's poor majority, completely dwarfs the old Iron Curtain. It girds half the earth, cordons off at least 12,000 kilometers of terrestrial borderline, and is incomparably more deadly to desperate trespassers.

Unlike China's Great Wall, the new wall is only partially visible from space. Although it includes traditional ramparts (the Mexican border of the United States) and barbed-wire-fenced minefields (between Greece and Turkey), much of globalized immigration enforcement today takes place at sea or in the air. Moreover, borders are now digital as well as geographical.

Take, for example, Fortress Europe, where an integrated data system (upgrading the existing Strasbourg-based Schengen network) with the sinister acronym of PROSECUR will become the foundation for a common system of border patrol, enforced by the newly authorized European Border Guards Corps.

The European Union (EU), moreover, has already spent hundreds of millions of Euros beefing up the so-called "Electronic Curtain" along its expanded Eastern borders as well as fine-tuning the Surveillance System for the Straits that is supposed to keep Africa on its side of Gibraltar.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently asked his fellow EU leaders to extend white Europe's border defenses into the heart of the Third World. He proposed so-called 'protection zones' in key conflict areas of Africa and Asia where potential refugees could be quarantined in deadly squalor for years.

His obvious model is Australia, where rightwing Prime Minister John Howard has declared open war on wretched Kurdish, Afghan and Timorese refugees. After last year's wave of riots and hunger strikes by immigrants indefinitely detained in desert hell-holes like Woomera in South Australia, Howard used the navy to intercept ships carrying refugees in international waters and intern them in even more nightmarish camps on Nauru or malarial Manus Island off Papua New Guinea. Blair, according to the Guardian, has similarly explored the possibility of using the Royal Navy to interdict refugee smugglers in the Mediterranean and the RAF to deport immigrants back to their homelands.

If border enforcement has now moved far offshore, it has also come into many front yards. Residents in the US Southwest have long endured the long traffic jams at 'second border' checkpoints far away from the actual line. Now stop-and-search operations, pioneered in Germany, are becoming common in the interior of the EU.

As result, even notional boundaries between border enforcement and domestic policing, or between immigration policy and the "war on terrorism," are rapidly disappearing. "Noborder" activists in Europe have long warned that Orwellian data systems used to track down and deport non-EU aliens will inevitably be turned against local anti-globalization movements as well.

In the United States, trade unions and Latino groups similarly regard with fear and loathing Republican proposals to train up to one million local police and sheriffs as immigration enforcers. (Pilot programs have already been authorized by Congress in Alabama and Florida.)

Meanwhile, the human toll from the new world (b)order grows inexorably. According to human rights groups, nearly 4,000 immigrants and refugees have died at the gates of Europe since 1993: drowned at sea, blown up in minefields, or suffocated in freight containers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, have perished in desperate attempts to cross the Sahara desert simply to reach Europe's borders. The American Friends Service Committee, which monitors the carnage along the US-Mexican border, estimates that a similar number of immigrants (3,000-5,000) have died over the last decade in the furnace-hot deserts of the Southwest.

In the context of so much inhumanity, the White House's recent proposal -- dramatically announced on the eve of the Summit of the Americas -- to offer temporary guest-worker status to undocumented immigrants and others might seem a gesture of compassion in contrast to the heartlessness of Europe or the near fascism of Australia.

In fact, as immigrant rights and labor groups quickly pointed out, it is an initiative that combines sublime cynicism with ruthless political calculation. The Bush proposal, which resembles the infamous Bracero program of the early 1950s, would legalize a subcaste of low-wage labor without providing a mechanism for the estimated 5 to 7 million undocumented workers already in the United States to achieve permanent residence or citizenship.

Toilers without votes or permanent domicile, of course, represent a Republican utopia. The Bush plan would provide Wal-Mart and McDonalds with a stable, almost infinite supply of indentured labor. It would also throw a lifeline to neoliberalism south of the border. The decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, even many former supporters now admit, has proven a cruel hoax, destroying as many jobs as it has created.

Indeed the Mexican economy has shed jobs four years in a row and the future employment outlook has been described in the business press as "horrendous." The White House neo-bracero proposal offers Mexican President Vicente Fox and his successors a crucial economic safety valve for rural producers displaced by American corn imports.

It also provides Bush with an issue to woo the swing-vote Latinos in the Southwest next November. Karl Rove (the president's grey eminence) undoubtedly calculates that the proposal will sow wonderful disarray and conflict amongst unions and liberal Latinos.

Finally -- and this is truly sinister serendipity -- the offer of temporary legality would act as irresistible bait to draw undocumented workers into the open where the Department of Homeland Security can identify, tag and monitor them. Far from opening a crack in the Great Wall, it heals a breach, and ensures an even more systematic and intrusive policing of human inequality.

Mike Davis is author, most recently, of the kids' adventure, 'Land of the Lost Mammoths' (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of 'Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See' (New Press, 2003). He is currently working on a book about the recent political earthquake in California, 'Heavy Metal Freeway' (to be published by Metropolitan Books).

The Scalping Party

In his dark masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), novelist Cormac McCarthy tells the terrifying tale of a gang of Yanqui scalp-hunters who left an apocalyptic trail of carnage from Chihuahua to Southern California in the early 1850s.

Commissioned by Mexican authorities to hunt marauding Apaches, the company of ex-filibusters and convicts under the command of the psychopath John Glanton quickly became intoxicated with gore. They began to exterminate local farmers as well as Indians, and when there were no innocents left to rape and slaughter, they turned upon themselves with shark-like fury.

Many readers have recoiled from the gruesome extremism of McCarthy's imagery: the roasted skulls of tortured captives, necklaces of human ears, an unspeakable tree of dead infants. Others have balked at his unpatriotic emphasis on the genocidal origins of the American West and the book's obvious allusion to "search and destroy" missions à la Vietnam.

But Blood Meridian, like all of McCarthy's novels, is based on meticulous research. Glanton -- the white savage, the satanic face of Manifest Destiny -- really existed. He's simply the ancestor most Americans would prefer to forget. He's also the ghost we can't avoid.

Six weeks ago, a courageous hometown paper in rustbelt Ohio -- the Toledo Blade -- tore the wraps off an officially suppressed story of Vietnam-era exterminism that recapitulates Blood Meridian in the most ghastly and unbearable detail. The reincarnation of Glanton's scalping party was an elite 45-man unit of the 101 Airborne Division known as "Tiger Force." The Blade's intricate reconstruction of its murderous march through the Central Highlands of Vietnam in summer and fall 1967 needs to be read in full, horrifying detail. Blade reporters interviewed more than 100 American veterans and Vietnamese survivors.

Tiger Force atrocities began with the torture and execution of prisoners in the field, then escalated to the routine slaughter of unarmed farmers, elderly people, and even small children. As one former sergeant told the Blade, "It didn't matter if they were civilians. If they weren't supposed to be in an area, we shot them. If they didn't understand fear, I taught it to them."

Early on, Tiger Force began scalping its victims (the scalps were dangled from the ends of M-16s) and cutting off their ears as souvenirs. One member -- who would later behead an infant -- wore the ears as a ghoulish necklace (just like the character Toadvine in Blood Meridian, while another mailed them home to his wife. Others kicked out the teeth of dead villagers for their gold fillings.

A former Tiger Force sergeant told reporters "he killed so many civilians he lost count." The Blade estimates that innocent casualties were in "the hundreds." Another veteran, a medic with the unit, recalled 150 unarmed civilians murdered in a single month.

Superior officers, especially the Glanton-like battalion commander Gerald Morse (or "Ghost Rider" as he fancied himself), sponsored the carnage. Orders were given to "shoot everything that moves" and Morse established a body-count quota of 327 (the numerical designation of the battalion) that Tiger Force enthusiastically filled with dead peasants and teenage girls.

Soldiers in other units who complained about these exterminations were ignored or warned to keep silent, while Tiger Force slackers were quickly transferred out. As with Glanton's gang, or, for that matter, Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile extermination squads, in the western Ukraine in 1941, atrocity created its own insatiable momentum. Eventually, nothing was unthinkable in the Song Ve Valley.

"A 13-year-old girl's throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut. An unarmed teenager was shot in the back after a platoon sergeant ordered the youth to leave a village, and a baby was decapitated so that a soldier could remove a necklace."

Stories about the beheading of the baby spread so widely that the Army was finally forced to launch a secret inquiry in 1971. The investigation lasted for almost five years and probed 30 alleged Tiger Force war crimes. Evidence was found to support the prosecution of at least 18 members of the platoon. In the end, however, a half dozen of the most compromised veterans were allowed to resign from the Army, avoiding military indictment, and in 1975 the Pentagon quietly buried the entire investigation.

According to the Blade, "It is not known how far up in the Ford administration the decision [to bury the cases] went," but it is worth recalling whom the leading actors were at the time: the Secretary of Defense, then as now, was Donald Rumsfeld, and the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney.

Recently in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, who was instrumental in exposing the My Lai massacre, decried the failure of the corporate media, especially the four major television networks, to report the Blade's findings or launch their own investigations into the official cover-up. (Since then, ABC news and Ted Koppel's Nightline have both covered the subject.) He also reminds us that the Army concealed the details of another large massacre of civilians at the village of My Khe 4, near My Lai on the very day in 1968 when the more infamous massacre took place.

Moreover, the Tiger Force story is the third major war crimes revelation in the last few years to encounter apathy in the media and/or indifference and contempt in Washington.

In 1999, a team of investigative reporters from the Associated Press broke the story of a horrific massacre of hundreds of unarmed Korean civilians by U.S. troops in July 1950. It occurred at a stone bridge near the village of No Gun Ri and the unit involved was Custer's old outfit, the 7th Calvary regiment.

As one veteran told the AP, "There was lieutenant screaming like a madman, fire on everything, kill 'em all. .... Kids, there was kids out there, it didn't matter what it was, eight to eighty, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot them all." Another ex-soldier was haunted by the memory of a terrified child: "She came running toward us. You should have seen guys trying to kill that little girl. With machine guns."

A reluctant Pentagon Inquiry into this Korean version of the Wounded Knee Massacre acknowledged that there was a civilian toll but cited very low figures for the dead and then dismissed it as "an unfortunate tragedy inherent in war," despite overwhelming evidence of a deliberate U.S. policy of bombing and strafing refugee columns. The Bridge at No Gun Ri (2001), by the three Pulitzer Prize-winning AP journalists, currently languishes at near 600,000 on the Amazon sales index.

Likewise there has been little enduring outrage that a confessed war criminal, Bob Kerrey, reigns as president of New York City's once liberal New School University. In 2001, the former Navy SEAL and ex-Senator from Nebraska was forced to concede, after years of lies, that the heroic engagement for which he received a Bronze Star in 1969 involved the massacre of a score of unarmed civilians, mainly women and children. "To describe it as an atrocity," he admitted, "is pretty close to being right."

The blue-collar ex-SEAL team member who revealed the truth about the killings at Than Phong under Kerrey's command was publicly excoriated as a drunk and traitor, while powerful Democrats -- led by Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, both Vietnam veterans -- circled the wagons to protect Kerrey from further investigation or possible prosecution. They argued that it was wrong to "blame the warrior instead of the war" and called for a "healing process."

Indeed covering up American atrocities has proved a thoroughly bipartisan business. The Democrats, after all, are currently considering the bomber of Belgrade, General Wesley Clark, as their potential knight on a white horse. The Bush administration, meanwhile, blackmails governments everywhere with threats of aid cuts and trade sanctions unless they exempt U.S. troops from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court.

The United States, of course, has good reason to claim immunity from the very Nuremburg principles it helped establish in 1946-47. American Special Forces troops, for example, were most probably complicit in the massacres of hundreds of Taliban prisoners by Northern Alliance warlords several years ago. Moreover, "collateral damage" to civilians is part and parcel of the new white man's burden of "democratizing" the Middle East and making the world safe for Bechtel and Halliburton.

The Glantons thus still have their place in the scheme of Manifest Destiny, and the scalping parties that once howled in the wilderness of the Gila now threaten to range far and wide along the banks of the Euphrates and in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and most recently, Dead Cities: and Other Tales.

The Perfect Firestorm

Sunday morning in San Diego. The sun is an eerie orange orb. The fire on the flank of Otay Mountain, which straddles the Mexican border, generates a huge whitish-grey mushroom plume. Meanwhile the black sky rains ash from incinerated national forests and dream homes.

It may be the fire of the century in Southern California. By brunch on Sunday eight separate fires were raging out of control, and the two largest had merged into a single 40-mile-long red wall. The megalopolis's emergency resources have been stretched to the breaking point and California's National Guard reinforcements are 10,000 miles away in Iraq. Panic is creeping into the on-the-spot television reports from scores of chaotic fire scenes.

Fourteen deaths have already been reported in San Bernardino and San Diego counties, and nearly 1000 homes have been destroyed. More than 100,000 suburbanites have been evacuated, triple as many as during the great Arizona fire of 2002 or the Canberra (Australia) fire last January. Tens of thousands of others have their cars packed with family pets and mementos. We're all waiting to flee. There is no containment yet.

It is, of course, the right time of the year for the end of the world.

Just before Halloween, the pressure differential between the Colorado Plateau and Southern California begins to generate the infamous Santa Ana winds. A spark in their path becomes a blowtorch.

Exactly a decade ago, between Oct. 26 and Nov. 7, firestorms fanned by Santa Anas destroyed more than a 1000 homes in Pasadena, Malibu, and Laguna Beach. In the last century, nearly half the great Southern California fires have occurred in October.

This time climate, ecology, and stupid urbanization have conspired to create the ingredients for one of the most perfect firestorms in California history. Experts have seen it coming for months.

First of all, there is an extraordinary supply of perfectly cured, tinder-dry fuel. The weather year, 2001-02, was the driest in the history of Southern California. Here in San Diego we had only three inches of rain. (The average is about 11 inches). Then last winter it rained just hard enough to sprout dense thickets of new underbrush (a.k.a. fire starter), all of which have now been desiccated for months.

Meanwhile in the local mountains, an epic drought, which may be an expression of global warming, opened the way to a bark beetle infestation which has already killed or is killing 90 percent of Southern California's pine forests. Last month, scientists grimly told members of Congress at a special hearing at Lake Arrowhead that "it is too late to save the San Bernardino National Forest." Arrowhead and other famous mountain resorts, they predicted, would soon "look like any treeless suburb of Los Angeles."

These dead forests represent an almost apocalyptic hazard to more than 100,000 mountain and foothill residents, many of whom depend on a single, narrow road for their fire escape. Earlier this year, San Bernardino county officials, despairing of the ability to evacuate all their mountain hamlets by highway, proposed a bizarre last-ditch plan to huddle residents on boats in the middle of Arrowhead and Big Bear lakes.

Now the San Bernardinos are an inferno, along with tens of thousand acres of chaparral-covered hillsides in neighboring counties. As always during Halloween fire seasons, there is anxiety about arson. Invisible hands may have purposely ignited several of the current firestorms. Indeed, in Santa Ana weather like this, one maniac on a motorcycle with a cigarette lighter can burn down half the world.

This is a specter against which grand inquisitors and wars against terrorism are powerless to protect us. Moreover, many fire scientists dismiss "ignition" -- whether natural, accidental, or deliberate -- as a relatively trivial factor in their equations. They study wildfire as an inevitable result of the accumulation of fuel mass. Given fuel, "fire happens."

The best preventive measure, of course, is to return to the native-Californian practice of regular, small-scale burning of old brush and chaparral. This is now textbook policy, but the suburbanization of the fire terrain makes it almost impossible to implement it on any adequate scale. Homeowners despise the temporary pollution of "controlled burns" and local officials fear the legal consequences of escaped fires.

As a result, huge plantations of old, highly flammable brush accumulate along the peripheries and in the interstices of new, sprawled-out suburbs. Since the devastating 1993 fires, tens of thousands of new homes have pushed their way into the furthest recesses of Southern California's coastal and inland fire-belts. Each new homeowner, moreover, expects heroic levels of protection from underfunded county and state fire agencies.

Fire, as a result, is politically ironic. Right now, as I watch San Diego's wealthiest new suburb, Scripps Ranch, in flames, I recall the Schwarzenegger fund-raising parties hosted there a few weeks ago. This was an epicenter of the recent recall and gilded voices roared to the skies against the oppression of an out-of-control public sector. Now Arnold's wealthy supporters are screaming for fire engines, and "big government" is the only thing standing between their $3 million homes and the ash pile.

Halloween fires, of course, burn shacks as well as mansions, but Republicans tend to disproportionately concentrate themselves in the wrong altitudes and ecologies. Indeed it is striking to what extent the current fire map (Rancho Cucamonga, north Fontana, La Verne, Simi Valley, Vista, Ramona, Eucalyptus Hills, Scripps Ranch, and so on) recapitulates geographic patterns of heaviest voter support for the recall.

The fires also cruelly illuminate the new governor's essential dilemma: how to service simultaneous middle-class demands for reduced spending and more public services. The white-flight gated suburbs insist on impossible standards of fire protection, but refuse to pay either higher insurance premiums (fire insurance in California is "cross-subsidized" by all homeowners) or higher property taxes. Even a Hollywood superhero will have difficulty squaring that circle.

Mike Davis is the author of 'City of Quartz,' 'Ecology of Fear,' and most recently, 'Dead Cities: and Other Tales.'

The Day of the Locust

The mobs howled again in California, rattling windows on the Potomac. Are the barbarians marching eastward, as they did after the famous tax revolt of the late 1970s, or is this just another West Coast full-moon episode with little national consequence?

The larger meaning of Schwarzenegger's triumph of the will, of course, depends on how you interpret the grievances that provided the recall's extraordinary emotional fuel. But I must warn you that analyzing this election is an adventure in a realm of stupefying paradox and contradiction. All the same, it may tell us a great deal about the emerging landscape of American politics.

The hardcore ideologues of zero government and McKinley-era capitalism are trumpeting the recall as a new populist revolution in the spirit of Howard Jarvis's Proposition 13 in 1978. They echo local Republican claims that a venal Democratic governor, in league with big unions and the welfare classes, was turning off the lights of free enterprise and driving the hardworking middle classes to Arizona with huge, unfair tax increases. Gray Davis, in a word, was the anti-Christ, wrecking California's golden dream on behalf of his selfish constituencies of school teachers, illegal immigrants, and rich Indians. The Terminator, they assure us, has literally saved California from the yawning abyss of "tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend."

From the outside, this seems rather ridiculous. Davis, to begin with, is an autistic centrist in the Democratic Leadership Council mode who has governed California for the last five years as a good Republican. In fiscal policy, as well as in prisons, education, and the lubrication of corporate interests, there has been no significant departure from the paradigm of his predecessor Republican Pete Wilson. Indeed, Davis has been such a raving executioner and prison-builder that crime-and-punishment has disappeared as a right-wing wedge issue.

Moreover, if California's middle classes have any cause to feel raped and pillaged in recent years, clearly the culprits are Arnold's eminence grise, Pete Wilson, who deregulated the utilities to begin with, and the Bushite power cartels like Enron which looted California's consumers during the phony energy crisis of 2000-01. And it is the Bush administration that has told bankrupt state and municipal governments everywhere to "drop dead" while it shovels billions into the black hole it has created in Iraq. Fiscal crisis should be an issue owned by the Democrats.

Strange, then, that almost two-thirds of the voters in the mega-state that supposedly belongs lock, stock, and barrel to the Democrats either endorsed the stealth return of Pete Wilson -- the mind whirring within Arnie's brawn -- or voted for a right-wing quack, Tom McClintock. These are the kinds of election returns you expect to see from GOP bedrock states like Idaho or Wyoming, not from the vaunted Left Coast.

When you peer at the dynamics of recall rage up close, the whole phenomenon becomes stranger still. Here in San Diego, where I live and the recall originated, the Schwarzenegger blitzkrieg seemed to suck anger out of the clear blue sky. This, after all, isn't Youngstown or even Stockton or San Bernardino. Republican voters, as far as I know, are not being evicted en masse from their homes or forced to steal milk for their staving babies.

Far from it, the value of the median family home soared almost $100,000 last year and the area is once again awash with Pentagon dollars. The freeways are clogged with Hummers and other mega-SUVs, while those with luxury lifestyles, carefully tended by armies of brown-skinned laborers, bask in the afterglow of Bush's tax cuts.

Enlistment in Arnie's army of "hell no, we're not going to take it anymore" tax protestors visibly bore little relationship to actual economic pain. Yet, for weeks, suburban San Diego has been contorted into visceral, self-righteous rage over the supposedly satanic regime in Sacramento. Indeed exit polls show that, in San Diego as well as statewide, support for Schwarzenegger increased with income and topped out at the country-club and gated-community level.

So are California's fat cats merely impersonating populist anger? With so little correlation between actual economic hardship (greatest, of course, in pro-Bustamante Latino and Black inner-city neighborhoods and rural valleys), what explains this astonishing mobilization of voter emotion, particularly in affluent white suburbs?

In my microcosm, San Diego, part of the answer could be found at the lower end of the AM dial. At KOGO 600, "San Diego's Radio Mayor," Roger Hedgecock, presides over what, even before the official campaign began), was boastfully labeling itself "Recall Radio." A defrocked former mayor accused of conspiracy and perjury in the 1980s, Hedgecock, who occasionally fills in for Rush Limbaugh on national hate radio, takes credit for the "heavy lifting" that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's mansion in Sacramento. Republicans acknowledge that he has been the recall's most influential voice in Southern California.

From 3 to 6 PM, "Roger," as he is universally called by his more than 300,000 regular listeners, rules over afternoon freeway gridlock in a vast radio market that extends as far north as Santa Barbara. Southern California, of course, has the worst traffic congestion in the country and the ever lengthening commutes are a continuous, grinding source of free-floating anger. Hedgecock deftly plays off this afternoon, stuck-in-traffic frustration. He is the angry tribune of white guys in their 4X4 Dodge pickups and Ford Expeditions.

For almost two decades, his major rage has been the Brown Peril, the supposed "Mexican invasion" of California. He was a key instigator of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 as well as local semi-vigilante protests against border-crossers. On the eve of the recall, he continually warned his listeners that the Mexican threat was now of apocalyptic proportions, given Gray Davis's signing of a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses.

"This is the end of American democracy, the end of fair elections," he fulminated. "Vast numbers of operatives," he warned, were enlisting newly-ID'd immigrants to cast hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots to keep Davis in power. San Diego, moreover, was facing an "invasion" of trade-unionists from alien Los Angeles who would "tear down pro-recall signs" and generally terrorize neighborhoods. Roger urged locals to defend their homes and resist the hoards of illegals and LA unionists "in the spirit of 1776."

In several weeks of listening to Roger's screeds, punctuated by hallelujahs and amen's from the choir on their cellular phones, the only issue that came remotely close to the same decibel level as illegal immigrants (and "the so-called Chicano community") was a hike in the registration tax on cars. Hedgecock ignored the fact that the automatic escalation of the car tax (2% of its value) had originated in Wilson-era legislation. Instead, he directly connected it to illegal immigrants "whose cost to the state of California is almost exactly the budget deficit." "That's how bad things are, ladies and gentlemen," he intoned constantly. Car taxes and wetbacks were his incessant themes.

The mainstream media has done a poor job of documenting the organization of the recall at the grassroots level where AM voices like Roger's, or his counterpart Eric Hogue's in Sacramento, rouse thousands of mini-Terminators. As a result, there has been an overly respectful legitimation of economic populism in the recall dynamic and only a faint registration of the central role of traditional racist demagoguery and the revival of the Brown Peril rhetoric that made Pete Wilson the most hated figure in the state's Latino neighborhoods. To adapt a rap phrase, "It's all about fear of a brown planet."

Yet, I don't want to suggest that this is a simple repeat of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in the context of a recession and a nationwide crisis of state financing. Arnold Schwarzenegger does add something genuinely novel to the mix. He is not just another actor in politics but an extraordinary lightning rod, both in his movie persona and in real life, for dark, sexualized fantasies about omnipotence.

Pleasure in the humiliation of others -- Schwarzenegger's lifelong compulsion -- is the textbook definition of sadism. It is also the daily ration of right-wing hate radio. As governor he becomes the summation of all smaller sadisms, like those of Roger Hedgecock that in turn manipulate the "reptile within" of millions of outwardly affluent but inwardly tormented commuter-consumers. In their majesty, the predominantly white voters of California's inland empires and gated suburbs have anointed a clinically Hitlerite personality as their personal savior.

The last word about all this should, of course, belong to Nathanael West. In his classic novel The Day of the Locust (1939), he clearly foresaw that fandom was an incipient version of fascism. On the edge of Hollywood's neon plains, he envisioned the unassuageable hungers of California's petty bourgeoisie.

"They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old . . . Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize they've been tricked and burn with resentment. .. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies."

Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz," "Ecology of Fear," and most recently, "Dead Cities: and Other Tales."

Cry California

Every candidate in California's dark recall-election comedy should be obliged to answer the question: "Whither Duroville?"

"Duroville" is the California visitors never see and that pundits ignore when they debate the future of the world's sixth largest economy. Officially this ramshackle desert community of 4000 people in the Coachella Valley doesn't even exist. It is a shantytown -- reminiscent of the Okie camps in The Grapes of Wrath -- erected by otherwise homeless farmworkers on land owned by Harvey Duro, a member of the Cahuilla Indian nation.

The Coachella Valley is the prototype of a future -- Beverly Hills meets Tijuana -- that California conservatives seem to dream of creating everywhere. The western side of the Valley, from Palm Springs to La Quinta, is an air-conditioned paradise of gated communities built around artificial lakes and eighteen-hole golf courses. The typical resident is a 65-year-old retired white male in a golf cart. He is a zealous voter who disapproves of taxes, affirmative action, and social services for the immigrants who wait on him.

The east side of the Valley, from Indio to Mecca, is where the resort maids, busboys, pool cleaners, and farmworkers live. There is an artificial mountain built out of 500,000 tons of sludge (solid sewage) trucked in from Los Angeles, but nary a blade of grass. In Duroville the largest body of water is the sewage lagoon and the local playground is a dioxin-contaminated landfill. The typical resident is 18 years-old, speaks Spanish or Mixtec, and works all day in the blast-furnace desert heat. She/he, most likely, is not yet a citizen and therefore ineligible to vote.

Squalor, exploitation and disenfranchisement are not just anomalies of California's agricultural valleys and "factories in the field." There are urban Durovilles as well, like the sprawling tenement district just a few blocks from downtown Los Angeles. On the gilded coast north of San Diego, an estimated 10,000 immigrant day-laborers and service-workers sleep rough in the wild canyons behind $800,000 tract homes. Throughout the state, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers live in illegal garage conversions, derelict trailers, even chicken coops.

Economic inequality has soared in the last generation, particularly in the southern half of the state. In the Los Angeles area, for example, the top 20% of the workforce earns twenty-five times more on average than the bottom 20%. Similarly, a third of Los Angeles residents lack medical insurance and must depend on a handful of overcrowded county hospitals whose doctors have recently given chilling testimony about the rising number of needless deaths from shortages of staff and beds.

This Third World California, which Duroville poignantly symbolizes, is no accidental creation. The famous tax revolt of the 1970s was racial politics coded as fiscal populism. As the Latino population soared, white voters -- egged on by rightwing demagogues -- withdrew support from the public sector. California became a bad school state in lockstep with becoming a low wage state. Overcrowded classrooms and dangerous playgrounds are part of one vicious circle with sweatshop jobs and slum housing.

The California labor movement, reinvigorated by a new generation of organizing, has fought to halt creeping "Mississippization" with living wage ordinances, increased school spending, and the closure of tax breaks for the rich. There have been some victories (mainly in funding education), but progressive politics fights uphill against two huge structural obstacles.

The first is the legacy of Proposition 13 itself which requires supermajorities to raise most taxes. The second, and more daunting, is the glacial pace of the enfranchisement of new immigrants. Although Anglos are now a minority of the population, they still constitute 70% of the electorate. Even in 2040, according to the projections of the Public Policy Institute of California, whites (only 35% of the population) will still cast 53% of the votes. If current trends continue, this geriatric white minority will also consume a majority of entitlements and tax resources.

The conservative worldview, of course, inverts these realities. Led by former governor Pete Wilson, Republicans argue that the state has become a dumping ground for shiftless and uncultured beggars from the South. Mexico, as depicted in a notorious Wilson campaign ad ("They're coming!"), is invading Anglo California and imposing huge tax, crime and pollution burdens upon its honest burghers. The true wretched of the earth are the long-suffering, overtaxed white guys in their golf carts.

Reason dies screaming in the face of such nonsense, but it is peddled twenty-four hours a day by the pit-bull talk-show hosts who dominate California AM radio and, increasingly, commercial television. White rage is also the steroid that Republican strategists hope will pump up Arnold Schwarzenegger for heavy lifting in the October recall. Liberal commentators have attacked the movie star for his singular lack of articulate positions on decisive issues. But the criticism is unfair.

The Terminator, in fact, has a long history of ideological commitment which, for tactical reasons, his campaign-minders want to downplay. Most striking has been his extensive involvement in the nativist crusades to deny health care and education to undocumented immigrants, and to make English the exclusive official language. The poor boy from the Alpine boondocks was a key endorser of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, and, even more sinisterly, a longtime board member of "U.S. English," a national organization with notorious ties to men in white hoods.

But it would be a mistake, in any case, to think that Arnie is the actual star of his latest and most lavish film. As all the punters in Sacramento have pointed out, the real title should be: "Return from the Grave: Wilson Part Three." The ex-governor is the specter haunting the recall.

His veteran staff (including George Gorton who ran Boris Yeltsin's reelection) control all the important strings moving Schwarzenegger, while Wilson himself drives a sales campaign which has successfully recruited most of the billionaires in the state. As a result, the inner circle of Schwarzenegger's "populist" crusade looks like a Bohemia Grove toga party: Donald Bren, George Schultz, David Murdock, Warren Buffett, and so on.

Wilson, of course, is an anathema to Latinos, Blacks and the labor movement. Supposedly California had done with his racist divisiveness when voters in 1998 rejected his protégé, attorney general Dan Lungren, and then, last year, when they voted down another wealthy Wilson clone. So who forgot the silver stake?

Now that the rats are on dry ground, it has been easy for many Democrats to dismiss incumbent Gray Davis as a singularly unfortunate choice: a charisma-less robot with an open palm who let the state be pillaged by Enron during the phony energy crisis three years ago.

But again in fairness, Davis exemplifies precisely those qualities -- pro-corporate, politically centrist, and hard law-and-order -- which the Democratic Leadership Council has so long recommended as the salvation of the Democratic Party. Nor is his disintegration unique: Just look at the other "moderate" Democrats dead in the starting blocks of the presidential primary.

This is why the labor wing of the California Democrats should have embraced the opportunity of the recall to push forward one of their own. Davis has generally been detested by union activists. Yet the state federation of labor, and almost no one else, remained pathetically loyal to His Grayness and allowed his cunning and unprincipled lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, to run off with the party endorsement.

Bustamante may be preferable to Pete Wilson hiding inside the Trojan horse called Schwarzenegger, but the difference is probably less than most Democratic voters imagine. Some years ago, Bustamante got into a pissing contest with (then governor) Wilson. They were talking about amending state law to allow the execution of minors. When Wilson suggested death sentences for criminals as young as 14, Bustamante responded that he might "with a tear in my eye, cast a vote to execute 'hardened criminals' as young as 13."

The major alternative to child killers is California's Green Party. In last year's gubernatorial election, Green candidate Peter Camejo won 5% of the vote and emboldened thousands of progressives to envision life after the Democrats. Camejo, a veteran of Berkeley in the 60s, retains a fire in his belly and chased around the state playing Michael Moore to Gray Davis's "Roger." He's one of the first Greens to make some impact in unions and among Latinos.

Unfortunately much of the media attention that otherwise might have accrued to the Greens has been hijacked by Arianna Huffington, running as an independent. A professional television guest and columnist, formerly married to one of the state's richest Republicans, she has undertaken an unusual journey in the desert of American politics: moving from the far right to the moderate left. Huffington, for example, has been an eloquent and effective critic of the Bush war on terror.

But unlike Camejo, selected by a poll of the Green membership, she is strictly freelancing with the aid of Hollywood money and her privileged access to media. Her populist credibility, moreover, has been diminished by the revelation that, although she owns a $7 million mansion, she has paid virtually no income tax in recent years. The most likely effect of her candidacy, despite promises to coordinate with Camejo, will be to reduce rather than enhance the left-of-the-Democrats vote.

Regardless of the outcome in October, the recall battle has already illuminated some of the new terrain of California politics. Republicans, on their side, have gained tremendous confidence in their ability to thwart any future legislative effort toward tax reform or economic justice. Liberal Democrats, on the other, have had their faces rubbed in the moral rot of their party. In Duroville, meanwhile, they look across their sewer lake at the fat life of a rapidly receding California dream.

Mike Davis is the author of classic works on Los Angeles ("City of Quartz") and on California dreamin' ("Ecology of Fear"), Davis suggests what's actually at stake in his riotous state. His most recent books include "Dead Cities: And Other Tales" and "Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World."

BRAND NEW STORIES
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by fontsempire.com.