Mike Davis

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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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."

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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


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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?

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