Monday, October 05, 2009

466. A Phenomenal Interview, More Like Casual Conversation with Mike Davis (Ecology of Fear, City of Quartz, and Human Environmental Writing)

Well, well, well, what can I say? Roadtrip Nation is changing my life. Surprise?! Perhaps not. Yesterday, Shannon and I had a totally outside-the-box interview with Mike Davis (most well known for Ecology of Fear, City of Quartz), and I am not exactly sure where to begin... and most certainly... this cannot... and will not end. Here goes my stream of consciousness: There's the beginning aspect of things, like here I am sitting at this neo-cool-looking house in a nice neighborhood within the noisy flight path of the San Diego airport, staring at THEE Mike Davis, like the one who wrote all those books, and is this MASSIVE name in environmental writing, the "MacArthur Genius Dude" and so many other accolades in which society acknowledges his ingeniousnessessessess, who by default combines issues of social and environmental change (when most of the university is used to divorcing such topics)... well to say in the least, we both agreed that the university is full of bullshxt theories all around, let alone pin-headed specialists who don't have much context in terms of what the hxll everyone else is doing outside of their narrow field of study. But here I am... here I am... having this casual conversation with Mike Davis.... And I'm just jittery inside thinking this CAN'T be happening, this is a special moment in my life right here and now. I worked very hard in my own self development to reach this moment to come to FULLY APPRECIATE and have the the ability to RELATE to the works of Mike Davis.... Pretty soon, Shannon and I came to realize that he's one of those MacArthur folks: not only his mind is a massive encyclopedia of the history of environment, history of science, history of social movements, and WHO KNOWS what else, but his mind has the capacity to SYNTHESIZE and ORGANIZE these concepts. He has the best of both types of intelligence. For me, I don't have much of an encyclopediac inventory, but I have synthetic capabilities.

I have probably met three or four of thos MacArthur Fellow types, and honestly, they have brushed me off as if I were a piece of snot or the unwanted overly eager graduate student mosquito they thought I was going to suck their blood.... but then to think that Mike Davis was so excited to meet me just as I was so eager to meet him! I think we both feel we're in this odd fringes region of the university--synthetic thinking doesn't have much of a place in academia anymore--and we're just kind of at the fringes, looking at this circus arena, this zoo, and trying to make sense of it, not only in academia, but the context of the university in society. We're both frustrated with the lack of history of science and science writing programs in southern California. Most of them are in northern California. We're both frustrated that the university has made such a huge effort to deny and strip the socioenvironmental context of scientific pursuit and human-environmental change. And a bonus, Mike feels that the Endangered Species Act is doing a major disservice at managing ecosystems at landscape scales. Okay... lots and lots... and lots in common... lots of literature sharing to do.

Gosh, I am just scratching the surface.

Mike Davis discussed quite a bit of his history--and his professional career. He claimed the job title as "activist" and Shannon and I were puzzled, like... that kind of job description doesn't exactly exist in today's world. He ended up marking "disobedient writer" in our quote book, and that seemed to make a lot more sense. Mike was born in Fontana (so was I), raised in San Diego in a "blue collar family" as he called it, and had difficulties... he had to stop high school for a while and join the work force. His experiences as a laborer had a profound impact on him and his thinking. Mike went into detail of his time working as a truck driver and laborer for a furniture company that distributed its goods all across America, and he had been directly exposed to issues that are mostly "behind the scenes" to the rest of our eyes. He never finished a Ph.D. in history at UCLA--not exactly sure why--but it doesn't even matter because he has had so many professorial appointments in so many types of departments over the years (Geography, History, American History, Architecture, Pioneer Mountaineering Writing Class, now "Creative Writing" at UCR, an odd appointment for him, because he's never taken a creative writing course, he's learned through self discipline, plus a career in the publishing industry in London? he describes himself teaching classes he knew nothing about initially... )--he essentially is Ph.D.ed but in a more informal way. I could say he's had more of a profound impact on several disciplines than most other professors.... So, he's done his part, I'd say. So, at one point, when he was doing this back-breaking labor in a furniture company (in his forties?) he had an appointment to teach urban planning for one day at week at UCLA, and it was a very bizarre experience he had. He was paid more for teaching an urban planning class at UCLA than he was for all his work in the furniture industry! First of all, he came to realize how manual and physical labor is highly undervalued in this American Society and how people in the university sit on their butts and not necessarily have real world experiences, create weird theories on how the world works, and they get paid much more. Mike doesn't mean to overly romanticize manual labor, but he felt that he was contributing much more to the world by moving a box from point A to point B than sitting in a classroom, telling stories to students. HE FELT THAT HE WAS A PART OF THE PROCESS, AND THAT HIS EFFORTS CONTRIBUTED TO EVERYONE ELSE'S EFFORTS. And that is a fundamental concern I have about the pursuit of science... and the role of science in society. THE REALITY IN THE OUTER WORLD versus THE REALITY IN THE UNIVERSITY are so dichotomized, so black and white... it's so traumatizing... I would just have to sit and laugh... no wonder why my Ph.D. question is "what's the point?"

That story was a huge moment for me. I look at my own life through the lens of Mike, and I see parallels, lots of parallels.... I was a high school geek who worked her xss off and went nuts at Del Taco cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors over a month. Manual labor had a profound impact on me. Why was my high school experience so dichotomized from real world work? How come real world manual labor only required me to exercise about 3% of what I had come to input in my brain? Why do I have high affinity for laboring fishermen and lesser affinity to math modeling, office-quarantined ocean-marine-biology teckies, the glorified scientists of society? Where has science gone? There are hardly any "naturalists" "outdoor field scientists" anymore, in ecology, evolution, AND the Earth Sciences. It's a dying breed, dying to tecky work and modelers who can barely have a grasp of reality. Computers have put science in the mental stone age.... Okay, same old stuff. Same old stuff. I'm preaching to the choir. But I've got a new choir member. Mike Davis and I agree... agree... agree....

Mike's affiliated with socialist groups / Marxism. I HATE being affiliated with ANY political group. I like to consider myself a BIOLOGIST figuring out the intrinsic, natural science underpinnings of human behavior and the constructs of society. Hence, this blog, this human society is biologically incorrect! I think that humans are completely detached from the notion of being biological creatures, detached from their local landscapes. I think political constructs are artificial, with no discrete boundaries. And my being a scientist, I don't like that. My take on America and many European countries is the concept of "degrees of freedom" and "degrees of constraint." Every country needs a socialist baseline of stability and degrees of freedom in order to invite an invitation to playful competition driving innovative change. If the basic needs of the vast majority of the population any society are not met--air, water, food, overall internal and environmental health, family, shelter, safety--then the society is by default UNSTABLE and is vulnerable to REVOLT/COLLAPSE. I think there needs to be a threshold of people who are impoverished to lead a revolt against those who have control of most of the resources. "When the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor, there is going to be rebellion." Good Earth material, amen. I remember the Wikipedia stating that perhaps the next ideal form of society is small-scale, decentralized, local systems. Everyone can know each other, treat each other well as an instrinsic checks-and-balances system, and that all transactions are local and attached to the regional landscape. This certainly makes sense to me!

Some other things we talked about. Since Mike is an "activist," the notion of having a "job" never really hit him until his forties, because before then, it was all about being an activist--changing things. Mike was involved a little bit in the riots in Isla Vista in the 1960s (burning of the banks) a bunch of rioting student surrounded by police throwing tear gas at people. Students would be revolting and surfing, and they would be crying while they were surfing because of the tear gas. It was a landscape unimaginable to me. Isla Vista is more like an MTV riot nowadays than a riot with the anti-war movement. Mike Davis said something profound--I am paraphrasing him--"Cross-generational discussions are very difficult to engage in. I don't know how anyone in my generation could even have the nerve to give the younger generation any advice on how to define their own roads to life, because of all the problems that we have contributed to and dumped upon the younger generation. Technically, I'm not supposed to be saying that, but that's why I'm here. Saying things that I'm not supposed to say." I'm shedding a tear. That's probably the coolest quote I have so far for Roadtrip Nation. Mike's just making me more determine to succeed. Mike said he's all about "Question Authority," just like my advisor Armand; he has that bumper sticker on his car. I thought it was weird, because he was and still is my authority, and I follow him around like a puppy dog. The bumper sticker somehow made me trust Armand even more.

Mike discussed a few progressive universities in Europe that are transforming their curriculum in which professors' lectures are taped, made free for all, and then graduate students would have small-scale discussions with groups. It would eliminate the problem of 600 students to 1 professor problem. I told him that this experience in the university is downright "demeaning," and I had to supposedly plee for a "learning disability" stating I could not funciton in these classes due to high anxiety. I think the environmental context created this anxiety, and as soon I was out of these service classes, then my grades went up.

Mike is actually kind of shy about "interviews." He's had the BBC England come to his house a few times so he could be the expert authority about Los Angeles. BBC England has created stereotypes of Los Angeles and California, and these stereotyping stories have not changed a bit over the last 20 years. He stated that French media is more edgy and progressive. Makes sense with Michel Gondry and all. Mike apologized a couple of times, "Sorry this isn't exactly the interview you were expecting, huh?" I classify this interview as "outside the box" along with Randy Olson--probably the two most impactive interviews Shannon and I have conducted.

So, then Mike and I came to the subject of writing. He said that he learned how to write in his thirties, and it was a very VERY painful process. He thinks that creative writing programs are a bit futile in terms of the concept of someone teaching someone else how to write--people train themselves. I agreed, but I stated that my goal is "to teach people to teach themselves." That I think teachers can do phenomenal things if they help students, encourage students to ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS, AND FRAME THEIR MINDS TOWARDS THE PROTOCOLS OF CURIOSITY, then teachers do have a service in shaping, influencing young writers. Many creative writing classes involve getting together in a circle and everyone reading their blurb and then critiquing, starting with the schmooze of "what I really like about your writing...." People are so into complimenting each other, and no one is willing to listen to an honest, harsh critique. Mike Davis had an ultimate metaphor for schmoozing fragile writer egoes: going to a construction site with a hazardous building situation HALF DONE, and then you start to critique, "What I really like about your project." Same thing with writing. Mike sees writing as a visual building block game, just as I see it! I'll give you my two cents, eh? Mike said that many undergrads at UCR are interested in science fiction, fiction, romance fiction. Most graduate students are interested in fiction. And if there's ANY nonfiction, it's MEMOIR. There's NO SCIENCE/ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING. No training about how to tap into your surroundings. Geeze goodness. Pathetic. Mike said when he was in his twenties (his students are mostly in their twenties), it was an outrageous, perhaps SELFISH notion to even consider writing a memoir. Who in the hxll has an interesting life? Mike--even in his sixties--is not even willing to touch on the notion of a memoir of his life.

We complained about how science/environmental writing was non-existent in southern California universities, let alone ANY history of science courses. But then, how can we train people to do science writing then their jobs are vanishing into the dark side? I told him my approach is that this society does not need science journalism per se, but this society will always need SCIENTISTS. And that the goal is to train scientists (with pertinent research topics) to become better storytellers at the interface of diverse audiences inside and outside the university. And Mike agreed that's the way to go. I have two endorsements for an experimental science/environmental writing course: Mike Davis and Randy Olson. I need one more official sponsorship and then I will go to Bruce Tiffney and Claudia Tyler and ask them if we can set this up. I'm not exactly ready yet. Mike's shaken my internal tree, I have to figure out where I'm at right now. Mike asked me whether jobs exist in "environmental media"? I said basically, NO. I'm going to have to fight for it. I'm going to have to convince people that this is a worthwhile scholarly pursuit. Good luck to me!

Mike's currently teaching a landscapes and writing course, in which he states it's very experimental. He was really excited to hear that I was interested in sitting in! Woohoo! He says it's an interesting crop of students. I think on one of the first days of class, Mike went into depth on the first geologic expeditions of the Grand Canyon (1850s? 1870s?) and how these three geologists (Powell, and two others... my meager memory) went through these amazing analyses of the region. They had to invent so much terminology just to describe what they were seeing, for example, the Great Unconformity. Mike discussed the evolution of the researchers' observations over time. How SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATION was MORE ACCURATE than PHOTOGRAPHY back in the day--the role of scientific illustration! And the emotional thrill of these adventures! Back in the day, the Grand Canyon was indeed the wild west for geology. But to re-experienc the thrill of exploration, no one has implanted any pre-existing perception of the land, and you are to craft your own conceptual understanding of the Grand Canyon from scrap? INSANE! Mike said that the writing/landscape course is like a geography course rehash, but with its own twist... but no one needs to know that!

Mike was kind of interested in my dad's background and I told him how my dad backdoored into the university. Everyone in the family was pretty geeky and academic oriented. My dad hated school period; he self trained himself in vegetation and climate through observations and experiences as a child in the San Gabriel Mountains and then in an accidental field trip, my father made some observations of the vegetation zonation and the professor's jaw dropped and the next week he was hired. My dad as an undergrad was pioneering in aerial photography analysis of the vegation of southern California. Pretty crazy stuff.

Mike Davis really loves the work and adventure of field scientists, but he also discussed how even these scientists have their own departmental pirrhanna situations. Ha! I would know. Mike also made a point in terms of a shift in his writing career--He received a large advance from a New York publishing house to discuss the Los Angeles riots, and he had several contacts that would make an amazing story discussing the social injustices in Los Angeles, but he came to this point realizing, why he should be the one who has the right to tell the story about the difficulties of these people's lives? Such heart-wrenching stories! And then he fell back to his true passions for SCIENCE. And that is when he not only explored social problems of Los Angeles but also the biophysical problems of the design of Los Angeles, and how the social and biophysical aspects intertwine.

There was lots of discussions of strange, exotic places all over the world. Mike is currently writing a teenage adventure thriller series on scientific expeditions to really whacko places with unthinkingable ecosystems. The things you're trying to conserve are the things that will kill you--poisonous snakes for example. In a certain way, Mike is publicizing certain regions of the world that receive very little attention. He's totally enamored with Greenland, east Greenland. He told me one place I need to see is Greenland. Strange--most people tell me to go to the tropics. There was a lot of discussion about the Enuit people and their relative isolation from the rest of the world. 100+ names for types of snow. Geeze. The aspect that stuck out of my mind is how the people were "craving for winter" not summer. Because in summer the bugs eat you alive. There are interesting dynamics with sled dogs--somewhat "brutal" relationships in terms of dominance hierarchies and maintaining pack order. You must keep the the dogs partly trained and partly feral to maintain social organizaiton among the dogs and their masters.... The list goes on.... What can I say? Mike Davis is a very well traveled man.

Mike had this idea of doing an "Environmental Impact Report" of Los Angeles. HA! I told him about the quote from Aldous Huxley, "The most populous City is but an agglomeration of wildernesses." Doing a complete local and global EIR impact of Los Angeles. Where all the food comes from, the materials, and where are they dumped out. That would be INSANE! Such a cool idea! I asked him if he was going to do that--he says his writing gigs come and go with his appointments. He seemed very excited at the topic, but perhaps at the moment a bit time strapped with alternative commitments. But GREAT IDEA! Ha! And in Question Reality, I was trying to write a summary report on humans on planet earth for the Decapodal Pogostickapoids! Same idea....

MAJOR DRIVER FOR POST APOCALYPTIC SCIENCE FICTION STORIES THAT STAY TRUE TO THE SCIENCE--IMAGINING "SUCCESSION" IN A CITY. THE FIRST MOUNTAIN LION THAT ROMPS THE STREETS. Does "nature come back" as is... or to what degree of alteration? We discussed that, post war, post disease, it's different. I told him about the issues of reforestation in Costa Rica, same principle, secondary types of communities returning to once originally rainforest, then abandoned pasture, agricultural landscape.

Mike and I discussed how American science has framed biology and evolution in a VERY POOR WAY. For example, "Organisms adapt to the environment, rather than organisms mold the environment. Organisms as a geophysical force on this planet." Hands down agreement. Secondly, as an aside, I told him I removed the words "nature" and "culture" from my vocabulary. I said those words created ambiguity and problems of discussion on clear ideas. He agreed, good move. And thirdly, I told him that American evolutionary biologists frame evolutionary studies from the the point of view of COMPETITION. Like some kind of capitalist version of evolutionary studies. And that Russian approaches to evolution have seen more of a SYMBIOTIC-COLLABORATIVE approach to evolution. Goes along with socialism quite well. Hence the evidence of social context for driving scientific frames of reference. Mike Davis gave me a Vernadsky (sp?) book to read "The Biosphere" a biogeochemical perspective, and then I told him about Andy Knoll's research paper on "the geological consequences of evolution."

Joke: "Men are linear. They can only do one thing at a time, whereas women are more multi-taskers." I heard this claim twice. I'm not too sure if I agree. I can multi-task when some things I do are automatic knowledge, but I don't necessarily agree all men are linear. Take for example, my dad. He can drive safely and look and describe all the trees around him--to the chagrin of my mother! And then there's a famous music composer--Chopin, I believe--who had the ability to tune and process 6 different conversations at a party all at once! I CAN'T DO THAT! That's overwhelming! Wish I could!

I think Mike Davis is science writing but BEYOND science writing. Science writing plus IMAGINATION. For example, science fiction that does justice to science--post apocalyptic stories and such. Man wiped out from the world, what would happen? As Seth said, "The bad news is the world is going to hxll. The good news is that the world will be a much better place afterwards!" That's good for me because I got this whole alternate reality fiction streak in me! Imagine succession, small to large. Reverse engineering, like playing jenga with an outcrop.

RANDOM FACTS: Mike said Wallace was one of the best self-trained scientists ever, but he went onto the spiritual side of things. Lots of British laborers, mechanics and craftsmen, supported and advocated for evolutionary theory. Used word epistemology several times. Mike's totally into igneus rocks and geomorphology. My fetish is for sedimentary rocks and fossils. Powell. Dutton. McPhee. Powell expeditions. Rediscovered emotions. Climate models and climate field scientists are in TWO SEPARATE UNIVERSES. He claims he doesn't write to change the world? Then what for? Yes he does, doesn't admit it! Polar Federation. Affiliates with landscape art and classical geology. Top rated science writers are at Science and Nature, but Science is mostly dry and NONEDITORIAL. Nature has more EDITORIAL. And the Lancelet is VERY EDITORIAL medical journal. Mike Davis is concerned about how the public has a perception of scientists but NO ONE HAS A GRASP OF THE BEHIND-THE-SCENE CULTURE OF SCIENCE. Mike Davis says that there is no frontier for science writing to educate the general public, but there is a frontier for science writing for political/social change. That's where I come in. Amen. Same for Miller McCune. That's why they're different! That should be exposed, how knowledge is not fixed and debated all the time! Old fashion geography where natural and social sciences meld together. Klamath, Siskiyous, Eocene. Self-trained scientists. Unified Interdisciplinary Scientists, not many of those anymore. Russian interpretation of evolution as cooperative survival. Anti endangered species act. I told Mike Davis my first paper was on SCALE AND METAPHOR as drivers for narrative in science and social-environmental change. Mike Davis added "metaphors that don't lose their meaning in simplification." That's the magic of great science writing. Darwin's metaphors are very powerful in our everyday lives. Wallace-Humboldt, founders of biogeography.

I think I'm recuperated from my intellectual drunkedness from last night. I ended up talking to Mike Davis into the wee hours... 11pm.... I am so excited! His wife Alessandra is an art professor at Mesa City College who is doing hands-on art exhibit courses (museum studies) and his two twins are a riot. The boy loves rocks and the girl loves animals. They have their own taste for things!

I was really honored Mike said he would read "The Mountain's Last Flower" and give it an honest critique. I told him I was up for trading, and he asked me to read and honestly critique two chapters in Dead Cities. I teased him saying that this book is already "fixed" and "set in stone"! But no, what about an honest review? Who has given an honest review?! I'm SOOO excited!


Victoria "Stokastika" said...

Well... sorry.... this is indeed a RAMBLING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS, but it's a start. That's what I have to say! I have to dump my ideas out and sort them later.

Talk about three people with lots of brains and ideas and synergy all in one room! Shannon and my interview with Mike Davis was simply ELECTRIFYING!

Victoria "Stokastika" said...

Another idea that Mike Davis emphasized is that many people who enter creative writing don't necessarily have life experience, not necessarily having a skill set outside of writing. Most professors in creative writing emphasize the feedback between reading and writing, but what about the BUBBLE OF EXPERIENCE?! That's the only way in which break throughs can be made in terms of writing something new--unique accumulations of experience!

Victoria "Stokastika" said...


While driving around, a few other elements struck my fancy upon my conversations with Mike Davis.

I remember him saying how he decides his social boundaries. He enjoys talking with his neighbors very much. Sometimes his neighbors are concerned. He stares at sunsets (and sunrises?) for a long time. Can be well seen from the second floor on top of the garage. Well, he's a naturalist, for sure. Naturalists stare and think about nonhuman things in their own human minds.... Mike relates to everyone--he doesn't put boundaries on himself in terms of discussing issues with elitist academics, that's for sure.

He said one time he had a fit on a first date in a fancy restaurant. No one would acknowledge the works of the bus boy. I felt exactly the same way about becoming friends with the custodians at UCSB. I lost respect for a graduate student at UCLA who said we're in grad school to distinguish ourselves from the ditch diggers. If the ditch diggers weren't doing their thing, I wouldn't be in the university. I would be ditch digging along with them.

I never had anyone comment on my childhood. "Wow you must have had an interesting childhood!" Mike exclaimed. No one ever wondered about that before...

Mike discussed the FAILURE of the ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT. Not only in the Death of Environmentalism, the relative INERTIA of massive organizations, as in Sierra Club, they have become the USED CAR SALESMAN for the endangered species act and overall environmental movement, but environmental groups FAIL TO ADDRESS THE SOCIAL EQUITY / SOCIAL ASPECTS of environmental problems. They focus on the organism, not the human relationship to the organism. And we dont focus on the hierarchy of human needs. People in the middle of Compton have no capacity to care about a polar bear when their own lives and safety and jobs are at stake. ENVIRONMENTAL THINKING IS AN INTELLECTUAL LUXURY. You have to have your immediate needs met before you can think about the broader socioenvironmental context.

I remember Mike saying how in Greenland they have more mythological creatures than real organisms in their ecosystems!

There's no class in science and creative (multimedia) story-telling! Not necessarily and strictly SCIENCE JOURNALISM. But using SCIENCE TO STIMULATE THE IMAGINATION!

Mike called himself an "activist" and "disobedient writer." He said over time, he's stopped pushing on the notion of "converting people." That's an interesting notion. He says he doesn't write to convert people. He has very powerful material, but I think maybe that's when Barry's notion comes in--"don't be preachy; it turns people off." And then? Mike discusses controversial topics but he tells a story for the sake of telling a story, because if you write with the intention of converting people, then the story becomes skewed damage to the threshold of "preachiness." I think it's more the art of presenting an argument, evidence for your argument, and TAKING A STEP BACK, ALLOWING PEOPLE TO MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS.

Victoria "Stokastika" said...

San Diego Richard Minnich Fire Ecology Fan Club: The Cause of the Fire is the Plants!

Anonymous said...

Couldnt agree more with that, very attractive article