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Writer, truck driver, meat cutter and prophet of compassion Mike Davis dies at 76

Scholar Mike Davis, in an undated photo provided by his publisher.
Scholar Mike Davis, in an undated photo provided by his publisher.

Mike Davis, a kind of tectonic-plate thinker whose books transformed how people, in Los Angeles in particular, understood their world, died on October 25 at his home in San Diego at the age of 76. His death was marked by his publishing house, Verso, and by numerous friends and fans on social media.

For months, he had talked about about his struggle with esophageal cancer.

Michael Ryan Davis had a distinguished academic career teaching at various California state schools but he was best known for his books and essays, especially his magisterial 1990 bestseller City of Quartz, which LA Times columnist Carolina Miranda describedin her obituaryas "almost irrationally ambitious. The book contained a kitchen sink's worth of subject matter covering the design of corporate superblocks, cul-de-sac NIMBY-ism and the ongoing faceoff between the cultures of boosterism and noir, buttressed by copious footnotes and references to Marxist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse."

Davis' work drew deeply from his own lived history as an activist for labor, the environment and social justice. His deep and heartfelt knowledge of Los Angeles came partly from an early job as a truck driver, exploring, as he put it, "every nook and corner of L.A. County." In the 1960s, he worked with Students for a Democratic Society, and later joined the Communist Party. A blue collar kid who grew up in the suburbs of San Diego, he worked over the course of his life as a both a meat cutter and a professional Marxist. He won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1998.

Davis took radical, often unpopular positions. He warned of global pandemics and environmental catastrophes long before most people cared to listen. His 1996 book Ecology of Fear contained an essay pertaining to California wildfires called "The Case For Letting Malibu Burn."More than 20 years and 100,000 scorched acres later, Davis was asked on NPR about what made his essay more relevant than ever.

"There's been several million homes built in the last quarter-century in first-class hurricane counties, many of them locations that never should have been built in the first place," he said in that 2018 interview, critiquing federal disaster relief programs, the insurance industry, and — well, capitalism.

"People in Malibu understand the frequency of fire, but the idea that you can protect structures and lives — yes, brush clearance makes sense. Yes, home design should be more fireproof. But at the end of the day, what these super fires show is that's not enough and never will be enough. It's absolutely necessary to acknowledge the power of nature and the changing power of nature in these circumstances."

Davis resisted the "prophet of doom" sobriquet with which he was occasionally saddled. He was more of a prophet of compassion. He urged a return to what he saw as a Great-Depression ethos of kindness.

Stop and give a hitchhiking family a ride. Never cross a picket line, even when your family can't pay the rent. Share your last cigarette with a stranger.

"Stop and give a hitchhiking family a ride," he advised in in his 2012 book Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible. "Never cross a picket line, even when your family can't pay the rent. Share your last cigarette with a stranger. Steal milk when your kids have none and then give half to the little kids next door (this is what my own mother did repeatedly in 1936. Listen carefully to the quiet, profound people who have lost everything but their dignity. Cultivate the generosity of the 'we.' "

Mike Davis is survived by his fifth wife, his two children from that marriage, and two children from previous marriages.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.