My first encounters with Mike Davis occurred while scouring online forums and generously pirated PDFs for choice excerpts of his monographs as an adolescent socialist in the Catskill Mountains. My political orientation, to that point, reflected my East Coast bias. As the child of a Jamaican father and Brooklyn-born mother of Caribbean and African American parentage, I treasured his writings on another locus of dispossession along the Peninsular Ranges of the US southwest.

To read Davis through Caribbean eyes will strike many as strange or misguided. A careful student of Davis, though, will gather that the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of settler colonialism is far narrower than it appears. In substance and in form, Davis, the California Kid, bears witness to the enormity of a violent experiment that began in the fifteenth-century Caribbean.

For Davis, bearing witness means coming home. To make sense of Los Angeles as he does is first to locate it in time and space. Los Angeles, a frontier cityscape, is constrained by its material ecologies but embraces a technocratic fantasy of human conquest so transcendent it eclipses all ecological limits. In City of Quartz, he unveils Los Angeles as a high-modernist scion of Caribbean planters stretched from "sea to shining sea" in the image of a perfect settler utopia. Few trace the blemishes in this utopia as persuasively as Davis. Always alert to the debris cast off by settler enclosures and their toxic excesses, wildfires, and industrial calamities, Davis concludes the prologue of Quartz by inserting himself into the story of Angelino futures past. Surveying the ruins of the cooperative settlement of Llano del Rio, he strikes up a conversation with two Salvadoran construction workers:

We talked about the weather for a while, then I asked them what they thought about Los Angeles, a city without boundaries, which ate the desert, cut down the Joshua and the May Pole, and dreamt of becoming infinite. One of my new Llano compañeros said that L.A. already was everywhere. They had watched it every night in San Salvador, in endless dubbed reruns of I Love Lucy and Starsky and Hutch, a city where everyone was young and rich and drove new cars and saw themselves on television. After ten thousand daydreams like this, he had deserted the Salvadorean Army and hitchhiked two thousand five hundred miles to Tijuana. A year later he was standing at the corner of Alvarado and Seventh Streets in the MacArthur Park district near Downtown Los Angeles, along with all the rest of yearning, hardworking Central America. No one like him was rich or drove a new car except for the coke dealers and the police were as mean as back home. More importantly no one like him was on television; they were all invisible.1 

If Los Angeles is already everywhere, Mike Davis is always there to shatter its cinematic veneer. Despite my geographic distance from L.A., my upbringing primed me to appreciate this difference between the crafted images of the Pacific Coast and its unforgiving reality. Indeed, there are many Los Angeleses to be found in the glistening luxury developments and financial hubs of Lagos, Mumbai, Port of Spain, and São Paulo that brush unnervingly against urban garrisons, slums, and favelas. 

Davis explodes this asymmetry. When I arrived in San Jose for the American Anthropological Association Meetings in November 2018, it was Davis who furnished the vocabulary to make sense of the smoke-filled air. As wildfires raged, millions in the Bay grew accustomed to the smoke as a routine disruption to the rhythms of daily life. California, like the Caribbean, grew acclimatized to disaster. His classic essay, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," echoed across the social media landscape as a call to abandon ill-fated suburban developments destined to perish in the cyclical fires of the Santa Monica Mountains.2 The essay is captivating in its brevity. Davis does not pause to authorize himself to speak or issue the typical caveats of academic prose. Instead he holds his readers' feet to the fires, goading us to "stand at the mouth of Malibu Canyon" where "you will eventually face the flames."3 

And face the flames, we must. My caustic appropriation, "The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn," grew out of this discomfort with the seamless integration of climatic disasters into spaces of academic fraternity.4 After all, if the burning forests did not compel us to reimagine our professional associations and their medieval forms of knowledge production, what would? In my frustration with the slog of tenure-track academic labor against the frantic pace of climate collapse, it was Davis who flashed up as the interlocutor I desperately needed. Not only did he capture the contradiction of the modernist infrastructures and the deep ecologies of California, Davis rebelled against the regimes of academic decorum that obstruct a sincere reckoning with climate extinction. In defiance of the chauvinism of scholarly disciplines and area studies specialists, Davis prioritizes our shared predicamentsof climate change and coronaviruses, for instancewithout neglecting their differing intensities across militarized and racialized borders.

As much as we continue to look to his writings as blueprints to navigate the existential crises of the present, we should also look to Davis as a critic in the truest sense of the term. The anthropologist Greg Beckett reminds us that "criticism" and "crisis" share a common etymological root in the Ancient Greek medical tradition where a deadly clinical threat prompts a decisive course of treatment.5 Fittingly, my most memorable encounters with Davis arrived not in his signature monographs but through his commentaries and weblogs. As the years trudged on, whenever the name Mike Davis flashed across my social media timeline, his words demanded my immediate and careful attention.

In his short-form essays, Davis keeps pace with the crises of the present. While the monograph lends itself to foundational reassessments of human civilization and its malcontents, the blog emerged as the genre best suited to the shrinking intervals of climate disasters. I would learn this firsthand when I moved to New Haven to pursue my doctorate in August 2011. Within weeks, I received a cruel welcome from a once-in-a-generation storm, Hurricane Ida, that pushed across the continental shelf and crashed its winds onto the southern Connecticut coast. It took just fourteen months for this generational event to be humbled by a greater storm when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic seaboard again.

Once exceptional, New England hurricane winds now felt troublingly familiar. My own familial narratives of disaster and resilience, punctuated by the meteorological terrors of Jamaica by Hurricane Charlie in 1951 and Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, appeared less as distant alarms than as immediate cautions of nature's vengeance. In 1951, the lament of the calypsonian Lord Beginner went like this:

Oh what sorrows and pain
In Jamaica with the hurricane
The winds was so terrific as you know
A hundred miles an hour was an awful blow
A sad calamity, so awful sympathy
To friends and their family.6

The sorrow and pain captured in Antillean melodies descended with fury on the Long Island Sound.

But my knee-jerk impulse to collapse the distance between Jamaica and New York would prove to be a tragic error of climate criticism. Mere days after Sandy's landfall, though, Davis corrected course. "The repo girl is at the door," a circumspect 690-word essay published by the London Review of Books, ends with a cautionary refrain:

The grimmest reckoning is the inverse relationship between the costs of climate change adaptation in rich countries and the amount of aid available to poorer countries. The tropical and semi-tropical poor countries that are least responsible for creating a greenhouse planet will bear the greatest burden of coastal inundation, extreme weather, and agricultural water shortages. Not that it was ever likely that the emitters would ride to the rescue of the poor people downstream, but Sandy is the beginning of the race for the lifeboats on the Titanic.7

In the decade since "Superstorm" Sandy, the popularization of the Anthropocene in North Atlantic letters has flattened the category of the human in service of a new universal history forged out of a shared ecological predicament. The unevenness of this predicament cutting across its carbon-fueled causes and meteorological impacts suggests instead that metropolitan technocrats will eagerly sacrifice the habitability of Kingston to rescue Manhattan. The geography of this epoch appears destined to rehearse the familiar contours of "civilization" and its white supremacist overtones.

When Davis glosses centuries of colonial history as "tropical and semi-tropical poor countries" he risks effacing enormous geopolitical and ecological differences. But what remains useful is his insistence that our analysis of climate extinction suffers when we allow this difference to fall out of view. Too often, the settler colonial fiction of American exceptionalism takes for granted that the lifeboats will indeed arrive just in time like the Hollywood action hero who defuses the bomb with seconds to spare. As Davis reminds us in another essay, we should look not to the titular hero but to unruly multitudes for the raw materials to navigate the uncertain tides: "a new Ark," he writes, "will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias."8 Rather than placing our bets on the playgrounds of ideologically-bankrupt elites in Washington, Davos, Paris, and Kyoto, Davis compels us to look south for unheralded and clandestine alliances.

Like another intellectual paragon, C.L.R. James, Mike Davis should be applauded above all as a tireless evangelist of working people whose faith remains in the ordinary ingenuity of the masses as the best (or only) remedy for the death drive of extractive capital. For James, it was the Trinidadian calypsonian Mighty Sparrow who best captured the inimitable popular will of the Caribbean working class through his "acute observations on the social life and the political development around him for his genuine musicianship, his wit and his humour."9 The calypso tradition of Sparrow, following in the footsteps of its architects like Beginner, encompasses a diversity of forms. Great calypsonians are experts in the prepared compositions and political lambasts of the Calypso Monarch and the improvisational repertoire of Extempo, in which performers craft satirical musings on the spot. Davis, like James before him, is a master of both. He understood the assignment when it called for a meticulously researched 500-page treatise or an extemporaneous 500-word retort.

Today, the urgency of climate extinction demands that we study the calypsonian as the critic par excellence. In 1962, James concluded his polemic, Party Politics in the West Indies, with a characteristic turn to the arts: "Perhaps Sparrow will make a calypso on it," he yearns.10 This refrain confirms his admiration for organic intellectuals and culture workers as well as the limitations of his own practice of criticism. His erudition is no match for the popular appeal of Sparrow. The latter commands an audience far beyond James's devoted acolytes. Indeed, these limits remain difficult to overcome. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. To earn the title of public intellectual without sacrificing beauty or rigor, as Mike Davis has, offers a model for us to emulate as we navigate rising temperatures and angry winds.

An unspoken addendum to my 2020 essay would christen Davis as a rare example of what a critical social science could become if we let anthropology burn. His capacity to respond in kind to the emergencies of the present is made possible by a healthy disregard for academic conventions and professional etiquette. This disregard privileges the life-or-death conditions of storms and state violence above what nominally counts for tenure and promotion and its currency of prestige. Letting anthropology burn demands the abolition of archaic regimes of value in the university and the bravery to write unapologetically toward would-be friends and publics. This, of course, is less a matter of depositing solutions crafted in ivory towers or central committee meetings than it is the necessity to evangelize the already existing capacities of working people to govern themselves and chart the course of our post-carbon futures. Perhaps we will have to make a calypso on it.

Ryan Cecil Jobson is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. An anthropologist and social critic of the Caribbean and the Americas, Ryan's research and teaching engage issues of energy and extractivism, states and sovereignty, climate and crisis, race and capital. His first book manuscript, The Petro-State Masquerade, is a historical ethnography of fossil fuel industries and postcolonial state building in Trinidad and Tobago.


  1. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Vintage, 1992), 12.[]
  2. Mike Davis, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," Environmental Historical Review 19 (1995): 1-36.[]
  3. Mike Davis, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," Environmental Historical Review 19 (1995), 3.[]
  4. Ryan Cecil Jobson, "The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019," American Anthropologist 122 (2020): 259-271. []
  5. Greg Beckett, There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019), 13.[]
  6. Lord Beginner, "Jamaica Hurricane," London is the Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950 - 1956, Honest Jon's Records, 2002. Spotify app.[]
  7. Mike Davis, "The repo girl is at the door," LRB blog (London Review of Books), November 3, 2012,[]
  8. Mike Davis, "Who Will Build the Ark?" New Left Review 61 (2010): 29-46.[]
  9. C.L.R. James, "The Artist in the Caribbean," (Mona, Jamaica: Open Lecture Series, 1959), 7.[]
  10. C.L.R. James, Party Politics in the West Indies (San Juan, Trinidad: Vedic Enterprises, Ltd.), 175.[]