Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us.
Friedrich Engels (1959: 12)
The general approach we have explored is based on two related premises. The first is that the root causes of disaster are found in the historical geography and political economy of places. The second is that disasters occur at the intersection of environmental hazards and vulnerable people, and as such are social products. The hazards may be ‘natural’, technological, or some mix of factors, but their risks and effects are mediated by prevailing social practices and their material forms in a given place. Peoples’ vulnerability to hazards is produced by a combination of elements on different spatial and temporal scales: these include underlying historical factors that shape patterns of social inequalities and settlement patterns, and the more immediate and dynamic aspects of politics, economics, environment, and culture in a place. Vulnerability to hazards is produced and reproduced through the changing nature of people’s access to resources and their exposure to risk (Wisner 1993).
As we have reviewed, in the one hundred and fifty years that the state of California has existed, its landscapes and ecosystems have been radically transformed by the forces of capital working in concert with state power in a ‘grandiose ecological project’ (Harvey 1996: 185). The imbrication of political and economic power, water imperialism, and nearly unchecked urban growth have shaped and reshaped its social and physical landscapes in an ongoing growth dynamic. The natural and technological hazards that work their ‘revenges’ on California have become an increasingly prominent part of those transformations. A century of real estate speculation supported by local governments and public infrastructure has placed increasing numbers at risk of earthquakes, floods, and fires, and those numbers in turn produce growing pollution and waste disposal problems in the region (Davis 1992). It is then left to public agencies to try to regulate the pollution and promote hazard mitigation that is made necessary by virtually unrestrained private actions (FitzSimmons and Gottlieb 1996).