The central premise of Marc Reisner's A Dangerous Place is sure to wipe the smile off the face of any California dreamer. The author, an expert on the environment who died in 2000, proposes in this, his final book, that a great number of Californians are going to be killed, injured and rendered homeless by an earthquake-triggered series of calamities. What's more, according to the experts he polled, the disaster will probably occur soon.
Reisner, who wrote Cadillac Desert, an award-winning nonfiction book about the use of water in the West, spent much of his later life exposing the colossal affront to nature that California has chosen to become. In laying out his case, Reisner traces the history of the state and the tendency its settlers had from the start to treat the fragile landscape recklessly. Using enormous water pressure, gold prospectors washed entire hillsides into riverbeds. Hyperactive chambers of commerce lured hundreds of thousands of adventurers and land speculators to Los Angeles, taxing the area's water supplies. Up and down the coast, hordes built their homes and businesses on unstable, fire-prone land. Reisner also chronicles the occurrence and effects of major earthquakes. To drive home his point, he devotes the last half of his book to imagining the consequences of a large-scale earthquake in 2005 along the Hayward fault how it would affect the mammoth, life-sustaining bridges in the San Francisco Bay area, the region's highway and rapid transit systems, airports, power grids and so on. It is a grim and scary scenario, not only because of the thousands of lives lost but also for the lives disrupted. What is missing from Reisner's book is any hint that such a catastrophe can be averted, short of mass emigration which isn't likely to happen. "In the late 1890s," he writes, "80 percent of California's population had settled in regions where the preponderance of its major earthquakes have occurred. In the late 1990s, that figure was unchanged. It won't change, at least not much," Resiner says. "What's there is there."