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Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City

Desert cities are notorious water-guzzlers, but could Phoenix break free from its brown reputation?

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City

Andrew Ross

Oxford, 297 pp., $27.95

Phoenix has a terrible reputation in environmental circles. It uses a huge amount of water for a desert community -- more than twice the per capita rate of Seattle, which gets nearly 39 inches of rainfall a year -- and pumps most of it more than 300 miles uphill from the overtaxed Colorado River. Its air is brown with smog; its shadeless concrete landscape absorbs heat. And its black and Latino neighborhoods are cesspools of toxic waste. The recipe that created Phoenix seems fairly straightforward, says Andrew Ross, a cultural critic at New York University: "low taxes, light regulation, antiunion labor laws, cheap land and cheaper water, and big federal funding for defense industries and suburban infrastructure." The city's economy is largely dependent on construction and other industries tied to population growth -- a strategy that is obviously not sustainable.

One reaction is to turn away in horror from this sprawling, overheated monster. Instead, Ross made repeated visits over two years, interviewing more than 200 people to try to understand how Phoenix came to be what it is and determine whether there's any way it can be turned around.

"If Phoenix could become sustainable, then it could be done anywhere," he reasons. There's no point basking in the good news about places like Portland, Oregon, that are becoming yearly more sustainable and eco-aware without also gazing, as it were, into the eyes of the enemy. Cities like Phoenix, he writes, cannot be "written off as hopeless cases. They are simply the weakest links in a chain that has to be strengthened tenfold" if the planet is to remain livable in the face of climate change.

So can Phoenix ever become sustainable? Ross skeptically recounts the 2009 initiative from Mayor Phil Gordon to make it "the greenest city in America," which mostly seems to mean centrally planned technological fixes, from mass transit to an aggressive expansion of solar power achieved by wooing foreign solar energy concerns to the area -- even though many state politicians don't believe in climate change. None of these strategies is bad in itself, but they all presume and rely upon more growth. Likewise, Ross interviews the developers pushing growth in the shape of large, eco-friendly communities in what currently remains desert, finding them more excited about designing green on a blank slate than doing the complex and less glamorous work of increasing density in the central city. Perhaps the economic crisis, which has caused development to grind to a near halt, may determine whether the city can go beyond these superficial green measures and move toward genuine sustainability.

Bird on Fire feels in large part like an academic treatise, a trifle dry and carefully exhaustive. But Ross's own opinions do surface. He does not believe in the notion of sustainable growth. True sustainability, he argues, consists of rejecting growth and -- crucially -- achieving social equality. Over and over he returns to the notion that you can't buy your way out of an environmental hole with cool gadgets marketed to middle-class people. In a future Phoenix based on that approach, the wealthy will live in walled "eco-enclaves" while the hoi polloi are abandoned to deal with the ravages of climate change, pollution, and other legacies of environmental mismanagement. He fears that that way lies "eco-apartheid" -- a coinage of former Obama administration green czar Van Jones. Ross hopes instead for "healthy pathways out of poverty," such as community gardens and farms and green weatherization jobs.

Although Ross does not pose it explicitly, a question hovers over the whole book: Is a huge city in the middle of the desert that has to import nearly everything just a terrible idea? Should Phoenix simply be allowed to crash and burn? If that happened, people would leave and resource use would shrink, perhaps even down to sustainable levels. But what would rise from the ashes? An empty ring of exclusive eco-suburbs? Or a smaller city where justice for all, local food, and a dense urban core are surrounded by the bleaching remains of sprawling tract homes, their taps dry and their swimming pools slowly filling with sand? After reading Ross, either future sounds more plausible than the city's current vision of growth without end.

image of Emma Marris
Emma is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Missouri, who covers the environment, evolution, energy, agriculture, language, books and film. Her stories have appeared in Conservation, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, Nature Medicine, and above ... READ MORE >
It's always nice when outsiders judge your city.
Having been to Phoenix MANY times and being a Forest Service volunteer for some 20 years in AZ, I feel I have a right to speak my mind re: the fools that live - and want to live, in that town and others in the very dry southwest. It's downright crazy. They're basically the ultimate wasters in the world. Little (natural local) water source. Unbelievable summer temperatures. And you can't go anywhere without driving, With congestion comparable to L.A., another example of stupid living!) wasting gas. And electricity for a.c. year round. Of course the final analysis is that there are FAR FAR too many people in the world, and where can we put them all??
You'd think that the people of Arizona would look out into their desert and notice the ruins of another civilization that was unable to cope with climate change -- the Anasazi who were there only 1000 years ago and are no longer. Will people still want to move to Phoenix when the climate is more like that of Yuma, or of Riyadh, Arabia or Karachi, Pakistan, with summertime high temperatures of 120 degrees F. instead of today's 110? "But it's a dry heat...."
Wow, the man you speak of really made his feelings known about a lot of things here. I would like to suggest that if he thinks Phoenix is bad he should take a trip to China and Colombia. The U.S. can't save the planet all by itself.
I don't think the US can save the planet, either; and it shouldn't try. It's more important and often more effective to "be the change you want to see in the world." Pointing fingers and arguing over who's the worst is ultimately a waste of time and energy. We need to make progressive, long-view changes here in our country before we consider how we can best "improve" countries that don't belong to us and perhaps don't even want us meddling in their affairs. We should encourage the change we want to see through positive reinforcement, not mandates and bullying.