Andrew Ross could easily have set a study of urban sustainability in a green mecca like Portland or San Francisco, but he instead chose to delve into Phoenix, a semi-arid desert city that faces daunting challenges both natural (scant rain and more than 330 days of bright sunshine a year) and man-made (unfettered growth and its attendant sprawl, industrial pollution, and divisive anti-immigrant policies).
In researching Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, interviewed more than 200 Phoenicians — politicians, developers, farmers, environmental activists, and many others — in order to gauge how prepared residents are for “the fast-approaching era of resource scarcity.” In this deeply felt book, there is never any doubt as to where Ross’s sympathies lie. “I can vouch that my second-grader, who tagged along on some of my interviews, had a more accurate understanding of greenhouse gases than that offered by the majority leader of the Arizona Senate,” he writes disdainfully after a meeting with one pol.
With the compelling argument that “the climate crisis is as much a social as a biophysical challenge,” Ross says Phoenix’s future depends on how well its denizens can cooperate with each other. He makes smart connections between global warming and the recent — and notorious — fight over immigration in Arizona, condemning the contradictions of the “eco-apartheid” that sees wealthy residents enjoying clean air and mountain views while the minority-dominant South Phoenix is awash in toxic pollution. He challenges readers to expand their definition of sustainability, arguing that in a city as strapped for resources as Phoenix, small individual gestures towards environmental living don’t do enough to alter the status quo. And in a stirring conclusion, he writes, “There is nothing sustainable in the long run about one population living the green American dream while, across town, another is still trapped in poverty and pestilence.”