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

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

by Andrew Ross
     
 

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Phoenix, Arizona is at once one of America's fastest growing cities and its least sustainable one. A sprawling megalopolis of more than five million souls, it is parched-the result of minimal rainfall and scorching heat. Yet historically, its population has been hostile to both placing limits on growth and restricting property rights. In Bird on Fire, noted

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Overview

Phoenix, Arizona is at once one of America's fastest growing cities and its least sustainable one. A sprawling megalopolis of more than five million souls, it is parched-the result of minimal rainfall and scorching heat. Yet historically, its population has been hostile to both placing limits on growth and restricting property rights. In Bird on Fire, noted chronicler of contemporary social life Andrew Ross relies on Phoenix's to perform a paradoxical task: explain how we can establish sustainable urban living in this most unsustainable of cities. The vast majority of authors writing on sustainable cities focus on places like Portland, New York, and various west European cities that have excellent public transit systems and high density. Ross does the opposite, and contends that if we can't make fast-growing cities like Phoenix sustainable, then the whole movement is has a major problem.

In the course of tracing how it grew and explaining why it is so unsustainable, he considers how it might become sustainable. He contends that if Phoenix is to achieve this goal, it will occur primarily through political and social change—greater civic engagement, democratic inclusion, and socially just policies—rather than through technological fixes. Technological fixes are not unimportant, but for them to work we first must rearrange our social and political arrangements. In sum, Bird on Fire provides a truly fascinating window into one of the pressing social issues of our time—finding pathways to sustainability in an era of increasing energy consumption and sprawl.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ross (Fast Boat to China) examines the efforts toward and obstacles to sustainability for Phoenix, Ariz., a city dependent on imported water and driven by the boom-and-bust economy of land speculation. On the site of the Hohokam culture, which fizzled out in the 14th century when stressed by drought and floods, human devastation of the ecosystem, and inability to absorb an influx of immigrants, Phoenix seems eerily bent on repeating the mistakes of its predecessors. With an open eye and a progressive proclivity, Ross reveals fascinating inconsistencies and contradictions in the current push and pull between resilience and self-destruction: Matthew Moore, an artist-farmer, runs two farms, a 50-family CSA and an industrial agricultural operation. Artist-activists refashioning a vibrant, livable inner city “thrilled advocates of the Creative City”—until the popular Friday artwalks became too creative and “the police showed up en masse, and on horseback” to intimidate participants. African and Latino communities, both suffering from monstrous pollution thrust on low-income neighborhoods, have trouble joining forces because of long-term tensions between them. Ross’s conclusion—that if sustainable urbanism is “not directed by and toward principles of equity, then they will almost certainly end up reinforcing patterns of eco-apartheid”—is a bracing challenge. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Ross (social & cultural analysis, New York Univ.; Fast Boat to China: Corporate Flight and the Consequences of Free Trade) has written yet another in-depth exploratory work, this time examining the social, ecological, economic, and political intricacies of Phoenix, which have cumulated to create a city that has long since outgrown its ability to sustain itself. In this extremely thorough and well-researched book, he discusses several positive and negative issues that have impacted the city, including battles for water rights, immigration policies, key legislative decisions, social injustices, and environmental degradation. While it might seem as if Ross presents an exclusively doom-and-gloom scenario, he also focuses on possible ways to take unsustainable practices and make changes (e.g., enticing growth for solar-power production, altering water rights and government policies to help farmers grow food locally). He argues that it's possible for Phoenix to rectify past mistakes and for the city to become a sustainable metropolis. VERDICT With climate change and sustainability at the heart of this work, this solid investigation will be of great interest to both general and academic readers.—Kyrille Goldbeck-DeBose, Virginia Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ. Lib., Blacksburg
From the Publisher
"Bird on Fire...has done something more than nail a list of fundamental problems, both societal and environmental, with our big city. Unlike author Richard Florida, who likes to lecture about what a city like Phoenix should be doing to set things right, Ross describes what led to our less-than-sustainable straits, then outlines what's in place for us to rectify the many mistakes local government has made." - The Phoenix New Times

"Ross's conclusion - that if sustainable urbanism is "not directed by and toward principles of equity, then they will almost certainly end up reinforcing patterns of eco-apartheid" - is a bracing challenge." Publishers Weekly

"If Phoenix could be greened, any place on earth could do it. And as this book makes clear, democracy and social justice will be every bit as key as solar panels."-Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

"Books by Andrew Ross are always exhilarating adventures at the cutting edge of social thought, but Bird on Fire is particularly fascinating. Rather than recounting the green virtues of some demi-paradise like Vermont or San Francisco, he descends directly into the ecological and economic hell fires of Phoenix. The result is a landmark study of the micropolitics of the struggle for urban sustainability where the stakes are the highest."-Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz

"Bird on Fire is a stunning report from the front lines. Ross vividly shows how and why our big cities are one of the top places where the fight to contain climate change will either be won or lost."-James Gustave Speth, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World and co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council

"This is a superb and important book. With a sweeping command of the subject, Andrew Ross reads from the entrails of Phoenix a story with hopeful insights for all of humane civilization. His graceful prose and political clarity make Bird on Fire not only useful but also very compelling and pleasurable to read."-Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

"Bird on Fire is a triumph. The future and sustainability of Phoenix are not local questions, but ones of national and global importance. Andrew Ross examines them with a keen radar for the interplay of power, class, greed, prejudice and the mythology of both the American West and the great Sunbelt migration. In the process, he has also given us the finest history we have yet of modern Phoenix, a massive metropolis whose consequence is cloaked by its reputation for sun, golf and right-wing politics. This is a must-read."-Jon Talton, author of South Phoenix Rules and former columnist for The Arizona Republic

"A must-read for anyone who thinks that city transitions to more sustainable policies and practices are a snap." —American Scientist

"Examines the troubling prospects for sustainability in the sprawing city of Pheonix, Ariz.; draws on interviews with 200 planners, developers, politicians, and other influential residents."—The Chronicle Review

"...terrifying, maddening, depressing and hopeful all at once. Kind of like Phoenix itself." - Tucson Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199828265
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
11/03/2011
Pages:
312
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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