Andrew Ross' Bird on Fire Outlines Phoenix's Fundamental Problems and How We May Fix Them

I am sitting in a downtown cafe, waiting for an out-of-town friend and reading the galleys of a new book that calls Phoenix "the world's least sustainable city." Outside, a television news reporter is asking people seated under the misting system how they feel about the record-breaking heat.

"Ask them what they think about our inadequate use of solar power!" I want to shout to her. "Why not inquire about open-space preservation? Or how we're a big city with no city center?"

It's August; I've been perspiring for a half a year, and I'm grouchy. I'm also wound up, because this book — Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross, to be published in November — 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. Our salvation, Ross writes, will be in brokering sustainability ourselves; he suggests that waiting for local government to address global warming's impact on the Valley is foolhardy and, perhaps, a little irresponsible.

The author, a professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University who's published books and articles about labor and the environment, interviewed some 200 Phoenicians — urban planners, green living advocates, legislators, lobbyists, artists, business owners — and has compiled scary stories about (and thrilling possibilities for the recovery of) Phoenix. Instead of taking the wearying position that we can save ourselves with new and greater technology, or simply assessing the many obstacles to living well and responsibly in Phoenix, Ross considers our potential for sustainability.

In perhaps the most compelling and moving chapter of the book, Ross describes how our anti-immigrant sentiments have impacted our prospects for urban sustainability. The challenge, Ross writes, "would be to transform the trauma inflicted by harsh anti-immigrant policies and racial profiling into a climate of respect and cooperation." This, he argues, would increase the possibility for success of green goals "tied to equity and social inclusion," rather than having them buried under decades of animosity and exclusion. (SB 1070, anyone?)

Ross draws a chilling parallel between our state's anti-immigrant positioning and those of northern American cities of the 1970s, when African-American workers, lured to steel mills and factory jobs in the Northeast, were left jobless when these workplaces relocated to non-union Southern states. He explains how taking work away from communities whose residents came here expressly because we promised them jobs impacts not only our economy but the health of these migrant communities.

Rather than simply skewer our town as a failed experiment, Ross uses Phoenix as a sort of warning: If we, one of the fastest-growing cities around, can't get our sustainability act together, then everyone's doomed.

It doesn't help, I'm thinking as my friend arrives, that our newscasts are full of bimbos pretending to be startled by how hot it is here in August.

My friend sits down beside me. "Sorry I'm late," he says. "I got lost. I always do when I come here — all those one-way streets. And my car is an oven. How come you don't have any covered parking?"

That, I think to myself, is the least of our troubles.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela