Books recently read – Bird on Fire by Andrew Ross

After the last post on Alex Loftus’ Everyday Environmentalism, here, as promised, is my review and recommendation of Andrew Ross’ latest book.

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

“If Phoenix could become sustainable, then it could be done anywhere.” This is the premise of Andrew Ross’ Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. In it he delves deep into the social, political and cultural milieu of Greater Phoenix, located in the hostile Sonoran desert where summer temperatures regularly hit 38°C, and the south-western state of Arizona notorious for that most brutal of border crossings with Mexico and draconian immigration laws. Over 250 pages, Ross attempts to excavate the social conditions to which adequate and just solutions to anthropogenic climate change and wider ecological crises must ultimately respond.

Ross does not want to “quibble” – as some inevitably will – over his designation of Phoenix as the ‘least’ sustainable. Rather he asks we accept it is a close contender, a city which has “channeled the national appetite for unrestrained growth” more than any other in the post-war period, a model which is “a clear threat to life and land in places even more vulnerable than the Valley of the Sun” (p. 15). He asserts that the lessons to be drawn here are different, yet perhaps more important, than those from the supposed success stories of urban sustainability. Climate change requires a response from everybody, with no opt-outs and which leaves nobody behind, if it is to avoid the reproduction and perpetuation of ‘eco-apartheid’. It is not just that Phoenix is a disproportionate contributor to ecological degradation. Many of the fastest growing cities are situated in similarly vulnerable semi-arid regions of the world, and solutions produced in Arizona may well be applicable in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Based on interviews with 200 of Greater Phoenix’s “more active citizens” (p. 18), and contextualised through a broad range of desk research, this comprehensive book covers water management, urban growth and sprawl, pollution and environmental justice, downtown revitalisation, the solar industry, race and immigration politics, and urban farming. I won’t go into the topics in detail, but there are a few things which stuck out for me. For those interested I have embedded a lecture Ross gave on the book at Columbia University at the bottom of this post.

Firstly, the author makes a compelling argument that the concept of intergenerational justice tends to look too exclusively into the future, rather than the present, and especially the past. This may seem an obvious point, especially for those familiar with the tenets of climate justice and ecological debt. It is however one which Ross demonstrates expertly here, particularly through engagement with local environmental justice campaigns in the chapter ‘Living Downstream’. Particularly interesting here too is how the last supposedly ‘green’ post-industrial economy, which would transform quality of life in the developed world, has continued to produce and release highly toxic waste products, often in the near vicinity of poor non-white neighbourhoods. Will things be different with the production of new green technology, components for renewable energy generation and the like? For Ross this is a prime example of why social justice must remain at the very heart of any sustainable future.

Secondly, condensed around the issue of the Mexican border crossing, the complex spatial relationships and ultimately global entanglements of social ecology and political economy are laid bare. Ross shows how the injustice of economic policies imposed through NAFTA, and increasingly the displaced climatic implications of the Phoenix model of growth, are driving migration flows – as the social and environmental consequences of late capitalism are unequally borne out by those with the fewest resources to deal with them. It is the contemporary governmental reaction to those processes, which form the heart of Ross’ take on the politics of resilience in Phoenix and Arizona at its most dystopian. As ever, his critique is lucid and well-aimed. He pulls apart the various and contradictory conservative narratives of free market capitalism, climate change denialism and the latent neo-Malthusianism of the American imagination, crystallised in the brutal and racist anti-immigration policies of Arizona. An authoritarian and militarised response to climate change is here and now, propagated by the interventions of insidious organisations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). As he writes in his introduction, “a more ominous future beckons in the form of triage crisis management, where populations are explicitly selected out for protection, in eco-enclaves, or for abandonment, outside the walls” (p. 17).

Bird on Fire is incredibly effective at showing how Phoenix’s unsustainability and the social injustice that has gone with it, has always been a highly contingent process. It has been the result of particular political decisions and struggles, at multiple scales and in different places, past and present. There is nothing natural or inevitable about our (social) ecological predicament. Ross’ repeated referral back to the fate of the area’s former civilisation, the Hohokam, and the choices made which ultimately led to its own demise, is illuminating and helpful in this regard. As with most of Ross’ books, Bird on Fire is thoroughly engaging, well written and structured. It is easily accessible for those outside the academy, while remaining sharp in its analysis and subtle in its overall complexity*.

The book has its limitations nonetheless. Ross appears to implicitly accept the positions of eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster and Joel Kovel, both through the overall tone of the book and his lack of rebuttal of their analysis in his conclusion. Nevertheless he seems to shy away from explicitly calling capitalism out as the structural and systemic driver of the socio-ecological crisis. Though Ross is far from ideological, my thought was that this is perhaps more a tactical move than lack of conviction. As a result the book may seem more reformist than revolutionary. The logical implications of the way he wants us to place social justice at the heart of sustainability and resilience though are certainly radical. And Ross pulls no punches when dealing with the pretensions of techno-fixers, or the growing ‘pseudoscientific’ obsession of gauging the “carbon footprint of every product and every personal act … reducing our actions and use of material things to a dull data set” (p. 16).

The result however, somewhat paradoxically, is that getting a full grasp of the task ahead is a little difficult. It is unequivocally not a blueprint for policy, though the book has lessons for policymakers. The greening of cities, as part of an open-ended process of urbanisation, will be a “grand act of improvisation,” (p. 20) he says. The transformation he believes necessary will though come up against powerful vested interests and opposition which will block, co-opt and frustrate progress – his book is testament to this. There are plenty of hopeful seeds documented here, inspirational people and stories told, but their struggles remain fragmented and mostly defensive, as they have been for decades. I’m left wondering about strategy, the possibility of social recomposition and organisation so clearly necessary to avoid eco-apartheid. Of course Ross can’t be expected to provide the answers for these seemingly perennial questions of progressive movements – of which he is a very active part – but that they remain unacknowledged for me is an error. These minor criticisms and differences of opinion should not detract however from the strength of this book. Bird on Fire is a splendid offering that I thoroughly recommend reading.

Below is a talk Ross gave on the book at Columbia University in late 2011.


* It was The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life that really first stoked my own critical engagement with environmental politics, on the recommendation of Sherilyn MacGregor near the beginning of my Masters degree at Keele


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