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

Bird on Fire book cover

Phoenix, Arizona is a sprawling metropolis in one of the world’s hottest places. And it has a long way to go before it can be considered “green.”

Andrew Ross, a professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, wrote Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. His book is based on 200 interviews over two years concerning the  likelihood of the Phoenix area becoming sustainable.

What resulted from his work is a gripping analysis of government’s effect on making positive environmental changes. In Phoenix, he claims, those in charge are not doing what’s necessary to preserve the region for future generations.

I recently finished reading this book, and I recommend it, largely because Ross points out that a number of important environmental issues in Phoenix can be applied to other American cities struggling in their attempts for sustainability. These include the roadblocks at the legislative level, local culture, use of natural resources, business interests, and urban design.

Ross illustrates his points with thorough research and timely examples and often addresses the reader directly. As a former journalist, I was amazed at the interviewing skills he must possess to glean so much information from his subjects. Despite writing a nonfiction book focused on analyzing a social and environmental problem, Ross’ prose as a result of his field work is remarkable and page-turning.

Published in November 2011 by Oxford University Press, the book is available on Amazon:
Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City

Ross’ main argument that change will happen through democracy more than through technological innovation is repeatedly supported throughout the chapters. He discusses that changes in sustainability will be difficult in Phoenix because of the state’s government. Namely, Ross mentions the GOP denial of climate change and how persuading Arizona’s legislature to be more green is a losing battle. Ross discusses the legislature’s dismissal of science as well as the impact of recent anti-immigration laws.

He also writes about how change will be difficult because of the area’s mentality—namely, a narrow focus on growth and sprawl.  What others see as sprawl, Phoenix residents see as their heritage and have the mentality that growth must continuously occur quickly. Ross states that land growth is essentially the area’s industry.

Bird on Fire is a great book for anyone who is curious about sustainability issues facing American cities. It can bring you up-to-date on the topic regardless of your current knowledge of the subject. Because of the vivid examples, it will spring you into action and make you think about what you can do to make your area a little more green.

The Fine Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

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Brigette Fanning

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)