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

3.57  ·  Rating Details  ·  122 Ratings  ·  29 Reviews
Phoenix, Arizona is one of America's fastest growing metropolitan regions. It is also its least sustainable one, sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.
In Bird on Fire, eminent social and cultural analyst Andr
Hardcover, 312 pages
Published November 3rd 2011 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published October 6th 2011)
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Feb 21, 2013 Justin rated it it was amazing
Bird on Fire might seem, on the surface, an odd choice to give five stars to as it's not really a book most people would just pick up and read. It's about urban planning for one, and even more specifically, the way truly progressive planning gets hampered by the political powers that be. Secondly, it's dry as hell, a tome utterly fixated on presenting evidence depicting the ways policy dictates sustainability. Thirdly, it's about Phoenix of all places, which has to be one of the least desirable ...more
Paul Frandano
Sep 19, 2012 Paul Frandano rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economy, cities, water
Many of us read in the hope that, from time to time, we might come across a book that will change our lives; avid readers occasionally have this experience and are alert to its recurrence. Ross's Bird on Fire whacked me onto more or less a different path of reasoning, and in that sense, certainly opened up some possibilities. His topic is the City of Phoenix, AZ, and what I'd like to say is "sustainable growth" - in parched climes like that of Phoenix, perhaps a virtual oxymoron - but instead it ...more
Mar 28, 2012 Carol rated it really liked it
In case you couldn't tell from the clever title, the city is Phoenix, and the book is depressing. The city should not exist, really, unless it reduced itself to about 40,000 residents who live in xeriscaped adobe huts. Phoenix is the product of rampant boosterism attracting highly polluting and totally boom-and-bust-cycle-dependent businesses, the biggest of which is housing. The city could have let the world in solar energy development, but for many frustrating reasons, has not. If there is a g ...more
Full Stop
Jun 11, 2014 Full Stop added it
Shelves: fall-2012

Review by Keith Spencer

It’s a bad time to be an Arizonan. Even my mother, who expatriated from New York 30 years ago, admitted to me recently that our Arizona heritage had become “an embarrassment.” In the past few years the state of my birth, once known for its desert landscape and cowboy history, has been reduced to a string of diminutives in certain, generally liberal coastal circles: “That racist state, with the crazy governor and the fascist sheriff.”
Apr 21, 2014 Emily rated it liked it
Shelves: school
Invited by Future Arts Research, an Arizona State University institute, to “come and do research of [his] choosing in Phoenix”(19), Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University endeavored “to take the social and political temperature of Metro Phoenix” (17). Historical research and 200 interviews with the region’s “more thoughtful, influential, and active citizens” (17) prove the Sunbelt a feverish place, whose post-war metropolitan growth provides a nationally in ...more
Douglas Edward
Feb 21, 2014 Douglas Edward rated it did not like it
It first has to be asked, if the author in his two years in the valley practiced what he preached. Did he eat all vegetarian food in the valley and throughout his life outside of the valley (meat is shown to be one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases)? Did he take public transportation everywhere or walk? Did he find a green book manufacturer to publish his book? All too often these "educators" of sustainability, wish to dictate to the people how they live their lives, while at the s ...more
Laura Callanan
Mar 07, 2013 Laura Callanan rated it it was amazing
This terrific book discusses the intersecting questions of sustainability at play in what he argues is the least sustainable city Phoenix, AZ. The author looks at urban sprawl, local agriculture, immigration issues, Eco-apartheid and urban planning as issues through which to understand how a place like Phoenix struggles with the need for a new way to approach urban growth and ecological sustainability. Ultimately, the author argues that it all comes down to questions of equity and environmental ...more
Tyler Hurst
Apr 07, 2012 Tyler Hurst rated it liked it
Not the damning manifesto I expected, but rather a fact-based look at the fragility of Phoenix and cities like it.

A must-read for anyone interested in what too many people think is the city of the future. If we did ever live in the clouds or in space, it would look a lot like Phoenix.
Apr 27, 2012 Lori rated it really liked it
Good overview of political and institutional challenges to sustainability. Ross concludes that efforts towards sustainability should be led by principles of equality, but maybe doesn't go far enough in his critique of capitalism. The history of Phoenix is a really interesting story too.
Beth Allen
Apr 10, 2012 Beth Allen rated it really liked it
They should hand a copy of this to anyone who moves to greater Phoenix from out of town. Fair warning, if your politics are right of center you'll take issue with it. Is it accurate? Well, it's a starting point for investigation, that's for sure.
May 10, 2015 Marc rated it liked it
Lived in Phoenix during much of the main time period the author researched this book, and it does a splendid job at explaining the social scene in the diversity of communities in the Phoenix metro, which never fully made sense to me. It is actually a bit more optimistic in tone and with its anecdotal success stories than one may assume at the outset.

I did take note of a number of shots the author takes at Mormons, which he often fails to provide sufficient supporting evidence. Perhaps he is con
Jul 10, 2012 Danielle marked it as to-read
Shelves: scholarly
I grew up a couple hundred miles north of Phoenix and it was always that Shining City in the Valley, so I'm quite intrigued by this book about it as the "world's least sustainable city."
Todd Martin
May 02, 2012 Todd Martin rated it liked it
Shelves: culture-politics
Bird on Fire is about the problems faced by many big cities (using Phoenix, Arizona as an example). Ross’s contention is that if these problems can be solved in Phoenix (where the hurdles are large due to the limited resources of the desert and the misplaced reliance of the state legislature on ideology over critical thinking and problem solving) that they can be solved anywhere. Ross admits up front that the book’s subtitle Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City is pure hyperbole, and ...more
Tim Hoiland
Jul 19, 2013 Tim Hoiland rated it really liked it
When Andrew Ross first came to the Phoenix, he was interested in learning what local artists were doing to revitalize downtown, a desert city with an urban core that, to many urbanists, leaves much to be desired. No city exists in a vacuum, however, and Ross soon came to the conclusion that to understand Phoenix he had to understand the story of the other cities and sprawling suburbs throughout the valley. It was through this research that he concluded that the Phoenix metro area — which include ...more
Dani Arribas-bel
Mar 18, 2012 Dani Arribas-bel rated it really liked it
The book is an attempt to critically evaluate the concept of sustainability in the metropolitan area of Phoenix, keeping always an eye on the lessons and aspects that may apply beyond the region. Throughout eight chapters, the author exposes his view backed up by an extensive literature review as well as numerous interviews to activists, academics, politicians and citizens engaged in the struggles and key issues of the future of the city. Recognizing its usual low priority in the the policy agen ...more
Dan Schiff
Aug 01, 2012 Dan Schiff rated it liked it
Bird on Fire is half dense academic research project and half passionate screed against ecological degradation. Ross's best writing comes at the book's beginning and end, when he sets out the harsh realities regarding climate change and resource depletion. He calls out many modern technology and development initiatives labeled "green" or "sustainable" as merely perpetuating eco-apartheid, allowing the privileged classes to continue hoarding resources, including water and clean energy, for themse ...more
Jan 23, 2013 Tom rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, policy
This book is a fantastically interesting read. The title might make it seem like it would be a philippic against the Sun Belt migration, but it is far more nuanced than that. The book delves into many factors that make cities sustainable or unsustainable. Phoenix has particular issues of water scarcity and the heat island effect that pose unique challenges, especially with anthropogenic climate change, but there are many other issues that apply to all cities. In many ways Phoenix is a parable fo ...more
Jeffrey W.
Jul 06, 2014 Jeffrey W. rated it really liked it
"The vogue for green governance by the numbers is a recipe for managing, rather than correcting, inequality."

The passionate, lively Andrew Ross I knew from The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town and Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal seemed to be missing here--except for the stellar concluding summary chapter, which appears to serve as a through-line between those two books. That said, this is still an excellent read, and worthwh
Ben Lowy
Jul 30, 2014 Ben Lowy rated it it was amazing
I've been wanting to read this book for quite some time and was only prevented from doing so because of my inability to find it in any bookstore. Once I got a hold of a copy, however, I was not disappointed.

It is evident from his style of writing, as well as the subject that matter, that Ross is a proponent of sustainable development, in that social, economic and environmental factors must all be considered for future development. Ross addresses the individual issues faced by Phoenix and then us
Robert Dormer
Aug 18, 2013 Robert Dormer rated it liked it
I started this one with high hopes. Phoenix is, in many ways, emblematic of a number of wider trends in our society that are unsustainable, and anyone with an interest in the subject of how civilizations thrive and decline would do well to study it. To the author's credit, he's intensely passionate about the topic - anyone who puts in as much footwork as he did would have to be - but passion can get to a point where you lose the interest of any potential audience. Ross zooms his microscope in so ...more
Feb 04, 2013 Luis rated it really liked it
An interesting look at the rise of Phoenix and it impact on the environment around it. It takes a detailed look at the influence of politics and business has had in creating a city that eats up natural resources with little or no return. Opportunities and options to create a better city have been made according to this book, but private business and politics have worked together to create an model of growth and pollution that in the long run may doom the region. I honestly got a little bored at ...more
Aug 20, 2013 Alice rated it really liked it
I was quite pleasantly surprised by this book - it starts with water (of course) which I am quite familiar with in Arizona (once worked in water there), so I would know if he got it completely wrong, which most writers do. But, he really got down to the basic problems pretty well, in a short and readable way. It made me believe the analysis in the rest of the book more than I would have otherwise. Enjoyable, especially if you have any knowledge of the housing boom in the southwest and the attitu ...more
Dec 18, 2015 Kate rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Tea partiers, sprawlers, sunbirds
Recommended to Kate by: APL
Shelves: urbanism
“Behind every rugged individualist is a government agency.”
Nov 22, 2013 Ashley rated it liked it
If I could, I would give this book 3.5 stars. While I was excited to read a book that might offer me some insight as to why, as an ecologist, I hate living in Phoenix so much, I found the book to be too pedantic. Facts and figures are hard enough to digest by themselves so having to look up words every other page became tedious and distracted from the main points of the book. Overall, I thought the content was interesting and informative, once you ignored the way it was written.
Dec 11, 2012 Crystal rated it really liked it
An impressively thorough look at how Phoenix serves as a microcosm of the obstacles to major changes in our approach to the environment. The chapter linking immigration and environmental policy is especially good.
Oct 20, 2013 Howard rated it it was ok
there's a lot of information here, much of it transferable to other environments than Phoenix. However, the dryness and relative low readability of the book make it a chore to get through.
May 07, 2013 Karen rated it really liked it
Very intriguing read. Starts incredibly strong, but becomes a bit rushed toward the end. An excellent template for investigations into the politics and problematics of sustainability.
Apr 10, 2012 Jeramey rated it liked it
Shelves: urbanism
A good pairing with Desert Visions. Neither of the books knocked my socks off, but I feel like I now know quite a bit about Phoenix after reading the two.
Gilda Felt
Mar 18, 2013 Gilda Felt rated it liked it
Not exactly what I expected, with more time spent on development over what that development did.
Eli marked it as to-read
Apr 28, 2016
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Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. A contributor to The Nation, the Village Voice, New York Times, and Artforum, he is the author of many books, including, most recently, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City and Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times.
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