Todd Martin's Reviews > Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City

Bird on Fire by Andrew Ross
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May 02, 12

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bookshelves: culture-politics
Read in May, 2012

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 this annoys me to no end. It’s a shame many authors are willing to sacrifice their integrity for a sensationalistic title just to sell a few extra copies.

At any rate, the book investigates such topics as energy, pollution, water resources, sprawl, jobs, urban renewal, immigration, and growth. There is no doubt that Phoenix struggles with each of these problems and Ross does a decent job documenting the issues themselves and the failure of the state and local businesses to address them.

A few things I felt Ross could have been done better:
1. In his discussion of the environment, he focuses too much on groundwater pollution. While solvent contamination of the groundwater under Phoenix is not a good thing, the reality is that no one is getting their drinking water from these contaminated plumes. A much better issue for Ross to have focused his attention would have been air quality, something that everyone experiences (since everyone breaths). Bad air quality leads to elevated rates of emergency room admittances and premature deaths of the elderly and those suffering from asthma and is far more important to resident’s health than the groundwater contamination Ross discusses.
2. Ross gives more credence and influence to fringe individuals and groups than they deserve in some cases. While colorful and perhaps motivated by noble ambitions, the reality is that their influence remains small and in certain instances the individuals are notoriously lacking in credibility.
3. In his discussion of immigration Ross seems to conflate the immigrants that cross the border from Mexico to Arizona with environmental refugees fleeing rising sea levels as a result of global warming. Perhaps I misunderstood his point, but the fact that he kept raising the two issues together as if they were related, at best muddies the waters. I don’t think there is any doubt that immigration is occurring solely due to economic considerations. I also have to take issue with his characterization of any form of discussion relating to population control as “eugenics”. It rivals the absurdity of the Catholic Church’s conflation of contraception with abortion.

So … in the end what is the biggest “Lesson from the World's Least Sustainable City”? Probably the most important one is … whatever Phoenix has done … do exactly the opposite.
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