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

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  181 ratings  ·  35 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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Jan 23, 2013 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
Mar 26, 2012 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
Paul Frandano
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
Laura Callanan
Feb 14, 2013 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
I wanted a book about Phoenix and may be feeling unduly harsh that this is a much broader book about the American Southwest, immigration, and environmentalism that rarely focuses for long on the actual nitty gritty of urban life and planning in the specified city. Ross has some interesting ideas and anecdotes to share (I particularly appreciated the section on environmental justice and the take-down of FAIR), but their disorganized arrangement and lack of thorough sourcing makes me want to ship ...more
Douglas Edward
Feb 21, 2014 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
Apr 21, 2014 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
Full Stop
Jun 11, 2014 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.”
Tyler Hurst
Mar 31, 2012 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.
Beth Allen
Apr 10, 2012 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.
Apr 27, 2012 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.
Jul 10, 2012 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."
Alice Lemon
I'm not sure that this book was the best place for me to start learning about Phoenix, but it did cover enough of the city's history and geography for it to be a reasonable introduction. As I expected, it discussed the city's water issues at some length, but it also brought up environmental justice issues related to air pollution and the city's manufacturing economy, which was particularly interesting, since I hadn't really realized that Phoenix had a major manufacturing economy.

I do wish that A
Dec 07, 2019 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this book - I am interested in development and sustainability, and especially how we can best approach those as we move into the era of fighting climate change while large masses of people move to the cities.

In theory, the premise of the book is to explore the successes and failures of the development of Phoenix. The book begins with the history of Phoenix and an overview of its water sourcing, but quickly devolves into tangents and jargon, making the point of each chapter as mu
Todd Martin
Jan 14, 2012 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
Dan Schiff
Jun 08, 2012 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
Dani Arribas-bel
Nov 22, 2011 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
May 19, 2012 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
Tim Hoiland
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essay
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
Jeffrey W.
Feb 26, 2014 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
Jan 24, 2012 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
Jul 21, 2013 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 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
May 10, 2015 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
Aug 08, 2013 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
Ashley Russell
Oct 19, 2013 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.
Jun 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Really interesting stuff, but a slow/academic read. Makes me want to visit Phoenix even less, but also applicable to urban places and the greater southwest area in general. A perfect comprehensive read after taking environmental sociology: sustainable urbanism, sprawl, native Americans, risk society, treadmill vs eco mod, gardening and metabolic rift, resource scarcity, EJ and EH, etc. Definitely interested in reading more stuff by this author.
Jul 24, 2016 rated it liked it
This book makes a really strong argument and it's an important intervention amid hoopla around sustainability and "smart growth." It starts off well, but does get a little dry and technical in the middle. From a teaching perspective, I could imagine teaching this in a graduate or advanced undergraduate course to students with a high tolerance for detail, and who also don't demand bland objectivity.
Dec 11, 2012 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.
Apr 10, 2012 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.
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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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121 likes · 117 comments
“In retrospect, it is fair to conclude that the message of Limits to Growth was not ignored. It did get through to the elites for whom it was prepared, and they responded by squirreling away whatever resources they could carry off from the commonwealth. Denial is the term commonly used to describe resistance to evidence of climate change and other ecological threats. Yet the cumulative record of this steady pillage suggests the opposite has been occurring.” 0 likes
“Yet it has to be recognized that these checklists conform to managerial norms of measuring sustainability because they are made up of easily quantifiable items: more solar roofs, less airborne particulates; more transit riders, less water use per capital; more housing density, less golf courses. Greening the world, from this standpoint, suggests that the ecological crisis can be fixed by making slight technical adjustments to people's habits and interactions with their daily environments. When sustainability is defined by a set of metrics, it reflects a purely physical understanding of how societies strive to be ecologically resilient. By contrast, there are no indexes for measuring environmental justice, no indicators for judging equity of access to the green life, and no technical quantum for assessing the social sustainability of a population. The vogue for green governance by the numbers is a recipe for managing, rather than correcting, inequality.” 0 likes
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