[Oxford University Press; 2011]

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.” Nowadays, when asked where I’m from, I feel compelled to insert asterisks in my answer. “I grew up in Arizona — but haven’t lived there for eight years,” I’ll say. This distinction is necessary for us natives to affirm that our state wasn’t always a punch line; it was only recently that we devolved into a recognizable unflattering stereotype, like Texas, East St. Louis or Gary, Indiana.

Of all the four-letter words leveled at Arizona, “green” is rarely one of them. From a strictly literal perspective, green isn’t even a color which dominates the landscape: the Sonoran and Mojave deserts are vast terrains of white sand, punctuated by blue bushes and stately saguaro cacti. The state is landlocked; no beaches to despoil here, and so much of the state’s land is archetypal desert desolation it is hard to imagine land being a limited resource. These prickly facts, along with our inherently anti-communitarian Wild West mentality, make Arizona an especially poor state for any kind of collective social action, “greening” included.

For this reason it’s always been especially hard for labor activism — the state has some of the harshest “Right to work,” or anti-union, laws on the books — and the same goes for environmentalism, at least from a planning perspective. Harnessing a sense of collective responsibility among Arizonans is so hopelessly challenging, it is remarkable that someone as intellectually venerable as Andrew Ross would dare take on such an issue. Dr. Ross, a Scottish-born professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, seems an unlikely candidate to write about policy and community issues in a Western desert state. His previous work is diverse, and includes pseudo-ethnographies like The Celebration Chronicles, about the master-planned Disney community of Celebration, Florida; No Collar and Nice Work if You Can Get it, two books about labor; and an early-career book about technocracy and weather-watchers called Strange Weather. The ominously titled Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City is the end product of his extensive research into Phoenix, including long stints living in and traveling around the state. Remarkably, his intense devotion to interviewing major Arizonan figures and understanding Byzantine issues of planning makes him a better Arizona apologist than a native like me could ever hope to be.

Bird on Fire‘s subject matter is as fascinating as its approach. One does not expect a New York intellectual to deign to tackle a Pandora’s Box like Phoenix, but Ross so effectively lowers himself from the ivory tower that you might forget he was ever from there. He interviews everyone from the Phoenix zookeeper to the state’s legislators, a dimwitted pack of uniquely paranoiac, anti-intellectual hyperconservatives. (One imagines he neglected to inform the legislators of his Marxist leanings; several of his subjects actually believe global warming and public transit are communist plots.)

To anyone who has never lived in Arizona, the scope and scale of its problems are astounding and totally unlike other American states. Phoenix constitutes what environmentalists call a “heat island,” meaning its mass of concrete and asphalt trap the heat in the daytime and keep it hot at night. Summer temperatures can remain in the high 90s or even 100s at midnight, and may increase further as climate change continues. Some think it will be uninhabitable in twenty years’ time. The city obtains its water supply from the federally funded Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 330 mile re-routing of the Colorado river and the most expensive public water works project in American history. The city is literally dependent on the federal project for survival. Given the state’s notorious libertarian, anti-federal politics, Ross is well aware of this hypocrisy. As in the desert “paradise” of Dubai, the resources are not even conserved well; the metro area city of Tempe used CAP water to build a billion-gallon recreational lake from which half a billion gallons of water evaporate annually.

The Phoenix metro area has few major industries, aside from development and construction, meaning its populace is comprised of people who are “building homes for people who build homes,” as Ross wryly writes. Legislators had multiple chances to stimulate the growth of a green tech industry in Phoenix, yet balked at the opportunity for conservative, ideological reasons. Now, the growing underclass works primarily in the service sector. Apart from a massive network of freeways and a scant-used bus service, a single public light rail line offers the lone alternative public transit means. Income inequality in the metro area is vast, and growing; the foreclosure crisis hit the city hard, unsurprising given that their only industry was building in the first place.

Clearly, the challenges to true sustainability are immense. And while Ross is appropriately critical, he is also quick to highlight progressive successes, including the Gila River Indians’ campaign to win back their water rights. As with any large city–the metro area is around 4 million–there is a fairly diverse cross-section of activism, including guerrilla farmers and a well-organized bobo segment fighting gentrification.

While the content varies and moves quickly across subject and neighborhood, Ross is careful to avoid a didactic approach. He depicts the issues surrounding environmental justice in a multifaceted and nuanced manner. Overall, the characters tend to fall into one of about a half-dozen sides: the urban brown poor, the environmentalists, corporate idealists, self-interested developers, radical activists and coalition-building politicians.

Depicting all these sides goes against the grain of a natural storyline—there are no “good” or “bad” guys in the strict sense—and so the story never quite wraps up as neatly as a novel might. Still, Ross’s story is comprehensive and challenging. With tiny brushstrokes, Ross paints a vivid portrait of a semi-urban wasteland at odds with itself: politically stuck, locally disaffected and likely ecologically doomed. Ultimately, everyone seems frustrated with their political opponents, and even somewhat resigned to their fate. “I do not understand why the organism has not designed ways of existing where there is a secure pattern of life,” says Jeff Williamson, president of the Arizona Zoological Society. “It creates risk for itself, and it has decided that that boom and bust cycle is of greater value than sustainability.” One gets the impression that Ross shares his perspective, though he still tackles the city’s problems with enthusiasm, adopting Gramsci’s motto, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

While Ross is a brilliant integrator of data and interviews, his writing doesn’t crackle with the same kind of voice common to the best New Journalists and ethnographers, folks like Janice Radway or Ted Conover. Rather, Ross’ writing is firmly in the academic, policy-wonk vein—the book is an intensely researched, carefully constructed story that weaves together an astonishing number of characters into a polished narrative.

The take-home message, as Ross illustrates, is that Arizona’s environmental consciousness, its racists and its congressional would-be assassins are part of the same problem: the inability of locals to organize and even understand themselves as a community. Were this the case, we would see legislators fighting for better planning, mental health services and green jobs with the same moxie with which they fight for land privatization and relaxed gun control laws. The success of community organizing measures form the crux of Ross’ ultimate message of a green-communitarianism that he subtly touts. Yet as he also makes clear, it is not apparent when or how this could ever come to pass. Meanwhile climate change, water scarcity and political gridlock continue to threaten the state’s habitability.

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