Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City PART 1

Phoenix gets a lot of attention from the rest of the country. Some is positive; some is negative. If you want to read an eloquent summary of the negative aspects, read this book:
"Bird on Fire" is a recently published critique of the city of Phoenix from an outsiders perspective. The author, Andrew Ross, is a Professor of Sociology at New York University. I will be reviewing this book to see what lessons can be learned from it and how we can use his suggestions and ideas at the garden.

First things first, the author neglects to define how he defines "sustainability." Since it is a pretty loaded term, I will give you a common definition:

The most common view is the environmental aspect of sustainability and, for the most part, the author of "Bird on Fire" describes that aspect. This includes long term issues as water depletion, air pollution, loss of plant and animal life, etc.
However, it is worth noting that there is a proportion of the population that believe that humans don't have a significant effect on their environment. So, if you are reading this and don't particularly care for the environment, please bear with me. Why? Well, non-environmentalists should be interested in this book because there are two other important aspects of sustainability that you should care about: social and financial.

Social sustainability is based on the needs of the individual person in environments increasingly built for other goals. This includes the effects of large isolated houses and car based transportation that results in very limited face to face interaction between individuals. Without face to face interactions, individuals can feel less connected and socialized with the people they they live near. This is just one example of how a society can be socially unsustainable.

Financial sustainability, the final pillar that societies need, is a fairly straightforward but frequently forgotten aspect of sustainability. If a system can't make enough money to sustain itself, it won't last very long.

Now that you have a working definition of sustainability and a New York author has published a 200 page book summarizing how Phoenix is "the world's least sustainable city", you should probably be pretty defensive. The author's response is two fold. First, he states that Phoenix might not be the least sustainable city, but it's so close to the bottom that it will work for the sake of starting an important discussion. His second point relates to his core inspiration for writing the book. He argues that most environmental literature focuses on the cities that are doing well environmentally (Portland, Seattle, Austin, San Fransisco, etc.), but those are the low hanging fruit of increasing sustainability. He wants to focus on the cities that are the least sustainable because if the most important lessons will be learned while trying to turn the most difficult cities around.

Basically, he wants the United States to look at Phoenix, with it's harsh desert environment and spread out infrastructure, as an experiment on how to turn society around in the most difficult of circumstances. In the end, the topic of this book is dire, but provides the average Phoenician with an inspiring challenge to fix their city.
Hopefully I can find some new ideas for the community garden and for our little corner of the Phoenix area.

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