Book Review: Bird on Fire

Sustainable Culture: A Review of Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire

Last year, the Southwest slogged through one of the most acute droughts on record and in 2012 similar conditions have moved north – choking the Midwest with reservoir and crop destroying drought. As yet another record-breaking summer comes to a close it become evermore apparent that communities need to find better ways to manage the environment. But better management is not always synonymous with better technology and contemporary ecologists must understand cultural relationships as much as environmental ones to find a viable solution to environmental crises. Phoenix Arizona provides an example of the necessity of interdisciplinary environmental solutions as the city is home to numerous superfund sites, perennial drought, and sprawling development. The environmental crisis has become so acute in Phoenix that city critics publically question the viability of a large city in the Sonoran desert. Yet, Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross’s latest book from Oxford press, navigates the rough Arizona terrain to uncover sparks of hope he believes are capable of ultimately converting Phoenix to a sustainable city. At first glance, this book seems a departure from Ross’s recent works on labor: Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (2009) and Fast Boat to China: Corporate Flight and the Consequences of Free Trade- Lesson from Shanghai (2006), each of which explored labor practices under neoliberalism. But Ross is at home in his role as urban sociologist and he brings his previous work on political economy to a discussion of ecology and urban renewal.

In Bird on Fire Ross outlines the need to understand environmental problems as social rather than technological issues. Therefore the way to study environmental problems is through an examination of how a particular culture currently searching for a path to sustainability and the relationship the community has to power. The way for Ross to get an accurate view of events in Phoenix is through a broad ethnography detailing points of environmental conflict. Ross interviewed and observed over 200 citizens of Phoenix over a period of three years. His subjects included land developers, politicians, scientists in a multitude of fields, and community activists. Some interviews were structured, while others were conversations occurring while Ross accompanied them in their work, protests or, in one instance, climbing the border fence between Mexico and the United States.

Each chapter explores a different ecological conflict, so although he is technically working within the same geographic site his research spans across multiple topics. Ross twists his way though issues surrounding water scarcity, the political push for unbridled growth arising out of ill-conceived business strategies and ethical failures, the political support for immoral immigration policies and the success story of Gila River Indian Community. The presentation of this book may at times mimic a purely journalistic work because he uncovers and reports on a variety of topics. However, this is a political study designed to discover and analyze cultural behavior, and more importantly, show the interactions of the varied cultural groups within Phoenix. In this way, Ross is firmly planted within an ethnographic tradition.

Although cramming a text into tidy buckets can be problematic, in this case labeling Bird on Fire as cultural ethnography is a helpful way to understand how Ross conceives of the cultural and environmental issues he finds in Phoenix. So why use ethnography, a qualitative method, to discuss a topic that is ultimately a problem for science, and requires objective, quantifiable, ‘hard data’? For Ross, ecology is not reducible to calculation. Solving environmental issues with a purely ‘scientific’ or technological solution is ineffective because technology is not equally deployed across class or ethnic lines. Ross constructs the argument that, for a solution to be possible, it must take into account the socio-economic status of the local culture. Technology only solves part of the problem, and without understanding the culture even the best technology will never be adopted on a scale large enough to have real environmental impact. In other words, the research method echoes the conclusions.

Ross offers the qualitative data of ethnographic research as the most efficient way to work through the myriad issues surrounding climate change and environmental crisis. He poses the question: “What if the key to sustainability lies in innovating healthy pathways out of poverty for populations at risk, rather than marketing green gizmos to those who already have many options to choose from?” (Ross 239). He goes on to say, the “green gizmos” are compatible poverty reduction, but that if all we concentrate on is making life better for those that can afford it, we are in danger of creating a “closed circle of experts who, regardless of their technical prowess, will have no power to prevent the uneven application of their solutions” (Ross 240). Here Ross is discussing the separation between what he coins LOHAS, or Lifestyles Of Health and Sustainability, and the rest of the population – specifically the impoverished neighborhoods in Phoenix that are also the most polluted.

Through Ross isn’t explicit in the connection, shortsighted policy decisions are often based on overly simplistic calculations. The failure of elected officials to recognize the danger of short-term business practices is contained within the failure to understand the scope of environmental degradation. Ross quips, “I can vouch that my second-grader, who tagged along on some of my interviews, had a more accurate understanding of greenhouse gases than that offered by the majority leader of the Arizona Senate” (61). He has harsher critiques for those misinformed policy makers responsible for passing immigration “reform” laws (or to put it more accurately, anti-immigrant laws). He quotes the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnick, who laments, “Arizona [has] ‘become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry’” based on its treatment of immigrants (196). Ross dissects overtly racist organizations, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (founded by John Tanton), who tie themselves to environmental causes. Anti-immigrant groups often reflect a neo-Malthusian argument. They believe both legal and illegal immigrants will consume limited resources (e.g. jobs, water, or food) and leave nothing for the “natives”. According to Ross, this “invites a punitive attitude toward those who are perceived to have the least resources, but whose population is growing the most” (201). Sherriff Joe Arpaio, who made headlines through brutal enforcement of anti-immigrant policies, personifies the attitude rooted in the determination of specific quantities of resources. The basic calculations of resource availability and distribution skew reality for these groups who see a threat where none exists.

Yet, it is not only resource hoarding that is problematic for environmental justice advocates. Even the way well-intentioned city planners decide on environmental policy is deeply flawed in its technologically myopic approach. In Ross’s interviews with planners, it is evident they rely on the carbon footprint measurements for the basis of many of their decisions. But calculating carbon is only a technological fix with a top-down geo-engineered approach and solutions tend to simply shift the problem from one geographic location to another. So while these metrics are important, they do not provide a complete view of the problem because they are not viewed as a part of the whole community, only the places where the carbon count is currently high. In response, Ross argues that only examining the number of carbon containments in a certain segment of the city limits the scope of the solutions and therefor their effectiveness. A city manager’s statistics do not account for the imbalance of resources, or the policies that lead to resource hoarding, two topics central to Ross’s book. This represents a methodical break with common thinking on the environmental crisis. His method helps to explain the unquantifiable.

In order to make environmental problems calculable, one must abstract pollution by counting carbon or carcinogens. An ethnographer must approach an issue from the viewpoint of people who are living with current technology, not vice versa. This approach works in contradiction to pure calculations by reifying the effects, rather than making the effects fit into a neat data table visible only by computer modeling software. Yet, this text is not rejecting the development or use of new technology. Ross rejects a technological determinist approach that focuses solely on the development of planet-saving gadgetry. Technology is important, and both low tech and high tech play a central role in Bird on Fire, but, for technology to work, it must be widely available regardless of socio-economic status. Otherwise, cities will be separated between healthy (LOHAS) and polluted areas. Only solving the problem for a portion of the city is not enough to alter the current ecologically destructive course. Ross shows that any solution must represent the totality of the city.

Ross uncovers both historical and contemporary non-competitive systems of water management that reflect such an approach. He cites the “water ethos of acequias” prevalent in the Hispanic Southwest as a historical example of effective resource sharing (48). A contemporary example includes guerilla farming in downtown Phoenix to create shared gardens of local, sustainable food as “a visible alternative to the kind of land speculation that had wreaked havoc with the stability of households and communities” (215). He also sees particular promise in the recent success of the Gila River Indian Community’s (GRIC) settlement to reclaim water from the Salt and Gila rivers. The 2004 settlement returned water rights to the GRIC allowing the possibility for the river community to restore sustainable farming practices previously abandoned during the twentieth century when the Gila and Salt river dams cut off the communities’ traditional river access. Ross therefore begins any discussion of establishing a sustainable environment with the community, rather than in the technology the community produces. The technology is only one small part of a much larger system which must have its roots firmly planted in environmental justice.

Throughout Bird on Fire Ross locates these hopeful sparks where one would expect an urban sociologist to find them: in the people working to better Phoenix and push city leaders to adopt sustainable practices. Ross chose to examine ecology in Phoenix in part because “if Phoenix could become sustainable, then it could be done anywhere” (Ross 14). The lessons Phoenix can share with other struggling cities such as Houston, Bakersfield, or Mexico City is the success of sustainable practices should be judged on their application to the city as a whole, not just the wealthiest segments. It is not enough to count the change in carbon emissions, building a sustainable city requires creating a sustainable culture.

In summation, Bird on Fire provides a framework through which to begin looking at ways to incorporate rigorous cultural research into environmental study. The ethnographic method Ross employs uncovers problems often overlooked in other environmental studies. By concentrating on the cultural relationship to nature and an examination of power structures upon which these relationships are built Ross is able to prescribe a method for approaching problems of ecological justice – which must be approached outside of the usual quantitative lens surrounding current environmental discourse. In short, managing the size or shape of a carbon footprint alone will not solve ecological problems alone.

Ross, Andrew. Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City. Oxford U Press, 2011

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