Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Bird on Fire – Andrew Ross [Feature Review]

Page 3 – Bird on Fire – Andrew Ross

Though Ross is clearly progressive in his politics and highly critical of those on the right who, in his view, have disproportionately contributed to the problem of unsustainability, he notes a strange marriage between environmental activists and those who hold passionate anti-immigrant views. While these are two groups that otherwise do not see eye to eye, together they have suggested that overpopulation is the reason for Phoenix’s unsustainability and that undocumented immigrants play a disproportionate role in the problem. The overpopulation argument gained widespread attention in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote his best-seller The Population Bomb, though his arguments have been widely discredited or diminished in the intervening decades. Regardless, Ross says that the argument linking undocumented immigrants with the sustainability problem are mostly unwarranted. New immigrants, and especially the undocumented, still tend to reside disproportionately on modest means in urban centers, and for that reason alone cannot be considered less sustainable than those more free to contribute to lifestyles and cultures of excess and sprawl.

Since 2007, with the collapse of the housing market and the nationwide recession that followed, the expansion of Phoenix — the fastest growing metro area in the post-World War II years — has come to a screeching halt. Until that time, suburbs were springing up and land was being purchased for further development in far corners of the Valley, so when the market took a dive, Phoenix was hit especially hard. An important question therefore arose: if the growth machine had so much to do with Phoenix’s sustainability problem, what now?

One the one hand, a time of widespread economic hardship is not the most convenient time for sustainability advocates to make their pitch; after all, going green isn’t free, and its benefits often only come by way of delayed gratification. On the other hand, with new construction at a virtual stand-still, this is a great opportunity to reconsider the status quo. And some of the heavy hitters are beginning to do so. With all things green en vogue at the moment, developers who have fed the growth machine are inclined to cash in on the trend and are doing so in their bids to lay claim to lucrative plots of land, particularly in the far end of the East Valley, where they are proposing more sustainable designs. Ross argues, however, that this is only exacerbating the problem, since small gains there will nonetheless mean more and more people spread further and further away from city centers, where true sustainability must happen. Indeed, according to Ross, the answer to the sustainability question needs to involve “infill” of urban centers. Mixed-use zoning, adaptive reuse of existing but vacant buildings, and energy-efficient construction on the Valley’s many empty lots in urban centers, along with a better mass transit system, would go a long way towards making the Phoenix metro area a truly sustainable one.

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