A City like the Desert

I confess: I drive “a Prius, eat organic and support wilderness preservation.” I am under no illusion, however, that doing these things makes my lifestyle sustainable. There is much more to achieving sustainability goals personally and, more significantly, sustainability cannot be a solo act.
Bird on Fire drives home that point — environmental sustainability in our communities must be inclusive and it is impossible to achieve without social justice and social sustainability. We can nip around the edges by growing more of our food and “buying local,” conserving water, and developing a strong mass transit system, but without a coming together of the haves and have nots, it is really just me driving a Prius.
So there really are some key questions to answer? Can a city such as Phoenix achieve sustainability goals when it is dependent on imports of many kinds and its economic disparities are so stark? And how will we cope with the impacts of global climate disruption in a place that is already on the edge for livability? Will our political climate allow it? Can we adapt?
Climate change will not be kind to the desert southwest according to the models and to those who have studied it most closely. Hotter and drier is not an aberration. In that context a city of concrete and asphalt is not sustainable. We cannot just close the doors and windows and crank up the air conditioning, even if it is powered by solar-generated electricity.
Phoenix is a city of concrete and asphalt and it is already a city on the edge of what can be considered comfortable and perhaps even livable for human beings, at least in the summer. August 2011 was the hottest August on record with the average high temperatures reaching 109 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix. Hotter and drier in the Sonoran Desert are significant issues for all manner of life, whether you are a desert tortoise dependent on the vegetation sustained by summer’s monsoon rains or a saguaro cactus that respirates at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures to retain moisture. For many people, it means soaring electric bills, but for those with limited resources and fixed incomes or without a home, these temperatures can prove downright deadly.
As Ross points out, Phoenix was built on and has been sustained by cheap labor, subsidized and imported water, cheap gasoline to fuel the indispensible automobile, and, of course, cheap and abundant land. It is a city for land speculators, who even now are taking advantage of one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country. As Phoenix continues to be mired in an economic recession, the chinks in the armor are more and more apparent and the house of cards economy is trembling already. Still, the people who have made a lot of money off this speculative and truly unsustainable real estate market are busy waiting for and working toward reawakening the development beast to continue business as usual.
In Arizona and here in Phoenix, all roads lead to real estate development. Take even a superficial look at many elected officials and you will find they are part of some real estate deal. Real estate speculation is not just accepted in Arizona’s laws and policies, it is actively encouraged and in fact, is seen by many as a fundamental right. A case in point is the story of the passage of Proposition 207, a measure that appeared on the ballot in 2006 largely due to the deep pockets of New York real-estate developer Howard Rich. Proposition 207 rewards and basically codifies land speculation by requiring that land owners be paid if new policies that affect the real or perceived value of their property are implemented; examples of such policies include ones intended to protect communities, land and resources, or ones requiring inclusive zoning to encourage a more sustainable development. The end result of Prop 207 is fewer requirements and less protection.
Ross mentions, but really glosses over, the Citizens Growth Management Initiative and the role it played in Phoenix development — and considering the role of the Sierra Club in it and the fact that I worked on it personally, it is perhaps fitting that I give it more emphasis. To say it was merely about establishing growth boundaries is to oversimplify it, although clearly growth boundaries were an integral part of that measure. It was about much more. The measure incorporated economic sustainability. It required development to pay for itself rather than having the central city taxpayers bear the brunt of the economic burden. It required policies to protect neighborhoods and promote affordable housing. It required real sustainable water supplies for any new developments, supplies that could not place an undue burden on existing sources or on our rivers and streams. It was not the growth boundaries that scared the bejesus out of developers and the “real-estate industrial complex” as journalist Jon Talton quipped — it was the fact that the measure forged ahead on comprehensive questions of sustainability.
In Bird on Fire, Ross discusses the anti-environmental, anti-immigrant, anti-progressive politics of State Senator Russell Pearce and those who join him in the Arizona Legislature and the governor’s office, and how the politics threatens the economic and environmental sustainability of the Phoenix area. There is no doubt this is the case, but it may be that the lack of strong leadership to counter the Senator Pearces of this state is the greatest threat to our communities. It is those who remain silent, those who are “friends” to a more sustainable city but who do not speak up or at least not very loudly who imperil the city. It is those who say, I agree, but I cannot say that publicly, I cannot be elected by speaking the truth. It is those “leaders” who truly threaten the present as well as the future of Phoenix. This political climate cannot be sustainable.
So, why do we stay in Phoenix?
Yes, I drive “a Prius, eat organic and support wilderness preservation.” I also am an optimist and believe strongly in humanity. Perhaps we/I stay, at least in part, because if we can come together here in Phoenix to implement plans that promote ecological sustainability, social justice, and economic stability, we can do this anywhere. Many people speak of creating an oasis in the desert relative to development in and around cities like Phoenix. But an oasis in the desert can often be a mirage. We should instead seek to develop a city that is more like the Sonoran Desert itself — diverse, resilient, and able to sustain life on limited water.
Perhaps Phoenix is the perfect place for an optimist looking to make a difference.

sandy bahr