Bird on Fire

Cities are the cradles of human civilization, and they are also the testing grounds for humanity’s future. Over 50% of human beings now live in cities, and that percentage is going to accelerate rapidly as the megacities of the global South grow precipitously over the rest of this century.

At the same time, cities are likely to be the setting of some of humanity’s greatest collective tragedies. At present, approximately 2.8 billion people — roughly 40% of the world’s population — live in coastal cities. These regions, and the cities and people that are located in them, are particularly vulnerable to the multiple impacts of climate change, from sea level rise to ocean acidification and intensified meteorological phenomena like storms and droughts.

If humanity’s collective fate will then in some sense be decided in the world’s cities, which urban areas do we look to if we wish to catch a glimpse of the future, and where do we turn in our attempts to forge some sort of climate justice? Many analysts have answered these interwoven questions by anatomizing cities that are paradigms of ecological sustainability, from places in the developed world such as Amsterdam and Freiburg to Curitiba in Brazil. These cities no doubt offer important lessons about how to green cities, but most people don’t live in such places.

Andrew Ross boldly offers another approach in Bird on Fire. Touching down in Phoenix, Arizona, Ross explores the question of environmentalism in what is arguably the US’s — and perhaps the world’s — least sustainable city. If Phoenix can go green, he reasons, then there really may be hope for humanity in the face of the environmental crisis.

Key to the question of urban sustainability, Ross argues, is the issue of social justice. Ecological salvation, that is, will not come through the invention of some miraculous green technology, or through some new green consumer fad. Against such prevalent approaches, Ross argues that sustainability is first and foremost a question of social justice. Only through efforts to transform our cities into more just and egalitarian places do we stand a chance of forging truly sustainable — in all senses of the term — societies.

Bird on Fire offers many crucial lessons for environmental and climate justice activists. To draw out some of those lessons, Social Text has assembled a group of prominent activist intellectuals to comment on Ross’s important book, as well as an excerpt from the book and a video of a talk that Ross gave at the CUNY Graduate Center. Sandy Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter in Arizona; Kristin Koptiuch is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Arizona State University; Laura Pulido is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; and Julie Sze is Associate Professor of American Studies at UC Davis.

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