Introduction: By the Time I Got to Phoenix (Book Excerpt)

The creature in the sky got sucked in a hole, Now there’s a hole in the sky, and the ground’s not cold, And if the ground’s not cold, everything is gonna burn. We’ll all take turns, I’ll get mine, too.
— The Pixies, “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven”
For those who prefer history chopped up into neat slices, John McCain’s modest concession speech on the lawn of the Arizona Biltmore on November 5, 2008, seemed like a clean cut of the knife. With the economy in a nosedive, it was not just the end of a presidential campaign. The neoliberal era seemed to be over–its reigning troika of deregulation, marketization, and privatization cast into disgrace, along with its most recent fiscal vehicles such as debt leveraging and speculation in finance and land. Nowhere was the devastation more visible than in McCain’s hometown. Phoenix had flown highest in the race to profit from the housing bubble, and it had fallen the furthest. Footage of the metro region’s outer-ring subdivisions reclaimed by sage grass, tumbleweed, and geckos was as evocative of the bubble’s savage aftermath as photographs of the Dust Bowl’s windblown soil had been of the Great Depression.
Had Arizona’s senior senator not owned a condo nearby, he would have stayed in the hotel’s Goldwater presidential suite (every president since Hoover has slept at the Biltmore), stirring up associations with the Phoenix politician whose 1964 run for the White House pioneered the modern conservative temper of evangelizing against the power of government. Regarded locally as a carpetbagger when he first ran for Congress in 1982, McCain benefited from his wife Cindy’s family connections to take over Barry Goldwater’s senate seat four years later, but his people-pleasing style found little favor over the years among the Goldwater faithful. On that night, at least, there was no dearth of commentators willing to see McCain’s concession speech as heralding the end of the Sunbelt’s long hold on national politics, an arc that originated in the postwar effort of Goldwater’s circle at the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce to remake Arizona’s decrepit GOP into an instrument of growth for growth’s sake. Had the momentum behind the Sunbelt’s mercurial rise — fueled by low taxes, light regulation, antiunion labor laws, cheap land, cheaper water, and big federal funding for defense industries and suburban infrastructure — finally run its course? Perhaps the future now lay elsewhere, a conviction that pulsed through the boisterous (and much more multicultured) crowd who greeted Barack Obama’s victory speech in the public plenitude of Chicago’s Grant Park.
For those whose sense of occasion was more international in scope, one of the comforts to take away from the 2008 election was the hope that the world’s mounting environmental crises would finally be addressed by U.S. leaders. Global climate change had been flatly ignored by the previous occupant of the White House, even as the volume of atmospheric carbon nosed upward to levels that rang the experts’ alarm bells. Although neither McCain nor Obama made any mention of the subject that night in their respective speeches, the election outcome promised the end of an epoch of denial about the costs of unsustainable growth and wanton use of the earth’s resources. The incoming administration had every reason to cut a new energy path. Indeed, the post-recession recovery might well depend on the development of clean technologies and job creation tied to energy efficiencies. Going green was no longer simply a lifestyle choice for well-heeled consumers, it was being touted as the key to the next economy. There was even evidence of an investment bubble in clean energy — labeled the “Good Bubble” by some wags.
Again, the case for the prosecution lay just beyond the lush grounds on which McCain stood. The Biltmore — conceived as the deluxe antithesis of a railway hotel stop for westward travelers — had once stood in self-important isolation well to the north of the city. That desert perch, just below Piestewa Peak and west of Camelback Mountain, was now at the geographical center of a conurbation of more than four million people. The metropolis, whose six-lane arterial roads and canal networks spread out to connect single-family tract housing all across the Phoenix Basin, was a horizontal hymn to unsustainable development. With less than eight inches of rain a year, and the hottest summer temperatures of any city in the Northern Hemisphere, the 1,000-square-mile sprawl known as the Valley of the Sun appeared to subsist in a state of denial about its inhospitable location.
Although it benefits from the large mountain watersheds of the Gila and Salt rivers, the 17,000-square-mile region known as Greater Phoenix depends on a water supply pumped 300 miles uphill from the overallocated Colorado River, now in the second decade of a drought that has shrunk its volume to unprecedented lows. From 1990 to 2007, Arizona added fossil-fuel pollutants faster than any other state — the rate of increase was more than three times the national average. The region is deluged with more than 330 days of bright sunshine, yet only a tiny percentage of its energy is drawn from solar sources. Once a haven for TB sufferers seeking respiratory relief, by 2005 the Valley’s infamous Brown Cloud was drawing the lowest national grades from the American Lung Association for air quality in both ozone and particulates, and in 2010, reclaimed the number one slot for dust pollution after a few years of improvement in reducing ozone levels. But the impact was far from even–there was ample respite for those who could afford the aromatic desert breeze of Maricopa County’s northern reaches, while the lower-lying geography of South Phoenix hosted the dirtiest zip code in the country, home to 40 percent of the city’s hazardous industrial emissions.
To cap it all, climate change had targeted the state for special attention in the years to come. As Jonathan Overpeck, Arizona’s leading climatologist (and one of the chief authors of the seminal 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), warned the state’s House Environment Committee in February 2009: “Whether it is drought frequency, the increase in temperature or the decrease in soil moisture, we are in the bull’s-eye — the worst in the United States.” To many eyes, the fastest-growing U.S. city of the last half-century seemed more like a canary in the mine than a phoenix about to rise from the ashes of its latest speculator-induced crash.
Any mention of atmospheric or geological change tends to make a mockery of the decisive significance we attach to the dates of human events, but in the case of the 2008 election result, so did the political aftermath. After the drubbing that Goldwater took in the 1964 election, the pundits concluded that he had wrecked the fortunes of the Republican Party and the cause of conservatism for at least the next generation. They could not have been more wrong. A similar consensus arose not long after the polls closed in 2008–the damage wrought by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would surely consign the GOP to the status of a minority party composed of embittered white folks in the Deep South and a sprinkling of sparsely populated High Plains and Western states. That prediction soon proved unfounded too. The cold-shouldering of Sarah Palin on the Biltmore lawn that night–McCain’s handlers would not allow her to speak–would become a potent symbol for the mobilization and resurgence of the hard right.
In the years that followed, the conservative movement reorganized around new citizen-based groups, derisively labeled by opponents as “astroturf” (i.e., not genuine grassroots initiatives) because they were in part conceived and funded from the top down by corporate magnates. The most prominent of these groups, Americans for Prosperity (bankrolled by the Koch family of oil speculators) and FreedomWorks, helped to launch the Tea Party movement, polish the stagecraft of populist protest in town hall meetings, and run firmly focused campaigns, like the Hot Air Tour, aimed at thwarting climate change legislation. These drives found ready recruits among Arizona’s staunch libertarians and a loud echo chamber in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.
In the weeks leading up to the 2008 election, it looked as if Arizona might tilt to Obama. In the aftermath, the state’s Republicans firmly reasserted their hold on policymaking, and distinguished themselves nation- ally by passing some far-reaching laws, including the notorious anti-immigrant bill, SB 1070, that pushed well beyond the nation’s legal mainstream. Cheered on by the Hot Air foot soldiers, climate change denial became a point of honor among the state’s GOP leadership. The same legislators who had listened to Overpeck’s dire warnings voted to ban Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality from regulating greenhouse gases and withdrew Arizona from the Western Climate Initiative, an interstate effort to reduce carbon emissions that had drawn heavy fire from business interests. The state’s political contribution to federal efforts was equally damaging. John McCain was the only Republican senator to push for climate change legislation during the Bush years, but he quickly reverted to the party line after his electoral defeat and played a prominent role in blocking any such legislation from reaching the senate floor, both before Copenhagen’s UN Climate Change summit in December 2009 and in the months that followed.
The year that Obama took office saw a 6.9 percent decrease in carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States (and a 1.3 percent drop globally), but this welcome relief had little to do with policies in Washington, or any of the world’s political capitals. It was almost wholly a result of reduced industrial activity and energy demand brought about by the Great Recession. The International Energy Agency, which monitors global emissions, reported, in May 2011, that the return of GDP growth so fiercely urged by business and government elites had boosted 2010 carbon emis- sions to record levels (30.6 gigatonnes), far in excess of the rate at which renewable energy was currently being developed and consumed. In advance of the Copenhagen summit, climate scientists (traditionally a cautious community) turned in their alarming verdicts on the likely geographic impact of global warming–melted ice caps and thawed permafrost, mass species extinction, acidified oceans and salinized soil, loss of islands and low-lying land, prolonged drought, and rising temperatures in the next two or three decades that would outstrip any effort at stabilization.
The abject failure of international leaders to reach binding emission- reductions targets in Copenhagen, and a year later in Cancun, at the next UN climate change meeting, compounded the despair that thoughtful people now felt about the future. Activists and officials who came home from these climate summits in a deep funk had to be persuaded that progress was being made somewhere. Where national and regional politicians were still in the pockets of the oil, coal, and gas lobbies, cities, we were reminded, had been putting green policies into action for some time now. The Large Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), comprising forty of the world’s largest cities collaborating on extensive decarbonization programs, issued its own Climate Communiqué at Copenhagen, in which mayors pleaded with the national representatives of the carbon powers to “recognize that the future of our globe will be won or lost in the cities of the world.” Aside from demonstrating that city governance was more progressive than policymaking at the state level, the mayors’ statement reflected a growing consensus that only in dense urban environments could efficient, low-carbon living be achieved on a mass scale. Humans were fast becoming an urban species, and their survival would depend on how they lived in cities that already consumed 75 percent of the world’s energy and emitted 80 percent of the greenhouse gases. Even without a decisive shift in energy supply away from fossil fuel, more compact patterns of urban growth were delivering a sizable boost to efforts at decarbonization.
In the United States, looking to cities as sites of salvation was an old story, though the script for “city as redeemer” had changed several times since John Winthrop’s 1630 exhortation to the Massachusetts Bay Colony pilgrims that they should build a “city upon a hill.” For the best part of two centuries, American city-building was driven by the long-standing Christian equation of godliness with city residence. But the late nineteenth-century rise of the teeming industrial city–routinely depicted by reformers as a miasma of sin, filth, and corruption–turned urban living into a moral trap. The infernal Victorian city of industry was now seen as a threat to the physical and spiritual health of its inhabitants, raising their mortality rate and diluting their humanity. Urban improvers were inspired to redeem this fallen population, first through environ- mental uplift in the form of edifying contact with parks and other leafy spaces and then through planning aimed at decongestion by dispersing their numbers out to garden cities on the green and airy urban fringe.
The shift to decentralization and mass suburbanization in the twentieth century had many overlapping causes (some of them clearly governed by racial prejudice), but it turned on the belief that low-density suburbia was a more salubrious environment than the congested center city. Yet, beginning in the early 1980s, the pattern of outward flight began to slowly reverse itself. Whereas before, moral homilies about ill-health had been directed at residents of overpopulated city cores, the new targets for scorn were increasingly the suburbanites whose auto-dependent and lawn- loving lifestyle was perceived as fundamentally selfish because it claimed a grossly unfair share of the world’s energy budget. Dense cities that used to be seen as parasitical organisms, dangerously out of synch with nature, were now would-be paragons of sustainability, carrying a much lower environmental load per capita than the pastoral suburbs that were created as antidotes to urban ills.
How did city officials respond to this sea change? From the early 1990s, urban managers began to set themselves sustainability goals, assessing their progress by performance indicators, and demanding that long-term planning be guided by “smart growth” principles. In Europe, where overall or whole city densities are 40-60 persons per hectare, more than 1,500 municipalities signed the 1994 Aalborg Charter and competed for awards as part of its European Sustainable Cities & Towns Campaign. In the United States, where densities are under 20 persons per hectare, the uptake was much slower, and confined, for many years, to a select group of cities (Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Santa Monica, Austin, Chattanooga). Over time, however, a city’s rise in national sustainability rankings became something for public officials to tout and for the local chamber of commerce to brandish as a competitive advantage in recruiting the kind of high-wage investment that major-league cities craved.
Jockeying for position as a “green city” has become the name of the metropolitan game. It has lately supplanted the race to be a “creative city,” a development model that flourished in the early part of the decade. Mayors, especially, have found that green is a usefu
l color to attach to their electoral profiles. More than one thousand signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, vowing to reduce carbon emissions in their cities below 1990 levels, in line with the Kyoto Protocol. ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability now comprises more than 1,200 municipalities from seventy different countries, each committed to meeting goals and sharing techniques for green governance. At the dawn of the Obama era, there was even more reason to become a contender in the green sweepstakes. Laid low by the recession, U.S. cities were desperate for a lifeline and were looking to land federal stimulus monies under the competitions sponsored by the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act (ARRA). Those with a portfolio of green projects to propose were well positioned to compete for the funds.
The Great Recession dropped the country’s fifth largest city into the deepest of holes. Like its twenty-one sister cities in the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix relied heavily on sales tax for its revenue, and it was facing a dreadful budget shortfall. A high-pressure zone of antitax sentiment had settled over the state, and so, with no easy options for making up the deficit, the ARRA stimulus money beckoned. Phil Gordon, an affable and popular second-term mayor, became a frequent flyer to Washington, boosting his own carbon footprint by promising to reduce that of his city. “I’ve tried to spend a lot of time in D.C. emphasizing that Phoenix hasn’t just jumped on the green bandwagon because of money,” he told me after one of his visits. “Because Phoenix is a desert community and a new city,” we have “an understanding that it has to be sustainable,” he explained, adding that “we manage our resources very well while realizing this is a fragile environment.” Reeling off a list of green achievements in areas as diverse as recycling, water conservation, LEED-certified buildings, smart growth planning, and a municipal fleet run on clean energy, he described bold plans for constructing jumbo solar farms, and for combating the steady rise in urban heat island temperatures. Nothing too blue-sky, but there was more than a touch of gee-whizzery in the way he imagined the city solving its problems.
Gordon had recently announced a novel aspiration for Phoenix–to become “the greenest city in America”–and the weekend before one of his Washington visits, his staff pulled together a 17-point plan to show how the city would reach the ambitious goal of becoming carbon-neutral. The plan drew heavily on expertise from Arizona State University’s (ASU) new Global Institute for Sustainability, but, like any good politician, he distinguished pragmatic policymaking from the advice gleaned from the academics. What, for example, did carbon neutrality mean to him? “For some people,” he averred, “if we only had one cow on the planet, we would not be carbon-neutral. For me, carbon neutrality means taking the existing baseline of carbon emissions we have today, and then, as we go forward, choosing not to add to that output.” The plan’s showpiece was a proposed green zone around the city’s new light rail corridor, where an adjacent strip of retrofitted buildings would help stem the long-term rise in nighttime temperatures: parts of Phoenix had seen an alarming 11-degree Fahrenheit increase in nighttime temperatures over the last fifty years, and differences of as much as 15 degrees were routinely recorded between temperatures downtown and on the desert fringe.
Like almost all of the city’s mayors in recent decades, Gordon had a sometime career in real estate development–his previous job was chairman of Landiscor, an aerial mapping company that provided a direct service to land developers and homebuilders. Given his range of contacts in the industry, he ought to know if the region’s developers were on the same green page. “I think that chapter is still being written,” was the most he would venture. “Arizona has been built on a lot of unwise development,” he acknowledged, and, recently, “we were building sixty thousand homes a year out in the middle of nowhere before they were needed.” Gordon’s cautious estimate was well warranted. Mayors could tinker with their little acre of city-owned land and buildings, but the destiny of land use in this growth-driven metropolis was well out of their hands. Developers and homebuilders were the most powerful players in the state of Arizona, and, as another public official put it to me, their lobbyists “inhabit the inner cavities of our elected representatives.”
Nor was the mayor of Phoenix the most influential voice at City Hall. Like most Sunbelt cities, Phoenix has a council-manager government. A legacy of municipal reforms that swept away the corrupt political machines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this type of government has left mayors with a largely ceremonial role beyond which they often functioned, as Gordon did, like publicists with a bully pulpit. In reality, the show was all but run by a professional city manager, and, in this case, it was the long-serving Frank Fairbanks, who had overseen twenty years of rampant growth and collected a raft of national awards for efficient government along the way. Did he share Gordon’s euphoria for greening the city?
Fairbanks was known for his soothing presence, and so whatever passion he felt for the proposition was not on display when I met with him. It was his last official day before going into retirement, and he was more inclined to rest his case on documented evidence that Phoenix was doing relatively well when it came to resource management. San Francisco and New York, he noted, also piped in their water supplies, and, while Phoenix had been “a pioneer in energy conservation,” it also had “fewer degree days than Chicago, Boston, and New York.” Although renowned for sprawl, Phoenix’s overall density compared favorably with other large metro areas. Handing me a 2001 Brookings Institution survey of metro regions, he noted, “You might be surprised that Honolulu has the highest density, LA is second, and Phoenix is number ten, ahead of Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.” While “our reputation is for sprawl,” he conceded, “Phoenix becomes more dense each year, and Atlanta becomes less dense.” Born at a time when Phoenix had only 80,000 residents, Fairbanks predicted that rising fuel costs and water scarcity would rein in the urban growth machine. “In the long run, I think that the old system is going to die. However, what brought people here will continue to bring them here in the future, but we will accommodate them in a different way from the past, and they will be attracted to a different, more fulfilling, more sophisticated and more dense lifestyle.” “Phoenix’s future,” he emphasized repeatedly, “is in higher density.”
For a manager without a political portfolio, he was blunt about the nature of the obstacles. “Phoenix is majority Democrat and fairly liberal for the West, but the state is overwhelmingly Republican and conservative and laissez-faire,” and the fact that “the state contributes no funding for transportation” severely constrained the city’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint. Hamstrung by a constitutional limit of 10 percent on the contribution of property taxes to the city budget, the campaign to win the newly established light rail line, for example, had been a bitter struggle: “There was huge opposition, because people think public transportation is a communist plot,” but the city prevailed even though it was now only “where New York City was in the 1880s.” Despite the constant pushback from the right, Fairbanks took some credit for supporting a denser, more sustainable downtown core with urban amenities that did not exist two decades before: “We have moved away from growing as fast we could to focusing on quality of life.” As for the outlying suburban cities, he was even less charitable than Gordon in assessing their inefficiency and lack of demographic diversity: “They are building Omaha out there.”
Facing down the swelling deficit in the city budget, with crippling reductions already ordered in payroll and services, and with no prospect of a quick recovery, Gordon and Fairbanks could hardly give vent to the full-throated voice of Western boosterism, but some muted version of it ran through the mayor’s wonky cheerleading and the manager’s gladsome assessment of his record. Outside of City Hall, the spectrum of opinion about the city and the region’s prospects for becoming a center of green achievement was much broader, and I encountered the full spread in the two-year span of the interviews I conducted with the more active residents of the region.
Among them were downtown activists for whom a compact, vibrant core had become an evangelical cause, and business advocates who saw a profitable silver lining in this same vision. But I also interviewed affluent, quality-of-life suburbanites in North Phoenix, Scottsdale, and other East Valley cities, for whom green living meant a very private blend of solar roofs, open space conservation, and desert gardening (xeriscaping); low-income casualties of toxic pollution in South Phoenix, who fought dirty industry and government inaction as a matter of physical survival; big-dog developers who saw green features in their master-planned communities as a selling point to jump-start the growth machine on the urban fringe; GOP law- makers and libertarians whose loyalty to the Tea Party ethos took the form of conservation based on private property rights; ASU administrators and academics for whom the public buzz about sustainability was an opportunity to make scientific research a basis for public policymaking; Anglo nativists whose fixation on chasing off immigrants was driven by the belief that border-crossers were threatening the region’s ecosystem; and tribal activists trying to reconcile their quest for decent livelihoods with the roles allotted to them by others as traditional stewards of the land.
The most jaded among them saw a twentieth-first-century Detroit in the making, with the Valley’s dominant industry–home construction– in a spiraling decline and little expectation of hatching or courting alternatives that might diversify the jobs economy. Even so, the likelihood that the metro population would not only stagnate but shrink appreciably was not a prospect they entertained for long, not even in their most despairing moments. Nor, for most of them, did their view of the future include the more alarming vision of urban eco-collapse from some extreme state of resource scarcity. Unlike in other Arizona municipalities, which impose water-use restrictions, Phoenicians have never had to dread being busted as water scofflaws, nor do they fear power blackouts during heat waves.
Those who leaned toward the more dismal scenarios were natural scientists or else environmentalists with a naturalist bent. Approaching unsustainable conduct from the standpoint of studying other life forms, they were bound to be frustrated by what appeared to be self-destructive decisions on the part of human populations. Jeff Williamson, longtime director of the Phoenix Zoo, and outspoken president of the Arizona Zoological Society, put this view well in describing the dysfunctionality of the city’s dependence on land speculation: “I do not understand why the organism has not designed ways of existing where there is a secure pattern of life. It creates risks for itself, and it has decided that that boom and bust cycle is of greater value than sustainability. It could design more robust and diverse economic systems. But it has made a decision to invest substantial public resources in an industry that has one business cycle–boom and bust.” His conclusion was that this kind of behavior “is irrational in living systems,” but that it seemed to be typical of the organism that we could just as well call “Phoenix Man.”
Williamson was no less critical of his own profession. “Zoos should go away,” he declared, “they are part of the problem,” because the concept of “wildlife as a form of recreational amusement comes from a European and Asian culturally elite model” that is outdated and ecologically damaging. In his view, if humans could not elect to help animals become resilient over time, there was little hope for their own species, especially in places like Phoenix, which “is almost a perfect example of how to incentivize and encourage lifestyles and business practices that cannot be sustained and will do damage over an extended period of time.” Although he was a round-the-clock advocate of sustainable habits, he believed that a culture of “living on limited resources in an unlimited fashion” was “going to fail here sooner than most places, because the carrying capacity is just not here.” What would be the best, immediate outcome? “I hope,” he offered with a provocative twinkle in his eye, “that Phoenix goes down to about 40,000 people.” That number, I reminded him, was the peak population of the Hohokam, the prehistoric inhabitants of the Phoenix Basin, just before the decline of their society set in.
For the most part, this kind of apocalyptic scenario was reserved for outsiders who tend to place Phoenix high in the ranks of American urban demonology, either because of the region’s fierce brand of Sunbelt conservatism or its textbook profile of exurban sprawl. Indeed, some of the condescension toward this Sonoran desert metropolis crystallized in the belief that it should not have existed in the first place, and that it may not exist for much longer, succumbing, as it surely would, to the fate visited upon ancient desert civilizations that had also overshot their resources. In the 1960s, Edward Abbey, Tucson’s most cantankerous environmentalist, wrote, “There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Rebecca Solnit, today’s most talented essayist of the West, tapped some of Abbey’s spirit when she recently summoned up this vision of ruination: “Phoenix will be like Jericho or Ur of the Chaldees, with the shriveled relics of golf courses and the dusty hulls of swimming pools added on.”
Solnit was also adding a modern, environmental gloss to a tradition, dating from the Romantic movement’s fascination with ruins, in which writers take a sharp, moralistic delight in depicting the wreckage of their own civilization. Here, for example, is T. S. Eliot’s version (from his 1934 pageant play, The Rock):
And the wind shall say ‘Here were decent godless people: Their only monument the asphalt road And a thousand lost golf balls.’
Although Eliot probably did not know how long golf balls actually take to decompose (up to 1,000 years), and was writing well before the era of public concern about the high ecological costs of highways and golf courses, these artifacts served him as convenient symbols of a culture whose misplaced priorities would surely lead to its downfall.
I live among New Yorkers who often imagine their city being decimated and depopulated by natural or man-made disasters, and there are many more outsiders than is the case with Phoenix who would dearly like to see Gotham in ruins. Indeed, there is an extensive library of films and novels that illustrate in acute graphic detail the near-future destruction of New York. Given that sea levels may rise by several feet before 2100, those fictions may well cede to fact quicker than we think. Phoenix, by comparison, has rarely been the seat of catastrophe fantasies, despite its status as a natural target for destruction during the Cold War, when it served as the nation’s premier location for Air Force pilot training and as a major manufacturing center for military hardware. The one exception I know of is Harlan Ellison’s 1969 classic novella A Boy and his Dog (made into a film in 1976). It is set in the deserts of a postapocalyptic Phoenix Basin, underneath which a white-bread theme park of Midwestern Americana has been built for survivors.
If Phoenix could become sustainable, then it could be done anywhere. That was the premise that drove my investigations from an early point. Even if it is not the world’s least sustainable city (and some will quibble over this designation), it is a very close contender, and, in any event, the title is not worth arguing over. More than any other U.S. metropolis in the postwar period, Phoenix has channeled the national appetite for unrestrained growth, and American growth still consumes a vastly disproportionate share of the earth’s resources, including its carbon allotment. The city’s business model, in other words, is a clear threat to life and land in places even more vulnerable than the Valley of the Sun. If there is any hope of reversing the pattern of desertification, species loss, and ice-cap melt in more remote locations, then the culture that produced “Phoenix Man” will have to be transformed.
The nineteenth-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny made the settlement of the far West’s semiarid lands a matter of federal resolve. Reclamation for homesteading was pursued through decade after decade of lavish government spending on public works and water infrastructure, while the region’s economic backbone was built out of defense industry funding. Even with all of that federal assistance, the stark vulnerability of Phoenix’s Sonoran habitat makes it stand out as a questionable location for more than 4 million people, let alone the 9 million that regional boosters have forecast for the megapolitan region–the Sun Corridor stretching from Prescott to Tucson–in the decades to come. Yet many of the world’s fastest-growing cities are also in hot, semiarid regions, and so, as climate change intensifies, they will share much the same destiny as Phoenix. Solutions culled from Central Arizona may turn out to be applicable in the megacities of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Sound lessons about the art of sustainable urban living have already been drawn from environmental showpieces like Portland, Curitiba, Reykjavik, Saarbrucken, Helsinki, Freiburg, Santa Monica, Kristianstad, or Singapore. More susceptible, or recalcitrant, places have other things to teach us–how we go about making green decisions or whether we even have the wherewithal to make the right ones. That is why I chose to write this book about the struggle to make Phoenix into a resilient metropolis. Faced with larger environmental challenges, and considerably more resistance from its elected officials than havens of green consciousness like Seattle or San Francisco, it is a more accurate bellwether of sustainability than these success stories. In any case, the sociology of climate change has made it quite clear that no one can opt out, or be left behind. The revolt of poorer nations at Copenhagen and their regrouping, six months earlier, at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia’s Cochabamba, showed that everyone has to be on board if climate action is to be both effective and just. Nor can the most profligate communities be written off as hopeless cases. They are simply the weakest links in a chain that has to be strengthened tenfold.
Anyone conversant with the scientific debate about global warming will know of Roger Revelle’s 1956 testimony to Congress about the rise of CO2 emissions. “From the standpoint of meteorologists and oceanographers,” he submitted, “we are carrying out a tremendous geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past or be reproduced in the future.” His tone and choice of words have long been criticized for sug- gesting that the impact of atmospheric CO2 presented merely a rare oppor- tunity for scientific study. Revelle made things worse in 1966 by remarking that our concern for the topic “should probably contain more curiosity than apprehension.” That clinical mentality no longer prevails. Natural scientists are now among the most apprehensive, to say the least. Today, it is the task of averting drastic climate change that might be described as an experiment–a vast social experiment in decision-making and democratic action.
Success in that endeavor will not be determined primarily by large technological fixes, though many will be needed along the way. Just as decisive to the outcome is whether our social relationships, cultural beliefs, and political customs will allow for the kind of changes that are necessary. That is why the climate crisis is as much a social as a biophysical challenge, and why the solutions will have to be driven by a fuller quest for global justice than has hitherto been tolerated or imagined. Moreover, if this social experiment is to avoid an authoritarian turn, then it cannot be strictly governed by the global math of carbon budgeting, nor can it be overridden by epic geo-engineering schemes (seeding the oceans with iron or reflecting sunlight though orbiting mirrors and brightened clouds). These grand formulas probably have their appeal to the technocrat within all of us, but they are not democratic pathways, nor, if they become part of the language of government, are they going to sway individuals and groups who are conspiratorially inclined or who take pride in bucking any guide to conduct that issues from public officials. The growing habit of gauging the carbon footprint of every product and every personal act has already become a pseudopolitical obsession, reducing our actions and use of material things to a dull data set. We cannot afford to let this carbon calculus supplant the GDP as a new statistical tyranny with which officials assess our behavioral performance as citizens. Carbon should become an outlawed by-product of our civilization, not its loud scourge.


Readers of this book will find the same kind of caveat in the picture of Phoenix that I offer. In these pages, there is ample attention to the technical fixes and innovations that are typical of any focus on urban sustainability: water conservation policy; decentralization of energy pro- duction and distribution, the transformation of transit and transport, redesign of building and infrastructure, establishment of closed-loop waste systems, growth of a bioregional food supply, and the wholesale transition to carbon-neutral or renewable fuel. But my conclusion is that if these initiatives do not take shape as remedies for social and geographic inequality, then they are likely to end up reinforcing existing patterns of eco-apartheid. If resources tighten rapidly, a more ominous future beckons in the form of triage crisis management, where populations are explicitly selected out for protection, in eco-enclaves, or for abandonment, outside the walls. The anti-immigrant mood that has sharpened during Arizona’s recessionary years stands as a harbinger of the hoarding mentality that may well govern such a desperate future. Chasing off immigrants through legally mandated police intimidation flies in the face of the conviction that a community’s resilience depends on its capacity to adopt the conditions of its most vulnerable populations as a baseline for green policymaking.
Most people view social progress through a local lens, and while their sources of information are usually institutional, their sources of influence are more often than not the doings and sayings of turf champions, community activists, and habit-formers in their own neighborhoods, towns, and cities. This can make for parochial behavior, but it is also what enables cities to improvise, both with the resources at hand and in their own regional orbits. It is no coincidence that the environmental slogan “Think Global, Act Local” was first employed by Patrick Geddes, the Scottish urbanist who pioneered the idea of regional planning. It was with this positive parochialism in mind that I opted to take the social and political temperature of Metro Phoenix by interviewing 200 of its more thoughtful, influential, and active citizens (some of them were interviewed several times) about the region’s prospects for becoming sustainable. They were chosen primarily on the recommendation of prior interviewees, though many showed up on my own field radar, and a few through fortuitous encounters at meetings or events. Of course, there were differences in how my interviewees defined sustainability, and some had even abandoned that slippery term because its meaning has been hopelessly diluted by overuse. Nonetheless, I have retained it as a working term in these pages if only because it has become common currency, even among those who are allergic, as one GOP state senator was, to its use “as a buzzword within the area of community planning,” or, as he put it more pointedly, “by bureaucrats who are paid either through the university system or who make their living off of government.”
Aiming for broad coverage, I cast a wide net. Among my 200 were state legislators, government professionals in urban planning and economic development, real estate brokers and attorneys, policy analysts, land developers and homebuilders, nonprofit operatives, small business owners, civil rights champions, energy lobbyists, solar entrepreneurs, engineers, and technicians, utility regulators, industrial ecologists, banking economists, artists, curators, and gallerists, community activists, affordable housing providers, land trust officials, opinion journalists, urban farmers, archeologists, tribal activists and officials, green business advocates, environmental justice watchdogs, trade unionists, university administrators, and a variety of scholars engaged in sustainability research initiatives.
Although my interpretation of the interviews was that of an outsider, this book is based on the testimony of those insiders. I combined their experience and knowledge of the metropolis with my own assessment of the strength and quality of their appetite for change. While the book is broken down into chapter topics (on water management, urban growth, pollution distribution, downtown revitalization, solar industry, immigration policy, and urban farming), my goal is to offer a composite picture of Phoenix’s potential for a greener future along with the many obstacles that lie in its path. Secondary research took me into the history books and through the record of environmental action in other cities. Prolonged sojourns in different parts of the metro region over the course of two years gave me a feel for its urban texture and desert milieu, and, for a while, Central Arizona became a kind of second home, both in the dozy warmth of the winter months, and in the parlous heat of the ever-longer summer season.
Phoenix boasts several organizations that take stock of the region’s own performance. Self-analysis of this kind is conducted through the annual convocations of Arizona Town Hall–a “think tank” of regional leaders and experts called on to assess progress on topics such as transportation, housing, education, and land use–or the “do tank” of the Center for the Future of Arizona, which focuses on the same topics in a more applied fashion. The Morrison Institute, a busy center for public policy, issues regular reports on the social and economic health of the state, and a large share of ASU’s research resources are now trained on diagnosing, and engineering solutions for, the region’s problems. In particular, the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability aims at the kind of holistic study of regional sustainability (drawing on the research of interdisciplinary teams) that is echoed in this book. Lastly, the business community is well served by organizations devoted to assessing the climate for investment opportunities such as Greater Phoenix Leadership, Greater Phoenix Economic Council, Phoenix Community Alliance, or the East Valley Partnership.
Aside from all of this local self-scrutiny, my research unearthed a long record of commissioned studies from out-of-state organizations, catering mostly to the appetite for growth. Arguably, the most prominent example was a report, commissioned in 1976 from Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute by United for Arizona, a group of businessmen eager to take advantage of the new social science of “futurology” to pump up belief in the local religion of land development. The result was a landmark study, entitled Arizona Tomorrow, which envisioned a future scenario for 2012 that could not have been friendlier to the growth machine. In the report’s paean to the Sunbelt way of life, the once forbidding desert environment was now, and for the foreseeable future, an “adult playground” to be enjoyed without consequences. Indeed, the Arizona lifestyle, the report insisted, was “largely responsible for redefining the very term ‘desert.'” More recent surveys commissioned from the likes of the Urban Land Institute or the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy have tended to emphasize “balanced growth” in their drafts of the future, largely in recognition of the ecological costs of development that were generally ignored by the authors of Arizona Tomorrow.
City newspapers have occasionally tapped outside consultants to produce assessments of the region’s evolving reputation. Urbanist Neal Peirce was commissioned in 1987 by the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette to prepare one of his widely cited “Citistates Reports.” In 2003, the alternative city newspaper, Phoenix New Times, brought in Richard Florida to address Phoenix’s hopes of becoming the kind of “creative city” advocated by Catalyx, his consultancy group. Most recently, Florida’s visit inspired Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture to contract Arthesia, a Swiss brand-building consultancy, to provide ideas for polishing and promoting the Valley’s identity. “Opportunity Oasis” was the suggested brand moniker, though it proved to be a short-lived one.
My own study was not commissioned, but it was triggered by a no-strings-attached invitation, in the spring of 2008, from an ASU institute, Future Arts Research, to come and do research of my choosing in Phoenix. Consequently, my first interviews were conducted with members of the arts community involved in the “battle for downtown” that I describe in chapter 4. From there, the project grew into a more politically ambitious undertaking, with an eye on useful knowledge for readers to take away. It is not a book that presents a policy blueprint, but there are lessons in it for policymakers, and some of them have to do with the fate of blueprints. The last two decades have seen ample offerings of expert advice about how to plan for a more sustainable future for Phoenix, yet my interviewees uniformly complained that implementation had been thin on the ground. Such plans were all too easily ignored or subverted when powerful voices intervened from the world of land speculation and development. Deference to these voices is deeply ingrained in the political culture of a region so dependent for so long on unrestrained growth, and it may take a decade or two to uproot this subservient per mind-set.
Despite the vested power of the growth machine, I encountered people all over town working to dislodge business as usual. Although the odds were against them, sustainability advocates, practitioners, and activists were not difficult to find in the region. Many of them, and their efforts to change the game, are profiled in the pages of the book. Even those who were focused on their own twenty-block neighborhoods had reason to think that they were helping to make Phoenix a proving ground for ideas and practices that might be useful in far-flung cities faced with similar challenges. If urbanization is an open-ended process, as Jane Jacobs so firmly believed, then the greening of cities is a grand act of improvisation, maybe the last heroic effort in places where it can still make an appreciable difference. Bird on Fire is beguiled by that hope, even when there is little reason for it.

andrew ross