Phoenix Rising: Can “The World’s Least Sustainable City” Go Green?

Are desert dwellers in denial about the fragility of urban society in the Southwest?

by Greg Hanscom, reposted from Grist was the most surprising thing that came out of Andrew Ross’s two-year research stint in Phoenix, Ariz.? For my money, it’s this: People who live there (weirdly) don’t expect their desert civilization to collapse around them at any moment.

“One of New Yorkers’ favorite things is to imagine the destruction of their city. There’s a whole library of movies and novels that do this,” Ross said during a recent visit to the Grist offices. “There’s no equivalent in Phoenix.”

Chalk it up to the power of denial.

Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, sets the scene in his new book, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City the product of his two-year study, which included interviews with hundred of Phoenicians:

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 … Once a haven for TB sufferers seeking respirator 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 …

To cap it all, climate change [has] 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 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.”

And then there’s the fact that Phoenix is built atop the ruins of an actual fallen civilization: The Hohocam, who once built an agricultural empire 40,000 strong in this valley, had all but vacated the place by the mid-1400s.

This city is going to dry up and blow off the map. Right?

Well, maybe not, says Ross. There’s a burgeoning movement to make Phoenix more green — and “if Phoenix can become sustainable,” he says, “any place can.”

Surprisingly enough, Ross found some bright spots — and the seeds of something quite revolutionary. Just-departed Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon instituted a 17-point plan to make Phoenix “the greenest city in America.” A posse of engaged artist-activists have become the new “model citizens,” filling a niche vacated years ago by a merchant class that fled the city core for the suburbs. An urban farming movement is taking root in some of the poorer neighborhoods of south Phoenix.

But the most in interesting, and potentially groundbreaking thing Ross found was on the outskirts of town. There, in 2004, the Gila River Indian Community won a landmark legal settlement, affirming their right to roughly a third of Arizona’s allocation of the Colorado River. They plan to use that water to grow crops, building a regional food system in a place that badly needs it.

“This is an example of environmental justice where you return natural resources to those who have been deprived or denied them,” Ross says, “but you do it in a way that it extends benefits everyone.”

It’s a model, he says, that could be taken up elsewhere. “So many mayors and city hall administrations adopt sustainability plans either as a vehicle for economic development or for cost avoidance,” Ross says. “I have yet to see a city hall take up a sustainability plan as a vehicle for redressing civil rights.”

Ross is not the first to suggest this. Van Jones and Majora Carter come to mind. And my good friend Lionel Foster wrote about it on this site just a couple of weeks ago. But the Gila River Indians give us an example of what true environmental justice could actually look like.

Of course, it would be easy to make the case that the Gila River settlement was far too little too late, like the recent mortgage settlement aimed at righting some of the misdeeds of banks that lead to the national real estate meltdown — a settlement that amounts to what one critic calls “a drop in the ocean.” And Ross certainly found plenty of reason not to be optimistic about the future of Phoenix, including rising xenophobia evident in Arizona’s byzantine immigration laws.

Still, he says, much ink has been spilled on “eco-enclaves” such as Portland and Seattle. “We don’t just live in the success stories. Much more vulnerable and even recalcitrant cities have much more to teach us about whether we have the wherewithal to make changes.”

The statement is true on the national level — and locally too. “Unless you start promoting sustainability initiatives that are targeted at most vulnerable members of your community, and use them as a baseline for measuring green policy, you’re simply going to add a layer of green gloss,” Ross says.

Oh, and as for those visions of Phoenix collapsing dramatically into the desert sands? It’s a tired, Hollywood notion, Ross says. “That’s not the way it happens. We’re actually living through an eco-apocalypse — it’s a very slow one.”

Slow by Hollywood’s standards, perhaps. But that gives us a little time, at least, to defuse the bomb we’ve set ticking, and spare ourselves and the world from some of the most disastrous consequences. Whether Phoenix itself can be spared, Ross won’t speculate. But regardless, Bird on Fire holds lessons that will be of use to the rest of us as we navigate the rolling, slow-motion disaster movie that will never make it onto the silver screen.

— Grist special projects editor Greg Hanscom has been editor of the award-winning environmental magazine High Country News and the Baltimore-based city mag, Urbanite. This piece was originally published at Grist.

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12 Responses to Phoenix Rising: Can “The World’s Least Sustainable City” Go Green?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Using precious Colorado River water to support agriculture in the Arizona desert has always been a dumb idea, centered around being able to bring lettuce and other vegetables to consumers year round.

    The problem is that the heat and dryness result in rapid evaporation, vastly increasing the amount of water required per pound of crops. The sandy soil is not particularly fertile either, and needs major fertilizer inputs. Other areas are far more suited for river irrigation.

    Most of Arizona needs to be gradually abandoned, except for Navajos and Hopis, who live at higher elevations and know how to grow beans and maize with little water. Besides the water issue, the energy required to get through the summers in Phoenix is already enormous. This will cost more in the future, as temps go up a few degrees, and it becomes dangerous for the weak and the elderly to be outdoors.

    The state is a writeoff. Arizonans need to move to Wyoming and the Dakotas.

  2. Tyler Hurst says:

    Phoenix metro will never be sustainable until far, far more people no longer NEED cars to get around.

    Sprawl is the underlying problem. It strains everything else.

  3. Leif says:

    The R-love-ution will not be televised. It happens in our hearts first and bit by bit infects those around until all become carriers to nourish and heal one very sick patient, Earth’s life support systems…

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    The attitude of many (most?) people in Phoenix is a puzzle, to be sure. (See some of the comments on the Grist copy of this post for some details.)

    One of two things will happen: Phoenix will wake up, see and respond to the looming threat their own lifestyle is imposing, or they’ll run smack into severe impacts, most likely drought, and then have to take even more drastic action than they would have under the first alternative.

    Bets on how this turns out, anyone?

  5. Leif says:

    The worst side of the equation is where my money goes, Lou, but not my hopes or efforts.

  6. M Tucker says:

    Scripts and novels about the destruction of NY City are not necessarily written by New Yorkers. Who would go to a movie about the destruction of Phoenix? What iconic buildings would you show?

    But what I really would like to know is: How does irrigating crops in the desert using imported water that is “pumped 300 miles uphill from the overallocated Colorado River” suddenly become sustainable? What is it about this project that makes it more sustainable than any other desperate attempt to farm a desert? Is it because American Indians are doing it? Are they able to recover the runoff and reuse the water? Do they plan to use the highest tech drip irrigation like the Israelis? Is it because they plan to sell the produce locally? Is that the only measure of sustainability? How will selling locally ensure that the water will still be available in 2030? That Colorado River water first belongs to California and California’s massive desert irrigation farming industry. After California takes its allotment Las Vegas and Phoenix get what is left over and as the flow in the Colorado decreases those two big cities will have less to fight over. I guess the “environmental justice” you mean is that the Gila River Indian Community has a guaranty on a portion of whatever water makes it to Phoenix. That is justice. They deserve the water. But the environment is not being considered. Human needs and demands are what this is all about and making sure the Indian community is not ignored any longer. Ask the California almond growers how much they pay for the precious water used to irrigate that important cash crop. How many have gone out of business due to the rising cost? Farming in the desert is ultimately unsustainable…just ask the Hohocam, just ask the Anastasi. And those mighty nations were living in tune with nature. They did not waste water on golf courses or making electricity. They did not have green lawns and swimming pools but they still had to leave. UNSUSTAINABLE!

    But we will persist in our folly because people who live in the desert (or anywhere) don’t expect their civilization to collapse around them at any moment (or even in the next 50 years). I do agree that this will not be like a Hollywood movie. It will be a slow (on human timescale) death by a thousand cuts. It will be an endless series of shortages and outages from water to food to electricity. Eventually boiling water to make electricity will become problematic not just for the desert Southwest but for the Southeast as well. You can’t pump water uphill with out electricity.

    Phoenix had better implement a complete water recycling program and begin to make electricity from the sun and wind as soon as possible. That is the only hope they have in postponing the inevitable for as long as possible but, like the Hohocam and the Anastasi they will eventually have to leave the desert.

  7. Leif says:

    Water invented man so it could go up hill.

  8. Peter says:

    The heat in the future will make the ‘Valley of the Sun’ unfit for human habitation. Three months of greater then 115 degrees F on a daily basis, along with droughts of a biblical magnitude do not make for comfort.

    It seems any attempt to make the region ‘Green’, is a losing battle. Eventually the city will be abandoned, and revert to its distant past, being covered in sand.

  9. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “After California takes its allotment Las Vegas and Phoenix get what is left over…”

    The premise of the very bad 1960’s sci-phi flick, “Battle Beneath the Earth”, had the Chinese launching a surprise attack on the US via tunneling beneath the Pacific Ocean all the way to California. In that same vein, according to William deBuys in “A Great Aridness”, the city elders of Las Vegas have undertaken a multi-billion $ project to construct a tunnel from the city to the lowest point beneath Lake Mead, thereby assuring the city the last few gallons of antidepressant laced lake water – possibly in violation of water agreements with California, and a treaty with Mexico.

  10. Douglas says:

    This story reminded me of a recent article on Tucson’s partial success in recharging it’s aquifer:

  11. M Tucker says:

    Las Vegas is in a desperate situation even with the water conservation and landscaping conversions they have enacted. But, since California has the oldest claim to the Colorado and since California is so very important economically, it will continue to dominate all other claims to the water. About half of the US fruits, vegetables and nuts come from the Golden State, almost all grown with imported water. That is why Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all have a tremendous hate for California’s water appetite. Heck, even California’s liberal Governor would like to use that water to frack the Monterey Shale to get at the oil. That is how completely disconnected Californians are from the realities of the actual scarcity of our most precious resource.

    A dry Lake Mead also means no more power from Hoover Dam. The taps run, the lights go off and the migrations begin.

  12. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Au contraire Mr Hanscom, New Orleans is the least sustainable major city by far. Just one more major hurricane hit and the Big Easy is French Toast. There is nothing comparable that could end the existance of Phoenix so quickly.