Friday, March 20, 2015

Reflections on ASEH: 2015. This is more of a comment than a question.

I'm currently attending the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Environmental History.  For the most part, the audience has been great.  There have been few "this is more of a comment than a question" and "let me tell you about my work" contributions from the floor.  But this blog post is going to break protocol.  I have more of a comment than a question.    

First off, some caveats.  I attended a mere six out of dozens of panels.  There were three to four papers per panel.  So I saw a handful of papers out of many, many papers.  It's possible that I missed a whole bunch of papers that used gender.  Crapping on people's work for not doing what you want it to do is a cheap critique.  First and foremost, we have to evaluate the work for whether it's successful on it's own terms.  Finally, people come to ASEH for the people who are here.  When I was doing academic work, I didn't present my gender stuff at ASEH because there were other venues with other people who could give me that kind of feedback.  When I presented at ASEH, I wanted feedback on the environmental aspects of my work.  I'm going to assume that a lot of people presenting here have similar agendas.


Environmental history has a sweet spot.  To a significant degree, it's about the intersection of people and nature and also about people as nature.  That is, physical bodies, (sexed bodies, male bodies, female bodies, intersexed bodies, trans bodies) are often at the center of our intellectual assumptions.  Yet, somehow, these bodies were curiously de-sexed and de-gendered. 

I saw an absolutely fabulous paper on the contamination of the food supply of the American army during the Spanish American War.  The author did a fabulous job talking about discourses of purity and contamination and fears over industrial meat production.   At the same time, there is a significant literature on manliness and masculinity to draw on.   It wouldn't take much to add a paragraph or two on how fears over masculinity in the late 19th century (think Bederman's Manliness and Civilization)  shaped discourse over the fears of contamination of actual male bodies via tainted meat.  Cultural historians often talk about bodies* but they are really talking about metaphoric bodies- bodies politic or national bodies, or representations of bodies.  Environmental historians talk about actual bodies and they should talk about those bodies but if they want to reach a wider audience they need to talk about those bodies as possessed of gender and sex.

*Cultural historians also spend a lot of time talking about mapping power, but they never make the damn maps.  Environmental historians, when they talk about mapping power they give you the map. 

UPDATE:  Feel free to mention environmental history work that does a good job with gender in the comments and after sleeping a night I remember that Virginia Scharff said this better and more coherently 20 years ago.  The more things change... 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Power Lines: Explorations and Implications

I recently reviewed Andrew Needham’s magisterial Power Lines:  Phonenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest.  You can read my review here if you haven’t already.  It’s clear I like the book a lot.  There are some things, as with any book, that I think bear further exploration. These are issues that are related to the book that were either tangential to Needham’s project or he wasn’t able to cover.   I’ll tackle those in the first half of this piece.  There are also some implications about writing 60s history which I believe deserving pondering.  Those are in the second half.   If you are interested in both narrow questions and broad read both halves.  If you are more interested in the broader questions, skip down.  This isn’t really a continuation of the review, rather thus are questions and thoughts that the book raised for me that I think deserve wider discussion. 


Given how much Needham did right in the book, it seems petty to critique him for not including things (after all, history is the process of leaving things out).  However, there are two side issues that I thought are worth exploring more fully.  The power in the title of the book refers to electricity, which was essential to Phoenix’s growth.  However, a second kind of power was also essential to Phoenix’s growth, gasoline.  Automobility, as Virginia Scharff calls it, was absolutely essential to enabling Phoenix’s growth.  Without cars, and highways to drive them on, Phoenicians could neither create the sprawl that defines their city nor transport to market via truck the many goods produced there We know that highways, like energy infrastructure, tend to disproportionately affect poor and minority areas.  Power lines often follow the rights of way of roadways. .  It would be fascinating to map the growth of the highway system over the growth of the electrical grid.  Would we find similar colonial geographies or different ones?  And what would that mean? 

Roads are one way of looking at power, but as any of my HS students will tell you, my favorite category of analysis is gender.  Phoenix’s relationship to it’s energy periphery is especially ripe for a gendered analysis of space.  In this case, the domestic Cold War ideals that Phoenix boosters marketed involved the classic “Homeward Bound” formulation made famous by Elaine Tyler May.  Women controlled the house, men controlled the workplace.  As, Needham points out, Phoenicians put their own spin on this by having outdoor spaces as part of the home.  Booster materials included stories of men coming home to swim in their home pools at lunch time and women doing cooking on outdoor shaded patios. 

The rise of gendered wage work in the energy sector on and adjacent to the Navajo reservation also had profoundly deep impacts on Navajo constructions of gender.  Traditionally, most Navajo wealth in the form of sheep was owned by women.  Family incomes were sometimes supplemented by men’s raiding activities.   After the American conquest, raiding income was replaced by railroad wage work and silversmithing income.  Some Navajo men also turned to cattle-raising as a away to develop their own incomes.   Railroad wage work was seasonal and pulled men away from the reservation, generally at times when their labor wasn’t needed.  Did the rise of gendered wage work near the reservation change gender politics on the rez?  Much of the Navajo resistance to energy development seems to have been led by women (although this is impressionistic on my part).  Is it true, and if so why?    To what extent was the modernization discourse that Needham describes gendered?  There are hints of this in the text but, Needham doesn’t have the space to explore them.


So where does this book position us for thinking about the wider history of the US in the 1950s-1970s.  One of the things that Power Lines re-taught me was the centrality of space and place in the Civil Rights era.  If you read this book with Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis  on Detroit and then turn your lens south, you can’t help but understand how much of the Civil Rights movement was about spatial contestations.  Lunch counters, schools, hotels, and other targets of desegregation weren’t just about economic opportunity or contract theory, they were physical spaces and meaningful places.  It took black bodies physically occupying them to make integration a reality.  In most of my adult life, I’ve understood Civil Rights as primarily being about economics (equality of opportunity, the right to buy a house, access to jobs, etc.).  Maybe this is my individual failing, but I can’t help but think that the resegregation of American public education is due, in part, to a focus on thinking of Civil Rights in contractual terms rather than spatial terms.  I’ve been reminded of this by many folks, of course, (including Patricia A.Williams), but Needham reminded me of this link again.  It’s one of the reasons why stop and frisk and the ridiculous policing for profit in Ferguson and other St. Louis suburbs are such flash points.  Space was - and remains - the issue.  And we forget that at our own peril.   

Sunday, March 1, 2015

History is What Happens When You are Looking the Other Way: A Review of Andrew Needham's Power Lines

There are lots of ways to think about history and lots more ways to research and write it.  One way of thinking about it is the kind that Rick Perlstein's been doing of late.  In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein took well-known and well-covered events that many (most?) of his readers experienced, or were at least alive for, and recontextualized them to help recover a lost narrative and re-introduce a sense of contingency into what has become a story about the inevitable rise of Ronald Reagan.  I liked Perlstein's book a lot, in part because it took the familiar and made it strange and new.  That's useful stuff in the history world.

There is another kind of history writing.  It's the kind that looks at things that nobody (or few people) anyway, thought of as important at the time and shines a light on them to get us all to see some deep important point that previously we all missed.  There is Bill Cronon writing about the rearrangement of nature in colonial New England, for example or Perry Miller discovering the American Jeremiad in Puritan sermons.  These are the types of books that make you reevaluate everything you think you know about the craft of history writing and the whole way you think about history.  Andrew Needham has written this kind of book.

That's a big claim.

But Needham has written a book that covers the Post-war period from the 1950s to roughly 1980 and here are the things you won't find in it:  an extensive discussion of the African American Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Students for a Democratic Society, hippies, free love, drugs, rock and roll, the anti-War movement, the women's rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, atomic weapons, and Levittown.    Almost every major marker of conventional post-war narratives is missing from Power Lines:  Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest.  And yet, the book explains a lot, and I mean a lot, about the country that we live in now and how we got here.  To explain why, you need to understand Needham's approach here:  history was largely happening when everybody's attention was elsewhere.  Even the parts that are at least seemingly, familiar, like the Glen Canyon Dam controversy, Needham reinterprets in ways that are unanticipated. 

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Western U. S. history has roughly fallen into three modes of storytelling: stories that focus on place, the unique mostly arid, Western environment,  stories that focus on process, most particularly the frontier but also integration into the larger nation-state, and stories that focus on cultural encounters with Native Americans but also Spanish-speaking peoples: Chicanos, Hispanos, Tejanos, and others.  At first glance, Needham seems to fit neatly into the place tradition.  He's writing about Phoenix and it's phenomenal growth after all.  The first third of the book, a section called, Demand, chronicles the rise of Phoenix and they efforts by Phoenicians (ugh) to modify their environment to secure the cities growth.  Phoenix needed three things to grow: people, water, and electricity.  The first came, in part, through a clever advertising campaign.  Phoenix boosters emphasized modern living and how electricity could beat the heat and ease the burdens of homemakers and employers alike.  The second came through a major court victory, but the third, water, was problematic.  Electricity, in the Southwest, came from hydroelectric dams, and most of those were owned by the federal government.  Federal policy gave priority on electricity to their own customers, primarily Californians.  Without a reliable supply of electricity, Phoenix's growth would be limited.

Hence, part 2, Supply.  This section isn't so much a place-based history, it owes more to process oriented approaches.  Needham is describing how Phoenix became just another city in the nation.  And a key part of that story is coal.  It's hard now to remember that coal was out of fashion but at mid-century it was considered a relic of the past age.  Coal was a point of use fuel, burned on-site.  Hydroelectric, gas, nuclear, were the new clean powers.  At generating plants, they were turned into electricity and carried over power lines to customers.  Phoenix was boxed out of the electricity market because it had little claim on the electricity from big hydroelectric dams and little hope of generating any.  It had no access to natural gas and nuclear wasn't ready for peace-time use. Phoenix's major utility, APS, was private, and looked for ways to compete with the public power authorities.  The solution it hit on was ingenious.  Power would come from coal on the Colorado Plateau where it was cheap and abundant.  The owners of the coal were the Navajo Tribe , whose deals were negotiated by the BIA.  By the 1950s, when Eisenhower took office, the BIA and the Department of Interior were being run not by professional bureaucrats but by businessmen, Republicans having been out of office for over 20 years they had no bench to draw from.  The contracts were cheap and so was the power, generated on the reservation and carried to Phoenix by high voltage lines.  The plan was amenable to the tribal leadership as well. While federal policy encouraged Native Americans to leave the reservation and Americanize via the twin policies of relocation and termination,  tribal chairman and councils sought to develop the reservation and keep Navajos at home.  By the 1970s, the Navajo reservation was not only ringed by four sacred mountains but four power plant complexes as well.  Further, due to policy changes in the Johnson administration that Needham carefully chronicles, a massive power grid was created that tied federal and private infrastructure together into one massive interlocking network from Seattle to Los Angeles, to Albuquerque.  Competitors now worked together to manage peak loads and downtimes on a massive scale.  Problem solved.  

Not really, of course.  In Part 3, Needham describes how the reaction against this neat arrangement takes off and moves into a cultural form of storytelling.    Environmentalists like the Sierra Club who initially favored coal power in order to preserve wilderness began to have second thoughts.   They had traded Glen Canyon for Dinosaur National Monument and then traded the coal on the Colorado Plateau to save the Grand Canyon.  They were beginning to have second thoughts.  But the real case of buyer's remorse were the Navajos.  Many were displaced to make way for strip mines, other had traditional watering holes polluted.  Jobs did not materialize at the rate tribal leaders had promised, and good jobs were fewer still.  The leases were on a fixed per-ton royalty and the great inflation of the sixties made them even less generous than the cheap terms they already were.  And worse yet, huge chunks of the reservation remained unelectrified, even as power transmission lines criss-crossed  Dine Bikeyah, the Navajo Nation.   Young activists, inspired by the Civil Rights and Chicano movements protested and occupied mine sites, tribal governments changed, yet still few benefits trickled down to most Navajos.  The activists helped defeat new energy projects and helped the tribe negotiate fairer leases.  Still, the costs were huge and the benefits fewer than expected.

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If you've been paying attention here, you'll see that Needham has engaged all three major modes of Western History storytelling.  He's moved beyond the New Western History to engage in what we might call the Next Western History.  Next Western History has been taking shape for a while, and Needham is hardly the only practitioner.  It's always dangerous to name movements while they are still in process but the outlines of the Next Western History are becoming evident.  First, Next Western History owes a huge debt to the field of geography.  From David Harvey to Yi-fu Tuan, to Keith Basso, geographers have changed the way Western historians think about their key issues.  Second, Next Western History distrusts single narrative viewpoints.  Just as Needham shifts his lens through the three sections, other Next Western historians (among them Ari Kelman, Erika Bsumek, and yes, Richard White in his magisterial Railroaded) move beyond positionality of historical actors to rethink how narrative works altogether.  Finally, Next Western History is rethinking what makes a region.  It takes neither environment nor culture nor economic interest as self-evident.  Needham describes how power lines became lines that demarcated power that made a modern region.  Once I thought roads mapped power, but in the twenty-first century, it's literally power lines that map the power in our nation.  And as we stand on the threshold of choice to create a new power economy, Needham 's work urges all of us to think carefully and make those decisions while all of us are paying attention, lest in fifty years we find ourselves having to write yet another history of what happened while our attention was focused elsewhere.