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. 


  1. Really fascinating review, David--thank you for it (and for the reminder that I really MUST find the time to read Railroaded someday)! I like the way this review not only teaches me stuff I didn't know, but also makes me aware of new ways of thinking about that stuff, and give me examples of the professionals who are pointing the way. A very cool review to read this morning.