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Review: "Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

"Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest."

"Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest."

Power Lines Book Synopsis

In Andrew Needham’s book, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest, the author explores both the rapid growth and development that took place in Phoenix during the twentieth-century. Throughout this work, Needham effectively argues that “energy” (particularly electricity) served as a crucial component to this overall development, and that it functioned as a connection “between cities, suburbs, and distant hinterlands” in the American Southwest (Needham, 11). Because of the connections created by electricity, Needham argues that “metropolitan growth” in Phoenix is best understood through a regional and geographical context, as he posits that “distant landscapes” played a significant role in the city’s overall development; supplying both the energy and natural resources that Phoenix required for its transition to a vast metropolis (Needham, 10). By approaching this issue through an urban, environmental, and political history/perspective, Needham is able to effectively coordinate his arguments with prior historiographical interpretations that focus (solely) on the contributions that federal subsidies, politics, and booster programs made toward urban growth patterns in the Southwest. For Needham, however, these trends only represent a small part of a greater narrative, as he argues that “metropolitan growth” for Phoenix was far more intricate and required the complete “reorganization of politics, society, and nature in new, far-flung regions” to be successful (Needham, 10-11). This reorganization was particularly true, he argues, for the Navajo Indians, as their reservation quickly became a source of cheap (and distant) energy for much of the Southwest; allowing the region to grow and prosper, often at the expense of those supplying its electrical “life-force.”

Needham's Main Points

Following remarkable growth patterns after World War Two, Needham argues that cities such as Phoenix quickly strained existing power grids that depended largely on hydroelectricity from dams. Such strains were created, he argues, by the efforts of boosters and local politicians that participated in recruitment drives for new industries, as well as programs that sought to attract new residents (promising a life of luxury and relaxation in the Phoenix environment). With the dramatic growth of suburbs and industry, however, Needham asserts that Phoenix was quickly forced to look elsewhere for its energy, as local power sources strained to keep abreast with the city’s rapid increase in population. Due to its location (and possession of large coal deposits), Needham argues that the Navajo reservation became a prime target for power companies and politicians who wished to build cost-effective plants – far away from urban centers and populations. As contracts and leases were established with Native Americans (locking the Navajo people into long-term arrangements), Needham argues that the Navajo reservation’s natural resources quickly became a new “fuel of modernity” for the Southwest (Needham, 19).

In the process of modernization, however, Needham argues that the Navajo people suffered tremendous economic and “environmental exploitation” with their decision, as power companies and legislators both transformed and polluted their lands; threatening the solidarity and traditions of the Navajo culture – all for the purpose of providing energy (and luxury) for individuals and cities, hundreds of miles away (Needham, 19). Thus, Needham’s account is a story of the uneven distribution of connections that resulted from Phoenix’s regional development; connections that offered benefits and extravagance for some areas, but “political and ecological disruptions” for others (Needham, 8).

Personal Thoughts and Review

Needham’s argument is both highly informative and compelling with its overall points. Needham’s work is well-written and articulated, and it offers a chapter-by-chapter analysis that is both focused and organized with its overall progression. I was particularly impressed with the high level of detail that Needham provides throughout his work, as well as his ability to effectively construct a history of the American Southwest into a narrative-driven format. While it is clear that Needham’s work is intended for a scholarly audience (due to his in-depth approach to this topic), it is fair to say that the general public can certainly benefit from the contents of this book as well; particularly his discussion on Native Americans and the central role they played in sustaining urban growth for the Southwest.

I was also highly impressed with Needham’s inclusion of pictures and cartoons throughout his work. As someone who is largely unfamiliar with the Southwest and its development, these pictures helped illustrate many of his main points. This was especially true for the pictures that portrayed maps of power grids (and power lines) as well as the methodologies that lie behind power transmission. I found these to be extremely beneficial for my own understanding and comprehension, as I knew little about the intricacies of power supply prior to reading his monograph. My only complaint with this book is that I wish Needham could have included additional charts and graphs that personified the quantitative figures (statistics) that he cites. Moreover, I was a bit disappointed with his exclusion of non-whites from this work as well (such as Latinos, Blacks, Asian, etc.). While his main focus is rightfully dedicated to the experience of the Navajo Indians, I believe that Needham could have also talked more about the experiences of blacks, Latinos, and Asians residing in the Southwest; linking their experience to the plight of the Native Americans. While their stories are certainly included within this book, they remain marginal when compared to other issues that he discusses at length.

Needham's work is also well-researched and incorporates a large array of primary source materials to substantiate his claims. These include U.S. census data, personal memoirs and diaries, correspondences between business leaders and politicians, oral histories (such as the John Long and Carl Bimson projects), government documents (from the Department of Interior), interviews, newspapers (such as Arizona Republic, New York Times, and Arizona Daily Sun), as well as tribal records from the Navajo people. Each of these sources, combined with an impressive assortment of secondary materials and photos, serves to greatly bolster his overall argument.

Overall, I give Needham's work 5/5 stars and highly recommend it to American historians (both professional and amateur) that are interested in a regional analysis of the Southwest United States. Needham’s book offers a profound and intriguing contribution to modern scholarship and will remain a key source for urban and environmental historians for years to come. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

General Questions About the Book

In regard to questions that this work generated for me, I found myself primarily drawn to Needham’s discussion of the Navajo Indians and the burgeoning environmentalist movement. For starters, Needham provides a detailed analysis of the early Sierra Club and the role it played in power-development strategies. Yet it remains unclear as to why the Sierra Club endorsed the construction of coal-powered plants over hydroelectric dams during this era when it is obvious that coal mining (and burning) was more detrimental to the environment than the existence of hydroelectric dams? As an organization supposedly concerned with protecting the environment, I found this position to be extremely troubling since mine extraction destroys the natural layout of land, while coal-burning clouds the air and contributes significantly to overall pollution levels; all things that hydroelectric dams largely avoid.

In addition to issues surrounding the creation of electricity and power, could the Navajo Indians have decreased their dependency on coal power – particularly in the twentieth century – if they had invested more money into renewable energy sources (other than coal, gas, and oil)? At the present, do investments in renewable energy offer the best hope for Navajo Indians and their future? Will a continuation of Native dependency on coal prove harmful to their future interests, economy, and culture – particularly as cities in the Southwest attempt to incorporate cleaner power sources as well as more environmentally-friendly industries into their economies? Most importantly, what will happen to the Navajo if they fail to make accommodations for these new demands, needs, and changes in the future?

Needham’s book also inspired more general questions as well. While it is safe to argue that power plants and companies certainly exploited the Navajo as a source of cheap power production (far removed from urban settings), were the effects of these arrangements entirely negative? In the long run, did the Navajo actually benefit from the contracts to lease Indian territory for power plants? More importantly, what would have happened to the Navajo Indians if they had not accepted these arrangements? With poverty and unemployment at an all-time high for them (following World War Two), is it fair to conclude that the Navajo reservation – both its society and culture – was in imminent danger of disintegration during the mid-twentieth century? In the end, did the fact that vast coal supplies existed beneath their reservation ultimately save the Navajo Indians from dissolution?

Questions for Group Discussion

1.) What was Needham's thesis? What are some of the main arguments that he makes in this work? Is his argument persuasive? Why or why not?

2.) What type of primary source material does Needham rely on in this book? Does this help or hinder his overall argument?

3.) Does Needham organize his work in a logical and convincing manner?

4.) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? How could the author improve the contents of this work?

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5.) Who was the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and the general public, alike, enjoy the contents of this book?

6.) What did you like most about this book? Would you recommend this book to a friend?

7.) What sort of scholarship is Needham building on (or challenging) with this work?

8.) Did you learn anything after reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts and figures presented by Needham?

Works Cited:

Needham, Andrew. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

© 2017 Larry Slawson


Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on May 13, 2017:

@Eric -- Thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed! I will definitely check out those two books. Thank you for sharing the video link as well. Is "The Monkey Wrench Gang" a newer book? I think that I've heard about it before.

@Mike -- That is a really interesting story! Haha! That figures! You try and do a good thing, and the government stops you in your tracks. Sounds about right.

@FlourishAnyway -- Thank you so much! Yeah, I typically don't go for books like this either! Haha! I'm a graduate student working on my Master's degree in history, and this was a book required for one of my classes this semester. It definitely turned out to be a really interesting read though. The author really knows his stuff with this book, and its pretty easy to read as well. You should definitely check it out sometime.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 12, 2017:

Great article and your questions and criticisms show a lot of thought on the subject, particularly the idea of what if they hadn't accepted the offer. I never would have considered picking up a book like this, but you have intrigued me.

Old Poolman on May 12, 2017:

This was a great article.

Interestingly enough my power service is provided by the San Carlos Irrigation Project and is run by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). It says right on our bills in big red letters that any unpaid bills will be turned over to the IRS for collection.

At one time I toyed with installing solar power on my home to try to save a little money. I was flooded with ads about the available rebates and the payback from the power company for the power I would sell back to them.

But then I learned that my government owned power company would have nothing to do with homeowner solar and will not allow a grid-tie solar system. I found that interesting when it is our government who is supposedly pushing "green" power, especially solar.

Oh well, live and learn but I wasn't really surprised.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 12, 2017:

For a light read you might want to read "The Monkey Wrench Gang" to give some insights into dams and how much we hate them.

You did a great job with this article.

I am sure you would find the History of Water in Arizona just as interesting.

Oh and here is a song that I am sure you would like although about Kentucky we would sing it during protests in the early 70's

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