Power Lines

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Andrew Needham. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the American Southwest. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014. 336 pp. $35.00, ISBN 9781400852406.


In Power Lines, Andrew Needham broadens the definition of metropolitan history by examining the interwoven story of Phoenix's transformation from a small city to a large metropolis and its impact on the Navajo Reservation, several hundred miles away. Specifically, Needham argues that Phoenix's need for electricity to power its growth—especially growth defined as "clean"—necessitated a growing hinterland, with drastic consequences, due to an imbalance of power (of the human relations variety) with the Navajo Nation. On a larger scale, Needham argues that focuses simply on city-suburb connections in metropolitan history ignores the broader relationships between areas traditionally separated into urban and rural.

Needham tells the story in four parts, largely based around geography but also ecology. Part I, "Fragments," is based in natural history, describing the geological processes that created the landscape and resources of the Southwest, and, adding the layer of humans on top, expands into the founding of Phoenix in 1867 and the construction of the Hoover Dam—seemingly the solution to the Southwest's demands for power (of the electrical variety)—in the 1930s.

Part II, "Demand," focuses on Phoenix's explosive growth from 65,000 people in 1940 to 1.5 million in 1980. This section, in many ways, reads more like a traditional metropolitan history, examining the economics and politics of the metropolis's growth, particularly its suburbanization, development of "clean" (but energy-intensive) industry, and growing thirst for power.

Part III, "Supply," takes the story metaphorically and physically further away from Phoenix to the Navajo Nation, where the Four Corners coal-fired power plant (and later others) came into being to supply the power-thirsty city. Needham examines the growth of coal mining on Navajo land, the construction of the plant as improvements in technology allowed for virtually lossless transmission of electricity over long distances, the construction of a Southwestern power grid, and, most importantly, the federal, state, local, and tribal political decisions—often favoring metropolitan areas over rural regions—that underlay this process.

Part IV, "Protest," focuses on controversy surrounding the power plants in the Navajo Nation. Needham particularly examines changing political dynamics—how some Navajo leaders saw the mining industry and the power plants as means for economic development, while a growing number over time protested the plants as causing environmental despoilation without attendant economic development; the promise of "a lightbulb in every hogan" remained unfulfilled for 40 percent of Navajo households in 2010 (250).

Needham concludes with an examination of the wider dynamic at play, reiterating his historiographic argument that metropolitan history is incomplete without considering a metropolis's impact on a wider region and vice versa.


David McKenzie, Spring 2015

Needham's argument for an expanded view of metropolitan history, using Phoenix as a case study and drawing from William Cronon's classic Nature's Metropolis, is apt and effectively executed for the story he tells. A modern city anywhere, much less one in the middle of a desert, needs a great deal of energy to power its air conditioners, lights, information technology, and other devices of modern life. The power relationships that define how a city like Phoenix supplies that energy are an apt door into examining regional dynamics and demonstrating how the city's growth did not occur in a vacuum.

However, Power Lines and Nature's Metropolis—two of the prime examples of an expanded metropolitan history—while examining human power structures, largely illustrate flows of commodities and electricity into urban centers from hinterlands. Both are classified as environmental histories, and take an essentially materialist view. This leads to the question of whether Needham's regional framework, which works extremely well for the story he tells, would work for examining other aspects of metropolitan history.

Would a regional framework work as well for an examination of, say, government dynamics? Needham would likely argue yes, because his story is not just about the flow of electricity from coal mined in the Navajo Nation to Phoenix, but the wider power dynamics—often the result of governmental action—that made it possible. But it remains to be seen how a work not taking a materialist view of history would use a regional versus metropolitan approach.

All in all, however, this work is extremely valuable for understanding not just the dynamics of a metropolitan area, but for providing a model of how to examine the dynamics of a metropolitan area in the context of its wider region.

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