The Hidden Relationship between Electrical Energy and Settler Colonialism

ANDREW NEEDHAM. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of a Modern Southwest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 336. $21.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780691139067.

The reading for this week addresses the relationship between settler colonialism and energy production in the twentieth century. The work under review is Power Lines, the revised dissertation and first book of Todd Andrew Needham, Associate Professor of History at New York University. Needham tells the story of rapid, postwar growth in the region of the American Southwest through an investigation of electrical energy. More specifically, Needham sees himself as expanding upon a standard, provincial metropolitan narrative—the story of urban centers sprawling outward, Frederick Jackson Turner-style, across a crabgrass frontier—to include a much wider region with many more actors. As such, Power Lines is primarily about the relationship between suburban development in Phoenix, Arizona, and corresponding energy production in the far-removed, Four Corners region of the United States in the three decades after WWII. Needham’s objective is to reveal “the intimate and unequal connections [that] power lines forged between electrical consumers in Phoenix and the people and landscape of the Navajo Nation.”[1]

Power Lines covers a period of explosive demographic growth in the American Southwest: the three postwar decades of 1940 to 1980. During this period, Phoenix went from a town of 65,000 to a burgeoning metropolis of 1.5 million, and the Navajo reservation went from a scarcely settled rangeland to the main supplier of electric power for the greater Southwest, a region that includes not only Phoenix, but other cities like San Diego, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Needham organizes Power Lines into four separate parts: “Fragments,” “Supply,” “Demand,” and “Protest.” The first part takes the reader from the prehistory of the Southwest region to the New Deal era, when energy production was considered the domain of the federal government. The next two parts discuss the rise of the modern electrical power grid infrastructure at the hands of a corresponding shift towards state power and private enterprise. The last part addresses several different forms of protest against the system’s expansion. Throughout the book, Needham focuses his attention on the role of politicians from all sides of the conflict. He examines officials from the US federal government, like Secretary for Public Lands William Warne; officials from the Arizona state government, like Governor John Howard Pyle and Senator Barry Goldwater; and officials from the Navajo reservation, like Tribal Chairmen Paul Jones and Peter MacDonald.[2]

Of course, Needham’s clever title suggests the double meaning of his book. He is focusing on literal power lines—copper transformers held up by wooden poles and metal transmission towers. These physical energy lines followed “a definite path.” They traveled hundreds of miles from the Four Corners Power Plant in “No Fat Valley” on the Navajo Reservation of the Colorado Plateau to the gated substations of Phoenix subdivisions. From here, circuit breakers reduced the current’s voltage so that electricity could enter suburban residences, lighting up rooms and powering appliances like air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, laundry machines, and refrigerators. Throughout Power Lines, Needham emphasizes how this electricity “beamed into homes from “distant, unseen sources” and became “an assumed and expected aspect of modern life.” Basically, access to electricity became “second nature” to the white suburban residents of the greater American Southwest, even though most of them they had no idea where it was actually coming from.[3]

But Needham is also focusing on metaphorical power lines between the Navajo people and the mostly white settlers who moved into those subdivisions and depended on the promise of available electricity. In other words, Needham juxtaposes the site where energy is used—the exclusive, affluent, white suburbs of Phoenix—with the site where it is manufactured: the isolated, impoverished, and arid landscape of the Navajo Reservation. It is here that the energy is first made through the rotation of opposing magnets on turbines that are powered by steam; which, in turn, is produced by coal harvesting and burning. The entire operation creates harmful emissions, exacerbates stark inequalities, and depends upon hazardous working conditions. As Needham writes, “Metropolitan development and Indian underdevelopment, it shows, went hand in hand in postwar America.”[4]

Nonetheless, Needham does not depict the Navajo as one-dimensional victims of American settler colonialism. He makes it clear that Navajo leaders like Paul Jones encouraged their land as the site of Southwestern production because they were in desperate times. The forced stock reduction of traditional sheep herds left the Navajo dependent on the US government, and then federal subsidies were cut. Leaders believed energy projects could modernize the Navajo reservation while preventing native relocation and reducing poverty by bringing jobs and money for social services. Unfortunately, the leases Navajos issued were badly conceived. Contracts were excessively long, offered no provisions for renegotiation, did not hold lessees accountable for environmental and health damage, and yielded little royalties because they were signed when coal prices were low. Likewise, most power plants “failed to meet the employment targets” set by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As these inequalities unfold, Needham demonstrates how the Navajo leaders adjusted. For instance, MacDonald reimagined the Navajo Nation as an American version of OPEC to “control the distribution of power in the region.”[5]

One of Needham’s greatest achievements is the striking diptych he paints between the privileged white suburbs of the greater Southwest and the scarred landscape of the Navajo reservation. It is an almost Orwellian picture. Metal transmission towers march like military sentinels across the landscape, passing underneath the homes of Navajo peoples who cannot afford the very electricity they produce. Meanwhile, both Navajo miners and unaffiliated locals suffer from higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. They are torn by a dilemma: they do not want to lose the main jobs they have, but those jobs are killing them slowly. The rim of the Grand Canyon has been preserved for recreation by and for affluent white tourists, while the Navajo reservation is scarred with strip mines and smoke stacks. In short, the Colorado Plateau has become Phoenix Arizona’s “plundered province,” and Phoenicians know almost nothing about it. As a generation of native youth argues, the Navajo exist “as a colonized people, and the Navajo Nation as colonized territory within the broader geography of the Southwest and the United States.”[6]

Another one of Needham’s notable achievements is how he expands the discussion of settler colonialism to discuss what is unique about electrical energy production. The power facilities of the Navajo reservation were the result of the invention of “extra-high voltage power lines…capable of transmitting electricity hundreds of miles with minimal energy loss.” Nonetheless, while energy production was removed from sight, urban development came to depend upon it even more. The assumption of easy, cheap energy was built into urban growth. This meant that once the power grid was set in place, and the development of the urban Southwest was underway, it became almost impossible to alter its course. There was just too much “Technological Momentum.” As Needham summarizes, the Navajo people “could and did attempt to shape the terms of energy production to meet the needs as they understood them at particular points in time. Once capital was fixed in place, however, the possibility for systemic change faced significant limits.” Activists could protest the further expansion of energy facilities, but they could not dismantle the existing ones without pulling the electrical cord on the greater Southwest.[7]

Americans have read the traditional story about postwar growth in the Southwest. People relocated because government policies like the GI Bill promoted home ownership; local boosters and businessmen extolled the brilliance of the “Valley of the Sun;” inflated spending on defense created new jobs in “clean industries;” and the availability of air cooling made white people believe the desert was a place capable of permanent residence. But readers have probably not heard of a story like Power Lines—a story that shows how this Southwest actually rested upon an “unequal geography of energy development” and “unequal connections” with a Navajo hinterland. Regardless, if Power Lines makes anyone, wherever they might live, rethink where their electricity comes from, then Needham will have made a substantial contribution to field of environmental history.[8]


[1] Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of a Modern Southwest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 2-3, 5.

[2] Ibid. 55, 124, 134, 138-139, 189, 252.

[3] Ibid. 3, 5, 251.

[4] Ibid. 4, 8.

[5] Ibid. 17, 42-48, 149, 152, 214, 268.

[6] Ibid. 13, 18, 154, 198-201, 218, 223, 257, 264-265.

[7] Ibid. 11, 17, 265 n. 35

[8] Ibid. 55, 243, 251.