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  • Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest by Andrew Needham
  • Robert E. Krause
Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. By Andrew Needham. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. 336. Notes, Index.)

Andrew Needham uses the battle over power generation in the Navajo nation to uncover the roots of the contemporary Southwest. Winner of the 2016 George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, Power Lines reveals, through Needham’s exhaustive research, how energy companies worked in conjunction with the federal government and southwestern “boosters” to generate a movement linking hydroelectric power with urban development in central Arizona during the last half of the twentieth century.

Needham demonstrates how, over the course of four decades, Phoenix [End Page 522] boomed from a town of sixty-five thousand to one of the largest cities in the United States. During this transformation a new place was born: the “Valley of the Sun.” Climate-controlled subdivisions drawing new residents from the East Coast and Midwest came, however, at an exacting cost. The demand by new residents for air conditioning became an encompassing effort. As Phoenix grew, so did its reliance on electricity and resources from the neighboring territory of the Navajo nation, which soon found its landscape transformed by efforts to extract its hydroelectric capabilities. Needham explores the federally subsidized postwar boom that exploited the Navajo nation and spurred the roots of the contemporary coal-fueled climate change crisis, while concurrently creating a kind of second colonized empire in the western United States.

Power Lines explains how inexpensive electricity became a requirement for modern life in Phoenix, driving emergent assembly lines and cooling the oppressive heat. Navajo officials initially hoped energy development would improve their lands and the economic welfare of residents too, but as ash piles marked their landscape, air pollution filled the skies, and almost half of Navajo households remained without electricity, many Navajos came to view power lines as a sign of their continued subordination in the Southwest. Power Lines makes clear that the federal government and coal companies in Arizona worked in collusion to minimize the agency and autonomy of the Navajo nation over its land and economic possibilities. As Needham points out, historical assumptions about the metropolitan nature of growth in the postwar Southwest have rendered Indian people marginal to the recent history of a region with the nation’s largest Native American population. In linking the forces of urban, environmental, and American Indian history, Needham illustrates how these power lines created uneven connections between distant landscapes and how environmental changes associated with suburbanization reached far beyond the metropolitan frontier.

In showing how coal from Indian lands became the fuel propelling modernity in the Southwest, Power Lines explores the transformative effects this energy system has had on the people and environment of the region. Needham’s work achieves its goal: to broaden historical understanding of postwar inequality by highlighting the experience of peoples far from the metropolitan centers of the country. Along the way, this book engages the history of climate change within the United States as well. Students and historians of the West and the American environment, as well as the general reader, will all find intriguing material about the cultural, economic, and social effects of power generation in Southwest. [End Page 523]

Robert E. Krause
Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission


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