- Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation by Dana E. Powell
By Dana E. Powell. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. Pp. 336.
The Desert Rock Energy Project, a large coal-fired power plant proposed on Navajo Nation land in New Mexico, may never be built. Yet, through what Dana E. Powell calls its "present absence," Desert Rock "had the power to produce politics" (p. 5, 3). In Landscapes of Power, Powell argues that "new subjects and politics of nature" emerged from the debates and political activities that Desert Rock has mobilized in the Navajo Nation since 2003 (p. 16). Colonialism is front and center in Navajo energy politics: it enables the ongoing exploitation of Diné (as Navajo People call themselves) mineral resources, constrains Diné choices about economic development, and in the case of Desert Rock, complicates the dominant narratives of environmental justice and energy transition.
Landscapes of Power is a multifaceted work of ethnography and historical analysis. The title refers to Powell's heuristic for analyzing Navajo energy politics, which involves four expressions of power: material-subterranean, cultural-political, knowledge-practices, and ethical-cosmological. Each of the five chapters covers one or two of these forms. The first traces the history and legacies of energy extraction on the Navajo reservation as resulting in an export economy based on carbon that has created tensions over development issues. Powell then profiles individuals and institutions involved in energy politics, from Diné artists and activists to entrepreneurs and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, to argue that energy justice occurs in "multiple sectors" of society commonly committed to critiquing "the colonial structures of energy development" and to overturning them through energy politics. Her notion of sovereignty as "an emergent process traceable in territorial practice" derives from her analysis of debates about Navajo self-determination in relation to energy infrastructure.
Powell shows how the plant's opponents used the flawed process of public hearings to articulate diverse forms of expertise that shifted the debate from dry technocratic details to broader ethical concerns (chapter 4). She analyzes material artifacts, including paintings and political buttons, as signs of the diversity of energy futures imaginaries that Desert Rock elicited (chapter 5). These reveal the breadth of energy justice practice and [End Page 1256] how cultural production maintained the momentum of the public hearings (p. 188). The book's conclusion recounts a meeting between activists and Desert Rock developer Sithe Global to call for more expansive forms of environmental politics. Sprinkled throughout the book are three self-reflexive interludes describing Powell's research reliance on key figures in the struggle against Desert Rock.
Landscapes of Power is empirically rich and effectively puts issues of colonialism, indigenous sovereignty, and expertise at the heart of debates about environmental and energy justice. It makes clear that the practice of energy justice is always about more than forms and technologies of energy. Readers interested in the history of technology and the energy humanities will glean much from this analysis of the plurality of energy politics and the ways technology opens up new spaces for forging alliances and futures from the ground up.
The book's main weakness is in its framing. Powell offers the specificity of the Navajo experience, involving significant energy poverty, in response to "dominant projects in the energy humanities and social sciences," which she accuses of deploying universalizing concepts that ignore indigenous sovereignty (p. 9). But her critique of current energy humanities scholarship often misconstrues the spirit and utility of its claims about the centrality of petroleum in modernity. Indeed, for a nation wrestling with whether to build a coal-fired power plant, it is not clear why "the Age of Oil" is a particularly problematic analytic, as Powell claims. Moreover, in situating her work, Powell misquotes the Petrocultures Research Group, accusing its After Oil project of a claim about indigenous movements it did not make (p. 10). Lastly, Powell's criticism of environmentalism gives short shrift to the diversity of environmentalist politics and fails to follow through on more challenging questions about how specificity will upend "prevailing moral certainties about...