“The Nature of our construction is in every way
A better fit than the Nature it displaces
What other tree can you climb where the birds’ twitter,
Unscrambled, is English? True, their thin shade is negligible,
But then again there is not that tragic autumnal
Casting-off of leaves to outface annually.
These giants are more constant than evergreens
By being never green.”
— “Telephone Poles” by John Updike, 1963
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was in nature.
Under-supervised, undisciplined and unhappy, 15-year-old me would cut through the local power lines every day on a bicycle to get onto my friend’s network of streets. It was always a strange feeling. The power lines’ status in the overdeveloped suburb I grew up in represented a sort of otherworldly stasis between civilization and nature — it contained the bare elements of both, but it too elicited the uneasy feelings of wrongness that made you realize it wasn’t quite either. The trees, tall grass and vast patches of uninhabited land seemed to scream “forest” or “prairie,” but the even more massive telephone poles and electrical lines were reminders that it wasn’t. They were tedious, ugly looming constructions whose imposing character was almost mocking: “You aren’t actually Away From It All, this place is as much a part of the monotonous township you live in as any congested street or Mattress Firm.” And it was true.
The mid-20th century phenomenon of suburban sprawl was as much of a sociological project as it was infrastructural: How do we build communities from scratch while still being able to alienate and exclude people? How do we approximate nature while still destroying it for our own purposes? The result has been a horrific mass of contradictions with far-reaching consequences. Folksy sentiments of Neighborliness immortalized by images of cul-de-sacs and lemonade stands have been undergirded by racist hostiility to outsiders and suspicion, both embedded in its very construction and propelled into the glorious technological future by neighborhood watch apps such as NextDoor. It is impossible to fulfill these idealistic goals of community when the point of a suburb, at least at its inception, was an escape destination for jittery whites who were elevated to positions of security and wealth during the era of Keynesian prosperity. This era was buoyed by the always-finite compromise between capital and labor, with previously precarious classes becoming stable for the first time in American history. Suburbs were homes for those who could afford to make a new life away from urban centers, but did not want to give up the creature comforts that came with living where most culture is produced in an industrial society.
But power lines, more than the lawn or even the strip mall, defined suburbia. They defined it partly by its all-important role in the suburbs’ functionality: harnessing and transporting all the energy needed to fuel the spread-out neighborhoods, brick-and-mortar megafirms and property tax-funded public schools.
Power lines are hardly limited to suburbs, of course. City streets in urban centers are lined with telephone polls and the like. But suburbs are marked by their more interspersed, zoned districts; neighborhoods go over here, strip mall-littered commercial zones over there and so on. The story of the suburbs is the story of property ownership, in a sense. Homeownership — originally a cynical proto-red scare tactic marketed to Americans as markers of freedom through private property ownership — was crucial in distinguishing the burgeoning, freewheeling capitalist empire from the cold, austere collectivism of nascent Soviet communism, or so the story goes.
The result was, for the first time, a working and middle class made one with the market through homeownership. These new residential neighborhoods, and the main streets they were connected to, needed massive amounts of energy infrastructure for relatively few people, and so the sprawling pseudo-wildernesses of the suburban power line were born.
As the logic of the power line extended its way from Levittown across the continent to suburban California, so did its potential for disaster. The speed that made it possible for the lightning-quick transportation of energy also lent way to potential for collapse — and even worse, potential to spread hazardous wildfires — to spread almost as quickly.
Climate change, of course, is — and will — be the main factor in exacerbating this potential for disaster. And these disasters will be the result of unruly convergences between the natural and man-made: the hurricane toppling the power line, causing power and commercial life to stop for extended periods of time; tornadoes and other strong winds doing the same. The events as they exist now, even with a much overdue sense of urgency bought on by its relation to climate change, have been so absorbed into the fabric of our understanding of modern regional life that the enormity of their damage isn’t fully comprehended: The collapse of the power lines means, momentarily at least, the partial collapse of commercial society.
But the most dangerous potential disaster brought on by the power lines is also its most presently-felt horror: the increasing proliferation of wildfires in American suburbs.
In the fall of 2019, California saw a record-setting wildfire season. The season started in May and lasted the rest of the year, burning over 250,000 acres of land and costing the state $160 million in suppression efforts alone. The wildfires, like most, were caused by human factors — chief among them being the fall of various power lines.
As the effects of global climate change become more broadly felt, it is not a stretch to imagine these sorts of disastrous events exacerbated by power line collapses occurring outside the west coast. While wildfires are specifically due to the west coast’s drier tree climate (which is the reason wildfires also occur in, say, the New Jersey/ Pennsylvania pine barrens), an increase in other natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes and windstorms could contribute to the same problems in the rest of the United States as well. The entirety of our energy infrastructure is now at the mercy of climate change exacerbated by Western and capitalist institutions.
The power lines defined suburbia. And now we may need to tear them down.
If suburban sprawl in the immediate postwar period was defined by the allure of self-segregated incubators for the upwardly mobile to reap the benefits of middle class life, we are now living under the suburban sprawl of the post-crash period: As many exurbanites are priced out of increasingly expensive major cities, many are shuffling into the suburbs. The suburbs, as a result, are far more diverse than ever before, meaning that the nearly all-white enclaves of yore are slowly disappearing. But the arrival of a multiracial and class-oriented American suburb collided with the arrival of climate change’s effects in the global north. The result is a grim, almost machine-like process of institutional failure: people driven from their home cities, by way of gentrification and financialization, into suburban centers whose initial promise of homeownership is eroding, rendering an expanded, multiracial class of suburban renters newly vulnerable to wildfires and other disasters, which are in turn exacerbated by increased needs for energy. Such failures follow a common thread of injustice under capitalist culture: Those who contributed least to the problem often end up on the brunt end of its consequences — as in the global south, and now even at home. Those driven to spaces that were initially defined by their implicit exclusion — through either race or class — are now finding themselves privy to the consequences of a system’s devil’s bargain: endless growth, development and nominal consumer convenience in return for the degradation of the natural world. At the center of this will be the American power line.
Potential remedies for such a threat to our energy infrastructure and way of life has been the topic of much debate. One obvious solution, such as what is practiced in Europe, would be to replace above-ground power lines with underground ones. This seems simple enough, except for the fact that the mere process of tearing down power lines is enormously expensive. In the case of California, removing such power lines — which are held by PG&E, an investor-held utility and the region’s energy provider — would cost approximately $3 million per mile for conversion alone. Such a massive energy conversion under the profit imperative is obviously both unrealistic and untenable. In one pithy, yet accurate remark by U.C Berkeley Business professor Severin Borenstein, being quoted as a source in The Palm Springs Desert Sun, the energy expert quipped that “when you are starting from scratch, it is much cheaper if all the houses have burned.” Other obstacles to this are the way we bury utilities in general. Unlike in Europe, who bury their lines in trenches relatively cheap, American utility providers prefer other, more costly methods. Part of this, ironically, is because trenches are more conducive to communities who remain tightly bound together. European homes — even suburban — tend to be closer together, even connected, as in Britain’s social housing program. But the mass of America’s suburban sprawl renders this method counterproductive. Bound by its original sin of seclusion, American suburbs demand the most costly of energy provisions.
A slightly more fatalist approach proffered by some arborist groups has called for the partial culling of trees near power lines, so they do not interfere with the man-made creations. Taming nature in service of industrial infrastructure, as if the infrastructure was nature itself. Such measures could momentarily mitigate the spread of wildfires, energy outages and property damage, but do nothing to address the underlying problem itself.
More straightforward, yet “politically risky” (as determined by punditry and Washington consensus), are social democratic measures such as utility nationalization (putting energy grids under public — and therefore, non-profit motivated — control) and various “Green New Deal” (an increasingly vague policy proposal that often proposes large-scale production and transformation of our infrastructure to make it sustainable and therefore “green”) efforts. This seems to be the only pragmatic solution at this point, if past efforts at curbing emissions and converting to clean energy have been any indication: An actual, meaningful mitigation of future climate catastrophes will obviously not happen under the profit motive. It’s an illusion. No private firm will ever feel the necessary balance of incentives, no tax credit will be cheap enough to rely on them — at least not on the scale we are going to need according to most experts. Any proposal that doesn’t engage with these possibilities isn’t being serious.
In order to curb climate change through any institution, it will have to follow a completely different set of institutional values: a formation rooted in opposition to eradication, not finding the ideal mix of market and public incentives. Such goals sound overly simple or un-nuanced, but that’s exactly the point: The answer is simple and un-nuanced. Mainstream pundits and existing liberal orthodoxies dismiss these as politically tenuous and oversimplified, because those same people prefer a sort of Rube Goldberg machine-like approach to politics: They feitishize complexity within tediously small technocratic policy tweaks, and shun complexity in the political realm. These are the same people who think the reason injustice and inequality exist is because a policy wonk forgot to carry the one. What’s not realized is that such fights are worth fighting precisely because they are complex and risky — because they challenge orthodoxies and try to reposition a world on new institutional and conscious footing. Ambitious, straightforward and strong goals, coupled with action, help mold the public imagination; the support is what forms after people are mobilized. This sounds overly precious, but these sorts of challenges require platitudes and mission statements, as every other mass movement did.
The mitigation of these ever-looming horrors is, like everything, within the grasp of collective imagination and ingenuity. But the reorientation of how we live will have to be exactly that: We must tear down the vulnerable, mid-century, pre-Anthropocene infrastructure for more safe and sustainable kinds, but we do must do away with it symbolically as well. We must do away with institutions and social forms that are defined by access barriers and the subjugation of others; we must do away with the logic of half-measures that limply rely on a mix of market incentives, public-private partnerships and technocratic tweaks; we must do away with a social consciousness that defines freedom through the most superficial, easily depreciable forms of private property; we must move forward in a wounded world with a new collective consciousness. We need to tear it all down.