As readers of this blog know, I’ve been churning away on a revised version of the final chapter of my Tourist Guide to the Bakken. These revisions have two goals. One is to make it more accessible to non-academics and the other is to reflect on the particular role of oil in the creation both of tourism and the industrial world.
Below is the first part of this concluding section. Enjoy:
The final section to this guide lays out some theoretical consideration central to our decision to choose the genre of tourist guide as a useful way to present and understanding the Bakken landscape. This section is rather more academic than the guide itself and argues that the practice of tourism offers a distinctly modern way for engaging the Bakken. One goal of the guide is to bring order to the apparent chaos frequently encountered during a visit to the Bakken oil patch. The tourist guide is also meant to encourage critical engagement with the Bakken oil patch by locating this text and the visitor to the Bakken in a historical and social context. We hope by surveying some of the recent research in tourism and the archaeology of the contemporary world to suggest that a tourist guide is a particularly suitable form of writing for organizing and analyzing the social, economic, technical, and historical complexities of the modern world.
The organization of this final section is more genealogical than historiographic. In other words, we do not try to trace how a single tread of historical thinking led to the present volume, but, instead, try to weave together the influence from various different disciplines and fields ranging from landscape and industrial archaeology to the history of tourism, tourism studies, sociology, and popular culture. This final section identifies a series of overlapping territories which influenced the development of this tourist guide in much the same way that the Bakken represents a series of overlapping interests, histories, and communities.
The unifying element to this study is oil. The large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels, whether coal, oil, or gas, has shaped our modern world (Petrocultures Research Group 2016). The gradual shift from human labor to fossil fuel powered production during the industrial revolution transformed economic, social, and political relationships around the world. The us of fossil fuels in manufacturing accelerated access to consumer goods, shaped a middle class, propelled mechanized agriculture, and opened new horizons for settlement, travel, and, of course, economic exploitation. At present fossil fuels, and especially oil, foster “capital deepening” in which more capital is increased from human work, and this fortifies our expectation of continuous economic growth. Our oil-driven confidence in economic growth plays a vital role in Western political culture where, among other things, it fortifies our commitment to the equality of economic opportunity. European settlement in western North Dakota has only ever been possible because of fossil fuels. First, coal and oil fueled rail links made it economically viable for permanent settlements in the region to have access to markets. Interstate highways, affordable personal transportation, and mechanized farming accelerated the region’s engagement with the rest of North America and the world. Over the course of the Bakken boom, pipelines joined truck traffic and an expanded rail presence to move sweet Bakken crude to refineries and markets outside the region. That oil, in turn, fuels the cars, trucks, plains and trains that carry oil workers into the region, runs generators that power lights at drilling rigs, and keeps lonely RVs warm during the winter. Modern tourism would not be possible without oil-fueled transportation or the emergence of a middle class with the surplus resources necessary to make travel for pleasure possible.
In this context, a tourist guide seems the ideal tool to link the industrial and historical landscape of the Bakken because it offer an opportunity to emphasize the role of tourism, industry, and oil in the development of the middle-class in the modern world. Most of these ideas came from the sociologist Dean MacCannell. His important book, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, celebrated tourism’s role in allowing the growing global middle class to become a leisure class, at least for the duration of their vacation and travels (1976). This change stemmed from the growing disposable income of the middle class, which allowed them to imitate the upper class traditions of “seeing the world.” It also depended on increased access to low-cost transportation powered by fossil fuels. The first middle class tourists traveled on steam ships and then trains and automobiles. MacCannell and other also noted that by the mid-20th-century tourism offered chance for the middle class temporarily to shake off the stability of suburban life for travel and adventure.
Today, tourism continues to offer the same element of escape, although it remains closely tied to oil. In most cases, lower price of oil makes travel more affordable and, in the right circumstances, strengthens industrial and post-industrial economies inspiring consumer confidence. At the same time, oil presents certain challenges for tourism. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, had a negative impact on tourism along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska hurt that states tourism economy. While tourism to the Bakken has a tiny economic impact on the region, the steep decline in the price of oil over the course of 2015 has driven down occupancy rates in hotels and pushed out more marginal businesses serving short term oil patch workers. All this is to show that the relationship between oil and travel, tourism, and local economies is both complex and significant.
The interdependence of tourism and oil has not deterred the development of certain kinds of socially-conscious tourism. Tourists can now go on trips built around critiques of colonial practices, tour sites of catastrophic environmental pollution, and visit slums in order to appreciate the social, economic, and environmental costs of the modern world. This kind of tourism echoes the growing interest in recent past in the field of archaeology. While most people imagine that archaeologists are focused on the cities, temples, and tombs of distant antiquity, over the past twenty years, archaeology has also become more willing to study sites and to address questions of immediate social and political significance to living communities. For example, archaeologists used material culture to revise histories of colonialism, demonstrate resistance to political and economic forms of domination, and to collaborate with communities to develop skills, economic opportunities, and new historical narratives. In Western Europe and North America, archaeological attention to industrial sites and entire landscapes has brought to light not only a history of corporate innovation and profits, but also the experience of workers and families who supported the the growth of the industrial economy (Petrocultures Research Group 2016; Mitchell ). Our tourist guide seeks to bridge the gap between the distinctly modern experiences of tourism and the understanding of an industrial landscape both by commemorating significant sites throughout the Bakken and by offering the tourist a way to experience some of the changing character and hectic pace of the Bakken landscape first hand. In short, the presentation of the Bakken as a tourist guide allowed this work to serve the archaeological purpose of documenting an industrial landscape as well as contributing to a growing interest in socially aware tourism.
Our goal with this book, then, was to produce a practical guide suitable for the needs of a range of visitors to the Bakken ranging from industrial tourists, journalists, scholars, photographers, industry outsiders, and to document the bustling activities in the Bakken in an archaeologically sophisticated way. To accomplish this, we employed the concept of historical and archaeological landscapes. Archaeologists and historians have increasingly used the concept of landscape as a way to describe the interaction of the natural environment, man-made sites, movable objects, and people on a regional scale (Johnson 2007). By presenting the Bakken as a landscape, we locate the various activities potentially encountered by tourists as part of a unified whole. In this way, the Bakken landscape includes big picture features such as the topography and geology of the region as well as more ephemeral activities, like buying Cinnabons at the truck stop at 13-Mile Corner, moveable objects, like trucks, drill rigs, and frack tanks, and individuals that contribute to making this region a distinct place. In fact, some of the most intriguing tensions in the Bakken come from juxtaposing the natural world, long-standing sites in the area, and the short-term changes of the Bakken. Rolling hills, badlands, rivers, and once-abandoned towns frame oil-related activities, temporary settlements, and fleeting encounters with the always changing cast of characters who make their home in the Bakken. This landscape also tries to create space both for nature and historic actors as well as oil company executives, long-time residents, pipeliners, researching scholars, and frack truck drivers. Thus, our notion of the landscape represents both the physical space of the Bakken as well as all the various attitudes and activities taking place there.