On Booms and Peripheries

In my efforts to revise a recent article for a well-respected journal, one of the peer reviewers suggested that the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota might not fit a traditional definition of a global periphery. Of course, this reviewer is right. When we think about the periphery we think about radically disenfranchised populations, very low levels of local capital, and a cultural and social institutions that are often ill-suited to negotiate on equal footing with  the political, economic, and technological power of the core. After all, the Bakken is part of the United State which is universally regarded as a core. Within the United States, however, we might be willing to regard the Bakken as a peripheral region comparable to Alaska or parts of the desert southwest.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that the idea of global periphery might be increasingly tied to the speed of global capital instead of the location of global capital. It is hard to avoid the conclusions that the state of North Dakota and the communities of the Bakken region have struggled to embrace the opportunities presented by the tremendous concentration of people and capital in this region. Part of that struggle has been the difficulties associated with adapting public (and private) institutions to sudden change. 

Housing provides a good case study for this. The rapid ebb and flow of population and capital in the region outpaces the ability of the housing market to expand and contract without hemorrhaging profits. As a result, housing starts have tended to lag behind the boom in an effort to suss out its trajectory and minimize risk. For individuals who have come to western North Dakota to work in oil and oil related industries, however, the lack of housing means that they need to provide their own accommodations. Readers of this blog know that this has resulted in the growth of workforce housing sites colloquially known as “man camps.” The reluctance of the housing market to accelerate at the same speed as extractive industries has a knock on effect in the region. Communities have found it difficult, if not impossible to provide either long term housing for social service providers, teachers, and law enforcement, or even short term accommodations for state employees with grants to document the boom. State salaries and rates for accommodations lagged far behind the growing cost of living in the Bakken and state officials were slow or just unwilling to risk of action. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the slow response of the state in this region is not simply political but systemic. 

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Housing inventories, salaries, and the actions of state institutions are relatively slow to adapt to the needs to extractive industries. Extractive industries, ever vigilant of the price of commodities, labor, and technology on a global market, have become increasingly able to deploy or withdraw resources on short notice, on a global scale in the pursuit of profit. Their ability to function quickly on a global scale suggests that traditional spatial peripheries are vanishing as particular forms of capital, labor, and technology can now appear in nearly any location around the world. This is a “realtime” manifestation of the increasingly decentered financial markets which depend less managed systems associated with the traditional core, like the New York Stock Exchange, and, instead, operate continuously in distributed, digital worlds. So, if a core does exist, it is not a spatially defined one, but rather a system of links, processes, expectations, and operations that allows one set of resources to outpace others in order.

It is worth contemplating whether the speed of these extractive industries is a response exclusively to the global market for these raw materials or also served as a strategy to avoid potentially costly or complicating entanglements with localized forms of authority. In fact, it seems like the traditional dichotomy of core and periphery has been overtaken by the dichotomy between fast global and the slow local. These two phenomenon are not characterized by their respective spatial extents, but rather by their velocity. 

At the end of last year, Jo Guldi and David Armitage published a slim volume called the History Manifesto. I blogged about it here. The argument that they make is the historians have to once again embrace the challenge of big data to study large-scale, long-term, and often slow moving, phenomena. Clearly they appreciated the global scope of much history in the modern era and the need to develop skills and discourses that accommodates history on an unprecedented scale. As I’ve thought more and more about their book and our work in the Bakken, I’ve wondered whether a history of global phenomenon is possible for our contemporary era. The speed and scope of events like the Bakken boom almost certainly taxes the tools that historians have at their disposal. In fact, historians have largely relied upon physical, spatial structures to focus our research. Even as we have worked to pay increased attention to events at the periphery (and embraced the contingency of the countryside), we’ve continued to rely on the resources of the core to guide our work as the core preserves archives, political texts, and economic data upon which big history can be constructed. With the rapid pace of a globalized work and the decentering of capital, decision making, markets, and data (distributed data!), the historians gaze has to both expand to capture “the ghost in the machine,” but to focus in order to describe sequences of events that occur so quickly as to approach simultaneity. 

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