About a year ago I submitted a manuscript to a university press that purports to be a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch. Longtime readers might remember some of the posts here that fed into this project, and while my publisher wanted me to pull down most of the content produce prior to writing the book, I’m still producing content.
This weekend I read big chunks of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard 2011). It’s really good. The book made me understand some things about my own work that I probably didn’t get when I wrote my tourist guide. It’s not enough to make me want my manuscript back, but enough to make me want to start to build a new scaffolding around that texts that makes it less “clever” and make more sense.
(I have to admit that I was too enamored by the gimmick of a tourist guide and its quaint generic conventions, and not thoughtful enough about what I was trying to do with the genre and the gimmick.)
Nixon brought to my attention work by Jamaica Kincaid, Njabulo Ndebele, and June Jordan, who explicitly connected tourism with practices of exclusion (and race). For my purposes, I’m more interested in the link between tourism, exclusion, and labor. Tourist resorts in the Caribbean and game lodges in South Africa each depend upon practices associated with exclusion. They not only limited where tourists can (or should) go but also hides from sight the places set aside for the labor that allows for tourists to have a tidy experience. Tourists, in effect, come to place and extract from it an experience built in part upon local labor (or, in some cases, natural beauty). Moreover, tourists are short term visitors who arrive, are shuttled to their destination, and whose encounter with their environment is strictly managed.
In my tourist guide, I make an effort to reframe our encounter with the Bakken as tourism but I’m not sure that I understood how deep these parallels extended. Workforce comes to the Bakken to extract oil and in doing so encounters the landscape and the place in a strictly managed way. The worker in the Bakken experiences the partitioned encounter between the secure confines of workforce housing and the clearly delimited worksite. In many cases, the worker has very little to do with the relatively unstructured world of longterm residents in the Bakken counties. As with most extractive industries, the workers engagement with the landscape leaves both physical scars and waste as well as social disruption in its wake. To be fair, the oil industry in the Bakken also provides wealth and opportunities to the communities that it impacts, but these opportunities come at a cost of dependence on outside capital and workforce at least for the foreseeable future. And since transnational oil companies do not come to North Dakota (or anywhere) to share their revenues, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the communities impacted by the Bakken boom are left better off than they were prior to the most recent boom. Evidence for this comes from communities impacted by extractive industries around the world which have shared only unevenly in the benefits of oil and shouldered most of the short and longterm environmental, economic, and social burdens. The controversial protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the recent budget short falls (and ensuing fiscal chaos) at the state level clearly point in this direction.
The same, of course, can be said about tourism. The tourism industry thrives on the low labor costs, neatly managed (and insulated) experiences, and outside capital. The social, economic, and political costs of this structured dependency are well known.