The Bakken, Petroculture, and Climate Change

A year or so ago, I was reading a good bit on petroculture and the Anthropocene. I had begun – in a back of my napkin kind of way – to trace a research trajectory that led from our work in the Bakken a larger discussion of petroculture and climate change. At some point, other projects encroached on this work and before too long, like so many ideas, this one slipped into the background.

Last week, an old friend asked whether I might consider contributing a paper to a panel on archaeology and climate change in the Middle East. As I was saying that I didn’t really have anything on that particular topic, he nudged me to consider something that connects my work in the Bakken to the larger issue of climate change.  A dim light bulb flickered to life.

I don’t have a paper yet (to be clear, the panel hasn’t been accepted!). In fact, I don’t even have an abstract, but I do have a few ideas.

1. Movement. It seems like many of the situations present in the Bakken anticipate the challenges posed by climate change. The arrival of temporary workers in a fragile and sparsely populated landscape anticipates, at least in form, the movement of climate refugees from settlements made vulnerable from changing and volatile weather patterns, rising sea levels, and the redistribution of resources.  

2. Logistics and Scarcity. The presence of oil workers in the Bakken also anticipates the paradox of logistics that is so essential to understanding the future of human society on a changing Earth. European settlement in Western North Dakota is fundamentally the product of petroculture. It was driven by the expanded reach of rail and facilitated by gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The Bakken became a place for large scale agricultural practices before it became a place defined by the sustainable extraction of oil.

Today, the challenge facing oil extraction regularly face the difficulties of moving this oil to refining and the market. The investment in infrastructure, from pipelines to additional rail capacity, defines the Bakken boom as much as the number of barrels per day. Our networked world, then, depends upon petroleum driven logistics. As climate change increasingly challenges and compromises the logistic networks that constitute our modern world, how will a world “after oil” support resilient communities in what appears to be a far more volatile climate regime? How will concepts of the local and global shift? 

3. The Present, the Past, and the Future. Readers of this blog know that I’m inordinately fond o Amitav Ghosh’s observation that in the 21st century, the poor are experiencing the future first. In my time working the Bakken, it seems to me that the model of hypermobility and precarity offered by work in the oil patch anticipates a less stable economic, political, and climactic future. This isn’t to suggest that workers in the Bakken are poor by any global standard, but to suggest that the lifestyle demanded of the workers in extractive industries foreshadows a less stable world.  

The workers in the Bakken (and in any community defined by the precarity and instability of extractive, seasonal, and “just in time” work) have begun to redefine domesticity and the material character of social life. The response to this adaptation from many outside those working in the oil fields has been complex and largely negative. In fact, much of the response from both permanent communities in Western North Dakota and the national media remains shaped by nostalgic views of middle class aspirations from land and home ownership to the nuclear family defining a place of residence. In many ways, the economic status of the oil workers – many of whom earn middle class salaries for their work – maps onto critiques of the global poor and historical working class.  


In short, a paper on the Bakken and climate change might extend my interest in petroculture to a social critique of the culture of climate change. I realize that my observations today are rough around the edges, but I have time and can’t escape the feeling that there is something here, if I just keep playing with ideas enough.

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