The Bakken and Climate Change: Assemblages

Next week, I’m participating in a roundtable at the ASOR annual meeting. This roundtable is titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” and it is convened by Ömür Harmanşah.

I’ve been thinking about ourr paper pretty non-stop this weekend. It’s titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective.” 

I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Bakken is not in the Middle East (at least as it is conventionally understood). Fortunately, the current organization of the panel is for us to have only 8-10 minutes to discuss our work and then for the panel to become a more open conversation between the participants and the audience. I like this format, but I’ll have to think a bit carefully about how I frame my paper so that it can contribute to the all-star cast that Ömür has assembled whose work is decidedly more focused on the Middle East and more scientifically rigorous than our work in the Bakken. 

Over the next four days, I’m going to propose four different possible approaches to how we present our work in the Bakken in a global context. This not only reflects my own uncertainty about how to make our work relevant to this panel, but also reveals a bit about how academic knowledge is made. 

(Digression: I find myself increasingly unsatisfied with certain trends in our public discourse and among academics committed to public scholarship. First, there is this consistent view of science as a kind of solution to problems. This is particularly visible in the response to the COVID pandemic where people state more and more shrilly that we need to follow “the science.” While I don’t disagree with this at all, this rhetorical position assumes that there is a single “science” that explains exactly what we should do to avoid The COVIDs, but also that science can and will provide clear solutions to complex problems. 

This kind of rhetoric seems to parallel a certain approach favored by academic who write for a public audience. While their work is generally estimable, they often present their expertise through a series of clear answers to complicated social problems or through a journalistic fetishization of facts and factoids. To be clear, this isn’t bad, but I find it a very unsatisfying reflection of how scholars produce academic knowledge and the fuzziness, insecurities, and ambiguities that accompany that process. 

One of things that I try to do on this blog is to reveal the fuzziness of academic knowledge making and the fragility of claims to expertise. The main way that I try to do this is by making public my own process and revealing my insecurities. This is my modest effort to push back against some of the solutionist rhetoric, our fetishization of “settled facts,” and ways that we’ve tried to heroize experts.)

Four Approaches to The Bakken, Climate Change, and the Middle East:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

Climate change is a global phenomenon with roots in deep time. As the participants in this workshop know, understanding climate change through time involves integrating proxies that provide insight into past conditions on a variety of scales: from Arctic ice cores to lake sediments and tree ring data and even more local evidence from texts and archaeology. This multiscalar approach to understanding climate change parallels approaches to climate justice that function at different scales – from global climate treaties to calls to “think global and act local” that have long been part of the American environmentalist rhetoric.

Our work in the Bakken was from the start multiscalar even if we learned the significance of our project for understanding both climate change and larger issues of environmental justice along the way. From the Late Devonian to Early Mississippian date of the Bakken formation itself to the rapid expansion of settlement during the 21st century oil boom, the counties of western North Dakota represent a diverse assemblage of chronological time. This assemblage speaks not only to the connection of the contemporary climate regime in the deep time of the Bakken formation which dates to roughly 350,000 million year ago, but in the shorter term cycles of boom and bust that have defined settler colonial exploitation of this region. The arrival of railroads in the last decades of the 19th century triggered the founding of the county seats of Williston (named after Daniel Willis James who was a friend of James J. Hill), Stanley, and Watford City as well as settlements and homesteads strung along the Great Northern Railway’s High Line. The arrival of the railroad opened western North Dakota to large scale agricultural exploitation which fed the mills of Minneapolis (and after 1922 the State Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks) and provided a precarious existence for farmers in this semi-arid region. In the 1930s, efforts to recover oil from under the gentle ridge of the Nesson Anticline suggested that it was possible, but perhaps not particularly profitable. Technological advances and more ambitious prospecting led to the first commercially viable wells in the 1950s and initiated the first of three Bakken oil boom in the late 20th and early 21st century. The Bakken oil fields are also essentially contemporary with the negotiation of post-colonial agreements involving the oil reserves in Iraq and Iran and the large scale exploitation of oil in Saudi Arabia and effectively contemporary with our ability to measure fluctuations and increases in atmospheric temperatures on the global temperature (first via weather balloon and then satellite). It goes without saying that efforts to exploit Bakken oil reserves coincided with the post-war economic boom in the US and the growth of suburbs, automobile ownership, and late-20th century consumer culture. 

The North Dakota Man Camp project which continues at a very low simmer even today, looked to document the rise in temporary workforce housing in the Bakken counties of western North Dakota. These sites which we studied while still active or only recently abandoned are the some of the most ephemeral cogs in the global petroleum infrastructure, American consumer culture, and practices that have contributed to recent trends that indicate a rapid, anthropogenic, increase in global temperatures.

In the 21st century, the Bakken oil boom depended not only on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology to exploit the “tight oil” associated with the dolomitic middle Bakken, but also an American labor market made more fluid and mobile by the financial crisis of 2008 as well as the displacements triggered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deep Water Horizon spill of 2010.  

This expansive introduction isn’t to meant to directly relate all of these events to the episodic efforts to exploit the Bakken oil patch but to locate our research sites within an assemblage of chronologies that requires us to understand climate change across a range of scales. 

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