The Bakken and Climate Change: Flows

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. 

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

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

Anyone who visited the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota, especially at the peak of the its boom, would witness a region in constant motion. A grid of roads and railroads forms a defining feature of the landscape, and the constant flow of trucks and trains produced moving monuments to extractive industry. The “Big Muddy,” the Missouri River snakes it way through the heart of the oil patch, from the Montana border until the Garrison Dam pools its waters in Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The regular appearance of tank farms, natural gas compressor stations, and “processed water” disposal sites, hint at the role that “midstream” service providers play in bringing oil and gas to market and disposing of waste. 

For five years at the height of the Bakken oil boom, the North Dakota Man Camp project documented temporary workforce housing in the Bakken counties of western North Dakota. Initially we focused our attention on workforce housing sites especially those defined by the clusters of RVs, neatly arranged grids of carefully managed mobile housing units, or, especially during chaotic early years of the boom, impromptu camp sites in parking lots, shelter belts, rural farmyards, and abandoned townsites. Set against the timelessness of western North Dakota’s Ektachrome skies, the palpable ephemerality mutability of the so-called “man camps” stand out. In the first years of the project, the time spent traveling between our various study sites across the region was far greater than out time on site. In fact, our time sitting in our project trucks moving through the congested and occasionally terrifying Bakken traffic formed a rolling seminar of sorts where we formed typologies, hypotheses, and arguments for what we were seeing across the region. In other words, the encounter of motion in the Bakken was one that we initially felt and experienced as much as understood and analyzed.

In this context, the concept of flow and its key place within larger studies of the modern world was palpable. Indeed, the flow of oil from the Bakken and the flow of workers and other forms of capital into the Bakken allowed us to understand the landscape of western North Dakota as not only coterminous with the landscape of extractive industries elsewhere — whether on the North Slope of Alaska, the Permian basin, the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, or the oil field of the Middle East — but also the confluence of flows that inscribe ever more deeply the scars of capitalist urgency on the landscape and advance the rate of anthropogenic climate change.

In an effort to document the complexity of these modern flows we adapted Tim Ingold’s concept of taskscapes in our effort to describe the confluence of movement in the Bakken. In an effort to narrate our encounters we presented our work in the form of a tourist guide. Tourism, or at least its modern variety, situated our work as both within and outside Charles Orser’s oft-recited “haunts” of historical archaeology: colonialism, Eurocentrism, capitalism, and modernity. The archaeologist as tourist naturally moves with the flow of capital, along paths established through colonial appropriation, outward, at least intellectually, from our European (rational, empirical, industrial, disciplinary, and racial) metropole, and with all the expectations and convenience of modernity. As Dean MacCannell taught us, the emergence of the middle-class tourist, as opposed to an upper class “traveler,” relied as much on the increase of surplus wealth available to the middle classes and their desire to define their class through behavior that intentionally evoked the habits of the wealthy as it did on the low cost of fossil fuels which made travel possible. If the ubiquity of transnational flows in capital allows us to make the Bakken coterminous with oil fields in the Middle East, then our fieldwork in the region mimicked a tourist’s itinerary where the wonders of modern industry passed by our windows in all their industrial glory.

The dual poles of “ecotourism” and “toxic tourism” reflect persistent modern (European, colonial, and capitalist) efforts to make visible the invisible world of ecosystems and pollution. Industrial tourism and “poorism” which brings well-heeled travelers to witness the poor communities, likewise, reflects an ironic desire to reconcile the power of capital to create and destroy. The tourist remains comfortably ensconced in a flow of experience that smooths the incommensurability between their position as witnesses, the world that they are encountering, and any potential alternatives.

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