The Bakken and Climate Change: Fieldwork

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

In our brief organizational meeting last week, Ömür remarked that he was increasingly drawn to the idea of fieldwork as a method for understanding climate change and ecology. He shared an article by Alexandra Arènes, Bruno Latour, and Jérôme Gaillardet which discussed their efforts to offer a local, “Gaia-graphic view” of actors and systems that produce the surface of the earth (the so-called “critical zone”). To do this, they encourage intensive research at the level of the site, which not only would orient around local concerns and questions, but also the kind of local knowledge that allows scientists to understand the geo-chemical processes in a more “concrete, dynamic, complex, heterogeneous and reactive” way. Only later in the process will researchers pull together the heterogeneous work of these “critical zone observatories” to create a more integrated view of the “nested envelopes necessary for sustaining life.”

Our work in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota was not concerned with the geochemistry of the critical zone, nor was it part of a sustained project of observatories designed to produce a network of intensive local views. It was, however, intensely local. We developed our research questions, methods, and analysis on site and in response both to the changing local situation in the Bakken as well as our experiences doing research there.

In this sense, our work is decidedly not about the Middle East and in many ways not about climate change, climate politics, or climate justice. Instead, we focused on workforce housing and the variety of local approaches to temporary life in the oil patch. We often discussed, as we drove from site to site across the region, the range of adaptations designed to accommodate the precarious and highly mobile employment situation characteristic both of the historical organization of extractive industries in the American West, and also in the growing prevalence of the gig economy on a global scale. Our comparanda for discussing and understanding workforce housing, then, ranged from the informal shacks often present in 19th century Western mining camps, barracks on bonanza farms or the high-tech accommodations on the North Slope of Alaska to the manufactured housing used to house migrant workers at large-scale construction projects in the Persian Gulf or the dormitories at factories in Asia that cater to the fluid world of just-in-time production. 

Our foothold in the Bakken provided us with insights into the daily and seasonal life of the precarious labor pool who worked on road construction crews, drove trucks filled with oil or fracking fluid, built pipelines, ran casing on drill rigs, and fished out equipment dropped down bore holes, as well as workers in the Bakken who supported the oil industry in other ways: cooking, cleaning, and security at workforce housing sites, repairing and cleaning diesel equipment, managing local businesses, or serving at restaurants and bars across the region. These workers, on the ground, remain an essential component of both the contemporary global economy and the climate regime.  

The ability to extract oil from the Middle Bakken formation depends in no small part on the ability deploy and maintain a workforce in a relatively remote region amid both the volatility of the oil market and the often-difficult weather of the North Dakota winter (itself dependent in no small part on the global weather patterns). Intensive fieldwork at the local level allowed us to produce not only a patchy deep map of white settler-landscape interaction over the last 100 years (a la Borges), but also a broad map of contemporary efforts to create a temporary home in Western North Dakota. 

In this context, the RVs surrounded by vegetable gardens, elaborate mudrooms, elevated walkways, and the distinctive marks of personal tastes connect the individuals in the Bakken to notions of home anchored in dispositions developed in American suburbs. The new temporary suburbs accommodated a precarious middle class who worked to extract the fossil fuels destined to power the expectations of post-war capitalism, consumer culture, patriotism, and suburban settlement. The hollow parody of these suburban affectations along the dusty lanes of Bakken workforce housing made visible the cruel optimism of the capitalocene (that we termed “Bakktimism”) and the incipient failure of the very system that these workers tirelessly drove onward. 

As humanity continues to assess the looming impact of global climate change, the local mechanisms which continue to accelerate our consumption of fossil fuels often give lie to its promise of capital deepening and petroleum prosperity. This contradiction is most visible on the ground where the deep horizontal wells of the Bakken meet the human labor necessary to keep the oil and gas flowing to refineries and markets. 

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