The Bakken and Climate Change: History

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

Earlier this year, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published a book that combined chapters of a 1958 report on the situation around Williston during the first Bakken oil boom with a series of new chapters written about the early 21st century boom.  For both booms, scholars of the geography, economy, politics, medial and social aspects of the Bakken oil boom contributed chapters and those writing in the 21st century sought to bridge the gap between the most recent boom and that of the 1950s.

(You can download the book for free here.)

As the only historian writing for the volume, I have to admit that our contribution missed an opportunity. We predictably focused on workforce housing and our article works for the volume as it recognizes the parallels between the concern for workforce housing during the first and 21st century booms.

At the same time, we do very little to situation workforce housing within the changing character of housing in the second half of the 20th century. It is telling, of course that, J.B. Jackson’s famous essay, “The Westward Moving House” appeared in 1953, a mere two years after the spudding of the Clarence Iverson #1 near Tioga, North Dakota. This essay traced the Tinkham family’s homes from the first house they family constructed in the 17th-century New England wilderness to the most recent in mid-century Bonniview, Texas. If Nehemiah Tinkham’s house represented a deep commitment to a place through its solid, if inflexible architecture. By the 20th century, Ray Tinkham’s new house was designed to adapt to changes in their family and priorities and to support a mobile lifestyle made possible through fossil fuels and their surplus capital. If Jackson were to have continued the westward movement of housing in the US, he would have almost certainly added a chapter to the Tingham family’s history in the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona. Here, the “crabgrass frontier” defined the air-conditioned suburbs from the desert and the extractive landscape of coal mines situated on the Navaho Nation near the Four Corners where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. In 1960, Jackson published a short article, “The Four Corners Country,” on the trailer housing of this area occupied by Native Americans and arrivals to the region who worked in rapidly expanding coal industry developed to support the cities of the New West.

At the same time that America was enjoying its post-war prosperity, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were working to secure greater control over their oil reserves. The fields developed by ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia drew American workers to the region as early as the 1930s when the American corporate enclave of Dhahran was founded. By the 1950s, Dhahran became an “outpost of Empire” featuring many of the amenities of an American suburb. By 1959, North Dakotan Thomas Barger was the president of ARAMCO who famously tapped Wallace Stenger, the “Dean of Western Writers” (who also spent time in North Dakota) to pen the history of ARAMCO and its discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula. (It is interesting to note the Barger was succeeded by another North Dakotan Thomas Junger in the 1970s.) 

These anecdotal connections between the Middle East and North Dakota and the American West should not detract from the more substantive links between the changing character of post-war America life and the need for a stable supply of fossil fuels. The suburbs, consumer culture, and rapid increase in the number of automobiles came to define American life and North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch and ARAMCOs growing footprint in Saudi Arabia both represent forms of political, economic, and cultural colonization characteristic of both the post-war world and extractive industries. Indeed, the development of the oil industry in the Bakken represents an interesting domestic example of what Andre Gunder Frank called “the development of underdevelopment” where multinational companies intentionally manage the flow of wealth to local communities and use a wide range of economic, social, and cultural methods to construct dependent relationships that eventually make residents of these regions less capable of political autonomy. The impact of these kinds of relationships on North Dakota is painfully apparent as the state’s oil soaked political culture has struggled to produce sustainable economic gain from the most recent oil boom despite now ranking second only to Texas in barrels of oil per day.

The relationship between the history of the Bakken oil patch, post-war colonialism, American consumer culture and suburbanization, and climate change is not subtle. The archaeology of contemporary climate change operates at the intersection of historical and cultural developments as well as climate science. The specificity and detailed character of our study of workforce housing in the Bakken is not epiphenomenal to the current global climate situation.

The subprime mortgage crisis which touched off the Great Recession contributed directly to the labor pool who arrived in the Bakken eager to tap into the region’s petroleum wealth. Some lived in mobile housing units of the same kind deployed in Iraq to house contractors and solider or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans whose scattered population represented only the most visible and dramatic example of the coming wave of migrants displaced by new and intensified patterns of our increasingly volatile climate. In other words, an archaeology of climate change must recognize how the mechanisms developed to finance the growing rate of economic inequality, to accommodate soldiers during colonial wars and house the displaced in the aftermath of natural disasters also contribute to extraction of petroleum from the Middle Bakken formation in Western North Dakota.   

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