The Bakken, Ontology, and Climate Change

Like so many people, I’ve been struggling to keep focused on long term or big picture projects. This has been a mini-disaster for my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience which had momentum and then lost it amid COVID, the semester, and various other commitments. You can get a sense for what the book looks like so far here.

The last few weeks, I’ve tried to jump back into writing mostly to learn that this is not how good ideas happen. In fact, over the last week or so, I’ve written the final section to the final chapter about four times. I posted two sections of this chapter already herehere, and here

Yesterday, I took a long and frankly melancholic walk with the dogs and churned over the section that I’m working on over and over and over. I finally came to a not entirely unsatisfactory solution and work up today at 4:30 am and spent the last 8 hours hashing it out. 

IMG 5814

My sound track today (and most of the last six months, to be honest) was Waxahatchee’s brilliant Saint Cloud. When I got to the final paragraphs of what I was working on, the song “Arkadelphia” came on. At the risk of being one of those guys, the lyrics sort of framed my thinking:

If you get real close to the ending
I hope you know I did what I could
We try to give it all meaning
Glorify the grain of the wood
Tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good

Here’s the final section, warts and all. It needs citations and I’ll try to finish this before Christmas. Hat tip goes out to the folks who stimulated my thinking in my 2020 ASOR panel (which you can read about here). 

As per usual, any feedback, mockery, or kind words are always appreciated:

Labor, The Environment, and Climate Change

The details of workforce housing in the Bakken represent regional variation on a number of larger trends in the archaeological study of labor, attitudes toward the environment, and climate change. The final section of this chapter will introduce three vignettes that will help us to explore the connection between the labor regime that made the Bakken boom possible and issues of environmental justice and the intersection between our dependence on fossil fuels and climate change on a global scale. In general, historical archaeologists and especially archaeologists of the contemporary world have consistently recognize that the study of recent material culture can play a key role in not only understanding human’s role in the transformation of the earth, but also the impact of climate change and associated climate regimes on both evidence for the past and our society today. As we have seen in chapter 2, Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project developed amid the environmental concerns in the 1960s and 1970s that gained momentum in the long shadow of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the organization of Earth Day in 1970, and an increasingly energized environmentalist movement. Climate change, the impact of recent human actions on the biosphere and atmosphere, and the persistent mark of industrialization on the surface of the planet likewise characterized the wide ranging debate among historical and contemporary archaeologists on the “Anthropocene” in the Norwegian Archaeological Review in 2011 and the inaugural issue issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology in 2014. There appears to be a growing awareness that the violence associated with the traditional haunts of historical archaeology – colonialism, Eurocentrism, capitalism, and modernity – is manifest in a global trail of environmental destruction. This damage may now be coming home to roost in the form of climate change which promises only to exacerbate social, political, and economic instability inherent in a system that relies upon and promotes global inequality.

The parking lot of the Williston Walmart seems like an unlikely place to unpack the relationship between the haunts of historical archaeology, environmental degradation, and climate change. At the same time, it does offers a window into the changing landscape of labor in the United States. As early as 2010, new arrivals in the Bakken congregated in the Williston Walmart parking lot. Nationally, Walmart had a longstanding policy of allowing the overnight parking of RVs in their lots, and new arrivals looking for work in the booming Bakken oil patch took advantage of this policy especially as longer term housing was both scarce and expensive. By 2011, evening transformed the Walmart parking lot into a bustling settlement. The store provided groceries and other amenities, but as the media coverage made clear, life in the parking lot was not comfortable. While it is likely that the reports on crime in the parking lot represent local anxieties about change as much as the reality on the ground, there is no reason to assume that living in an RV in the North Dakota winter is pleasant. Many of those who end up staying in the parking lot have left communities hard hit by the Great Recession and see the hardships of living in an RV as the price of opportunity (Donovan 2012). The Walmart parking lot represents a degraded parody of the mid-century suburb. Planned suburbs such as Lakewood, California and Levittown, New York combined housing and shopping with abundant parking. This not only made clear the link between mid-century middle-class domesticity and consumer culture, but also emphasized the crucial role of the automobile in post-war life. In contrast, the Walmart parking lot occupied in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis revealed the faltering of the middle class dream of home ownership amid our persistent attachment to the convenience of consumer culture. Worker seeking jobs flow to the Bakken along routes already established by the global supply chains that support the consumer goods on the Walmart shelves.

The arrival of job seekers in the Bakken, by car and RV, connects our dependence on fossil fuels with the increasingly mobile society. The RV, a recreational vehicle, provided the middle class with a means to escape the fixity of suburban life. Its streamlined design marked its modernity and compatibility with car culture. The use of RVs as long-term, albeit temporary, housing in the Bakken demonstrated how the ever more rapid and dynamic flow of capital complicates notions of settled suburban life. The same vehicles used to house middle class families as they visited National Parks of the American West, now serve to house workers extracting oil from the same region. Efforts by workers to embellish their RVs and their lots suggests that notions of suburban fixity and private space persist even in housing manufactured with mobility in mind. The blurring of distinctions between settled suburban life and the mobility of capital and the middle class echoes the increasingly fuzzy distinctions that define the core and the periphery even in the historically peripheral space of the American West. The speed and mobility of modern capital and labor has complicated the spatial and conceptual boundaries that have defined not only regions, but also our relationship to the landscape and resources.

As we have noted elsewhere in this book, natural resources including oil, minerals, natural beauty, and “open spaces” (produced partly through the displacement or simply ignoring Native American populations) defined the American West. In many ways this definition followed the modern division between the natural world and the human world. National parks, for example, represented efforts to preserve natural beauty from human interference while the resources of the West exist for the advancement of American society. In effect, the American West became a model for the distinction between the cultural and the natural and the human and the non-human reinforced by its location at the periphery of the settled urban center of the Midwest and East. Fossil fuels, first powering rail, and later powering cars, trucks, and air travel, formed the connective tissue that bound the center to the natural regions which they dominated politically and economically. Scholars critical of the nature/culture dyad have come to regard this as a fundamental feature of modern and colonialist thinking that justified extractive industry and industrialization and their attendant disregard for the environment. In effect, fossil fuels facilitated closing the gap between the distant periphery which was the domain of nature and held resources destined for human consumption or preservation and a core defined by human culture. Concerns over climate change, accelerated largely by our rampant consumption of fossil fuels, requires that we recognize irreducible tangle of ties that connect culture with nature, the human with the non-human, and the fate of our species with dynamic transformation taking place on a global scale.

The global impact of the Bakken was visible in a widely circulate photograph of the Northern Plains at night which showed the region producing almost as much light as Minneapolis. The light was frequently and incorrectly attributed to flares burning off natural gas from oil wells in the region which reinforced perceptions of the Bakken as an ecologically irresponsible and inefficient folly. A more likely explanation for the light was the round the clock activity at drill sites, pipeline terminals, new rail yards, workforce housing sites, and other facilities developed the support extractive industries. Whatever the cause of its brilliant glow, the photograph evoked the famous 1972 image of the Earth from space colloquially know as the Blue Marble. This image apparently served as an inspiration for James Lovelock’s and Lyn Margulis’s Gaia Hypothesis (Lovelock 1979; Later 2017). This theory understands the Earth a self-regulating system comprised of all organic and inorganic entities which constantly adapt to one another (de Souza and Costa 2018, 6). The image of Earth as a Blue Marble reduces humans to yet another species barely distinguishable from space and existing within a global system of agents.

While archaeologists have been slow to embrace the Gaia Hypothesis, it has informed similar views of the world that seek to unsettle and complicate the human/nature dichotomy. Matthew Edgeworth’s notion of the “archaeosphere,” for example, reinforces the impossibility of separating human actions from wider material and natural world by emphasizing the full range of human modifications to the physical environment. The commingling of the organic and inorganic and the human and the non-human has become a key assumption in the effort to define the current geological age as the “Anthropocene.” This term, coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stroemer in 2000 (2000, Crutzen 2002) recognizes the fundamental human change to the geology of the Earth. The radiation from nuclear weapons testing, the redistribution of material through mining and drilling, the use of plastics and other manufactured inorganic compounds at a massive scale, and the increase in the amount of atmospheric green house gasses, among other indicators, will leave indelible traces in the geology of the planet (Steffen, Crutzen, McNeill 2007; 2011). While it has not been officially accepted as a geological epoch, it has nevertheless been a touch point for more expansive understandings of the impact of humanity on the physical environment. This has, in turn, fueled a growing interest among archaeologists in environmental change in the past and has added urgency to archaeological critiques aimed at understanding long term trends (Lane 2015). All of this has contributed to the realization among historical archaeologists that concepts such as the Gaia Hypothesis, the archaeosphere, and the anthropocene offer important concepts for interrogating the complex interplay between human and non-human actors in ongoing environmental change.

From the Walmart parking lot to the Blue Marble may appear to be a vast leap in terms of time and scale. The travails of Bakken workers doing dangerous work and enduring substandard housing conditions, however, connect the human costs of extractive industries to the global changes in both the economy and the environment. It also marks the potential for both historical archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world to bridge between local concerns, in this case workforce housing, and global concerns, such as climate change. Like so much archaeological work of the last two decades, this ability to move between scales, agents, and situations relies on our ability to complicate long-standing ontologies which have supported how archaeologist describe and interpret the world. By recognizing that categories of core and periphery, human and non-human, and natural and cultural are not only dependent upon one another for meaning, but also collapsing under the weight of the ever increasingly speed of capital, the contingency of human labor and living conditions, and new ways of seeing the Earth.

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