Fragments of Ivan Illich in the Bakken Oil Patch

Over the past week or so, I’ve been making my way slowly through Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973) over the last few weeks, and it has really helped me refine (let’s say?) some of my ideas on work in the Bakken and (wait for it…) slow archaeology.

For Illich, the expansion of technology, professionalization, and institutions have undermined the fundamental conviviality of human society. This conviviality involves making space for independent creative acts and a commitment to work that modern, industrial society has stripped away. Illich sought to promote tools that allowed individuals and communities equal access to productive processes. His classic case study is learning: convivial tools allow for a freedom to experiment and encounter without institutional sanctions or limits whereas non-convivial tools limited access, reinforce the exclusivity of knowledge, and develop expertise and restrictive institutions like schools, factories, and professions. Technocratic society promotes inequality among its members through tools that grossly amplified the labor of the individual through increasingly technical means. Thus, the individual’s labor became increasingly estranged from their access to the rewards of the system which institutions meted out unevenly and in ways that were increasingly distinct from the work of the individual. The rise of fossil fuels accelerated the dominance of non-convivial tools and created a hard break between individual work and effort and consumption. 

During my research in the Bakken oil patch, I consistently noticed this curious curious tension that I was at pains to understand or describe. On the one hand, extractive industries especially modern fracking and deep drilling, represent an apex of industrial technologies and have value not in anything visible or tangible, but in the monetary reward that individuals receive for their work and society received from fossil fuels. In other words, the individual is separated from the fruits of work by myriad institutional and technological barriers ranging from the complexities of the modern financial structure of extractive industries to the hidden infrastructure of drill bits,  pipelines, and wells. Opportunities for expression within these institutional frameworks are profoundly limited for the safety of the worker, the efficiency of the process, and the control over the product. Worker wear uniforms, live in company housing, come to the area exclusively to work, and have hyper specialized skills.

There are, however, more convivial spaces in the Bakken, particularly in the informal workforce housing sites where some of the same workers (or the workers who support them) live. Amid the deeply unconvivial space of extractive industries that feeds the dense network of unconvivial tools that dominate the exclusionary space of modern society, there are these informal, ad hoc, convivial space for living that stand out as a space of resistance against the very regimentation of society that petroculture demands and requires. For example, these camps are filled with ad hoc mud rooms often built of found material present throughout the industrialized area. These rooms expand the living space of the RVs where workers live, protect the door from the cold and dirt of the patch, and offer an opportunity to show off individual building skills. These are expression of conviviality and the ideas for these improvised extensions circulate via conversation at these camps and stand in contrast to the more regimented life and work on the oil rigs.

This contrast produces a chilling irony. Advocates for the Bakken oil patch have presented it as a pathway to energy independence. If we follow Illich’s thought, however, the need for the fossil fuels produced from the Bakken constitutes a much more densely constituted web of dependence. 

Despite romantic views of the American West as a space for rugged individualism, the reality of work in the Bakken is more consistently manifest as the “wage earners frontier” with oil patch worker depending on a dense web of government, capital, and institutions to thrive. In fact, the risks associated with oil field work, the structured spaces of workforce housing, the technocratic organization of 21st-century extractive industries, and even the increasingly conspicuous collusion of the state and the oil companies locates the oil patch worker (as well as any consumer of fossil fuels) amidst multiple and rarely competing systems of control. Parts of this system from the economic networks that fund the work to the infrastructure that moves oil and water throughout the patch are conspicuously occluded as if to hide these patters of dependency. In fact, little about the Bakken and the Bakken oil boom constitutes genuine independence, but the space of man camp provides a rare exception.

It is hardly surprising that local government has cracked down on both mudrooms and informal workforce housing sites, and promoted superficially tidier superficially tidier apartment blocks that despite their more rational and regular design are now unoccupied. The result is a simple case study for Illich’s ideas. The informal conviviality of RV parks in the Bakken produced housing that was flexible, dynamic, cost effective, and left little impact on the landscape. The less convivial constraints of modernity produced produced a superficially more humane and rational housing system that has, at least for now, failed and will cost communities and future workers into the future.