Domesticity and Precarity in the Bakken

As readers of this blog know, I’m slogging my way through the final chapter of a book manuscript that’s technically due at the end of January. The book is on the archaeology of the contemporary experience and is book-ended by a chapter on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation which has been drafted but needs attention and a chapter on my work in the Bakken with the North Dakota Man Cam project.

You can get a sense for what the book looks like so far here.

I posted two sections of this chapter already here and here.

Domesticity and Precarity

The 21st-century Bakken oil boom gained momentum at the same time as the United States began to emerge from the “Great Recession” at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing revealed the potential of the Bakken oil patch beginning with the work in the Parshall oil field in Montrail county starting in 2006. The deployment of these technologies at scale across the Bakken and Three Forks formations in North Dakota and Montana opened the region to large scale oil development in subsequent years. The demands of drilling, infrastructural development, and to a less extent fracking drew thousands of workers to the region at the very time when the US economy was struggling to emerge from a period of economic stagnation and contraction. In many cases, that the sub-prime mortgage crisis played in the Great Recession and a steep rise in the number of foreclosures drew renewed attention to housing as an investment. While many of workers recognized that employment in the Bakken was likely to be temporary, they nevertheless saw it as a way to regain financial standing undermined by the loss of jobs elsewhere, foreclosures, and general economic hardships brought on my the contraction of the economy and early years of a jobless recovery. Thus, the emergence of workers with precarious financial standing, employment, and housing (sometimes referred to as the “precariat”) and the “financialization of housing” formed salient backdrop against which we understood workforce housing in the Bakken.

The large scale, standardized housing facilities that we called “Type 1” were almost always funded by outside investors. Many served to house workers from larger companies who arrived in the region on regular shifts. These man camps typically consisted of a series of prefabricated housing units divided into a number of either individual or double room with private bathrooms. The housing was typically arranged around a larger public space for communal dining and recreation. The interior spaces were typically austere which reflected their basic functionalism. The rooms, hallways, and public spaces were largely devoid of anything remotely associated with traditional domestic space or anything connecting these facilities to their location in western North Dakota. The operators of the camps kept the outsides of the buildings clean and uncluttered and this space functioned as a liminal zone between the place of work and the place of rest. Fences, security posts, and lists of rules which typically included bans on alcohol, drugs, and weapons, further reinforced the perimeter of the camps. The entrances to public spaces frequently included boot scrapers; one of the largest camps in the region included a changing room designed to provide space for workers to get out of their coveralls, heavy coats, and boots. These buffer areas not only have practical purposes, but also served to mark out the camp as a space of rest and distinguish it from the place of work. Thus even the most austere camps represent a kind of deracinated domesticity whose main function is to provide workers a place to eat, sleep, and recover for more work. Since many, if not most of these workers, had homes elsewhere, the surrogate home provided by workforce housing in the Bakken provided an functional replacement for short term residents of the oil patch.

Our Type 2 camps, which were predominantly RV parks, offered an alternative model. Like Type 1 camps, investors from outside the region financed these RV parks and at the height of the boom rent and hook-ups (utilities) were often over $1000 per month making them comparable to apartment rents in my mid-sized American cities. The facilities themselves While many of these workers also saw their time in the Bakken as temporary, they lived in RV and mobile homes during their time in North Dakota. Many of these worker were not employees of a company who arranged housing in larger Type 1 style sites. Others found the living arrangements in Type 1 camps to be too restrictive as they typically did not allow family members, banned alcohol, and had noise restrictions. Some found that the short term accommodations of Type 1 camps inconvenient because employers expected residents to return home elsewhere when they were not engaged in work in the Bakken. In some cases, foreclosures and struggling regional economies made it more convenient or necessary to relocate to the Bakken.

The resident of Type 2 camps took advantage of a less restrictive environment to individualize their living spaces. In contrast to the austere functionalism of Type 1 camps, the individual units in Type 2 camps often featured a wide range of practical, recreational, and decorative embellishments. The most prominent addition to a unit in a Type 2 camp was a mudroom. These structures consisted of a lean-to with three walls and a single pitched roof set against side of the RV around the door. Most simply, the mudroom served the same function it would in a modern home: it provided a space for a resident to remove muddy or dirty work clothes before entering living space. In Type 2 camps, however, particularly early in the boom before municipalities pass more restrictive guidelines, mudrooms allowed residents to exercise their creativity in expanding their living space. Large mudrooms were sometimes nearly half the size of the RV and offered storage and living space as well as their traditional function as a social and physical barrier between the outside and interior of the RV.

The mudrooms also fit into a number of strategies that allowed residents of Type 2 camps to develop a more complex sense of domestic space. For example, the mudrooms transformed the RV into an l-shaped building that created a sense of place on the lot. Residents often used the space defined by the RV, the mudroom, and frequently the neighboring unit for outdoor activities, gardens, and storage. Neatly arranged furniture, improved gardens, exercise equipment, and sometimes unsecured storage demonstrated that residents recognized this space as private. The most elaborate examples included fences, dog runs, and in one case a tree planted in the arid soil of the North Dakota prairie. The appearance of well-appointed outdoor spaces in Type 2 camps belies the nearly constant turn over of residents in these camps. Its suggests, however, that unlike Type 1 camps, which offer bleak, but functional accommodation for a temporary workforce, Type 2 camps suggest that some workers continue to conform to models of domesticity grounded in suburban practices and attitudes.

Our work in the Bakken has argued that architectural elaboration associated with Type 2 camps demonstrates a tension between the increasingly precarious state of workers and their effort to preserve some aspects of suburban life with its exaggerated commitment to permanence. The workforce needs of extractive industries and their penchant for booms and busts highlights larger changes in the global economy that privileges just-in-time manufacturing and gig labor where the availability of a mobile labor pool on short notice remains a key to economic flexibility and low costs. The use of dormitory labor in Asia, for example, and guest workers for construction positions in the Persian Gulf offer just two examples of the key role that workforce housing plays in supporting short-term and precarious employment on a global scale.

Starting the Final Chapter

This month, I’m starting the final chapter of my short book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. I’ve blogged a ton about this book and you can read what I’ve written so far here.

The final chapter is a pendant to my first chapter. Just as the first chapter introduced the Alamogordo Atari Expedition of 2014 and anchored my book in the “garbology” of Bill Rathje, the final chapter will use my work in the Bakken oil patch to situate the archaeology of the contemporary world in global questions of precarity and climate change. 

The first few paragraphs follow my usual formula for each chapter as I try to evoke some cultural history to offer a broader context for the archaeology of the contemporary.

So here’s the start to chapter 8, which I’ve tentative titled Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change: 

The first chapter of this book began in 2014 with me standing in a New Mexico landfill documenting the excavation of a deposit of Atari games. The final chapter will begin in 2012 with me standing in an RV park housing workers who have come to western North Dakota during the Bakken Oil Boom. The North Dakota Man Camp Project conducted its inaugural season of fieldwork starting at a dusty camp on the outskirt of Tioga, North Dakota. The town of Tioga calls itself the “Oil Capital of North Dakota” from its perch atop the Nesson Anticline which has produced oil at a commercial scale since 1951 when the Iverson Well #1 came in. Booms in the 1950s and the 1980s brought thousands of workers not only to Tioga, but to the sparsely populated counties of western North Dakota. Invariably, local housing stock proved inadequate to accommodate the influx of workers who resorted to a wide range of temporary, mobile, and ad hoc solutions. The North Dakota Man Camp Project team visited the Bakken over a dozen times to document the various ways forms of boom-time workforce house. Our team combined archaeologists with an architectural historian, a historian and social worker with a specialization in housing, and artists, students, and colleagues committed to the documentation and study of 21st century Bakken oil boom.

The early 21st-century Bakken Oil Boom grabbed international media headlines and introduced the term “man camp” to American vocabulary (Caraher et al. 2016). Alec Soth’s famous photo of an oil smeared worker sitting atop an overturned oil drum on the North Dakota prairie evoked the desolation of the place and the rugged, masculine labor associated with extractive industries. The photo appeared on the cover of the widely circulated New York Times Magazine in 2013 and similar coverage appeared in The Atlantic, Harpers, National Geographic, and the Washington Post at around the same time (Becker 2016). The journalists drawn to the Bakken produced a series of thoughtful books that situated the Bakken in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis and the “Great Recession” and amid the improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technologies, a renewed push to national energy independence and the longstanding hope of getting rich (e.g. Gold 2014; Rao 2018; Briody 2017; McLean 2018). Artists and writers have also looked to the Bakken for inspiration and critique (e.g. Dunham 2016; Brorby et al. 2016; Brorby 2017; Anderson 2017; Sayles 2020). Commercial paperbacks (e.g. Martin 2017) and television series followed playing on the reputation of the oil patch as a kind of new “Wild West” where the potential of the frontier and freedom of lawlessness intersect to produce the ideal backdrop for transgressive tales of violence, capitalism, and wealth.

Needless to say, we encountered very little of the Wild West in our work in the Bakken. Instead, we documented a wide range of efforts to adapt often temporary housing conditions to the North Dakota weather, to expectations developed over the last half-century of suburbia, and to preserve flexibility in the face of the growing precarity of the “gig economy.”

Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on my paper for the 2020 ASOR annual meeting. The paper is officially titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective,” but if I could, I’d change that to “Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken.” The paper will appear in a routable called “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” convened by Ömür Harmanşah. Since, the roundtable will primarily focus on a conversation among participants, our paper are to be kept short (<10 minutes). Mine is  perhaps slightly long, but I figure I’ll tighten it up a bit before it’s read to go live.

I feel like this paper is the first tentative step toward understanding our work in the Bakken in a new way. If you want to get some broader context on my thinking, I posted a four part series last week that sort of sketched some approaches:

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

As always feedback, comments, or complaints are always welcome.

“Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken”

The archaeology of contemporary climate change has a necessarily global scope, but as Charles Orser famously quipped, archaeologists are generally inclined to “think globally, dig locally” (1996). Since 2012, I’ve worked with a team of archaeologists to document workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While our work has considered workforce housing through the lens of domesticity, colonialism, migration, and the landscapes of work, this will be our first focused effort to think about our project as the archaeology of contemporary climate change. The goal of my very short introduction to our work to consider the relationship between extractive industries, climate change, and capitalism in the Bakken…

At first blush, the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota appears to have little connection to the Middle East. In fact, the oil booms of the early 1950s, 1980s, and in the 21st century correlate closely with political situations in Middle East, from the first post-colonial moves to nationalize oil production in Iran (1951) and share profits in Iraq (1952), to the nationalization of ARAMCO in 1980 in the aftermath of the 1970s US oil crisis, and the long messy legacy of the Second Gulf War in the 21st century. It is largely a coincidence that two North Dakotans, Thomas Barger and Frank Jungers led ARAMCO in the 1960 and 1970s, but less coincidental that companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger were active in both the Bakken and Middle East, as was Target Logistics, who at one point accommodated 1% of the state of North Dakota’s population in their various workforce housing sites. Of course, the various Bakken oil booms also align with changes in the post-war American economy and society as well, from the rapid expansion of consumer culture, suburbanization, and automobiles in the 1950s to the rise of the gig economy in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” in the 21st century.

The 21st century Bakken boom describes the massive influx of workers into the predominantly rural counties of western North Dakota. The need for workers both in the oil industry and elsewhere in the overheating regional economy exceeded housing capacity and this led to a range of ad hoc and provisional response from both workers and the overwhelmed municipalities.

The stories of workers camping out in the Williston Walmart parking lot and local parks made national headlines. In response to this situation, Williston, the largest city in the Bakken region, approved “man camps” within their expanded jurisdiction to accommodate the influx of workers. National and global logistics companies constructed and managed these facilities to serve the needs of other large companies who sought lodging for shifts of workers arriving in western North Dakota to drill for oil, to build pipelines, or to improve local infrastructure. Additionally, Williams, Mountrail, and McLean counties provided provisional zoning for outside investors seeking to build RV parks for temporary workers without connections to major companies or who were looking for work. The result was a patchwork of over 100 workforce housing sites across the region that provided shelter for workers in a wide range of conditions.

The most elaborate housing sites, such as those erected by Target Logistics, provided clean housing, decent food, and limited amenities to thousands of workers. The single or sometimes double rooms were standardized and workers who came to the region for four or six week shifts had limited opportunities to personalize their space. The public spaces of these camps were plain, but functional, enlivened only by the occasional print of generic patriotic or natural scenes.

The situation in RV parks was more varied and attracted more of our attention. In general, residents owned their RVs and at the height of the boom, RV parks showed a remarkable range of efforts to customize these spaces and adapt them to the challenges of the North Dakota winter. The most elaborate RVs featured not only insulated skirting around the sides, but also fenced yards, gardens, raised walkways, cooking, eating and socializing areas, and storage sheds. Elaborate mudrooms are perhaps the quintessential feature of these units. In their simplest form they constituted a lean-to aligned with the door of the RV where residents could extract themselves from their work and winter gear. Not infrequently they also provided space for storage, additional living space, and transformed the rectangular RV into a L-shaped building that also offered more privacy for their outdoor space.

When we first visited the Bakken we couldn’t escape admiring these innovative efforts to expand and adapt RVs into full time, if temporary residential structures. These architectural adaptations almost led us to overlook the fragility of water and sewage infrastructure in many of these camps, the dust and mud that were constant parts of daily life in the spring, fall, and summer, and the desperate attempts to fortify the RV from the biting North Dakota cold wind. Moreover, by 2015, counties had begun to pass new ordinances restricting how residents could adapt their RVs. They banned skirting that rendered the RV immobile and mudrooms, for example. As the intensity of the boom declined owing to lower oil prices and improved technology in drilling, the number of residents in RV camps declined as well and many camps took on a rougher, more forlorn appearance. Abandoned camps have left their scars on the prairie landscape as gravel pads, buried pipes, and discarded polystyrene, treated wood, wiring, metal, and other detritus complicates returning these sites in agricultural production.

Efforts by temporary workers in the Bakken to personalized their living spaces demonstrated an effort to re-create some of the pleasures of an American suburb even as foreclosures displaced many of the same workers from their suburban homes. Hostile municipalities, the risks associated with work in the oil industry, the volatility of global markets, and the challenges associated with substandard housing, reflected the kind of “structural violence” inherent in capitalism that Michael Roller has associated with life in late 19th century coal towns of western Pennsylvania. In North Dakota, it is notable that restrictions on workforce housing did not accompany efforts to improve workers safety or environmental protection. Throughout the second decade of the 21st century, the Bakken maintained one of the worst records of worker safety in the US and has experienced major spills of both oil and waste water. Alongside these problems, writers have long recognized the violence of hydraulic fracturing, the dominant form of technology used to extract oil from the tight shale of the middle Bakken formation.

Over the last decade, the Bakken has been a center for recent efforts to highlight the relationship between extractive industries and climate change. The protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which links the Bakken to the Pakota Oil Terminal in Illinois, offered an explosive reminder of the strong ties between colonialism, extractive industries, and the state violence in maintaining our uninterrupted access to petroleum. Our work in the Bakken, at the start of the pipeline, sought to make visible a more subtle indication of these same violence in the housing of the temporary workforce who makes our persistent dependence on fossil fuels possible.

Few can deny that the contemporary climate crisis represents a moment of existential violence for many communities around the world.

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.   

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. 

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.

The Bakken and Climate Change: Assemblages

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. 

(Digression: I find myself increasingly unsatisfied with certain trends in our public discourse and among academics committed to public scholarship. First, there is this consistent view of science as a kind of solution to problems. This is particularly visible in the response to the COVID pandemic where people state more and more shrilly that we need to follow “the science.” While I don’t disagree with this at all, this rhetorical position assumes that there is a single “science” that explains exactly what we should do to avoid The COVIDs, but also that science can and will provide clear solutions to complex problems. 

This kind of rhetoric seems to parallel a certain approach favored by academic who write for a public audience. While their work is generally estimable, they often present their expertise through a series of clear answers to complicated social problems or through a journalistic fetishization of facts and factoids. To be clear, this isn’t bad, but I find it a very unsatisfying reflection of how scholars produce academic knowledge and the fuzziness, insecurities, and ambiguities that accompany that process. 

One of things that I try to do on this blog is to reveal the fuzziness of academic knowledge making and the fragility of claims to expertise. The main way that I try to do this is by making public my own process and revealing my insecurities. This is my modest effort to push back against some of the solutionist rhetoric, our fetishization of “settled facts,” and ways that we’ve tried to heroize experts.)

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

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

Climate change is a global phenomenon with roots in deep time. As the participants in this workshop know, understanding climate change through time involves integrating proxies that provide insight into past conditions on a variety of scales: from Arctic ice cores to lake sediments and tree ring data and even more local evidence from texts and archaeology. This multiscalar approach to understanding climate change parallels approaches to climate justice that function at different scales – from global climate treaties to calls to “think global and act local” that have long been part of the American environmentalist rhetoric.

Our work in the Bakken was from the start multiscalar even if we learned the significance of our project for understanding both climate change and larger issues of environmental justice along the way. From the Late Devonian to Early Mississippian date of the Bakken formation itself to the rapid expansion of settlement during the 21st century oil boom, the counties of western North Dakota represent a diverse assemblage of chronological time. This assemblage speaks not only to the connection of the contemporary climate regime in the deep time of the Bakken formation which dates to roughly 350,000 million year ago, but in the shorter term cycles of boom and bust that have defined settler colonial exploitation of this region. The arrival of railroads in the last decades of the 19th century triggered the founding of the county seats of Williston (named after Daniel Willis James who was a friend of James J. Hill), Stanley, and Watford City as well as settlements and homesteads strung along the Great Northern Railway’s High Line. The arrival of the railroad opened western North Dakota to large scale agricultural exploitation which fed the mills of Minneapolis (and after 1922 the State Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks) and provided a precarious existence for farmers in this semi-arid region. In the 1930s, efforts to recover oil from under the gentle ridge of the Nesson Anticline suggested that it was possible, but perhaps not particularly profitable. Technological advances and more ambitious prospecting led to the first commercially viable wells in the 1950s and initiated the first of three Bakken oil boom in the late 20th and early 21st century. The Bakken oil fields are also essentially contemporary with the negotiation of post-colonial agreements involving the oil reserves in Iraq and Iran and the large scale exploitation of oil in Saudi Arabia and effectively contemporary with our ability to measure fluctuations and increases in atmospheric temperatures on the global temperature (first via weather balloon and then satellite). It goes without saying that efforts to exploit Bakken oil reserves coincided with the post-war economic boom in the US and the growth of suburbs, automobile ownership, and late-20th century consumer culture. 

The North Dakota Man Camp project which continues at a very low simmer even today, looked to document the rise in temporary workforce housing in the Bakken counties of western North Dakota. These sites which we studied while still active or only recently abandoned are the some of the most ephemeral cogs in the global petroleum infrastructure, American consumer culture, and practices that have contributed to recent trends that indicate a rapid, anthropogenic, increase in global temperatures.

In the 21st century, the Bakken oil boom depended not only on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology to exploit the “tight oil” associated with the dolomitic middle Bakken, but also an American labor market made more fluid and mobile by the financial crisis of 2008 as well as the displacements triggered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deep Water Horizon spill of 2010.  

This expansive introduction isn’t to meant to directly relate all of these events to the episodic efforts to exploit the Bakken oil patch but to locate our research sites within an assemblage of chronologies that requires us to understand climate change across a range of scales. 

Louise Glück’s Poetry, The Bakken and the Quarterly

It speaks volumes that a fly will overshadow the announcement of an American poet, Louise Elisabeth Glück, winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

If you don’t have some of her poetry on your shelf, I recommend it (for whatever that’s worth). A few years ago Farrar, Strauss and Giroux published an anthology of her work. Here are some of her poems as well. I also like the essay, “Against Sincerity”:

“…the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.”

~

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of downloads that Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. It has already outperformed my expectations and continues to generate interest and excitement.

Kyle is also a great interview (and conversationalist). I did a little interview with him and posted it to the Digital Press blog. We discuss the book and the past and future of his Bakken research. As always he saves elevates my banal questions with his insightful responses. 

Read it here. Or download the book here, buy it on Amazon here, or get a copy from a small bookshop here.

~

Last but not least, I’ve posted the table of contents for the next issue of North Dakota Quarterly over at the NDQ blog. You can check it out here.

If you like it, you can download volume 85 for free or our latest issue 87.1/2 here.  

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.

We are currently reading poetry and essay and are always reading fiction. You can submit something to us here. If you already subscribe, you should get receive your latest copy of NDQ in November. If you’d like to subscribe, please go here

Book Project: Work Force Housing

At the height of this spring’s COVID season, I got very restless and started to work on a little book project involving the photographs and video that we had captured in the Bakken oil patch over the five years (or so) of the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

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I then submitted it to a “dream press” and I found out this past week that they would not publish it. This is hardly unexpected and not even disappointing.

But now, I need to figure out what to do with this manuscript, if anything.

You can check out the book here, if you want.

Any thoughts on a publisher who might consider a book like this would be very much appreciated (or if you are publisher and think this sounds cool, do drop me a line!).

Here’s the little introduction:

This volume is an experiment.

The initial goal was to collect images and interviews related to our study of Man Camp 11 as part of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. Our team returned to this camp over 10 times from 2012 to 2018 and documented its changed through interviews, notes, drawings, and photographs. This work traced the life of the camp from a newly organized RV park to a bustling neighborhood of improvised housing and finally, to a sparsely occupied ghost town of abandoned RVs and empty lots. Over this time, the camp also saw multiple owners, multiple managers, maintenance challenges, new policies, lawsuits, and changes in reputation.

The images and interviews in this volume also communicate our own movement through the space of the camp. This is particularly true of Richard Rothaus’s video which we sampled into a series of stills and arranged vertically or horizontally one the page. The other photographs in the volume also capture the varied approaches to documenting the RVs and buildings and preserve both the movement of the individual photographer and the relationship between objects in the camp.

This is obviously a work in progress. We have yet to determine its final state. We can, however, state what we don’t want this volume to become. It is not going to present a single, final statement on this camp. The images and interviews here will not serve as illustrations or evidence for an argument that we formally articulate. It is not meant to be a single statement or summary or final word on our research.

Maybe it can serve as a start to something else.

William Caraher
Grand Forks, ND
May 4, 2020

 

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Bakken Housing in Sixty Years of Boom and Bust

I don’t usually make a big deal when an article or chapter that I write appears in print. After all, it feels a bit like telling everyone that I’m just doing my job and despite the appearances of this blog, I’m really trying to spend more time promoting and publishing the work of others.

That being said, I’m really happy with the chapter that I wrote with Bret Weber and Richard Rothaus. It appeared this week in Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota 1958-2018.

You can read our chapter here.

I distinctly remember wiring the first draft of this chapter while sitting on the relatively uncomfortable couch at Renos Apartments in Polis on Cyprus. For some reason, I had struggled to think of something compelling to say for this chapter. The volume brings together chapters from a book published by the University of North Dakota Press in 1958 called the Williston Report with a series of new chapters written by experts on the contemporary Bakkem oil boom. Since the Williston Report  deals with housing in a number of different contexts, we had to disentangle the authors’ observations and judgements on Bakken housing from across multiple sections of the book. 

More significantly, we had to figure out how to update their observations both in terms of the ongoing discussion of housing and its relationship to social justice and in terms of the specific situation in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. This means attempting to understand how the view of housing as an investment in the 21st century shaped attitudes toward housing in the Bakken in the context of a highly mobile and increasingly precarious workforce. In short, we consider how different attitudes toward housing and home shaped the Bakken situation in the 21st century. This was particularly appropriate because the 1958 Report was written at a time when many mid-century attitudes toward housing, suburbanization, and associated values were coming into sharper focus.

And, we did this all in a dense and disjointed body of Caraherian prose that is sure to force the reader to search long-delayed predicate and play “find the verb” amid the dense forest of subordinate clauses, appositive remarks, and various particles. We use the word “indeed” far more than is strictly necessary.

If you can wade through what passes for academic writing, my hope is that you’ll find something of interest and maybe even value in our contribution to this book. Even if you don’t, the download is free