Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.

The Archaeology of Oil Production

I took advantage of the snow day to finish up a chapter that I’m preparing for some kind of volume on the Archaeology of Plastics. My paper was on the archaeology of oil production and it was a nice chance to pull together a bunch of things that I had noticed while doing field work in the Bakken and writing up some of that work.

Without sounding too satisfied, I think this is one of the better things that I have written over the last few years on oil. It’s mostly just a summary, but I feel like it brings together some diverse threads and sets a course of what the archaeology of oil could be in the future.  

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

This chapter surveys broadly the archaeology of oil production with particular emphasis on work in the United States. The first section of the chapter explores efforts to designate sites associated with the discovery, transport, and refining of oil and their related workforce heritage status in the US and elsewhere. The second section considers how the distinctly liquid character of oil produces diverse and dynamic “petroleumscapes” that integrate the various phases of oil production and consumption. The notion of the petroleumscape and other similar ways of understanding human and archaeological landscapes associated with oil production is then applied to the Bakken patch of Western North Dakota in the final section. This area experienced a number of oil booms starting in the 1950s and culmination in the early 21st century boom at which time a team of archaeologists with the North Dakota Man Camp Project documented both workforce housing in the Bakken and the industrialization of the rural landscape.

Here’s a link to the paper.

Three Things Thursday: Dining, Dancing, and Data

It’s been a pretty long week. I managed to teach my two classes via Zoom on Tuesday and made it through my night class face-to-face on Wednesday. Today, I’m bracing for the full slate of teaching and hoping (as much as anything) that the after shocks of my brush with The Omicron remain mild. 

With this as background, I figure my readers likely understand that a Three Things Thursday represents a path of least resistance as I get back up to speed.

Thing the First

Yesterday, I read Yannis Hamilakis’s recent piece in World Archaeology: “Food as affirmative biopolitics at the border: liminality, eating practices, and migration in the Mediterranean.” He argues that food represents a key element in the political discourse of displacement. Food provided to individuals detained on the island of Lesvos served to define their status within the complex network of cultural and social identities present in the Moria camp. Overcooked rice, for example, made some residents understand their status to be as sick patients. Undercooked rice demonstrated a lack of concern by the state, NGOs, and caterers tasked with preparing food. 

As a result, many camp residents took to preparing their own food. They removed the meat from the pre-packaged meals and combined it with spices and other ingredients. They constructed cooking fires and ovens, used their meager cash allowance to buy cooking supplies and spices, and in some cases planted gardens.

This latter practice gave me pause. We were struck by the construction of gardens at work force housing sites in the Bakken oil patch especially during the height of the boom. Recent work on the role of gardens at Japanese internment camps has shown how they served to produce a sense of community in the austerely functional carceral landscape of the camp itself (see for example Bonnie Clark’s book, Finding Solace in the Soil: An Archaeology of Garden and Gardeners at Amache (2020) or Connie Y. Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of Japanese Incarceration (2018) which I blogged about here.) Ann Elena Stinchfield Danis’s 2020 dissertation from the University of California, Berkeley, “Landscapes of Inequality: Creative Approaches to Engaged Research” notes the gardens built my residents of the Albany Bulb on the San Francisco Bay (more here). 

If I were to wring a bit more from our research in the Bakken, I would write something about the gardens we observed there and the way in which gardens and outdoor cooking spaces contributed to the creation of domesticity, community, and place making at temporary workforce housing sites.

Thing the Second

I’ve been reading Hanif Abdurraqib latest book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021). The book is good and combines Abdurraquib’s poetic grasp of language with chapters that could easily stand by themselves as independent essays. I particularly enjoy passages where phrases spill out on top of each other connected only by the “&” and conveying the immediacy of his experience without introducing urgency. 

One of the best chapters in the book is titled “On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of the Limbs” and it explores the place of dancing or being able to dance on Black identity. Abdurraquib spills the beans when he tells us that Whitney Houston could not dance and then unpacks her rise as a black woman to pop super star status and how that shaped views of her Blackness. I won’t spoil the chapter or the book for anyone who has yet to read it, but this chapter alone makes it worth the purchase. It’s one of the best things that I’ve read over the past year. 

Thing the Third

 There’s been a good bit of buzz surrounding Piraye Hacıgüzeller, James Stuart Taylor and Sara Perry’s recent article in Open Archaeology: “On the Emerging Supremacy of Structured Digital Data in Archaeology: A Preliminary Assessment of Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Left Behind.” In the article, the authors take some of the narrative notes from the Çatalhöyük Research Project and convert them into structured data using the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model. 

The fit is predictably awkward and demonstrates for anyone who remains unconvinced that various structured data schemes always leave some information and even “wisdom” behind. I really like this article because it takes something that’s on the verge of being common sensical – i.e. narrative descriptions contain nuance that most ontologies and data capture models can’t reproduce – and makes it plainly visible. It also fits into a larger critique of “big data” or of just “data” driven analyses both in archaeology, narrowly, and also in contemporary society. I wonder, a bit, whether the COVID pandemic and the constant drone of data driven guidelines lurks in the back of these author’s thinking. There’s something about the limits of data as the basis for the analysis of COVID fatalities, spread, and efforts to mitigate COVID. 

An article like this serves as an interesting reminder that data driven analysis (and decision making) depends on methods of inclusion and exclusion and these decisions prefigured the kind of interpretation possible. Of course, this is known situation and hardly profound, but this article sets it out in the context of archaeology in a particularly elegant way.

The Bakken Outside the Box

Last year, I submitted one of my favorite little articles. It was co-authored with Bret Weber and is called “Bakken Hundreds.” You can read it here.

The article is a contribution to a volume called Archaeology Outside of the Box and we thought our piece would fit the main trust of the volume toward more unconventional archaeological projects and more unusual forms of writing about archaeology. Alas, when the reviews came back, we were told that our article was too far outside the box, but, our editor intervened and suggested that we might satisfy the reviewers with a long footnote. This would allow us to keep the structure of our article intact, while also contextualizing our project more formally. 

Because I’m really focused on other things at the moment, I’m using this blog space to work a bit on this footnote. For the various references, check out the the article here and as always, any and all feedback is welcome!

The North Dakota Man Camp project began in 2012 and sought to document the social, architecture, and archaeological conditions at work force housing sites in the Bakken Oil Patch of Western North Dakota. The project is directed by the archaeologists and historians, William Caraher and Richard Rothaus, and the social worker and historical Bret Weber, and over its seven year history included collaborations with architectural historian and archaeologist, Kostis Kourelis; visual artists, John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, and Ryan Stander; and colleagues in social work and history. The project team documented over 50 workforce using textual descriptions, photography, video, and over 100 hours of unstructured interviews with residents. These sites ranged in character from informal and illegal squats in tree lines near construction sites, which we called “Type 3” camps to large RV parks or “Type 2” camps and state-of-the-art camps provided by global logistics companies, which were “Type 1” camps in our typology. The main phase of the project concluded in 2018, but low-level fieldwork is ongoing with periodic visits to Western North Dakota continuing on an irregular basis. 

The 2008-2018 Bakken oil boom was the third such boom in Western North Dakota with earlier booms occurring in the 1950s and late-1970s and early 1980s (Conway 2020). The improvement in of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology in the early 21st-century and the high price of oil (which we included in the following article) encouraged oil companies to return to the Bakken and Three Forks formation. By April 2014, the thousands of Bakken oil wells were producing over one-million barrels of oil per day from sites concentrated mainly in Mountrail, Williams, and McKenzie Counties. The rapid rate of exploration and drilling along with the increase in production, drew tens of thousands workers to the region not only to work in the oil industry directly, but also to work in construction and service industries necessary to support the growing population. As had happened in previous booms, the increase in population outpaced housing and a wide range of temporary housing situations filled the gap (Caraher et al. 2020). 

Our original goal was to document and analyze workforce housing conditions and to produce a dataset that could inform historical and policy studies in the future. Our work in the Bakken, however, revealed more than just creative adaptions to the precarious employment, inadequate housing, and extreme weather. As the following article attempts to communicate, field work in the Bakken was also deeply affecting. The fieldwork team encountered diverse attitudes and situations that reflected the struggles, hopes, and experiences of workers in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the tireless efforts to negotiate the promises of middle-class life against contingencies of the global extractive economy. While our other publications provide a more scholarly view of our work in the Bakken (Weber et al. 2014; Caraher 2016; Caraher et al 2016; Caraher et al. 2017; Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2020; Rothaus et al. 2021), this article seeks to offer an affective view of our experiences in this landscape and serve as a reminder that archaeology, especially of the contemporary world (e.g. Gonzalez-Ruibal 2019) is as much about our critical, reflective engagement with the contemporary situation, as the material context for the present. 

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.

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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