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Bakken Oil Fields Show Broken Manliness at Base of Extraction Industry

Brooklyn artist Michael Patrick F. Smith came to Williston in 2013 to seek his fortune in the Bakken oil fields. He left with less money than he came with, but he brought home experiences that he’s turned into a book, The Good Hand.

He also gained a grim picture of the the toxic and broken masculinity on which the extraction industry relies:

Smith comes from a badly broken home back east — a violent, raging father, a favorite sister who died at the age of 16 in an automobile accident, and a mother who found the courage to leave her abusive husband, who periodically threatened to kill his wife and his children, and they knew he wasn’t altogether bluffing. Brokenness is the organizing principle of the book.

Smith writes, “That scar, that hole in a man’s soul the shape of his father, was a defining feature of every man I met in Williston. Men had built their lives around it. Like a tree growing around a hatchet. The father wound served as a method of communication between me and the men I met. We talked jobs, then fathers. Before women, before politics, before home, ‘Man, my dad whipped my ass!’ It bonded us together.”

…Smith believes that extractive industrial capitalism depends on the father wound — the brokenness — to accomplish its mission. This kind of industrial capitalism attracts (preys on?) strong working class, Lee Greenwood, loose-ends young men who are willing to sacrifice their best years and their health while living in decidedly marginal communities. The work is backbreaking and heartbreaking, too, but the payoff is enough cash to make the day off an orgy of drink, loud conversations heavily laced with the f-word, opioids if you want them, pliant strippers, and a street fight if you aren’t careful.

In other words, an oil boom attracts men who are not so much seeking economic independence as escaping the civilities they would be forced to observe if they were living in their home communities, surrounded by family, familiar neighbors, pastors, former schoolteachers, and community cops. They may come west for the best and most earnest reasons, but it is not long before most of them descend into a testosterone coma that brings them to the brink of mayhem or the personal “bust” that is sure to follow any boom [Clay S. Jenkinson, “North Dakota’s Gold Rush: A Memoir About the Fracking Boom,” Governing, 2021.04.04].

In that sociological/psychological observation, might we find the root of some opposition to renewable energy? In capturing power from wind and sun, there is no punching, no breaking, no blasting, no burning. There’s little if any destruction or depletion to make a man feel like a man. The power just… happens, invisible electrons flowing from the turbines and panels to their users, renewing with each day’s breeze and sunrise. Instead of abusing Mother Nature, we minimize our damage and tap a distinctly feminine strength that we can’t exhaust.

Consider Smith’s fracking-field observations, and you may see why some men may feel unmanned by green power, and why kicking fossil fuels and moving to the renewable economy of the future will require psychological as well as technological evolution.

14 Comments

  1. Richard Schriever 2021-04-07

    To do wind and solar properly, we’ll still need to build dams and reservoirs for gravitational andn hydrologic “battery” storage. A few could find their outlet there.

  2. Fast Eddy 2021-04-07

    That’s it! It’s the term needed to explain so many broken men… the father wound. Some have a mother wound but either completely describes some of the self-destructive behaviors we know. No matter how old we get, the parental voices are always in our heads. If they be good and supportive or if they be hurtful and destructive, they live on. Always be aware of how you speak to or around children.

  3. leslie 2021-04-07

    “National Review
    · 15h
    Might the republic be better served by having fewer — but better — voters? https…”

    There it is. The politicians’ republic, not ours, not the voters’, the citizens, and the residents’ nation.

    The wounded men will kill for GOP politicians. 1.06.21

  4. Bob Newland 2021-04-07

    In 2011, I was circuiting the Bakker evaluating gas stations for corporate oligarchs, sleeping in a tent because the few motels in northwestern NoDak were invariably full, even at $150 for a room I could have gotten outside the area for $35.

    I drove by mancamps of 1000 small trailers and saw help-wanted banners at fast-food joints in Williston offering $22 an hour. One night, I slept alongside a bulldozer in Tioga. In the morning, stumbling around looking for a place to take a leak, I saw a hardhat walking toward me.

    He said, “Looking for work?” Nope. “You look like you could be a foreman.” That’s nice, but I have work. “Pays good.” I already get paid well. He walked away, unfulfilled.

    Now, when I am in that country, I drive by mountains of scrapped mancamp trailers and dozens of relatively new motels without tenants.

  5. Donald Pay 2021-04-07

    This is a very deep subject.

    Extraction has always required useless men. I don’t mean they are lazy. They work hard, but in general, their work is as unfulfilling as their lives. Who can really get excited about producing a product that burns like the cigarette you know is killing you? If you think deeply about it, the product you’re are producing is killing you, and your future family, much like your father threatened to do. Basically, you are doing to yourself what your father was going to do to you.

    There are extraction workers that find a wife and a life and settle into the American dream. The jobs often pays well, especially if it is unionized. One of my classmates worked the oil wells for a year after graduating from college, saved his money, then went to law school without incurring debt. Even more important, unionization is the route to solving a lot of the father problems, as well as building families with a middle class lifestyle. I love the name of one union in particular—International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. It’s as if they are creating a family, even if it’s an all-brother family. In modern times, women are part of the brotherhood, too, They probably should change the name, but substituting Siblings for Brotherhood doesn’t cut it.

    Someone did historical research on Montana mines during the 19th century. The common belief was that mines with workers having families would have less unionization. The assumption was family life made men more conservative and less willing to risk unionization and wage fights. The opposite was true. Men with families increased unionization. It turned out the wives of miners were more supportive of unions than most of the men were. You want a pro-family institution? Join a union.

  6. Mark Anderson 2021-04-07

    You know Cory, I’ve seen this Brooklyn artist before in Five Easy Pieces. Hold the chicken.

  7. cibvet 2021-04-07

    Nothing new here. It follows that the males in high school/college, extraction workers, construction workers, military, or where ever, the intelligence level drops precipitously as the number of males in a group increases.

  8. Sion G. Hanson 2021-04-07

    I worked in mines. Its pretty much the same story. Mining and oilfield workers have the highest alcoholism rate of most industries. The only 3 sources of conversation in the mining camp was new pickups, child support, and having a drivers license. I was one of the lucky few that quit drinking many years ago. So was my father. He was sober 28 years when he died at 85. His most complimentary statement concerning work ethic was, “He’s a good hand!”. At least 5 generations of the men in my family followed the same code. Too often, our emotional well-being was tied to our ability to outshine others when it came to work and “manliness”. Now, as a retired grandfather, I seem to be developing a softer and more mature stance in life. I still hold work ethic in high esteem, and probably always will, but its not the true measure of a man. Kindness, generosity, environmentally responsible, being a good member of a community, have replaced drinking, whoring, and gambling. I am following the path of my dad, he evolved into the same notions. My mentality of “strip mining prevents forest fires”, is gone.

  9. grudznick 2021-04-07

    Bob, leaving the fellow unfulfilled is fine, but did you at least reach around and tell him where he could get the best $8 gas station hot dogs that side of Bowman? When you’re working for The Man you should at least pimp a little bit.

  10. Bob Newland 2021-04-08

    I’ll leave the distasteful stuff to you, grudzie.

  11. Arlo Blundt 2021-04-08

    well…I remember the Bridger project in Rock Springs Wyoming and the Colstrip mines in Montana and the oil boom in Gillette. Used to be a bumper sticker that read m “Don’t tell Mama I’m workin in the oil patch. She thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse”.

  12. M 2021-04-09

    The extraction of oil is a dirty business in more ways than one. The goal is always money and this greed takes so many good things and destroys them. North Dakota has some of the dirtiest, undrinkable, and unusable water in the U.S. The tributaries of the Missouri, the lifeblood of indigenous peoples, have been devastated with filth from these extractions. That same filth flows all the way to the ocean. No dams can stop it.

    Broken men, destruction of the environment, women who disappeared or were murdered. Is it worth it?

    Many of us in Mobridge saw the men who traveled to the oil fields, and most of us know about the women who were sex trafficked there for their pleasure. Gun laws were loosened and investigations were nonexistent. Meth, alcohol, and other “pleasures” for these broken men were so readily available and inexpensive that it created a toxic environment for everyone. What woman wants to wait tables for $22 and hour only to get manhandled on the side?

    Two of my former students attended nursing school in Bismarck. Both became strippers to pay for their student loans and made so much money they didn’t nurse till the place closed up. One gal suggested I quit teaching and dance because some of the broken men like old ladies too. Okay, how many of you would like those choices if they were your daughters?

    Capitalism, untamed, can destroy everything.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-04-09

    Bob, fascinating: I’ve never had a stranger walk up to me and offer me a $22/hour job. But now in that same place you see deserted man camps and hotels gone bust. Has the Bakken shale oil development run out of new fields? Is the population of the Bakken dropping again? Has all that extraction built any lasting basis for economic development in western North Dakota? Or is the extraction industry inevitably a one-night stand?

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