Oil, Culture, and What Small Places Have to Teach Us

Oil development nearly crowds out Stanley’s Welcome. (Rick Edwards)

By Rick Edwards

Oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation and Alberta’s tar sands is helping to reshape oil markets, creating a worldwide glut and sending prices plunging. Opposition to developing these resources has focused mainly on their contribution to global climate change and on the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry crude to refineries. NASA scientist James Hanson famously declared that if the tar sands are developed, “it will be game over for the climate.”

Less attention has focused on the social and cultural effects of frenzied, reckless oil exploitation. While most small towns in the Great Plains wrestle with depopulation, western North Dakota is presumably enjoying the pleasures of growth. The boom has indeed brought an influx of newcomers, new businesses, and tax revenues, yet in some ways its effects are as devastating as population decline.

No Home on the Range: Climate Change and the Buffalo Commons

By Robert K. Schneiders

In 1987 geographers Frank and Deborah Popper wrote their now-famous “Buffalo Commons” article. In the article, published in December of that year in Planning magazine under the title “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” the Poppers argued that the interplay of environmental, economic, and demographic variables would foster the eventual formation of a “Buffalo Commons” across remote, depopulated segments of the American Great Plains. This “Commons” would consist of large bison herds, which according to the Poppers represented the most environmentally sustainable and economically viable use of the semiarid grassland regions of the continental United States.

Yet, over twenty-five years after the publication of the widely readarticle, it is now evident that the Poppers’ vision of the Great Plains will never come to pass. Three environmental factors (all related to climate change)guarantee that the Buffalo Commons will remain only a theoryrather than an actual means of organizing the Great Plains environment and economy.

Immigration in Nebraska

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