For the last few years, I have been thinking about oil and its effect on people, especially in the town where my parents live: Williston, North Dakota. Between 2008 and 2014, the region, which sits atop the Bakken oil fields (named after the family on whose farm oil was first found in the 1950s), went through a boom. Since the price of oil dropped, it has gone through a bust. I’ve written about both at my other blog and in a book I co-edited with William Caraher called The Bakken Goes Boom.

In those places, I look largely at the history of the boom-bust cycle in western North Dakota. Here I want to ask some more pointed theoretical questions. I want to understand how the boom-bust cycle affected people’s sense of home and how their evolving relationship to home in turn shaped the way they saw others. At first glance, it might seem that I’m asking how people would feel about their home (and about Williston) if there had been no oil. But of course, there’s no counterfactual to be had: the oil was always there, not just in the ground waiting to be extracted, but in the gas in people’s cars or transformed into ubiquitous everyday materials like plastic. It was also there more abstractly, in the relationships it made possible between people in Williston and people far away, who made the goods residents bought at Walmart or in the city’s charming little downtown. And it was there in the ideas people had about the nature of space (people relate to distance differently in the upper Great Plains than elsewhere) and their ability to overcome it.

In short, my question is not about Williston and oil but about the conditions of modernity, or the complex social, political, economic, and technological forces that structure how people in Williston (and elsewhere) lead their lives. Oil is an integral part of it, but one that is often overlooked.

In the next few posts, I will begin to lay out a definition of the idea of “petromodernity,” which others have mentioned but not explored (e.g., Stephanie LeMenager in Living Oil). But first, a preliminary working definition: petromodernity is the logic that results from the interplay between political, economic, and technological forces and that structures the way people live in a society that is dependent on oil, where oil is one determining factor among others.

My plan here is to propose five theses of petromodernity, and then flesh them out in later posts. They are:

1. The beginning of petromodernity, if we must date it, is the late 18th century. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, in the article in which they propose the idea of the anthropocene, identify James Watts’s invention of the steam engine in 1784 as the point where humans begin to affect Earth’s climate. It’s a useful heuristic starting point.

2. Petromodernity is punctuated by moments of acceleration, such as after the Second World War, when car culture expanded and people in North America (and elsewhere) began moving out of cities into the suburbs.

3. Petromodernity is characterized by invisible ubiquity. Because oil is thoroughly imbricated in the way North Americans (and others) live, we do not see it, except in moments of crisis.

4. If we look for its effects, however, we can map them out, in a structure that, like a fractal tree, describes a recursive series of relationships.

5. Petromodernity is global in scope, but its effects are distributed unevenly as a function of the degree to which people in a given locale are integrated into the criss-cross paths of international techno-, ethno-, and finance-scapes.

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