Jenkinson Column: Aspiring To Higher Laws In North Dakota Life

For the past five days I have been holed up at a fabulous Spartan resort just inside Idaho west of Missoula, Mont., with a dozen folks from all over America. We gathered in the mountain snow at Lochsa Lodge for the sole purpose of discussing one of the world’s great books, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden;” or “Life in the Woods.”

Walden has many themes. It is much more than a book about one solitary man’s love of nature. It is a surprisingly muscular and argumentative book that wrestles with some of the main issues in American life, then and now. It was published in 1854 at a time of rapid industrialization in the United States, when the railroad boom was transforming the landscape and the social structure of America in an unprecedented manner.

One of our participants was an ideological libertarian. He believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protecting property rights, and that anything else government might do is an intrusion into our liberties. He believes that absolutely everything can be “monetized,” and that the free market is the best tool humans have to sort everything out, from the price of a loaf of bread to the delivery of health care.

So, to take an easy example, it’s the year 1900 and the timber companies are cutting down every redwood tree they can get their hands on because there is a lucrative market for redwood lumber. Theodore Roosevelt (a big believer in free enterprise) decides that unless government steps in to manage the resource and conserve it for future generations, the short-sighted profiteers of the timber industry will cut down the last redwood to squeeze the last dollar out of the species. Moreover, Roosevelt believes that there is an inherent majesty in a redwood forest and that is in the interests of American civilization to release a few extraordinary things from the tyranny of the market. TR therefore determines that the national government will supervise the timber industry on public lands to insure the sustainability of our forests.

According to our Lochsa libertarian, that was the wrong thing to do: sloppy, sentimental, misguided, unfair, possibly un-American. “If you really think a redwood tree is as valuable standing in the air as it is turned into lumber for redwood decks, then you need to outbid the lumber companies tree by tree or forest by forest. The market works.” You don’t want a power co-op to put up wind towers just offshore at Martha’s Vineyard, outbid them for the resource.

Thoreau was something of a libertarian too. He trumped Jefferson’s “that government is best which governs least,” to declare, “that government is best which governs not at all.” Thoreau was committed to the individual, not the state. But Thoreau believed that individual had a duty to evolve from the brutishness and savagery of his base character into a more enlightened being, that America cannot be a great civilization unless we learn to hearken not just to economic laws but also to what he calls “higher laws.” An individual who learns to hear “higher laws” does not believe that the value of everything can be measured in dollars. I think Roosevelt would regard Thoreau as hopelessly naïve. While you wait for the slaughterhouse owners to evolve, you are going to eat a fair quantum of rats, excrement, and tainted pork in your breakfast sausage.

On the third day of the Lochsa retreat I took a long walk through the woods in the hopes that I would encounter a wolf or a mountain lion. As I crunched through the pure white snowpack along the magnificent Lochsa River, I wondered what are the higher laws of North Dakota life in the era of the Bakken Oil Boom.

An oil shale deposit is different from more traditional pool oil because once you perfect the technology, in a fracturing boom you “strike oil” nearly 100 percent of the time. There is so much shale oil and natural gas in western North Dakota that you can more or less arbitrarily pick your spacing protocols, lay down a drilling grid of 40-60,000 wells, and then systematically work the field over time, until you have created the maximum extraction efficiency. Most of the land in North Dakota is privately owned. Even most of the public lands are open to development. As long as there is money to be made—and the money to be made dwarfs anything North Dakota has ever seen or dreamed about—oil companies are going to come get it. The drilling of any one individual well is a highly-efficient, nearly miraculous example of human technological ingenuity, and the environmental “footprint” of any given well is comparatively light, especially once the fracking process is over. But add all those drilling events together—systematic oil extraction in every direction—and then add in the pipelines, the storage tanks, the transfer facilities, the natural gas processing plants, the new roads and railroad spurs, the bypasses, the giant parking lots for idle trucks and pipe, and the industrial “hospitality” infrastructure, and—voila–you have transformed western North Dakota from a quiet rural countryside into an overwhelming hive of pell-mell industrial activity.

All on the principle of the market. Although the overwhelming majority of the oil wealth of North Dakota leaves the state never to return (such is the history of North Dakota), the amount of money being left behind in the hands of mineral owners, service providers (from water haulers to car dealers and hotdog stands), and in the coffers of the state treasury is so vast that it makes a mockery of my libertarian friend’s economic equations. A day care provider in Watford City can barely pay her bills and put tennis shoes on her children’s feet (traditional economy). An elderly couple in Dickinson, living on a modest pension and Social Security, is told that their rent will triple on March 1st (traditional economy). The rancher who would rather not see oil development in that special pasture near the river is told by a company representative or his lawyer that he will be getting checks for tens of thousands of dollars per month if he signs in triplicate, here, here, and here (the oil economy). Who can resist?

It’s as if there are two types of currency in North Dakota today—the currency of our state’s 125-year history, in which we toiled and scrimped and wound up moderately prosperous because of the quality of our character and our work ethic, and the new currency of unbelievable stacks of carbon money, funny money, that staggers the imagination and overwhelms any discussion of “higher laws.”

I believe that North Dakotans value many things that cannot be monetized. If there were a precise enough way of polling the people of North Dakota, I believe that the majority would say they do not want western North Dakota to be overwhelmed by industrialization, however grateful we are for the surpluses and the full employment and rural renewal in our beloved state. Our traditional commitment to higher laws—family, neighborliness, community, volunteerism, faith, stewardship, civility, lawfulness, decency–is what has made us such a special people in such a special, improbable place. But this thing that has come upon us is so gigantic and the payoff is so huge that it is eroding things in our heritage and our character of incalculable value, in both senses of the term.

There is a value in a rolling prairie and windswept ridge, but who will be left to measure it?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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