Will oil production become the central organizing principle in North Dakotan society? When the boom resumes, will oil and the wealth it produces serve higher ends?

Joseph T. Stuart, PhD, Assistant Professor of History, University of Mary

James Gaston, Associate Professor of History, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Human societies rest on fundamental organizing principles that provide unity and direction. They shape the vision of the people, who tend not to question basic principles, which are regarded as normal (“the way things are”) and prescriptive (“the way things ought to be”). Organizing principles are considered “holy” to the extent they serve the highest ends of a society. Critical awareness of organizing principles can be difficult to attain because they function as nearly subconscious assumptions. Yet suddenly a new principle can emerge as the prime social and cultural force. Is such a transition happening today in North Dakota due to the shale revolution in the Bakken? Currently the boom is on hold due to low oil prices, but the shale revolution is here to stay. How will this affect North Dakota over the long term?

Eventually oil prices will rebound to profitable levels and, in coming decades, the world’s energy output will grow enormously as billions of people in developing nations overcome poverty. Cheap, reliable and safe energy is required for economic growth, and there is no viable, large-scale replacement for oil and natural gas in the foreseeable future. Solar, wind and other alternatives will become mainstream energy sources, but not nearly on sufficient scales to displace fossil fuels.

Beginning in the colonial period, agriculture played a prime role organizing the economic, social and cultural aspects of everyday life in America, which dovetailed naturally with the Christian ethos. Then in the late 19th century,industrialization became a powerful organizing force centering ever-greater proportions of the population around foundry, factory and city.

Increasingly today, as a result, American society is animated by liberal individualism that privileges autonomous decisions over the constraints of nature, history and community. This organizing principle often shapes how court cases are decided, which public arguments prevail, what opinions can appear in public and what justifies sacrifices in one’s life. Liberalism functions like an established religion, communicating and enforcing a common vision of what is real and right: a view of human beings as pure egos who define themselves and create value or “the good” purely by choice. It does this even while convincing many people that it has no formal dogmas.

This form of liberalism continues to exist alongside other organizing principles, which in North Dakota are still rooted in religious, familial and ethnic traditions that have served to mitigate liberalism’s fissiparous effects. Society has multiple forces at work pushing dynamically in different directions, which can counterbalance each other.

For more than a century, agriculture united North Dakotans around common interests and enemies, especially the mercantile giants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Material commodities, no less than ideologies such as liberalism, can function as organizing principles. Today both agriculture and oil function this way and sometimes clash as they compete, for example, for railroad space. Besides agriculture, the character of North Dakota has been shaped by common experiences of harsh climate, immigrant backgrounds, wide-open spaces and spring floods.

A great event, a powerful new idea or the sudden rise of an influential social sector can both signal and catalyze a shift from the predominance of one organizing principle to another throughout society. It seems this is occurring in North Dakota today with the massive increase in wealth and influx of new people, both due to the shale revolution that might create the conditions for a new social alignment in the long run. Although the agricultural and energy sectors rival each other in terms of total revenue, a decreasing number of workers are employed in agriculture, while shale exploration and production has and will require increasing numbers of employees, along with the creation of layers of related businesses. As well, liberalism has weakened family structure, traditional values and the religiosity undergirding agricultural communities and agrarian culture in urban centers. How can North Dakotans respond so that the growing influence of the energy sector creates more humane cultural and social structures?

Steel as the Organizing Principle in Ohio

In the Upper Ohio Valley (UOV), from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, a shift similar to the Bakken’s impact on North Dakota occurred as steel production increasingly served as the region’s organizing principle. According to co-author James Gaston, steelmaking functioned as a “religion,” as a uniting vision shaping common ways of life. Professor Gaston’s research focused on the main causal relations that made the culture of the UOV intelligible: How geological formations, narrow valleys, coal mines, routes of travel, the Ohio River and the entrepreneurial vision of businessmen, such as Ernest J. Weir, created an economic powerhouse based on steel production. Towns and cities along the Ohio River were soon captivated by steel and its promise of profits and jobs. Steel greatly influenced the location of mills, railroads and homes, and drove urban development and social patterns as people adapted their lives to the rhythm of industrial production and rapidly rising wealth.

In the 1970s and 1980s, international competition, new materials substituting for steel, inflation and other factors precipitated the industry’s collapse. The number of steelworkers in the UOV decreased from 35,000 to 500. Steel had become such an overwhelming focus that the Valley failed to diversify and instead produced an industrial and social monoculture based primarily upon one product. As a result, there came devastating changes to the community: the loss of an essential tax base; an escalation in costly social services; outmigration of leadership and youth; nearly abandoned downtowns; empty houses; and poverty, crime and drugs.

While the lack of economic diversification was partly a failure of practical foresight, it was the inevitable result of a purely materialistic vision. The countervailing forces of faith and community failed to counter the tragic effects of the steel monoculture as the primary organizing principle. There were hundreds of Catholic and Protestant congregations, as well as parochial schools and other institutions safeguarding faith and engendering morality. But the Christian ethos was kept to the margins of the public square and did not become the lodestar for commerce. Steel never became truly “holy.”

Science, technology and wealth are morally neutral forces incapable of producing spiritual principles, including a deep caring for the common good, which would encourage economic diversification as a matter of human flourishing and not merely as pragmatic convenience.

The English historian Christopher Dawson noted that modern society, like all societies in world history, “needs some higher spiritual principle of co-ordination to overcome the conflicts between power and morality, between reason and appetite, between technology and humanity, and between self-interest and the common good.” This prompts the question: What is wealth for? Is it simply for more wealth?

The processes involved in steel production demand more steel, just as oil production simply demands the exploration and extraction of more oil. There are no higher principles inherent in these material pursuits that give any indication of how profits should be used, other than to be fed back into and grow the system. Money, labor and technology are tools—but for what end?

Dutch Compass

This question was faced by another wealthy nation in the 17th century. The Dutch lived on a flat, fertile plain dotted with windmills, farms, small towns—and dikes to hold back ocean water. Maintaining the dikes encouraged communal ethics, for only common effort and resources could protect against flooding. As a religious, hardworking, family-oriented people, the Dutch developed their nation into one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful in less than a century. Huge amounts of money became concentrated in a small population, due to cheap energy sources (windmills and peat moss), an influx of skilled labor, and international trade in spices and slaves.

In 1602, the Dutch East India Company became the first multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the prototype of the modern stock exchange. The company established a monopoly on Asian trade, making huge profits. The entire country benefited materially, but wealth also brought moral ambiguity, best articulated in a New York Times review of Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age:

“How to be strong yet pure; how to be rich yet humble; how to avert the calamity of uncontrolled luxury. For soon, in their fine ruffs, Dutch burghers were choking on Ming porcelain, Anatolian carpets, Lyons silk, Venetian mirrors, Japanese lacquerware, Brazilian emeralds, East Indian sapphires, oriental spices, exotic Turkish tulips…and, above all, to every visitor’s surprise, hundreds of engravings and oil paintings hanging in even the most ordinary tradesmen’s houses.”

The Calvinism and humanism of Dutch culture signaled the dangers of wealth, countering indulgence with restraint and worldliness with holiness. Wanton luxury, drug abuse and risky business ventures prompted the social guardians and religious leaders to “protect the Dutch from the consequences of their own economic success, just as it was the job of the people to make sure there was enough of a success in the first place to be protected from.” The simultaneous operation of opposite forces within the culture gave the Dutch people “room to maneuver between the sacred and profane as wants or conscience commanded, without risking a brutal choice between poverty or perdition.” At the same time, the higher religious and humanist culture constantly prodded the Dutch to ask the question: What higher ends should wealth serve? For the Dutch, those ends included lavish provision for the sick and poor, scientific research, and beauty (paintings, clothes, houses, churches), for this was the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

But when wealth is sought for its own sake, one can speak of an “embarrassment of riches.” There is something ridiculous about a society that wastes its great wealth on aimless pursuits, and the Dutch pursued plenty of those: pipe smoking, drinking, prostitutes, tulips to the point of Tulipmania, feasting, opulent homes, foreign trinkets, lotteries and high fashion. Riches are embarrassing if they seem to serve no purpose, if they serve as compass points in every illicit direction. Perhaps this is why, historically, politicians in North Dakota discovered they could win votes by not dressing too well. Governor John Burke campaigned in an old sheepskin coat; one did not want to appear wealthy or out of touch with life in this state.

What is wealth for?

Unless North Dakotans face this question with care, the desire for material gain could make the shale play into an organizing principle of life so dominating that it marginalizes other principles, creating conditions in which social alignments shift towards short-term and destructive (“unholy”) pursuits. Is new wealth the consuming end of work or the means to achieve goals transcending the here and now?

These are not easy questions to ask when oil operations are being cut back and jobs are being shed. But still, the major companies reduced their 2015 budgets by only 20 to 25 percent. Billions of dollars will be spent and the breakeven point for many wells in the Bakken has fallen below $40 and even below $30 per barrel. Clarity about true ends, toward which to coordinate social and cultural energies, can be hard to obtain. This is because in a decadent society, luxury, skepticism, weariness, superstition and self-preoccupation become organizing principles obscuring higher ends, as noted by C. E. M. Joad, a well-known British philosopher and broadcaster in the 1930s and 40s. Joad defines “decadence” as the loss of an object or aim.

In American society, decadence has long been characterized by the “feverish” pursuit of wealth, as Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled in the 1830s. Restless grasping at physical gratification leaves the minds of many Americans in “ceaseless trepidation,” which, Tocqueville remarked, leads them to constantly change plans and residences. As a result, he found an “unusual melancholy” and “disgust at life” in the midst of plenty.

Historically, Americans also seek to create a new future out of the limitless opportunities for self-improvement available in a democratic land. This is particularly evident in North Dakota today. The empty, fertile prairie held much potentiality but only hard-won actuality for settlers, as Elwyn B. Robinson noted in History of North Dakota. As a result, many opportunities had to be postponed for succeeding generations when the convergence of resources and new technology in the energy sector engendered economic flourishing. What distinguishes the Bakken boom has been its rapidity, which brought massive wealth and population increases within a few years. It is “impossible to not feel the frenzied pace of oil production throughout all areas of life,” reported Chad Ziemendorf, a photojournalist, in his online magazine. “It is a 24-hour culture now. While most are sleeping the drilling rigs are active. Even some construction continues through the night. Once a location is approved to be drilled, earthmovers and heavy equipment roll in to level the ground and prepare the surface for oil production. ‘Open prairie’ transforms into ‘oil pad’ … in less than one week’s time.”

In the midst of all this toil, North Dakotans must find higher ends and other organizing principles to counter the “disgust at life” connected to feverish activity, to the restless drive to “work for work’s sake,” as Josef Pieper describes in Leisure: the Basis of Culture. This inability to “be,” to rest in silence, even to sleep, Pieper attributes to a form of laziness called acedia.

Workaholism is a form of acedia because people fail to face their full humanity, to give full consent to their being, to will the truth about themselves and the world. People escape into work and away from themselves. Although the sense of emptiness increases, the temptation is to work even harder in a desperate attempt to create meaning.


In response, one must rediscover a sense of leisure through which to perceive what makes labor and the pursuit of wealth meaningful. Leisure is not merely the cessation of work to prepare for more work. In contrast, Maria von Trapp of “Sound of Music” fame wrote about celebrating the Lord’s Day, not merely observing it. In Austria in the early 1900s, she and her family walked to Mass in their Sunday best, returned home for a meal and then: “The afternoon was often spent in visiting from house to house, especially visiting the sick. The young people would meet on the village green on Sunday afternoons for hours of folk dancing; the children would play games; the grownups would very often sit together and make music. Sunday afternoon was a time for rejoicing, for being happy, each in his own way.” Leisure derives from licere (Latin), to be permitted. It means neither being busy nor idle, but letting things happen, Pieper writes. Leisure allows us to discover and celebrate the higher telos of human life as revealed in education, culture, works of mercy and God. As a form of silence, leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a serenity derived from deep confidence to let things take their course without trying to grasp and control them. Leisure is a celebration, a consent to the goodness of human nature and an affirmation of creation as good. It is the capacity of the human spirit to soar in festive celebration and contemplation, allowing the higher ends of human life to reveal themselves: freedom-for-truth, education, culture, God.

Leisure is connected to the cult of a society, to its worship. A society worships what it considers its highest and holiest organizing principle or end. Work itself can become a cult; the religion of work is one in which people seek to generate their own values and meaning through ceaseless activity. This is why Christianity forbids servile work on Sundays. This is not a negation but an affirmation of all that transcends the world of work and directs it toward higher ends, such as works of mercy or building Gothic cathedrals in the 13th-century with Europe’s new wealth.

Tocqueville remarks that in ages of faith, the final goal of life is in the next world, serving as an immovable object or organizing principle for social activity. People suppress passing desires in pursuit of higher objects, and when these same people engage in affairs of this world, the same habits mark their conduct. Sunday worship raises our sights, opening up fertile ground for the cultural values inherent in games, singing, visiting, music and charity, as shown in Trapp’s essay. This is why Pieper argues that leisure, rightly understood, is the basis of culture.

But as the light of faith dims, the range of higher ends shrinks. As wealth and liberalism join forces, people become convinced they create their own values. Yet as Joad argues, to propose that personal experience is the source of value is hubris, a false understanding of the place human beings maintain in reality, which inevitably takes revenge by bringing social decay and sometimes complete collapse.

We have to relearn through suffering that only permanent values, which we discover rather than create, give real meaning to the world of experience. Only these fundamental principles can form a valid basis to evaluate and appreciate our daily lives. We perceive these truths in artistic and natural beauty, and in our contact with reality in science, mathematics, philosophy, history and literature. Ultimately, we find the highest truths in our efforts to serve God and others in charity. Understanding human experience as a window into the world of truth can orient a society toward higher ends that serve as authentic organizing principles.

Oil As Holy

Oil can be holy if it serves higher ends, which can be perceived in moments of leisure when one is more truly authentic. Other organizing principles must exist in relationships of tension with oil, not so much to limit its extraction from the ground but its influence in society. These principles channel oil’s influence toward ends higher than material pleasures and accumulations.

Higher ends remain visible if the spheres of religion, community, family and culture endure as strong countervailing forces to liberal individualism and the aimlessness of ceaseless work and wealth creation. Churches and communities will thrive to the extent that the state respects the limits of its power, which has become an urgent issue in recent years, and Sunday is defended from servile work and business. Families must be able to secure a just wage, allowing them to save money and acquire property. People must be able to find quiet, beautiful places to reflect in and worship. Here they will be able to renew their attachment to higher ends and the humanist cultural values in art, music, film, dance, architecture, scholarship, writing and the enjoyment of nature, and the civic cultural values in voluntary associations and philanthropy.

Not just any kind of culture should exist in North Dakota, for “culture” can corrupt a society as easily as ennoble it. Rather, leading institutions— universities, libraries, museums, government agencies, private foundations, businesses, churches—must establish incentives for people to create the culture we truly want. Liberalism seeks to reduce culture to individual choice, but we need to promote culture that ennobles the human person through appropriate kinds of art, music and charitable activities. Freedom is not simply the exercise of choice as an end in itself but the ability to choose the higher ends of goodness, beauty and truth. Oil money, in conjunction with other positive organizing principles in North Dakotan society, can help create incentives toward right choices within a wholesome culture. If so, the shale revolution in the Bakken will produce “holy oil” as a powerful and tempered social organizing principle.