Parks and Petroleum
*Content Warning: one of the historical texts cited in this syllabus includes a racist term for American Indigenous people in its title*
I’ve been curious about the relationship between parks and petroleum. When I say parks, I mean national parks, especially those dedicated to the American conception of “wilderness.” When I say petroleum, I mean the fossil fuel industry and its legacy of utter destruction. These two concepts seem diametrically opposed. Foundations pen editorials lamenting national parks threatened by oil and gas drilling. Trailhead bumper stickers urge us to “keep it in the ground.” National parks are offered up as alternative and sustainable economic drivers for fossil-fuel communities stricken by fossil capital divestment. In the mainstream environmental consciousness, national parks are good, and oil is bad. But it was not always so.
From the early 1940s to 1953 my great grandfather was a superintendent for the Standard Oil Company of California – the company now known as Chevron. I didn’t know that he worked for Standard Oil until I was an adult, it wasn’t talked about much. My great grandfather also loved national parks. He was thrilled when my grandmother moved to Yosemite national park, after marrying the park dentist.
My mother, who also grew up in Yosemite, is a climate activist, so I grew up with a constant awareness about the singular role the fossil fuel industry has played in pushing our climate to the point of collapse. Considered geologically, three generations is a blink of an eye. For a family’s ideology to change in this way seems like a dramatic shift.
The story is not uncommon: oil money turns into activist money through the filter of generational wealth. The number of environmental organizations founded this way seems to imply that this may be because of guilt, but more likely it’s just because there is so much oil money. Perhaps the most famous example of this is John D. Rockefeller’s purchasing of the land for Grand Teton National Park, and I don’t think he felt particularly guilty about being the inheritor of an oil fortune. However, in the context of my family history, the relationship between parks and petroleum has stuck with me. The two – clearly in conflict in my mind – seemed actually to be in concert in the minds of some of my elders, and more so the further back things went.
My great grandfather loved Yosemite so much that he had his ashes scattered there, at Spillway Lake. The place is definitely beautiful, and he hiked there several times. But I am still troubled by the vision. His eternal resting place – someone else’s land.
What was going on here, I wondered? His world seemed somehow far from mine. But of course, my world was born from his.
Injun Talk. Standard Oil Company of California. 1946. https://archive.org/details/InjunTalk
Let us begin here, with a work of racism directly from California Standard Oil. This company film from 1946 collides the two things in question, and allows us to examine the wreckage.
Ostensibly an effort to “preserve” American Indian Sign Language, the film opens with an unexpected homage to the national parks and their role in conserving “the America of the Indian Nation – a land of crystal flowing streams, quiet forests, and vast plains.” The film simultaneously laments and celebrates the trajectory, reassuring viewers that “today there still exists a pocket of that America, caught in our national parks.”
On first glance, and from my place in history, this forced synergy – oil and environmental preservation – seems laughably out of sync. However, just as my great grandfather was not conflicted about his own love for national parks, the conflation of parks and petroleum here is not exactly wrong. At the very least, California Standard Oil is certainly happy that visiting the parks requires driving. But there’s also a deeper ideological foundation to this joining of oil and wilderness. The underpinnings of this ideological labor can be examined in the historical movement from which both oil conservation and wilderness conservation arose: the movement known (surprise) as “Conservation.” The film proudly proclaims that Standard Oil, “as oil men and as citizens.. [is] interested in all forms of conservation.”
Wilbur, Ray Lyman, and William Atherton Du Puy. Conservation in the Department of the Interior. United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1931. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951000402757i
This particular concept of Conservation is exhaustively cataloged, in grand language, in the US-government-published Conservation in the Department of the Interior. The book outlines the various ways that resources are being conserved under the management of the US Department of the Interior, and allows us to examine conservation as one site of a practical coalescence between oil and the national parks. Both parklands and oil lands are to be managed in ways that conserve resources and allow for their most efficient and best use. The resource of oil should be managed centrally to avoid wasting the wealth of energy it provides. The resource of “wilderness conditions” should be managed and preserved “in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations… [and] observation, health, and pleasure of the people.”
Both of these things – oil and wilderness – are resources, so goes the text and the thinking, and should be managed centrally, efficiently, and beneficially. And it goes without saying that the benefit should flow to white people.
Though that last part goes unspoken in the text, a nationalist ideology peeks through these trees. The national parks “magna carta” – a letter from US Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane to National Park Service Directory Stephen Mather – asserts that “you should encourage all movements looking to outdoor living.” Though it sounds odd and innocuous, this gestures toward a troubling set of ideological movements that were part of the parks’ foundation, and which facilitated a white American fantasy of wilderness melodrama.
The narrative structure helps here too – in Conservation, the chapter on oil conservation appears right after the chapter on national parks. Conveniently, the chapter that follows next is the sickeningly-titled “Conservation of the Indian”, which focuses on the Federal Indian Boarding Schools. As many white people know now, and as Indigenous people knew then, the Schools were perhaps one of the sharpest tools in the US genocidal toolbox.
Even now Conservation can seem like a somewhat quaint, if clumsy, effort toward a good thing. It feels correct that we should conserve resources. It helps however, to consider Conservation in contrast to the strategies pursued by Indigenous people in their struggles against extermination. Crucially, conservation as outlined here is not reparation or reconciliation. It is not self-determination. It is imposed by power rather than negotiated through power sharing.
Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. Oxford University Press, New York: 1999. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44484183
There was of course no part of North America that was uninhabited prior to the arrival of white people, and no American wilderness in that same particularly American, largely white, sense. Indigenous Americans lived in all the places that would become national parks, and for the American Wilderness to be preserved by the US Department of the Interior, it first had to be created through the forcible removal of Indigenous people. Mark David Spence writes:
Native people shaped these environments for millennia, and thus [national] parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier are more representative of old fantasies about a continent awaiting “discovery” than actual conditions at the time of Columbus’s voyage or Lexis and Clark’s adventure… These romantic visions of primordial North America have contributed to a sort of widespread cultural myopia that allows late-twentieth-century Americans to ignore the fact that national parks enshrine recently dispossessed landscapes.
And what is the wilderness for? It’s for fantasy and desire. Spence: “In a very powerful sense, Glacier [national park] presented a fantasy realm where individual Americans could play out little frontier dramas and… reinvigorate their lives through contact with the essential elements of the American wilderness.” Here are the catchy “movements looking to outdoor living” we read about before. Xiaowei Wang has also written eloquently about veins of desire running through the bedrock of such mainstream environmental politics, noting that “the locus of power in this form of environmental protection relies on upholding whiteness, borders, and private property.”
Though the parkland is ostensibly public, it has been depopulated – “the perceived absence of Indians from the Glacier backcountry made the park a virtual tabula rasa” (Spence) – and it becomes a space for white Americans to play out imagined adventures of wilderness exploration. This is a bordered space from which Indigenous people are excluded in order to free up the land and turn it into a blank slate that can facilitate for white fantasies about wilderness, personhood, and nationhood. Freed up in this way, the parks are a sanitized playground reserved for wealthy white people to have their encounter with a mythical wilderness – an escape from an urbanizing, industrializing, and diversifying United States in which it was increasingly difficult to ignore their own culpability for the horrible state of things.
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 1996. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1043364313
The writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Sioux) helpfully stitches together this political and logistical work with the crucial cultural work that upholds this structural power in the physical open spaces of America. She also locates this cultural work in the project of fantasy. Cook-Lynn pinpoints the distillation of this in the writings of one white author – “There is… no American fiction writer who has been more successful in serving the interests of a nation’s fantasy about itself than Wallace Stegner.” There is of course the physical possession of the land, but Cook-Lynn reminds us that “literature can and does successfully contribute to the politics of possession and dispossession.” This is the work that Wallace Stegner does on behalf of both wilderness and oil.
Stegner, Wallace. Discovery! The Story of Aramco Then. Arabian American Oil Company, New York: 1968. https://archive.aramcoworld.com/index/BackIssues1960.aspx (Jan/Feb 1968 – July/Aug 1970)
Stegner is widely known as a sort of bard of the Western US – the geopolitical space that holds the genesis of the US national park system. Growing up, his books took up a sizeable chunk of any book shelf in my immediate or extended family. I only discovered in adulthood that he also wrote for oil.
Discovery! is another fantasy – a corporate fantasy of swashbuckling oil-geologists carrying the gospel of noble American freedom and free-enterprise to a people just waiting to be brought into the new world. Standard Oil of California plays a role again, as the company that succesfully acquired the first concession to drill for oil from the murderous Saudi monarchy, who had relatively recently laid claim to the vast territory across the Arabian Peninsula and named it Saudi Arabia after themselves. The company hired Stegner to bring his talents for nationalistic fantasy to their story as well.
I did not want to give Stegner any further page time by quoting from this work, but his words tell the story too transparently not to include. On the men – they were all men – who marked the coming of oil, Stegner:
They did not come as settlers, or even as explorers: they were neither the kind that planned to stay nor the kind that evinced much interest in the strange places where they found themselves. One place was much like another; they took change philosophically; they imposed themselves and their own vagrant sub-culture on whatever spot of earth happened to contain them.
They [managed]… from the beginning… a state of mind that… was startlingly and unmistakably American, and that involved, among other things, optimism, generosity, carelessness, roughness, high productivity…
They were attendants at the birth of a world.
Having now more critically considered the genesis of the national parks, the ideologies here seem remarkably in sync. This is the oil version of the national park vision – the land as tabula rasa, a place upon which any nationalistic or cultural fantasy can be played out. It is a particularly American fantasy here too, just as in the national parks. The depopulation of the national parks facilitated white fantasies of nationhood. The processes of park depopulation, oil exploration and exploitation, and eventual profit accumulation functions as a method through which the land is claimed for white fantasy. The location may be Saudi Arabia, but the world being “birthed” is distinctly American. Within this metaphorical conception the previous world is, of course, irrelevant and without value.
Stegner often seems to write through a notable perma-nostalgia filter, and with his words the particular world erasure attending to oil is somehow made legend before the events themselves are complete. This is a literature of shame.
Munif, ‘Abd al-Rahmān. Cities of Salt. Translated by Peter Theroux. Vintage International, New York: 1989. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1275074245
A more accurate telling – no less brutal but with a sensibility and self-awareness that is closer to human – can be found in the fictionalized account of oil development in Saudi Arabia provided by ‘Abd al-Rahmān Munif, himself an oil economist and son of Bedouin Camel traders who plied the desert that would become the Saudi oil fields.
The novel unfurls from the destruction of a small desert wadi community to make space for oil drilling, and in this Munif captures the disorienting world-erasure, and remaking, that happens at the time of the coming of oil:
The details wilted, shrank and were forgotten, down to the very last one prompted in the memory by an act of will or a persistent ghost. Any attempt to recall the image of things and places that had been encountered an oblivion that spread like warm air and made them all dreamlike. It was a special kind of tragedy, like amnesia followed by long-belated remembrance in which the chaotic confusion and curse of things were made apparent… only the final moments survived, and perhaps only they had truly occured at all.
Able to write frankly and without the filter of American nationalist fantasy, Munif captures the texture of the jarring and violent destruction brought by oil and imposed through its ideological world-making. The machinations of oil operate in a cultural space where everything is imagined as tabula-rasa, everything is open for exploration and discovery, everything is a space to be colonized and developed. Oil and its accompanying demons have a way of wiping away the things that came before them, making themselves the only thing that matters, the only thing which can be measured as having value or even as having a past.
Johnston, K. H., H. B. Carrol, R. J. Heemstra, and F. E. Armstrong. “How To Find Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells.” United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington: 1973. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015078515759&view=1up&seq=3&skin=2021
This final publication – a technical manual outlining instructions and techniques for finding abandoned oil and gas wells so that they are not disturbed during underground coal mining – is an oblique yet ghostly manifestation of the world-making, and history-making, of oil. The haunting part is the images. Rusting pieces of well machinery uncovered from well-site excavations are laid out in grids across blank white backgrounds. They are categorized and indexed, recorded with highly-detailed information about their discovery locations and orientations. They are as artifacts – historical and archeological evidence – laid out before us and presented as the cultural record, as the essence of history itself.
It is a deeply troubling ideology that is cloaked in highly-technical terms. If these pieces of metal, intentionally-formed yet largely opaque in their use, are the history, then whatever came before is irrelevant. Just as in the case of the national parks, this peculiar practice of technical legitimization creates an entire structure, a way of knowing the world, which excludes Indigenous people entirely. Understanding the world, and the physical landscape, through this structure makes Indigenous people disappear, and encourages white Americans to begin to see themselves as indigenous instead, claiming rights and resources accordingly (as well as denying them). As Cook-Lynn so sharply observes about Wallace Stegner, “he gave prominence to the idea that indigenousness was for those who claimed it.” Here, in oil machinery presented as archeological evidence, white Americans carry nationalist fantasy acted out on the land to its extreme conclusion: the people here before oil, before national parks, cannot even be seen to exist.
Technical processes shape the landscape and define what gets to exist. Cultural processes shape the thinking about that landscape and consolidate power for those that wield it. As inheritors of that power, we, and here I’m speaking of myself and my ancestors, are empowered to say “no one was here before. We are here now. We are from here.”
Piece of Oil-Soaked Sandbag, site of Lakeview No. 1 Oil Well blowout, Kern County, California. Yokuts and Chumash Territory. Collected 2017 by C. Macquarie.
I like to visit the Kern County oil fields. My great grandfather worked here sometimes, building out telephone systems for Standard Oil. I have never seen another landscape like this one – desiccated hills carpeted with pipes, wells, pumps, tanks, hydrogen sulfide warning signs, and no fences. My great grandfather had his ashes scattered in Yosemite, and sometimes I wonder if my own shouldn’t be scattered here, if given Chumash permission.
Here oil flowed out across the land for months, like a flood, covering buildings and houses, filling in lakes and rivers, and presaging the deep catastrophe that oil would bring to our doorstep. I stop at the small plaque in front of the crater and cut the engine. I get out and walk around the edge, looking mostly at the ground and smelling the faint scent of heavy oil that is everywhere here. There’s a piece of oil-soaked sandbag sticking out of the ground off the edge of the crater rim. I never realized that oil dries and eventually hardens – this cursed object is black and solid. I pick it up and take it with me.