We Don’t Have to Feel So All Alone
I am proud to be a member of BCA. I feel good about being a conservationist. I even admit, out loud, to being an environmentalist. I feel good about doing my part to try to make our community and state a better place for ourselves and our kids and our babies yet unborn.
But in the last few years—feeling outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and definitely outgunned—I have often hesitated to say anything about my deeply-held belief that we must preserve wilderness. I have been reluctant to speak my mind about the destruction of our wild places. Why the hesitation? I felt, well, alone.
Then, out of the blue, on Sunday, October 11, reinforcements arrived from an unlikely quarter—a British comedian. John Oliver devoted his whole show, Last Week Tonight, to basically begging the kind and polite people of North Dakota to buck up already and get angry: “Th is has gone too far, people!” And what would be the target of all this ire? Rampant human and environmental destruction brought about by the Bakken oil boom!
In the days and weeks since then, the debate has been all about billboards. Are we, as a state, going to continue to “Be Nice” and stay silent? Or will we choose to do as John begged— wake up to what is going on and “Be Angry?”
To make his point, John ticked off a lot of facts and figures that ought to make North Dakotans angry: the millions of gallons of oil, chemicals, and saltwater spilled or leaked since the boom began; the scores of oilfield deaths and injuries in recent years; the lax laws and policies that hold companies harmless from the death, injury, and environmental havoc they cause; and the utter lack of accountability that follows when a state is constantly patting itself on the back for its business-friendly climate. While conceding that other oil-boom states have experienced workplace safety problems and environmental disasters, he saved his sharpest criticism for the one thing that makes North Dakota’s oil boom unique: “What is unique to North Dakota is the level of regulatory friendliness to oil companies,” he said, calling our state a “magical pro-business utopia.”
He hit a nerve. We ought to cringe when we hear that. It’s not fun being the butt of a national joke. It is embarrassing to know the country is laughing at us and wondering what kind of rubes we must be to let the oil companies get away with such mayhem.
But might this signal a shift? Might getting called out by a popular comedian on national television help bring about a change in our citizens’ attitudes that the New York Times’ series of Bakken Boom exposés could not? Suddenly, it seems our polite communal silence is not “North Dakota nice” anymore— it just looks like dumb naiveté.
My take on this? I’m not saying we need to get angry. I’m not even saying we should stop being polite. Th is is still, after all, North Dakota. But it is time to take heart. It is time to end the silence. As BCA members, we believe in something. We believe in the majesty of our wild places. We believe in preserving the Badlands. These things are worth the fight. In the words of The Doors: the time to hesitate is through. Let’s support our executive director, Jan Swenson, and show our appreciation of her hard work testifying before the Department of Mineral Resources, bird-dogging the Industrial Commission, and pleading our case at countless hearings and meetings. We can all take pride in Jan’s unfailing efforts on our behalf. But let’s each do our part as members as well. We can all stand up for sane development policy in the Badlands. We can all talk to our legislators and state leaders about the need for preservation. We can all tell our friends about what we are doing and encourage them to become BCA members.
It turns out we are not alone. The rest of the country is watching us—and probably hoping we will get angry. And, okay, we can get a little bit angry.