Response to Oil Boom Could Be Clash of Ideologies
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2012

Without a doubt the state’s oil boom will dominate the North Dakota legislative session that begins in January. The challenges and problems caused by the development of oil production in Western North Dakota are varied. They include the impact on roads, the need for housing, crime, economic disparities, threats to the environment, and an unprecedented growth in the number of students. The growth creates new demands for health care, social services, and legal assistance. Combine all this with the challenges that come with an influx of people from different backgrounds, cultures, and who speak different languages.

I thought of these issues when I came across this paragraph from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

“Many areas of the globe today have evolved considerably, albeit in problematical and disparate ways, thereby taking their place among the great powers destined to play important roles in the future. Yet it should be stressed that progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient. Development needs above all to be true and integral. The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement, neither for the countries that are spearheading such progress, nor for those that are already economically developed, nor even for those that are still poor, which can suffer not just through old forms of exploitation, but also from the negative consequences of a growth that is marked by irregularities and imbalances.”

The pope was writing about developing nations after the end of the Cold War, but change a few words and it could apply to Western North Dakota. (Though I would never consider pre-Bakken development North Dakota to be economically backward.) Certainly the areas impacted by the oil boom have witnessed unprecedented economic progress, but economic progress is not the same as human advancement. Indeed, Western North Dakota is facing many of the same type -- though not perhaps the same scale -- of “irregularities and imbalances” that developing nations experience, such as wealth disparity, demographic changes, urbanization, burdens on infrastructure, and threats to natural resources.

Catholic social doctrine does not give specific solutions to these problems, but it does provide a framework for examining problems and developing answers. Such a framework is necessary because many policymakers are guided by competing frameworks that do not put first the human person.

Take, for example, the economy. Many policymakers on both sides of the American political spectrum tend to view the economy as something that comes before the community. They view the economy as something that “just exists,” like a force of nature. To the “right,” particularly those with libertarian leanings, this force is best left to its own devices. Government attempts to restrain, redirect, or tame it, they say, will lead to disastrous consequences. To the “left,” government’s job is to control the economy through laws and regulations. Both sides view laws and policies as artificial constructs, like a fence in a zoo. One side favors a very low fence, if any at all. The other side favors a tall fence. Marxists go further by wanting to forcefully subdue the beast.

The problem with these perspectives is that they fail to recognize that the economy consists of human behavior and as such, if it is a “thing” at all rather than mere behavior, it is a thing created by humans. That is where Catholic social doctrine’s emphasis on “human advancement” and “authentic development” comes in. From the Catholic perspective, the economic development of the Bakken is not an inevitable force, but something created by humans and for humans. When it fails to truly serve humans, including the environment in which they live, it fails as true development.

Many of the disputes about how to respond to the oil boom will come down to divisions between those who want to “let things be” and those who want to “tame the beast.” Legislators and the people of North Dakota might be better served if they put aside those ideologies and just ask: “Does this proposal enhance or diminish the dignity of the human person and the communities in which they live?”