I began Pathways of Power in late 2016 to begin exploring the social and environmental impacts of energy transport systems and to better understand the broader network of infrastructure that supports fossil fuel production. The purpose of this blog is to compile materials, resources, and insights. My long-term goal is to conduct first-hand ethnographic research on people’s experiences living and working along the hydrocarbon commodity chain, particularly in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region of the United States.

This project builds from research I have conducted since 2012 on frac sand mining in western Wisconsin. Silica sand is mined from Wisconsin’s hills and bluffs to supply hydraulic fracturing operations around the United States. I also maintain a research blog related to that project called Contested Landscapes, and I recently completed a book titled When the Hills Are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community. The book documents grassroots activism in response to the rapid growth of frac sand mining, focusing on conflicts over place, community, and local democracy. It will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in November 2017.

Given its role in fracking, sand mining sparked my interest in the larger commodity chains and life cycle of energy production. Social science research on energy development, it seems, is often drawn to specific sites, such as drilling rigs or mines, despite the fact that energy transport systems have been pivotal in the rise of our energy-intensive, fossil fuel dependent world. Frac sand calls attention to a larger system in motion, since, like fossil fuels, it is constantly on the move: extracted, shipped out-of-state, and injected into oil and gas wells as part of techniques used to “stimulate” production and the flow of hydrocarbons to the surface.

My goal with the Pathways of Power project is to move beyond site-specific analysis and bring into focus the larger system that enables the perpetual flow of resources, and the people whose lives are tied to or ensnared by that system. I intend to explore the connections, routes, and flows that constitute energy commodity chains and transportation systems, and the experiences of people along the way.

The phrase “pathways of power” is inspired by the work of renowned anthropologist Eric Wolf, who pushed anthropologists to consider larger systems and flows, as well as questions of power and inequality, long before it became commonplace in the discipline.

Thanks for your interest,

Thomas W. Pearson

University of Wisconsin-Stout