This post builds on the research article “Utopias of Oil: Private Equity and Entrepreneurial Ambition in the U.S. Oil and Gas Industry” by Mette M. High, which was published in the November 2022 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Mette High’s Cultural Anthropology article “Utopias of Oil: Private Equity and Entrepreneurial Ambition in the U.S. Oil and Gas Industry” explores how private equity finance and global commodity markets encourage and condition the social and financial dreams of small- to medium-sized oil and gas entrepreneurs in Colorado. In this ethnographic context, the fantastical, financial optimism of American fossil-fuel capitalism meets the power of private equity to fund financial and energy futures. High’s interlocutors, mostly men, endeavor against the background of a bureaucratized presence of settler colonialism to participate in and change the future through oil and gas. Some dream to use “oil as the basis for relations of care and, ultimately, human flourishing” (749). New imaginings of economic life emerge but are nonetheless squarely situated within capitalist relations, struggling to reach past the grasp of oil and gas and its moral imaginaries. In an era of global climate change, what role does private equity finance have in shaping utopias: capitalist or otherwise?
In this conversational interview, High sits down with SCA Section Editor Adam Fleischmann to discuss the article and its utopian imaginaries, along with a number of related topics: fieldwork access and the gendered aspects of the field, doing fieldwork with interlocutors with whom you do not share a political project, the presence of settler colonialism in U.S. State bureaucracies, the implication of academics in private equity and fossil fuel development, and more.
Adam Fleischmann (AF): I'm interested in your trajectory as an anthropologist from Europe who did a PhD project on the gold rush in Mongolia. How do you end up in Colorado working with oil and gas entrepreneurs, and how does that fit into your larger research agenda and work at the Centre for Energy Ethics?
Mette High (MH): For me, the connection between the work I did in Mongolia and the work that I'm now doing in Colorado is a shared theoretical question. It really is about how global commodity markets—whether it's gold, oil, or gas—intersect with or relate to very intimate personal, moral views on everyday life. Whether we are talking about “ninja miners,” the informal sector gold miners in Mongolia, or oil and gas actors in Colorado, my approach to these two field sites is through that same lens. And that lens, for me at least, has a similarity in terms of the scale.
I'm interested in that relationship between the global financial market and individuals, how they intersect and are brought to bear on how we navigate and make sense of life. So that scale between the very intimate and then the super vast, that's something that my projects have in common. And the other thing they have in common is the particular objects that I'm looking at: with natural resources in all my projects, I'm interested in questions of value, our multiple conceptualizations of value: how do they align? How do they coexist? How do they clash? How do they conflict? How do we make sense of this stuff? I’m very interested in seeing what happens if we think of value as not only, say, a financial value or economic value but also a cosmological value, a moral value, an ethical value.
AF: Okay, that's interesting. I also work on a global object of study in climate change, and I'm super fascinated in how we as anthropologists, with our disciplinary tools, can focus on a global object of study while also allowing individual people to be a meaningful scale of analysis. You talk about this a little bit in the ways in which the global commodity trade ends up conditioning the entrepreneurial dreams of your interlocutors. Not to jump too far into the deep end immediately, but do you see particular ways that these global commodity networks intersect with personal everyday lives? Because I feel like for many anthropologists, that's the challenge. We claim that we're quite good at making that leap between the local and the global, but in fact, the very challenge is to draw that out in the writing and thinking. I'm wondering if you, in your experience over the years, have found ways to do this, through techniques of writing or thinking or observing that allow you to better connect those scales?
MH: I think it has also a lot to do with your interlocutors. If I think back on my research in Mongolia, I did not envision writing about money or currency. That was not actually what I set out to do. It just happened to be that my interlocutors were absolutely fascinated and scared by the object of money and the ways in which it rendered value commensurable, challenging the value that was being indexed by the Mongolian Central Bank. And in my field site in Mongolia, you could ask people pretty much at any point, “what is the value of gold right now on the London Metal Exchange?” And people would know. And even if you didn't ask, people would tell you, right? It was just at the forefront of daily life, like “how are we going to approach the gold that we are going to find today? Are we going to sell it? Are we going to hold onto it?” That affected these constant little micro decisions that were being made and were so central to that particular day. In that sense, the global commodity market was right there. It was right in front of us all the time. And that's the same for my interlocutors in Colorado. I can ask them at any point, “what is the price of oil?” People will know. And even if I don't ask, I'm likely to be told at some point during that day. So it's almost like the global commodity market is so present, it is so local, it's so immediate. For me, it's almost an inverted challenge because it is so local and so present. What is the global [rather than local] in a global commodity market, and how is that globality made present in the daily life of miners?
“When Donald Trump got elected as President, I had to pause my fieldwork. If I am doing fieldwork with interlocutors who have very strong political views that I personally disagree with, I don't know how to put on a different persona.”
AF: Speaking of your interlocutors in Colorado, I'm interested in how access plays out in your field sites, something we don't often explicitly talk about. As an early career scholar who also works in spaces deemed “institutional” in the Global North, I’m always interested in questions of fieldwork access, the challenge of which has haunted researchers at all levels since, at least, Laura Nader’s group of students first “studied up.” How was it getting access to these people and spaces?
MH: It involved moments of serendipity. In the case of Colorado, I knew someone who was able to facilitate access and without his help, it would've been a different project. If you're doing fieldwork on a topic that's very political and very contentious, and you're trying to build trust with interlocutors who are kind of on edge, it is so difficult to get that access because people will assume you are there because you have an ax to grind, that you have an agenda. In my case, people would say to me, “Are you, like, some undercover reporter? Do we have a TV crew waiting outside? Are we now going to be reading some big exposé in the New York Times next week?” That level of skepticism was a real challenge. Even with someone who was able to introduce me to people in the beginning, even with that kind of help and endorsement, it was challenging. I've been very lucky that I've had so many years of research funding so that I had the time to build up the relationships. That's so, so crucial.
AF: How do you navigate that sort of skepticism? I'm sure you don't want to respond to them, “No, actually, rah, rah! Oil and gas! Drill, baby, drill!” How do you balance that as a scholar, but also as a person with your own commitments in the world?
MH: It’s interesting because this project, more than any of my previous projects, has made me realize a lot about myself. How do I do fieldwork? I'm a very honest field worker, but I don't know if honesty is the best word. Maybe transparency is the best word. In my case, for example, when Donald Trump got elected as president, I had to pause my fieldwork. If I am doing fieldwork with interlocutors who have these very strong political views that I personally disagree with, I don't know how to put on a different persona. I don't have a different field worker persona. I'm myself, whether I'm writing or I'm doing fieldwork. And so when you're doing fieldwork in a setting like this, if your personal political views differ from your interlocutors, I took the decision to focus on other aspects of my work. I needed that breathing space where I could find a response to my interlocutors when my interlocutors would say to me, “Oh yeah, isn't it great, now we have Donald Trump in office.” What do I say to that? So, I sat down and thought about what things I could say that are honest, that are true but would not jeopardize the rapport that I had established with interlocutors. I would say things like, “Oh yeah, it's surprising,” or “Oh wow, I hadn't seen that coming.” I would have these reactions that didn't really forefront my personal political position. It did require a lot of self-management.
While that was a massive obstacle for me, when Donald Trump was elected president, I think this transparency has also been my biggest advantage in my fieldwork. Because when I say to my interlocutors, “No, I'm not an undercover reporter. I'm an academic, I'm writing articles and I'm writing a book,” that sense of transparency has helped my interlocutors trust me. It has also been a real help in building relationships and relationships that matter. I'm very much in touch with my interlocutors, and they form part of my life. It's my commitment as a researcher, and my commitment to them goes far beyond the next article.
AF: There's a line of critique around social movement studies in anthropology and sociology, that we often only study those with whom we already feel some complicity. There is personal safety as an issue as well, but it's really interesting to hear about research in spaces that you don't always feel comfortable with or in agreement with everything people are saying.
MH: For me that's really important. And it was even as an undergrad, I remember when I was studying anthropology as an undergrad, I was so interested in trying to understand how others make sense of the world, and straight away, I turned to people who were doing economics and finance. I felt the need to understand how they can believe in, say, the stock market, that the stock market creates the best possible world for everyone. And so I've always been fascinated by understanding people with whom I don't necessarily share the same political project.
And I think it's the same in Mongolia. When I started my research in Mongolia on the gold rush, so many other scholars were focusing on nomadic pastoralism, on shamanism, on kinship. And I was like, “But there's a big gold rush going on. We need to understand what's going on.” Sometimes I think, as a discipline, if we let ourselves be led so much by our own political projects, we end up with huge blind spots.
“As a woman entering these spaces, especially out on site, people often assume that I'm some drilling expert, that I'm an engineer coming from the North Sea oil and gas fields.”
AF: In the article, you briefly mention the gendered aspects of this domain, but I wanted to give you a chance to talk more about this. These seem to be the entrepreneurial dreams of (white) men, set within a history, to which they gladly claim inheritance, of eighteenth century oil prospectors called “wildcatters,” which you call a “highly gendered and white history.” What was it like, being a woman, to do fieldwork in these highly gendered spaces of the industry?
MH: Who knows what it would be like if I'd been a man, but it is very male-dominated. And that is a very important aspect of the dynamics of my field sites. I do fieldwork both out on site, on the rigs where you have the oil and gas drilling and production, and I trace the relationships right up through the echelons of the industry, to the headquarters where you have the CEOs [Chief Economic Officers], the whole C-suite, the board of directors, presidents, etc. In my research, I have a very broad, lateral view across the industry. And in these spaces, the vast majority is male. But it's also important to then not just reduce it to that. There are a lot of distinctions, a lot of different dynamics in my field sites. As a fieldworker, it was also a huge challenge to be spending the first eight hours of the day out on site, and then get in my car and drive to some corporate event that had been put on by the office in Denver, for example. I would be moving across these very, very different spaces within the industry, sometimes even in the same day.
Yet, whichever field site I'm in, I feel what is almost a characteristic of the industry is a lot of joking and banter, and you have to be able to take part in it. That’s so similar to when I was doing fieldwork in the Mongolian gold rush. When I was in the mining campus, [there was] a lot of banter. You cannot take yourself too seriously. You cannot be too precious. If so, this fieldwork would be hard. And that banter in Colorado is a key social dynamic, whether I'm doing fieldwork among the executives, or I'm out in Weld County, out on site.
As a woman entering these spaces, especially out on site, people often assume that I'm some drilling expert, that I'm an engineer coming from the North Sea oil and gas fields. So people will often relate to me through, through my nationality, as Danish. But I did grow up with the industry. My brother worked in oil and gas, as did my dad. So it is an industry that has been part of my life way before I started this research.
The other thing that comes to mind is when I was doing my fieldwork in Mongolia, there was a friend who was a geologist, and early on in my fieldwork, he kind of pulled me aside and said, “you know, Mette, I want to make sure that you don't only understand Mongolian miners, but you also understand mining.” And that is something that I've very much taken to heart. When I'm doing my research in Colorado, it is absolutely crucial that I don't just understand the oil and gas actors in the industry, but that I also understand what the industry does, that I can have a conversation about drill bits without feeling out of depth. It is crucial. So I think the gendered aspect of my field site creates certain challenges, certain obstacles, but there are also these other aspects of my field site that allow me to feel comfortable.
It’s funny, when I was doing my fieldwork in Mongolia, I felt like it was a never-ending language-learning journey, where I was studying Mongolian all day every day. And in my fieldwork in Colorado, it's kind of like all day, every day, understanding the technical side of oil and gas production.
“What does it take to understand something? Well, it takes more than an anthropologist. We need to work together. We need to collaborate; we need to create spaces where our different areas of expertise and our different insights can be brought together.”
AF: Interesting. My experience, too, of working in these technological or scientific spaces is that the milieu that in other field sites may be saturated by language, is in fact saturated by technical knowledge. In French, there is the difference between langue and langage, linguistic languages and, often, technical languages or ways of speaking. And I find that in these sites, even if you speak the language (the langue), even if it's the place that you were born, the more technical language (the langage) is the difficult fieldwork milieu in which you have to saturate yourself.
MH: Maybe that’s a little bit under-recognized in the discipline. It really takes a lot of time to get your head around the technical aspects.
AF: Hmm. This could be pure speculation, but since a field like sociology has ostensibly been in these spaces longer, I wonder if they have valued the time it takes to learn the technical aspects of things more than we do in anthropology—or, at least, maybe more explicitly so.
MH: My idea behind the Centre [for Energy Ethics at University of St Andrews] grows out of that personal experience of what it takes to understand something. Well, it takes more than an anthropologist. We need to work together. We need to collaborate; we need to create spaces where our different areas of expertise and our different insights can be brought together. Because when we do that, we certainly have a broader perspective on our findings, and new questions will pop up, questions we haven't thought about before. And I think that's so important because otherwise, again, we can find ourselves in rather entrenched positions or almost stale debates. So that broader appreciation of what it takes to know something is at the core of my mission for the Centre.
AF: I'm also interested in this sort of blind spot that overlays the whole industry in Colorado as you describe it, which is settler colonialism. I was struck by how all of these “utopian horizons” in your article are dependent on the terra nullius idea of the American West as this empty space fit for white men to go explore, find oil, and find themselves along the way. I'm wondering if you had thoughts about how this history might play out in the present, perhaps merely more through its absence? How much of these imagined utopian horizons are dependent on terra nullius?
MH: So this is an absolutely key part of that kind of wider framing that you just can't squeeze into an article. Importantly, I wouldn't say it's an absence. I feel it's ever-present. But that settler colonial history, it's kind of re-domained: managed or indexed by state bureaucracy. When I'm saying state bureaucracy, I'm using the words of interlocutors—that's how they would refer to it. That is, the whole machinery of licensing, of regulation of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, that legalistic infrastructure that is sitting at a State level. It is experienced by my interlocutors as deeply frustrating and slowing things down, as constantly being put through that legalistic infrastructure. What I think it does for my interlocutors is that it reins the settler history into something that is now being addressed very neatly and bureaucratically at that State level. So it's re-domained from something that the industry has to deal with, has to confront, to something that is managed by the state.
This history of conflict, a history of multiple claims to land and to resources: it’s not being depoliticized—it's highly political but it's political in a way where it has been bureaucratized. And through that bureaucratization, there is this sense of distance, a sense of separation where it's being bounded off, it's being isolated from the activities of companies. Oil and gas production companies are now navigating a landscape that is overlaid by these kinds of state bureaucratic structures. And that relegates a history of contestation to something that they can distance themselves from.
In Colorado, very often you have town hall meetings, where you will have the oil and gas industry actors in the same space as, say, community representatives or concerned citizens. And the whole thing is being hosted by one of these commissions. And what those events do is not just enable diverse voices to be heard. It is also at the very same time, for my interlocutors, creating a space where drilling can continue.
AF: I feel like that's a pretty deep critique there, even though it's in what has tended to be seen as a banal level of politics, local municipal things: the ever-present history of settler colonialism is being contained and fenced in and managed so that the oil and gas industry can continue drilling.
MH: Yeah. I don't think it's a novel critique, right? A lot of research has come out already on, say, citizen participation and the challenges of consent-based nuclear waste siting. We already have a lot of scholarship that is showing how our current systems have been established for a particular, enabling purpose.
“That settler colonial history is re-domained: managed or indexed by state bureaucracy.”
AF: When I was reading the article, and I thought about how the context is grounded in the concept of terra nullius, I found it fascinating when you then brought up the dual definition in utopian studies of utopia as utoposand eutopos: the abstract fantasy worldbuilding that does not exist of u-topos or “no-place”; and the utopianism of eu-topos or “good place,” of existing and concrete worlding, of articulations of positive social change. No-place vs. good-place. Two of your interlocutors, who you call Mark and Steve, try and fail to enact worlds based in oil and gas that nevertheless are formed on relations of care and human flourishing, a sort of social entrepreneurship as one of them puts it. In their failures to attract the commitments of private equity, their utopias of oil become the “no-place” of the word’s two interpretations: “a nonexistent world marked by distance and difference from what exists now,” as you put it in the article (755). And so, despite the oil and gas industry largely being a site of “success” for the optimistic American project, the alternative entrepreneurial dreams of your interlocutors are often not realized. What role does failure play in the larger ethics of your field sites?
MH: I've been doing this fieldwork since 2013 and it is important to keep in mind the Trump era, in which there was this political mobilization of post-industrial communities in the United States, especially coal-mining communities. I would not be surprised if the role of failure in the oil and gas industry comes to play a similar role as we saw with coal miners and post-industrial communities as a political force in the United States in ten years’ time.
In my fieldwork, failure is absolutely crucial. Absolutely. It's crucial in the narrative that my interlocutors are advancing of the pioneers, of the settlers, of the American West, the narrative of trying, of working hard, of really just going against all odds. Failure in that narrative is often linked to success, right? The struggles are part of what puts the victory into perspective. It is also a moment that evidences the character and the strength and the commitment to a project. That's the same as when they talk about the wildcatters that are being celebrated, for example, at this annual event that takes place in Denver, where they're giving out the Wildcatter Award to someone who is really exemplifying this spirit of entrepreneurship. There's a deep recognition within the industry that the ones that they're celebrating are the ones who are successful and the ones who are successful, they're the tip of the iceberg: for every one that is successful, there are many who are not. So failure amplifies success. It showcases what it takes to be successful. Failure is not something that is embarrassing or frowned upon. Not at all. Not at all. It's totally intrinsic to what it means to be successful.
AF: And yet you write that your interlocutors are oil and gas industry actors who “remain committed to exploring utopian possibilities within oil and gas” (743). This is super interesting to me because in my own work with experts and activists working on climate change in the United States and Canada, I encounter, if not utopian imaginaries, an almost hopeful affect that plays out—through ethical evaluations and a general outlook—in ways that they hope “create new possibility.” In my analysis, their possibility is produced in the sort of wiggle-room-resistance between oppressive dominant power relations and their climatic techniques of the self. This is largely a resistance to status quo, fossil-fuel power relations and their imaginaries. Interestingly, on the other hand, your interlocutors are committed to the fossil-fuel capitalist dream. As you point out, these are utopian visions with imaginaries that don’t or can’t reach past the grasp of oil and gas and its “late capitalist forms,” as you call them (743). I wanted to give you an opportunity to speak more about capitalist utopian visions and “the role of the economic imagination” in these unrealized utopias of oil.
“Private equity capital is a form of capital that is put forward for quite conservative projects...What I'm showing is how people, committed to a capitalist project centered on oil and gas, even these guys, are not successful in getting private equity capital.”
MH: Private equity capital is a form of capital that is put forward for quite conservative projects, continuing the status quo. The projects that are getting funded are the ones that have less risk, so it becomes a very conservative form of investment capital. What I'm showing is how people, committed to a capitalist project centered on oil and gas, even these guys, are not successful in getting private equity capital. For me, that’s a really important ethnographic observation because I feel in the scholarship that we have in the anthropology of energy, a lot of the writing on, say, petrocapitalism, petromodernity, focuses on narratives, forms of transaction, systemic inequalities that are associated with super majors, like the big multinational companies of oil and gas, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total, etc. But the industry consists of so much more than these big companies. The bottom line is that the oil and gas industry is really, really diverse. And we have these big super majors that are often on the front pages of the popular media, and I think they're shaping the approach that we have in the anthropology of energy in a way that simplifies what is actually going on.
So in this article, by looking at small- to medium-sized oil and gas companies, you can really see this struggle to get investor capital. I have a deep appreciation of what we are doing in the anthropology of finance and in economic anthropology—I guess it also links to what you were saying about Laura Nader's invitation for us to study up, a real attention to the operation and handling and managing of capital as an ethnographic object of study. And in this article, I'm interested to see what happens when we put the financial space of private equity firms together with the people who are trying to attract the investment in the oil and gas industry, thinking about things outside of what we might otherwise neatly separate off.
AF: What are some things you had to cut from the article that you wish you could have included—elements of the story or theoretical arguments or sub-disciplinary concerns, etc.?
MH: Oh, there's a lot. There is this broader framing of the anthropology of energy and the way in which oil and gas is being approached as an object of study. I also mentioned private equity finance, and how it offers almost an invisible infrastructure, the scaffolding for global commodity markets. It operates on these very short time horizons and with an expectation of quite incredible inequalities. So how does it operate? How does it affect us? And what does it do to the world broadly? These are some of the big questions that I really hope others will take up. I think private equity is an absolutely crucial space for us to understand better. We are all implicated in it. We are all complicit. If you have any kind of insurance, if you have a pension, they're likely investing in private equity. From the point of view of private equity, they call the pension firms institutional investors. In the United Kingdom, our [university staff] pension fund invests in private equity portfolio companies. This risk-averse, high-profit, conventional capitalist framework for thinking of the world and valuing people and things then affects even the future of people's retirements. We are part of it. We are in it. We cannot position ourselves outside. And I think it's important for us as researchers to recognize that we are part of the inequalities that we want to study and maybe we would like to try to change. When you really start thinking about what your political project is, you also need to think about what political projects you are already, inadvertently, part of. I think we need to recognize our own contribution to multiple overlapping and conflicting political processes.
“This risk-averse, high-profit, conventional capitalist framework for thinking of the world and valuing people and things affects the future of people's retirements. We are part of it. We are in it.”
Once you recognize these multiple overlapping political processes that you're a part of, it becomes harder to take a position that is oppositional, because how can anything be oppositional when you're dealing with multiplicity? There’s no one place from which you can argue. When you detach yourself from one thing, you're advocating for something else. That doesn't mean that we should feel paralyzed. I don't believe that we need to feel that inaction is the best way forward. Instead we should recognize the conditioned possibilities for dialogues, discussions, debate. I guess I'm a very optimistic believer in knowledge.
AF: What this is immediately bringing up is some critiques people have been making for thirty, forty years of misled analyses of Foucauldian power relations: no one escapes power. What does that mean? We're all paralyzed in a web of relations, and we can't do anything? Well, no. In the case of my interlocutors, there's always a little wiggle room. There's always a crack in the wall. Or otherwise we wouldn't be able to do anything ever. But once you expand that analysis to the scale of global capital, it does feel a lot more paralyzing at times.
MH: Finger pointing does become a lot harder when you recognize your own complicity.
AF: Fascinating. Well, that’s our time for today. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.
MH: Thank you. Same to you.
Dr. High would like to thank Dr. Fleischmann for his work on this interview, preparing questions, editing transcripts, and seeing it through to publication.