It is difficult for Americans to imagine South Dakota as a place. People from east of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers or west of the Rocky Mountains, when meeting someone from South Dakota, express shock that a person would be from such a place. Perhaps only Wyoming rivals North and South Dakota as a blank void in the imagination of America. Yet even Wyoming has her jewel: Yellowstone National Park.
It is no surprise that 210,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the soil of South Dakota, for South Dakota is exactly the kind of place Americans expect oil to be spilled. For viewers in New York and California, the ocean is a less remote and more tragic place for oil to spill than South Dakota, about which they know nothing.
That the oil leaked into ground adjacent to an Indian reservation removes it even more from the imaginative grasp of millions of Americans.
The very rational, pragmatic concerns of Reasonable People are much easier to imagine for the average American, though they are less concrete. Oil powers the global economy, after all, and the American economy. It influences the price of milk. Oil must remain cheap for all to thrive. The safest way to transport crude oil to refineries is by pipeline. Trucks and trains pose too many risks. Surely one wouldn’t argue that a land ought to remain unspoiled in the face of the needs of millions for the lifeblood of the earth which has accrued to humanity. Shouldn’t we strive to strike a balance between environmental concerns and the needs of our human economy?
Never mind that these commenters know nothing about the place they would balance their scales.
As for the Indians, their tribal representatives negotiated passage of the pipeline through reservation lands. Who else were the oil companies to negotiate with? That the tribal councils are notoriously corrupt wouldn’t occur to such a Reasonable Person, but before they saw the news of the spill on their Facebook feed they never had a thought about South Dakota or remaining tribal lands.
Anyway, according to environmental officials, though the leak was large, the location is “very rural, which is very positive,” and “the location of this is not in a sensitive area.” Very positive indeed.
Author and Essayist Marilynne Robinson writes, “Wilderness is where things can be done that would be intolerable in a populous landscape.”[^1] In this sense, everything is permissible in South Dakota. The vast, empty, horizon embracing flatness of the place allows us to deceive ourselves. Such a place absorbs any amount of oil along with the silenced thought that such a disaster reveals the fundamental sin of our present age—our failure to imagine our neighbor. In our hurry to balance the scales, we fail to imagine a South Dakotan, an Indian, or the earth as our neighbor.
[^1]: The Death of Adam, 247