Lessons from the Dust Bowl
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is "An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces" (2008), which devotes a chapter to the environment.
Machinery buried in dust near Dallas, North Dakota, in 1935. Credit: USDA.
Early in the twentieth century American philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Another quote, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, offers this correction: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." These two quotes came to mind as I watched Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl last week -- this four-hour PBS documentary by America’s most famous film documentarian remains available on some PBS stations or for viewing online until at least December 4. The destruction, personal suffering, and tragedies caused by our recent Hurricane Sandy were not a repeat of the 1930s’ Dust Bowl, but they were close enough to remind us that we have ignored at our peril a basic historical lesson: Screw up the environment badly enough and it’ll come back to blow you away with a vengeance.
Soon after the beginning of The Dust Bowl, narrator Peter Coyote mentions the severe drought of the 1890s that occurred in the Great Plains, west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. The drought serves as a foreshadowing of what was to come four decades later, but was catastrophic enough in its own way. After unscrupulous developers and a decade of sufficient rain had encouraged settlers to pour in to areas like the western third of Kansas, where population more than tripled between 1885 and 1887, drought struck in 1887 and continued into the 1890s. Many of the newcomers had planted wheat, replacing the short grasses that had nurtured enough animal life to sustain earlier Native Americans. But the settlers ignored that periodic drought was “one of the defining characteristics” of the Great Plains. When drought returned starting in 1887, wheat yields plummeted, hunger increased, and many people left the plains.
But this history lesson of the late nineteenth century was insufficiently learned. In 1909 Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act. It made public land available that was less fit for farming than that which had been opened up by the Homestead Act of 1862. One of these new areas, which the documentary emphasizes, was “a narrow-strip of Oklahoma that bordered four other states— Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.” This region is part of the “Southern plains,” which one of the program’s expert voices calls “one of the riskiest areas of the world for agricultural production.” He, Kansas historian Donald Worster, should know because he has written Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize -- more recently he has also written another excellent book, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (2008).
A combination of good weather, better farming techniques, global wheat demand sparked by World War I, and improved agricultural technology brought many good years to the Great Plains farmers from 1909 through 1929. But in the process farmers destroyed millions of acres more of the native grasses, leaving the area more prone to wind erosion when drought returned, as it did with ferociousness in the 1930s.
In late 1929 the Great Depression began and by 1931 was seriously depressing wheat prices. Then the winter of 1931-32 and spring of 1932 were very dry and dust storms increased, but worse was yet to come in the middle of the decade. The most catastrophic storm was on Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, when the worst dust storm in history occurred. Across Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas this storm raged at times moving at 65 miles per hour and some two hundred miles wide. The blackness got so bad that people could not see a few feet in front of themselves. Several people who experienced this storm as children recall their elders saying “the end of the world is coming.”
These witnesses of Black Sunday and much of the other suffering of the Dust-Bowl years are now old men and women, and Burns, as he has in other documentaries, makes good use of these ordinary folk. He is a sort of Studs Terkel of documentarians. His mix of them briefly telling us their stories, along with photographs, video clips, music (e.g. that of Woody Guthrie), and the words of experts seems just about right. In addition to historian Worster, two others who have written on the Dust Bowl are especially good: journalist Timothy Egan, whose The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006) won a National Book Award, and historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, author of Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas (1994).
The total effect of this mixing of media and sources helps us not only to understand the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl but to feel the sufferings of those who went through it. Like Carl Sandburg’s great long poem of 1936, The People, Yes, where he mentioned “deserts marching east with dust deserts out of howling dust-bowls," Burns’ documentary stirs populist sentiments in our souls.
But it also helps us to appreciate why so many of the afflicted, as one woman says, looked upon President Franklin Roosevelt as “a savior.” The second two-hour part of the documentary details many of the government agencies set up by Roosevelt to discover and alleviate the Dust Bowl causes and miseries. We hear not only of efforts by well-known New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), but also by lesser known organizations like the Soil Conservation Service, whose head chaired a Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee. It concluded that “the basic cause of the present Great Plains situation is an attempt to impose upon the region a system of agriculture to which the Plains are not adapted,” and “it is safe to say that 80 percent [of it] is now in some stage of erosion.”
Right after narrator Coyote quotes from the report, we see and hear President Roosevelt addressing a Bismarck, ND crowd from the back of train during a 1936 drought inspection tour. And as he speaks we sense why so many -- and not just in the plains -- regarded him as a savior. As the woman who called him a “savior” said, “he gave us hope where we had none.” In his Bismarck speech he also said that our nation needed to work “out a plan of cooperation with Nature instead of continuing what we have been doing in the past -- trying to buck Nature.”
But 1937 brought no respite to the heart of the Dust Bowl as the destructive dust storms continued. One resident is quoted as then saying “the only difference between the southern plains and the Sahara Desert was that a lot of damned fools weren’t trying to farm the Sahara.” In 1938, however, more rainfall came and offered a little hope. By the end of 1939, thanks in part to better weather and soil practices, the afflicted area had decreased to about 20 percent of its previous size.
With the coming of World War II in Europe in late 1939, the easing of the Great Depression, and better weather on the Great Plains, the demand for and production of the region’s wheat increased. By the early 1950s, when a two-year drought returned to the southern plains and dust storms once again appeared, some lessons learned during the Roosevelt years mitigated the damage. Some farmers were still using Roosevelt-encouraged conservation practices, and nearly 4 million acres of land purchased by the government during the Dust Bowl and restored as national grasslands lessened the amounts of soil blowing away.
But today, more than a half century later, the lessons we have not learned from the Dust Bowl experience cry out for more attention. As historian Worster says toward the end of the documentary, “I think the Dust Bowl can happen again, most emphatically it can happen again. It can become a creeping Sahara.” One big problem, as another of Burns’ characters notes, is the region’s dependence on irrigated water coming from the Ogallala aquifer. About this gigantic water source stretching from South Dakota to northern Texas, he says that it was once about 100 feet deep on average, but that the region’s people have used up over half of it. At present usage rates, the aquifer has only about twenty years of water remaining.
Viewing Burns’ The Dust Bowl so soon after watching coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy calls to mind numerous parallels: the devastation nature can wreak, the tremendous hardship and suffering it can impose, the hope and help the federal government can provide, and, perhaps most importantly, the need to respect our environment. In a recent Time magazine article, “Sandy Ends the Silence,” Michael Grunwald writes “Hurricane Sandy -- like this year’s historic heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the U.S., not to mention an unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic -- is the kind of thing that happens when you broil the planet with fossil fuels.” He hopes that the hurricane may convince more U.S. citizens of the seriousness of climate change and global warming, that these are not just abstract academic debating issues, but ones that can have tragic consequences for millions of real people.
Three decades ago in the first edition of a co-authored book on twentieth-century global history, I first mentioned the dangers of global warming. Three years ago I wrote an essay on global-warming skeptics, indicating the political motivation of many of them. Today, as Grunwald insists and a recent World Bank report indicates, we continue to ignore or downplay human-caused climate change at our peril.
But the lessons of the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Sandy go beyond the misuse of land and climate change. They speak to the broader question of our abuse of our environment and our unsustainable lifestyles. The United States is far from alone in this abuse, but the consumer society we have created is the worst offender. In his 1973 classic, Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher wrote that “the 5.6 percent of the world population which live in the United States require something of the order of forty percent of the world's primary resources to keep going.” By the end of the twentieth century the average U. S. citizen still used twice the energy a European did and more than 26 times as much as someone from India.
By the 1990s the world as a whole was using twice as much cropland, 9 times as much freshwater, and 16 times as much energy as in the 1890s. To solve one problem we often created others. To create more crops, for example, we have irrigated more and used more pesticides. But now, as with the Ogallala aquifer, underground water supplies are diminishing rapidly and pesticides have contributed to pollution.
In his Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2001), J. R. McNeill wrote that “the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, I think, this will appear as the most important aspect of twentieth-century history.” In another work, The Coming Anarchy (2000), Robert Kaplan declared that “it is time to understand ‘the environment’ for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.”
Near the end of Burns’ The Dust Bowl, journalist Egan states that the most basic lesson the Dust Bowl experience should teach us is: “Be humble. Respect the land itself.” Four decades earlier in his Small Is Beautiful Epilogue, Schumacher wrote: “mankind's population and consumption of resources must be steered towards a permanent and sustainable equilibrium. ... Unless this is done, sooner or later ... the downfall of civilization will not be a matter of science fiction. It will be the experience of our children and grandchildren.” As Pete Seeger once sang, “When will we ever learn?”
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