Lessons From The Dust Bowl

Image of family in dust storm from Library of Congress

Ken Burns' documentary The Dust Bowl is based on the terrifying dust storms and extended drought in the 1930s in areas centered around Boise City in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

The weather conditions devastated the area, impoverished many people and created an exodus to California. It's a story embedded in our state's psyche.
Burns' brilliant film rightly focuses on the human side of the tragedy, but the documentary makes it clear that the real culprit wasn't some temporary weather aberration. Droughts were common to the prairie. The main problem was that land was getting farmed that should have never been farmed but left as grassland, once grazed by buffalo, to prevent soil from blowing. Another problem was the common technique used to plow the farm fields, which left the soil susceptible to erosion.

Behind the ecological problems were the greedy land speculators, who bought tracts of land near railroad lines in the area and sold them relatively cheaply to farmers under suspect hucksterism. For years, however, farmers were successful growing wheat in the area, but then the drought hit, the dust storms rolled, the crops were ruined and people lost everything. The disaster, then, was man-made.

Burns spends some time focusing on the larger implications of the drought on farming in the 1930s, which covered several states and especially hurt tenement farmers, and he cites John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which I have taught and written about. But, for the most part, the focus remains on a four-state area around Boise City.

Viewers must draw their own parallels between the unscientific and wishful thinking of the Dust Bowl farmers as their lives crumbled in clouds of dusts and today's anti-science crusaders, such as U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, but it's not difficult to draw the comparison. The greatest distinction, however, is that the farmers were simply trying to save their way of life while Inhofe, who claims global warming is a liberal hoax, is trying to support the financial interests of the oil and gas industry.

But the larger point is that humans can and do create ecological disasters, and that we have much to learn about the past. Recent severe weather events, including Hurricane Sandy, the lingering Midwest drought and the summer wildfires, have been tied to the systemic causation of global warming, but our country still does little to reduce carbon emissions or tackle the problem in other ways.

This act of ignorance to fail to learn from the past is based on the prevailing right-wing ideology to deny science in general and, judging by the recent election results, even mathematics itself. Back in 2006, I wrote a series of posts titled Okie Rebels With A Cause, one of which dealt with The Grapes of Wrath and by extension the drought in the 1930s. Here's an excerpt from the post, "Tom Joad and the Progressive Oklahoma Tradition":

. .  . Shortly after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, a Daily Oklahoman editorial writer, who admitted he had not read the novel, accused Steinbeck of "complete and absurd" untruthfulness. "Goldfish swallowing critics know nothing about the region or people pictured in a novel accept at face value even the most inaccurate depiction." (Berry Tramel, "April 1939 Steinbeck Pains State Image," The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.)

I'm unsure just how much coverage The Oklahoman gave to the Burns' documentary (I found one short piece), but I think it's fair to say it didn't dominate its news columns when the film aired last Sunday and Monday on OETA. That's a shame because the droughts of the 1930s and the accompanying federal assistance helped shaped the state of Oklahoma-the lakes, dams, work programs-more than anything else in the state's short history.

The Oklahoman, which also doesn't accept climate-change science and is now owned by a right-wing oilman, and Inhofe can deny facts and history, but the Dust Bowl is part of an established record. The concerned inhabitants of our warming world, with all its recent weather disasters caused by global warming, are now carefully sorting things out. The lessons of man-made ecological disasters will not go forgotten nor will the self-serving obstinance of The Oklahoman and Inhofe.

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