Culture Magazine

The Dust Bowl

By Fsrcoin

imagesWe’ve watched Ken Burns’s film, The Dust Bowl. It was a compelling story – with great modern resonance. Here was a huge environmental disaster, indisputably caused by human action.

There was some undertone that the farmers involved had been foolish, even somehow culpable. I don’t think so. They weren’t trying to get something for nothing. To the contrary, they were questing for the good life by dint of hard work, trying to produce food to feed the world; trying to do what humans have always done, to wrest a living from the fickle and often treacherous earth.

Many today likewise call us foolish and culpable for our role in climate change. But the story is in essence the same. We’ve just done the best we can to make lives for ourselves, by utilizing the planet’s resources to the limit of our abilities. That’s not blameworthy; it’s positively noble. The alternative would have been squalor.

What ensued in the dustbowl was horrific. Farming had left the soil vulnerable to wind, and when there was a drought, the wind picked up the dusty soil and whipped it into giant dirt clouds. It was the land turning on humankind with a spiteful vengeance, almost as if it was trying to cough up and spit out the people, much as the people were coughing up the dirt that clogged their lungs. Let alone making a living there, you just about couldn’t continue living there at all. Yet with a perseverance almost unimaginable, many somehow hung on;
while many, with a perhaps equally admirable pluck, struck out for what they hoped were greener pastures.

Some sensible voices advocated capitulation. The dust storms were ravaging the land year after year, and there seemed to be no way of combating them, ameliorating them, or adapting to them, much less stopping them and reversing their terrible effects. Why not just abandon the great plains, as a lost cause, a dream gone awry?

But that’s not what humans do either. Our whole history is a battle against nature, we’re not made for surrender. She is powerful indeed, but we have a comparably powerful weapon – our brains.

And so, finally, we deployed that weapon, and battle was joined. Though monumental were the forces confronting us, we figured out what to do. With a lot of help from (yes, admittedly) the government, different and better farming techniques were developed, and with the return of rains, the problem was solved, and the land’s bounty was restored.

So is all fine now? Of course not, it never is. Life is never simple. The film’s end suggested that today’s farming techniques, with intensive mechanized irrigation, are depleting the aquifer, and the water will run out in a couple of decades. Well, maybe it will.

But we’ll figure out how to do something different, just as in the 1930s we figured out a different approach when hit with the dust storms. Indeed, just as we did 10,000 years ago when our hunter-gatherer modus vivendi gave out, and we had to do something different, so we invented agriculture in the first place.

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