Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dust Bowl reflections-- a Carbon Based original

One way to address climate change today is to fully appreciate yesterday's climate disasters. The recent broadcast of Ken Burns' documentary on the Dust Bowl is a starting point, if an often annoying one. Plaintive violins and banjos keep the nostalgia turned up high.  The personality-focused style of these shows often blunts general insights and muffle the sharp points that need to be kept in mind.   But at least the talking heads in "The Dust Bowl" were explicit in stating that the catastrophe was manmade, like today's climate change woes.

The story is a familiar blend of fragile prospertiy, delusional hope and harsh comeuppance. The Homestead Act after the Civil War lured growing numbers of farmers onto semiarid grasslands, with few trees and little water.  A period of higher than normal rainfall masked the consequences of this influx for a while.  Many Plains dwellers believed that the wetter weather was permanent. 

Policy choices played a destructive role in adding to the risks. "Rain follows the plow" was the dunderheaded motto used to promote the settlement.  Free or cheap land and price supports for wheat during World War I led to good years that attracted more immigrants. By this time, most residents were deeply attached to the land.

During these fat years, deep plowing destroyed the millions of acres of grasses that held the soil in place, and brought marginal land under cultivation. Fields were often left bare, without cover cropping despite the constant winds.  Topsoils dried up even before the drought returned, which was the prelude to the apocalyptic dust storms of the 1930s.

When the rain stopped and the dust storms came, most people in the area underestimated the dangers.  They said, "We've seen droughts before, we've seen dust storms before," even though the storms of the 1930s were larger and longer lasting. Moving away seemed unthinkable.   As the market for wheat collapsed and the drought worsened, most farmers were loath to see their own part in fomenting the disaster.  Just leave us alone, they said, and the rains will come back, and things will return to normal. 

But the drought got worse. One farmer lamented, "One of those years, we put our entire wheat crop in one wagon."  Children and the elderly sickened and died from "dust pneumonia."

The exodus from the Dust Bowl eventually picked up after more than five years of no money and no crops.  "A migration of the defeated," the narrator intoned, it dwarfed the 19th century US migrations, but it's largely gone from public notice. 

Several of witnesses summoned by Burns showed some insight into the problem. Bernard Lewis, a child at the time, said, "We always had hope that next year was going to be better... we learned slowly." These hopes were cruelly shredded in the years of depression and dust, only to return in a blink when conditions improved.

In the last few minutes of part two of the "The Dust Bowl," various interviewees acknowledged the need for humility and for staying mindful of the land's limits and needs.  But the script did little to explain the predictable market failures that  worsened tolerable natural cycles into outright catastrophe.

The government's response was a mixed bag. Short-term, the Works Progress Administration in 1935 launched projects that, though they were condemned as make work, nevertheless brought labor to the region and helped busted farmers. More scientific agriculture was brought to bear on the problem, with contour plowing and better erosion control replacing destructive land use habits of yore.  But the improvements were modest, and the government did little to slow down the the reintroduction of the same detrimental practices once the rains returned.   In the 1940s, overplanting and developing marginal land resumed quickly. Smaller dust storms returned in the 1950s, held somewhat in check by the new methods.

Roosevelt may have brought hope to the region, but the political calculus left no room for the most sustainable measure in the long term -- leave the land alone, and avoid development where there isn't the water to support it.  We see a similar pattern happening today in the planting of crops for biofuel, and in the Great Plains today, in pumping ancient groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer. One of the speakers estimates that only twenty years of water remain -- and then it's back to the drought cycle.

After the Dot Com bust after 2000, the Onion ran a headline:  "Americans angrily demand new bubble to invest in."   Maybe it's human nature. But it's worth resisting. The bad ecological outcomes of climate change that threaten us today are potentially much worse than the Dust Bowl.

FSA; Dust Storm; "Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm"; Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Shot by Arthur Rothstein in 1936. This image gets a few minutes of its own in the Ken Burns documentary

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