Climate lessons from ‘The Dust Bowl’


Ken Burns’ latest work, “The Dust Bowl,” a two-part documentary that wrapped up Monday night on PBS, told a familiar story to any of us who read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school, or whose personal histories are tied up in those calamitous Depression-era years when America’s Great Plains states were ravaged by drought and soil erosion that prompted an exodus to California and other coastal states. I might not be here if not for that exodus -- my mother was an Okie. That is to say, she came to California as an infant in the back seat of a jalopy piloted by her father, an alcohol-abusing farmhand who like thousands of others was drawn here by the lure of seasonal work.

That much of the story I knew. What I didn’t know until watching Burns’ documentary is the extent to which the Dust Bowl was a man-made environmental catastrophe. The almost-biblical scale of the crisis -- complete with hordes of locusts descending on fields, horizon-blotting dust clouds that witnesses described as touched with “evil” intent, and rich croplands turned to deserts -- has contributed to a common narrative that the whole thing was a product of the wrath of God or nature. Actually, it was the result of two decades of irresponsible land use. And that’s cause for reflection as humanity continues to fuel a future environmental disaster whose scale will dwarf the Dust Bowl.

The ruin of Oklahoma and neighboring states had its origins in the early years of the 20th century, when railroad companies that owned huge tracts of undeveloped land and real estate syndicates began carving up ranch lands into smaller parcels and marketing them to prospective farmers across the country. Those farmers, mostly poor white immigrants, flocked to the Plains and, using new harvesting methods and machinery, plowed over the grasslands that had formerly sustained massive herds of buffalo, by then wiped out by white settlers. The trouble was, those grasses had evolved after millions of years to become the ideal ground cover for flat, empty plains susceptible to long periods of drought. With deep roots that retained moisture in the soil and allowed the grass to survive even during extremely dry years, the naturally occurring forage was actually critical in maintaining the entire ecosystem.


The giant dust clouds started in 1932, the result of normal heavy winds hitting enormous tracts of plowed-up land with no grasses to hold the soil. A severe, years-long drought worsened the problem.

Today, with global temperatures rising, record-setting heatwaves, droughts and wildfires sweeping the West and powerful storms afflicting the East, it’s apparent that we’re doing it again. In the 1920s, desire for profits trumped environmental stewardship, and the economic losses that resulted made the short-term gains from over-farming the Plains states look like chickenfeed. The lesson: Ravaging the environment on such a wide scale has hidden costs that nature will inevitably collect. That’s worth keeping in mind today as the federal government continues its irresponsible inaction on climate change.

During the Dust Bowl, California was a refuge for those who had literally sown the seeds of their own destruction. Today it’s still trying to play that role. Far ahead of most states when it comes to climate legislation, California recently held its first auction of carbon credits. The auction went off smoothly and produced no earth-shattering news, but then that’s the point -- the Golden State is proving that you can put a price on carbon and impose a cap-and-trade program without undue trauma to the economy. Unfortunately, California can’t be a refuge this time around. Absent much-stronger action from the country and the world, California will be just as ravaged by the climate crisis as everywhere else.

If that makes Californians mad -- well, it should. Blithely ignorant Midwesterners such as Oklahoma’s Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who calls global warming a hoax, betray not only their ignorance of science but of their own states’ recent history. The same desire for short-term gains regardless of the long-term cost -- exemplified by Inhofe -- is what ravaged Oklahoma and surrounding states during the Depression. If Inhofe is even the tiniest bit curious about the origins of his own state, he should branch past the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Oklahoma and watch the Ken Burns depiction. Being buried under several feet of sand and dust takes the shine off of those surreys with the fringes on the top.


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