In the 1870s, spectacular rains began to fall on the Western Plains, turning a dry region then named “the Great American Desert” to gorgeous green. Thousands of young homesteaders rushed west to raise crops and families, convinced by a humdinger alternative fact: “Rain Follows the Plow.” The more people moved to the Plains, the widely reported theory went, the more it would rain.
Federal scientist and explorer John Wesley Powell, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, told Congress otherwise in his 1878 “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.” Not nearly enough rain fell in the region to quench the yeoman farmers over the long haul. Development should occur around watersheds; farmers would have to come together to share a scarce resource.
Powell’s advice was anathema for the railroad bosses selling farm plots from millions of acres Congress granted them to lay track and open the West. So they defied it. They claimed that settlement and construction — even blasts of dynamite — were bringing the rain. Precipitation, they said, would continue to increase with population as plows broke up the soil. Financier Jay Gould, at a time when he controlled both the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroad companies and Western Union Telegraph, speculated that railroad and telegraph construction was expanding the nation’s rain belt west by 20 miles a year. Industry-paid scientists and eastern newsmen fed by railroad PR men both hyped the rainy headlines and fueled the nation’s first land boom.
Of course Powell was right, and the hype dangerously wrong. When typical dry years returned in the 1880s, conditions forced thousands of farmers to abandon their land. Between 1888 and 1892, half the population of western Kansas and Nebraska retreated east. Many poor families who held out for rain went hungry or starved to death.
“The farmers helpless, with no weapon against this terrible and inscrutable wrath of nature, were spectators at the strangling of their hopes, their ambitions, all that they could look to from their labor,” wrote a young reporter named Stephen Crane at the Lincoln State Journal.
The wrath did not derive from nature, but what we now call “alternative facts,” an insidious force in the nation’s history since European settlers claimed to “buy” land from Native Americans, who had a completely different concept of property. Recall all manner of harmful convictions born of propaganda: Slavery is civilizing. The communists have infiltrated. Owens Valley has more than enough water to share with L.A. (A headline from this newspaper: “Owens Valley People Going Off as Half-Cock.”) The Gulf of Tonkin. Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Truth does not always find the light. Endeavoring historians cannot tell us who sank the Maine in Havana Harbor, or whether Massachusetts executed innocent men when it sent Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to the electric chair in 1927.
But there is one truth that outs every time, and that is nature. Spurning the doubt still funded and spread by the fossil fuel industry, Earth’s temperatures are rising with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, triggering longer droughts, more-extreme rains and many other troubles. The deluges setting records in Southern California are as real as the record drought they are extinguishing.
Like an earthquake rattling fracked Oklahoma, nature’s truths are bluntest in times when the nation has ignored its best scientists, quashed reports to benefit industries and been awash in fake news. And those times have been frequent.
In the 1910s and 1920s, another land boom spread across the Plains, luring a new generation of farmers unaware of the previous century’s drought disaster. Tractors that could rip through thick native grasslands replaced the old plows. Bullish news stories on generous rainfall, war-inflated wheat prices and farm subsidies helped bring tens of thousands of settlers. When wheat prices collapsed, farmers with large mortgage payments responded by tearing up even more of the grasses that had evolved over thousands of years to hold the Earth together in dry times. Early ecologists warned of the need for a conservation ethic. Most farmers never heard those warnings. Those who heard them did not believe.
The next great drought settled in around 1930 and seared for a decade. Summer temperatures passed 115 degrees. Thousands died from the extreme heat. When hot prairie winds met stripped ground, they kicked up violent black dust storms. These storms really did follow the plow. Rather than rain, they carried millions of pounds of dirt. After riding out blinding blizzards in Oklahoma on Black Sunday in 1935, AP reporter Robert Geiger dubbed the region “the Dust Bowl.” In response, writes environmental historian Donald Worster, chambers of commerce formed “truth squads” that worked systematically “to deny, and to repress, the Dust Bowl label.” But the winds would not be censored. They blew five more years of dust and death.
At the close of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” its word of the year. The adjective is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But Earth and its breath — the climate — paid no heed. Nature had its own declaration, ending 2016 as the hottest year in the global record, the third consecutive record-breaking year.
The climate does not care that new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobile CEO, and Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, continue to repress the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are causing its warming.
The oceans — their sea levels, temperatures and acidity all on the rise — do not read Breitbart News in the United States or the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, which by spreading science denial put the most vulnerable at risk.
Regardless of alternative facts, fake news or scientific censorship, nature tells the truth. That truth will flood in torrential rains. It will sear in extended droughts. It will sweep into coastal homes, especially where it has been suppressed; in North Carolina, for example, where the state general assembly banned the use of sea-level rise projections in coastal policymaking, and in South Florida, where thousands of condos and rental apartments are under construction in areas known for serious tidal flooding.
As in historic droughts, floods and hurricanes, the wealthy — including the peddlers of falsehoods — will be able to move or bunker up. Those who are poorer, and the ill-prepared, will be left to face the truth directly. “Post-truth” may be the word of the year, but nature always has the last word.
Cynthia Barnett is the author of three water books, including “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.” She is the environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Follow her on Twitter: @cynthiabarnett.