Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

dust bowl farm

Some things never or rarely change. My wife recently took a course about great American migrations, which finished by reading about the Dust Bowl in the 1930‘s. What I report below comes from the book they read, The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. Egan writes about those who stayed behind through terribly difficult times and the events that were going on to address the human and natural disasters. The extent of the damage is hard to visualize today. Egan writes. “One hundred million acres had lost most of its topsoil and nearly half had been ‘essentially destroyed’ and could not be farmed again, Bennett said.” Bennett is Hugh Bennett, the man who Roosevelt had assigned to deal with the tragedy.

The book reports the debates about the causes back in Washington. “A Harvard geologist” consulting to the Department of Interior argued that an “irrevocable shift in nature was underway,” and there would be at least 100 years of desolation. The experts at the Department of Agriculture thought the cycle was much shorter, and the drought was due to a much shorter periodicity. It had not rained for four years by then. Egan writes further, “The system was broken, just like the land. The debate was whether to start from scratch, with radical new methods of farming, or give up on the southern plains forever.”

Bennett argued against those who wanted to keep offering monetary incentives to stay on the land. He had been allotted a few millions for his brand-new agency, the Soil Erosion Service to provide “relief.” Instead, he wanted to change farming and soil conservation practices, and keep people on the land. Although looking to technology to mitigate the conditions, he looked beyond nature as the cause and, argued that this was “not just another natural disaster or an epic drought. It seemed like something caused by man, a by-product of hubris and ignorance on a grand scale.”

Bennett lobbied to get money and authority from Congress to establish a new permanent agency to heal the land. He wanted the money to stabilize the land for “generations to come.” Many scoffed at him. Egan writes, “‘If God can’t make rain in Kansas,’ one Congressman asked, ‘how can the New Deal hope to succeed.’” Bennett plowed ahead and avoided the charge that Roosevelt was playing God. “His [Bennett’s] idea was much simpler: change human behavior, not the weather.”

That’s enough history. The book is a graphic and often moving tale of hardship mixed with stubbornness. Now, with this brief extract, I want you to jump ahead about 80 years to the present, and to global climate change instead of drought in the Dust Bowl. For me, the parallels are striking, instructive, and disturbing. The incessant and unending debates among the heads of agencies and advocates of all stripes has an eerie resemblance to the story Egan retells. Technology reappears as the Band-Aid to counter the “natural” causes. Any contribution of human agency is strongly contested.

The New Deal program Bennett was able to establish involved buying back the land from the homesteaders to whom it had been given over a couple of generations. Many were extraordinarily stubborn, to the extent of forming a “Last Man Club,” vowing to stay and fight the plans to resettle the inhabitants of the southern plains. I can imagine the same issue will arise when people are forced to flee from low-lying lands being inundated by rising sea level. I just saw a remarkable documentary, The Island President, about the recently deposed President of the Maldives that’s already losing its country to the Indian Ocean.

Although the drought had parched the plains for 4-5 years, it tool a singular event to give it its name. On April 14, 1935, a huge storm, described as a “black blizzard” took away even more of the little topsoil that was left by then. The next day, reporters started referring to that day as “Black Sunday” and to the region as “The Dust Bowl.” The name still lives as a metaphor for the ravages of nature abetted by the helping hands of humans. Ironically, the storm deposited dust as far east as Washington, DC just as Bennett was pleading for his case before the Congress. During his testimony, clouds of dust coming from the southwest darkened the skies outside the Capitol. The noticeable impact was startling. Egan writes, “Within a day, Bennett had his money and a permanent agency to restore and sustain the health of the soil.” What kind of Black Sunday will it take to wake us up?

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