Notes on Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl


WC doesn’t watch much television, but made an exception for Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Dust Bowl. The film is superb, and makes the point that the largely forgotten lesson of the worst ecological disaster in American history was significantly man-made. Yes, there was a severe drought, but what made the dust bowl such a disaster was the plow. And, in particular, improper plowing techniques used year after year.

Dorothea Lange, Abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas. 1938. Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Dorothea Lange, Abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas. 1938. Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Matt Zoller Seltz, writing in The Vulture, of all places, reviewed the documentary and concluded:

More than anything else, The Dust Bowl is about a certain self-destructive strain in the American character that prizes individual will over collective responsibility, stigmatizes real or perceived failure, and stubbornly refuses to learn from mistakes for fear of being thought weak. One witness frankly describes the Okies’ California trek as “a migration of the defeated,” and there are heartbreaking anecdotes about Okies being ostracized and discriminated against because their very presence in California reminded people that their contentment, too, hung by an invisible thread. There are appalling accounts of farmers continuing to use equipment that pulverized topsoil rather than return to more difficult but responsible methods — even after repeated expert warnings that they were destroying the land — because doing so would have been less “efficient,” and because they didn’t like academic pointy-heads telling them their business. “We always had hope that next year was gonna be better,” says survivor Wayne Lewis. “We learned slowly, and what didn’t work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn’t try something different. You just tried harder, the same thing that didn’t work.”

The lessons for man-caused climate change are obvious, but humanity in general and Americans, in particular, remain obdurate.

We suffer Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, but we don’t do anything differently. Like the Dust Bowl farmers, who plowed the bone-dry soil year after year, Americans continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere, and continue to build and re-build (using federal subsidies) in areas far too close to sea level and to the sea itself.

If insanity is repeating the same behavior with the hope that the outcome will change, then, as a culture, we are clinically insane. Like the Dust Bowl farmers, today’s Americans don’t like the academic pointy heads telling them their business. So they will pass bills denying that sea level is rising, and build and re-build housing and infrastructure in the paths of worsening storms. The federal government will subsidize flood insurance to help those Americans – many of whom claim to detest federal handouts – re-build their homes and business so they can be destroyed again. It’s hard to know whether to laugh, cry or despair. Perhaps all three.

Denying science, ignoring history. Not good choices. It can’t have a happy ending.

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