On Dust Bowl Roots
I grew up in Western Kansas and my parents were from that area, my grandparents that area. My parents had left Kansas in the 1930’s because of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. So I was born in Needles, California on the banks of the Colorado River, which features in that famous film, the Grapes of Wrath. So my family certainly was very familiar with all those events. In the 1950’s, when I was living in Western Kansas as a young boy, we had a recurrence of dust bowl conditions, pretty severe for a couple of years. And then in the 1970’s, mid-70’s, I was at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado in the summer of ’74, right after a spring on the Great Plains an intensive dust storm, and meanwhile in Aspen we were studying the great Sahelian disaster of North Africa and talking about droughts and erosion and world food problems. I was finishing a book on the study of history, the ecology, and my next project would become this one on the Dust Bowl. So in 1977, ’78, I spent a year in the Great Plains touring, visiting old familiar sites and gathering material for my book, which appeared in 1979.
Everybody had stories. They almost all featured refrigerators, or actually iceboxes in those days, which people probably pretty well sealed off. But everybody had an icebox, had a story about how dust got into iceboxes. Or the other one was the dust that was on the baby’s pillow in the crib. But I knew people who had dust in attics and it’s still there. I knew a farmer who had a ground silo, a ditch silo that was pretty well filled in the 30’s, that he never dug out. My grandparents had been farming outside — near Hutchinson, Kansas. They had lots of stories about hard times. They stuck it out. But for younger people growing up, it just seemed absolutely hopeless.
On a Sense of Invulnerability
Around World War I, they were talking about upsetting the balance of nature on the plains. People were worried about insect outbreaks, I think, more than anything else. But nobody had seen dust storms of a scale that the 30’s would bring. Indians came along and told people to leave the grass where it was. There may have been a few obscure individuals who worried about what was going on. But most of the people living in the area were pretty well caught up in the dream of progress and turning this place into a bread basket. So if there were misgivings, they were not being published. People worried about — did worry about dust and there had been dust storms, of course, going back in record in the 19th Century. But I think particularly in the 20’s when the great plow-up occurred, there was an enormous sense of invulnerability, at least in official circles and I think to a large extent among settlers and farmers.
On Early Warnings
Most of the soil conservation at that point was more east of the Great Plains, particularly in the Piedmont area, North Carolina, and in the South. There were warnings about soil erosion occurring, well in a modern sense, during the whole progressive era, 1900 to 1910. And during the 1920’s, Hugh Hammond Bennett, a North Carolinian, was warning and writing circulars for the USDA on soil erosion as a national menace. Most people were thinking about soil erosion as a result of rainfall, or water erosion. They had no huge large scale experience certainly before World War I of plowing up something on the scale of the Great Plains. There is a tradition going back into the 19th Century of people concerned about unstable agriculture, the effects of commercialization on the land as well as on community. Series of people going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, if you like. It had not amounted to a major national movement on quite the scale as say forest conservation, watershed protection.
On Trouble Adapting to New Ideas
There were farmers who had a lot of trouble adapting to these (soil conservation) new ideas. It was not something they were used to. Most of them were used, for example, to plowing in straight lines and that was a very aesthetically appealing idea. Still is. I mean, you can fly over the country and still see people who love that straight line regardless of the slope. But these practices did inhibit the use of some machinery. They were costly, they were complicated, they required technical skills. In some cases, they might seem to inhibit production. Government itself waxed and waned in terms of its enthusiasm for supporting them. So it’s never been a process of simply converting overnight into good soil conservation techniques.
On Being Under Enormous Pressure
You can find business men, agri-business men, successful farmers who’ve learned a great deal about conservation, who have become practical environmentalists or who send money off regularly to the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy. Those people exist all over. But there are enormous pressures in the economic culture in economic institutions to discount the scientific information, to discount future generations, to go for short term profits, to ignore practices and essential restraints when prices are good. That is the core fundamental nature of our economic institutions. So, pointing to individuals here and there is always easy to do, but I think you have to take a more systemic look at an agriculture that’s based on those economic institutions.
On the Question of Another Dust Bowl
A lot of people who work in agronomy, geography, history, natural resources up and down the Great Plains have a fairly, I would say, positive, even booster approach to this region. They don’t like to see themselves as critics and so they’re fairly muted about the problems and what’s coming down in the future. I think you have to get a little bit outside this region to look at people studying, well, let’s say global change, global climate change. This is not a topic, as far as I can see, that’s being taken seriously up and down the Great Plains in many of our research universities and certainly not in our political system. But what I read suggests that there is a very strong possibility that global warming is going to make some areas of the world much wetter, as we are seeing right now, and make other areas much drier. It’s going to lead to a new era of extremes. While we cannot predict the exact geography of those patterns, it seems fairly likely that the Great Plains, especially the southern Great Plains, are going to be drier, more drought ridden in the future, hotter in the summers than they have been over the last fifty years since the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which means a strong likelihood of more dust storms, wind erosion.
On Overdependence on Technology
Any prudent person would look to technology for some help and solution. I don’t think we’re going to find our way out of our environmental problems without some technological ingenuity for energy conservation, for new forms of agriculture. But depending on technology to continue to provide us with abundance and depending on technology to overcome the natural limits of a place, or depending on technology to replace the natural services that nature provides in the way of insect control or the water cycle, would be foolish. But there is a kind of a faith in modern societies that human cleverness will replace all of these and to discount credible dependence we still have on the services of the natural world. In that dependence on phosphate fertilizers, for example, you see something along those lines. What it takes to build a fertile soil, thousands of years of time, nutrients and a whole ecosystem under our feet is a very, very complex work of evolution. Inorganic fertilizers are a marvelous thing to have, but they don’t begin to replace that natural service and that natural capital. But I think we have a great deal of, I would say, misplaced confidence in human cleverness and we see it in many dimensions besides agriculture.
On Environmental History
History traditionally has been limited to things like politics and people interacting with people, and we have forgotten in the historical profession that huge dependence all human communities have on the natural world, that incredibly complex interaction that goes on even in the most advanced industrial societies between people and the natural world. We’ve forgotten, I think, the deeper history of this planet. It includes the whole evolution of life on this planet and beyond. All of it’s one piece of history. And any historian whose sense of time is only the U.S. from the New Deal to the present or some other segment is just missing that deeper sense of time and of place into which our human life is poured. So that’s the perspective of environmental history that I have and have been trying to develop for the past several years, and others in environmental history have been trying to develop. I think it makes history a lot more interesting, concrete, relevant and certainly a lot more complicated.