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November 20, 2012 9:33 AM Dust Bowl

By Harold Pollack

Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl was on PBS recently. It was essential viewing.

The most obvious reason to watch concerned unnerving parallels between the man-made climate disasters of eight decades ago and the far more dangerous and sweeping climate change that is now brewing, to which we have responded to so badly. As Burns’ film reminds us, each of us resides within, and depends upon, a larger ecosystem that we cannot fully control, but that we are capable of badly damaging through our own carelessness.

The dust bowl wasn’t entirely man-made; it was badly aggravated by myopic farming, land-use, and economic policies that produced a few bumper wheat harvests but then deepened the disaster. One hundred million acres of topsoil were scraped off the southwest and the Great Plains, producing a series of biblical plagues that damaged the lives of millions of people. Two-mile-high, epic dust storms buried tractors, animals, and people. Children and the elderly died of respiratory conditions.

In part because farmers had wiped out coyotes and other natural predators, the Great Plains also experienced infesting waves of migratory jackrabbits that devoured crops and ate scarce cattle feed. Communities organized jackrabbit drives, in which local people shot and clubbed hoardes of jackrabbits in an effort to combat the menace. Meanwhile collapsing farm prices produced waves of bankruptcies, foreclosures, and accompanying family tragedies.

The less obvious reason to watch was simply to appreciate what our forbears endured. I am just awed by what the depression generation endured, not least being the simple exigencies of western Oklahoma farm life, living without electricity or indoor plumbing, dependent on the elements, carving out a hard existence even before ecological disaster struck.

Almost forty years ago, sociologist Glen Elder produced a moving longitudinal study, Children of the Great Depression. He chronicled what a generation of Americans born in the 1920s endured, and how depression-era experiences shaped people’s subsequent lives. Attention should be paid to the resilience shown by millions of people now in their eighties and nineties.

My father is one of this generation. He’s thankfully going strong, correcting grammar glitches in my blog posts and emailing to ask about Markov chains. He endured poverty and early-childhood illnesses that didn’t rival the worst dust bowl experiences, but were bad enough. His subsequent rise to a middle-class life as an electrical engineer required much greater grit than I myself ever required.

Elder’s research is sometimes invoked by neocons to lament the perceived failures of subsequent poor people to achieve similar upward mobility. Elder himself took a different perspective. He noted the importance of measures such as the GI Bill in helping millions of people surmount the challenges of those years. “Not even great talent and industry can ensure life success over adversity without opportunity,” Elder noted.

My friend Jeet Heer notes one final irony. Dust Bowl describes Oklahoma’s plight at the hands of a man-made ecological disaster. It also chronicles that state’s recovery from disaster thanks to heavy government intervention under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. Oklahoma is now represented by arch-conservative senators James Imhofe and Tom Coburn, two of the most emphatic opponents of efforts to address climate change, and two of the most emphatic opponents of social insurance programs designed to shield vulnerable Americans from life’s most severe risks.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
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