The Dust Bowl Parallel

Matt Zoller Seitz reviews Ken Burns' latest documentary and how it relates to today's climate change crisis:

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. … 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."

Alyssa Rosenberg interviewed Burns and his producer Dayton Duncan:

Duncan: So to me, what’s interesting about it is that this catastrophe that occurred and the manmadeness of it, there wasn’t a single – there is no conspiracy single bad person that you can say "It all goes on them." It’s us.

This is what we are capable of doing if we delude ourselves with an arrogance that we don’t have to pay much attention to what the climate, and what the land, and the environment is trying to tell us. We can look at these plants that grow that far from the ground and send roots five feet down and say, "We can turn these over and plant wheat and everything will be fine." Well, it doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t. And you’re gonna get caught up and somebody’s gonna pull your undies at some point on it, on the Great Plains particularly.

Burns: The dialectic of journalism requires that there are opposites, but in fact Dayton is right: we have met the enemy and he is us. And I think the advantage of art—as opposed to the dialectic of journalism—is that it permits us to tolerate the undertow within our own selves. You’ve met characters who went in both of these directions, and sometimes a third direction, meaning out of the state. And we wanted to have a humanity that embraced the complexity without having to parse out the sort of villainy, the victimhood, the responsibility. This is a collective human tragedy, and it is also an enduring, hopeful story of human perseverance.

Lester Brown looks at the horizon:

Models agree that with the global warming in store absent dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, much of the western United States—from Kansas to California—could enter into a long-term state of dryness, what physicist Joseph Romm has termed "dust-bowlification."

With soil conservation measures in place, when drought revisited the Plains in the 1950s, the mid-1970s, the early 2000s, and again in 2011-2012—when Texas and Oklahoma baked in their hottest summers on record—a full-blown Dust Bowl did not develop. But will the ground hold forever? The United States is by far the world’s leading grain exporter; thus the fate of the nation’s "breadbasket" matters for food prices, and food security, around the globe.