Dust Bowl

Watch Dust Bowl tonight on PBS. Talk about it with your friends, too.

Tonight is the second half of Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl on PBS. Watch it. It makes essential viewing.

The most obvious reasons to watch concern 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 is 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.

For all of these reasons, watch Dust Bowl tonight. Talk about it with your friends, too.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

6 thoughts on “Dust Bowl”

  1. The dust bowl WAS entirely man-made. If not for the bad farming practices there would have been no dust bowl. It was created by man and ended by man via FDR and government intervention.

    And, amazing how eager farmers are to cut down the tree lines and shelter belts that were one of the very big factors in ending the dust bowl. One of the effects, in part, of farm subsidies and ethanol subsidies that make it pay to plant “fence to fence.” At least short term.

    By the way, the dust bowl is coming back. I was in Chicago a few years ago when a dust storm blew in from the plains. Just like the Steinbeck tales. Miles high and dark as night, choking and coughing. The old times told me they hadn’t seen anything like it since the Thirties.

  2. I have to echo the hearty endorsement of Dust Bowl. I just happened upon the show, intending to watch a few minutes and was just riveted. I suspect part 2 is going to provide and interesting historical prism with which to view the coming response to the Hurricane Sandy recovery.

  3. I got stuck on how much the federal government helped the people of the west just plain survive, I mean really, they were terribly, terribly poor and even starving, and how nowadays those same areas of the country are solid Red and against helping anyone else.

    On another note, I understand there is a big dust bowl right now in China and some of it blows over to us here.

  4. I had very mixed feelings watching The Dust Bowl. My mother was born in Lincoln, NE and my father in Calumet, OK in the years ahead of the crash and the dust bowl. The photographs Burns showed could have been pictures of my families in that period.

    There is a part of me that wants to give them a copy of the DVDs and the book as a gift. There is another part of me that hesitates: my mother in particular does not have many happy memories of her childhood.

    For me, it brought back recollections of the stories my grandparents and aunts told (and we didn’t hear about the worst of it, I’m sure).

    As Ohio Mom points out, the Roosevelt alphabet soup had a lot to do with the survival of the southern plains. I am at a loss to understand how my generation failed to hear and understand the stories our parents told. I just don’t get it.

  5. Mr.Pollack —

    This is off-topic, and I’m not even sure you were the RBC writer who inked it, but what the heck, I’ll ask anyway. A few months back on RBC there was a quote about the fourth estate, which was in the vein of “speaking truth to power”, but had that “when the going gets tough the tough get going” verbal symmetry to it. Something along the lines of “empowering the exposed and exposing the powerful”. That’s not quite it, but have you any notion what line I refer to? If so, might you pass it along? If not, all the best,admire your work on a regular basis.


    A.C.Doyle, Queretaro, Mexico

    1. Might have been “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”. Wasn’t me who posted it, but it’s a memorable line.

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