The Dust Bowl and unchecked capitalism

Environmental historian Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl points the finger for the agricultural, environmental, and economic disaster on the Great Plains in the 1930s unambiguously in one direction:

[The Dust Bowl] came about because the expansionary energy of the United States had finally encountered a volatile, marginal land, destroying the delicate balance that evolved there….What brought [farmers] to the region was a social system, a set of values, an economic order. There is no word that so fully sums up those elements as “capitalism.”

Worster doesn’t dispute the commonly-held idea that the heavy use of new industrialized farming methods and technologies was the immediate cause of the Dust Bowl’s erosion, crop failures, dust storms, and rapid desertification. But he argues that the unsustainable agricultural practices of the era were reflective of a social order that encouraged capitalistic exploitation without limit:

Americans blazed their way across a richly endowed continent with a ruthless, devastating efficiency unmatched by any people anywhere. When the white men came to the plains, they talked expansively of “busting” and “breaking” the land. And that is exactly what they did. Some environmental catastrophes are nature’s work; others are the slowly accumulating effects of ignorance or poverty. The Dust Bowl, in contrast, was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.

Worster argues that the farmers of the Great Plains were culturally capable of viewing the land in only one way: as a source of capital, a means for the creation of wealth, an asset to be exploited to its fullest potential for generating profit. This encouraged farmers to use methods and technologies that simply weren’t sustainable in the delicate and vulnerable ecology of the Great Plains, and the inevitable result was ecological disaster. Capitalism requires the assumption that wealth and growth are potentially limitless—but in reality, the land very definitely does have its limits in terms of the wealth it can provide, and in the Great Plains, those limits were reached in the 1930s after only a few decades of intensive industrialized agriculture.

I think Worster sometimes treats the farmers of the Great Plains a bit unfairly—he emphasizes the tragedy of their poverty when it supports his case for the economic disaster that followed the ecological crisis that was the Dust Bowl, but he also takes them to task for their small-mindedness and lack of foresight even in those cases in which farmers exploited the land only because doing so was entirely necessary if they hoped to achieve even the barest subsistence living. A Depression dirt farmer simply wasn’t likely to have a wide range of economic choices available to him—and no doubt the idea of trying to work the land for all it was worth held a great deal of appeal when anything less was likely to leave your family hungry. And further, it was no doubt far easier for Worster to apply an ecological consciousness to the situation when he was writing in 1979 than it would have been for an uneducated farmer to do so decades before the word or idea of “ecology” had entered the popular consciousness at all.

That said, I think Worster is entirely correct that unfettered capitalistic exploitation of this sort will inevitably result in ecological disaster. We might not have known better during the 1930s, but in 2008, we surely ought to be able to recognize the fact that land cannot be exploited without limit. Writing in 1979, Worster wasn’t at all convinced that we’d learned the lesson of the Dust Bowl. Farmers have altered or abandoned some of the most dangerous practices of pre-Dust Bowl farming—but in some cases, the replacement methods and technologies have been perhaps even more dangerous. The Great Plains are no longer beset by mammoth dust storms (or at least not very often), but they’re only producing high crop yields and high profits due to the expanded use of poisonous, polluting pesticides, and via practices like the draining of irreplaceable aquifers and watersheds in order to irrigate places that would otherwise be too dry for commercial agriculture. It’s only a matter of time before the watersheds run dry—and maybe we’ll find another technology to replace them, but it will only buy us time before the next ecological disaster strikes.

The solution to the problem is to approach agriculture with an ecological mindset: with sensitivity to the nature of the land, and to the limits of its resources, and with the aim of perpetuating local ecological systems instead of destroying them through unrestrained exploitation. But of course there’s just as much pressure now—if not a great deal more—than there was during the Great Depression to ignore ecological complexities in favor of extreme and unsustainable agricultural production. Then as now, there’s an awful lot of money to be made by ignoring ecological realities and pretending that we’ll always be able to find new resources to exploit, or another technological band-aid to keep the depleted and devastated land producing for one more season.


2 Responses to “The Dust Bowl and unchecked capitalism”

  1. 1 Dan Barber May 14, 2008 at 9:27 PM

    The passages quoted highlight the effects of a point that I believe wasn’t mentioned- that the expansion of “modern agriculture” into this area might not even occurred if it was understood at the time that the weather of that area was in one of the wettest cycles ever known in this area to present day historical weather researchers.
    If I remember correctly it was briefly possible during the earliest expansion to grow corn without irrigation in areas that now mandate irrigation to raise even much less thirsty crops.
    I wish I could remember the exact sources for you.

  2. 2 goodreadings May 15, 2008 at 8:43 AM

    That is a useful bit of information to help put my post in context. And that’s interesting that it was even possible to grow corn without irrigation in some places–I don’t remember if Worster mentioned that. He did talk about cattle grazing on the southwestern Great Plains in the early settlement days (late 19th century), and how in the space of roughly a decade, ranching went from a highly profitable to completely untenable occupation there due to the environmental damage from overgrazing and poor stewardship of the land. He suggested that this probably should have served as a warning to the farmers who came a little bit later, and ended up making very similar mistakes.

    Worster does discuss the historical weather data in his book–in fact, he traces the region’s whole natural history in some detail. and he spends a fair amount of time discussing a semi-regular drought cycle in the region, which wasn’t known to the settlers and farmers in the southwestern Great Plains in the late 19th & early 20th century, but became much clearer by the end of the 1950s. One of the things I found surprising in Worster’s book was his discussion of the serious dust storms that happened in the same places in the 1950s–everybody’s heard about the Dust Bowl, but I didn’t know that many of the same conditions returned not long after. The droughts didn’t last as long as they did in the 1930s, and the economic fallout wasn’t as severe–but the damage was far from insignificant.

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