Essay by Eric Shonkwiler
What the Great Depression taught us about climate change, and why we should’ve listened.
There was a lie, told and retold about the center of America: that the land east of the Rockies, heretofore known as the “Great American Desert,” a treeless, arid plain that had long been unsuitable for farming, had changed. Its climate was permanently bettered, in part by the hand of man, as it was known that “rain follows the plow,” that the land held in a wealth of water, and once turned over, would release that moisture to fall again as rain. This was the latter half of the 19th century, and the Homestead Act (and its ensuing expansions) brought settlers to the region, desert or otherwise. They built homes of sod, dugouts into the earth, and farmed. They found life manageable, if difficult. In truth, the Great American Desert was seeing an unusual and extended period of rainfall — one that would extend, in fits and starts punctuated by temporary drought, into the 1920s.
Wheat, corn, and cotton were planted, grew. With that little life, men saw fit to sell the region for something it wasn’t: verdant, thriving, paradisaical. Plots were sold in the East, and suitcase farmers arrived expecting towns, cities, trees, but found none of these. This lie folds into the first, a campaign of misinformation that would eventually create the breadbasket of America in a land that was once considered uninhabitable. And behind this lie is an admission of truth — however wrongheaded — that we seem incapable of understanding today: we have a hand in climate change. Settlers in Oklahoma, in Kansas and Colorado, thought that they were multiplying their chances by breaking open the soil, that they were bending the land to their will, that it could be bent at all. The downfall of the region has the same origins, and it prefigures the coming onslaught of climate change upon not just the Great American Desert, but the world.
In the wake of the Great War, the region that had been known as the Great American Desert was habitable farmland. Endless fields of buffalo grass — a robust, hardy plant that prevented the equally endless winds of the Plains from blowing the soil into the Atlantic — were plowed up for cropland. Market forces encouraged farmers to go all-in, and the land rewarded their work. The 1928–1929 wheat crops in the region were phenomenal; records were broken, and boom harvests were reaped, until, almost at once, farmers were dealt two blows. The Great Depression finally reached west, sinking the wheat market, and the rain stopped. In the span of a year, the bushel price for wheat plummeted from $1.00 per, to around .60. Despite a boom crop, farmers struggled. Faced with half their income, farmers decided to work twice as hard: they doubled their output, doubled the work of their plows — doubled the land turned over. The farmers had forgotten, and some never knew, that the rains were an aberration.
The parallels here are simple, and the face of the Anthropocene on this era clear. Economic pressures forced the adoption of reckless farming for the sake of livelihood — those same pressures force a fiercely efficient and still-consumptive practice today. The climate reversion of their time is our climate change, plowed land our CO2.
The dust storms began at the start of 1932, a normal part of the climate of the Great American Desert, but for the exception that now thousands upon thousands of acres of land had been turned over and exposed. Rainfall slacked, equally normal. But with all the families, all the new farmers, and all the towns now situated in the once-Great American Desert, the drought brought misery. Over the course of just a few years, the entire face of the landscape changed. Dust storms scoured and buried great swaths of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado. The story of the Okies is known, the migration, the suffering of those who left — what is more difficult to grasp is the essentialness of humanity to this story. Without the relentless turning of the earth, there would be no Dust Bowl. High winds would have no dust to gather from the unbroken sea of buffalo grass, and the soil, thus guarded, would keep its moisture. Fed the lies of a permanently changed climate, though, of the adage that rain follows the plow, farmers can hardly be blamed for wishing to keep their homes, to keep their families fed. And when the storms began, they were quick to understand that this was their own doing — they recognized their own soil as it was swept away.
Today’s agricultural practices all but ensure that the Dust Bowl is unrepeatable, at least in its economic effects. Farmers use water far more efficiently, and the soil is much less susceptible to erosion from poor plowing. But the practices themselves are more widespread, and their effects are far-reaching. Agriculture is a sizable portion of America’s carbon footprint, with soil and livestock emissions alone accounting for nearly 10% of the U.S’s overall output. And while the Dust Bowl itself may not occur again, a similar effect is wrought by climate change. Atmospheric instability increases with temperature, resulting in more numerous and damaging periods of heavy rainfall and extensive drought. When these conditions combine, the soil is easily eroded, carried away just as simply as upon a wind. And the effects of climate change are not limited to water and lack thereof: all manner of stresses are on the rise, from diseases, pests, to shifting life cycles as plants struggle to acclimate to temperatures outside of the natural rhythm.
By 1935, the great storms of the Dust Bowl are ubiquitous, nearly endless, and the days without wind strong enough to scour bare legs and paint, or to blind you with sand, are numbered fewer than the days with. The young and old succumb by degrees to dust pneumonia, the creeping plague of dust storms — particles so fine as to be unstoppable — and to a one you cough, spit, sneeze black. April 14th is a Sunday — known soon enough as Black Sunday, and it begins as we recognize most days like it: with a calm. Residents of the region plan picnics, put out the wash, go to church. It’s not rain, but breathing without a mask is good enough. Seeing the barn out back is good enough. When the storm arrives, it is with the same warning a duster always brings: sight alone — a wave of black from the north, 200 miles wide, and churning ahead at 60 miles per hour. It covers the land for over an hour, kills at least one: a young boy, running home. Cars stall from the static charge, drivers blinded anyway. Fencewires glow with St. Elmos’ fire. When it is over, 300 million tons of topsoil have been scraped off the Dust Bowl and thrown to the south and east. Woody Guthrie sings about this day. Gillian Welch, watching over history, notes also that Lincoln was shot, and the Titanic sunk, on April the 14th, thus she dubs it “Ruination Day.”
There are nightmarish projections from various sources that suggest mega-droughts are coming to the United States, recreating the Dust Bowl and giving cause for digging out the old nomenclature of the Great American Desert. California, until recently, made these models credible when an intense drought sucked reservoirs dry, tapped the snowcaps, and pressured residents. Then, months ago, Los Angeles saw over 200% of its normal accumulations for the months of October through mid-January. Long Beach broke a daily rainfall record. Washouts and erosion followed accordingly. Whether we can count on the nightmare scenarios or not, we can be assured that climate change has turned our weather boom-and-bust. Not only are long-term shifts coming — floods and droughts — but extreme weather patterns increase, as well: tornado outbreaks in February, hurricanes knocking early, cold snaps and heatwaves. Oklahoma tied a record high in February, reaching 99 degrees. It’s not necessary to have a ten-year dust bowl when a decade of storms comes in a single year.
The Dust Bowl would not fully abate until 1941, when the drought finally gave way to real rainfall across the Midwest and Great American Desert. An estimated 75% of topsoil had been blown away in some parts, and the economic repercussions were felt for decades to come. And though practices changed, they did not change on the grounds of responsible use — of understanding the land. Practices changed due to economic engines: deeper wells, better irrigation, more efficient equipment, a bigger dollar. Farming in the Dust Bowl was about survival for most, but by the end, it quickly became a land-grab for bankers and distant companies, and that ethos persists today. It will take years, but water usage in Mid-America is draining the Ogallala Aquifer, a fantastically precious resource that allows the region to persevere through droughts much like those that would initiate a dust bowl. Feed lot methane (and runoff), corn subsidies, pesticides, the simple trucking of goods putting CO2 in the air; these problems are legion, and they will make life very difficult for farmers in the region — in particular those smaller farmers who haven’t yet been pushed out by the corporate entities. The hits will come, rapidly and repeatedly, and while we may never see another dust bowl, or a decades-long mega-drought, the damage will be done by a thousand cuts.
The lie, ultimately, is thus: that humanity has some kind of supremacy over the land — It began as the simple folly that the beneficence of God would prevail upon the climate and make land habitable and fruitful for mankind, that we can turn over the earth and expect it to stand still for us. Today that ethos has evolved into the complex web of modernity — lies about the cause of climate change, lies about the effects, lies about preventative measures, all in the service of the supremacy of man — or, more likely, a few men. For farmers in the Dust Bowl, their punishment was immediate: rip up the earth, and it will blow away. For this generation, and for generations to come, Ruination Day may pale against the bevy of storms, the floods and droughts, the extreme events that punctuate the creep of dust of the Anthropocene.