The Dust Bowl
Last week, many Americans were transfixed by the latest documentary masterpiece by PBS stalwart Ken Burns. "The Dust Bowl" is a four-hour history of what was the greatest man-made disaster in U.S. history.
The film is not just history. It is another one of those epochs in history that, unless we pay heed, we are condemned to repeat.
The ecological disaster of the 1930s was a result of an alignment of different events, human-caused and natural, some of them seen at the time as fortunate or wise, others less so.
A run of bad winters wiped out the cattle barons. World War I caused a boom in grain prices. Homesteaders across the Great Plains plowed up grasslands that had been untouched for centuries in order to plant wheat as far as the eye could see. When the Great Depression caused demand and prices to plummet, heavily mortgaged farmers felt they had no alternative but to plow more land, and grow more wheat, to make up in volume what they were losing in per-bushel income.
The result was much of a continent blown away. Dust and sand storms called "black blizzards" and "the end of the world" not only killed people and animals, they laid waste millions of acres of once-productive farmland.
It took years to recover.
But human greed had another ally that has allowed us to pretend to be exempt from the laws of nature. The Ogallala Aquifer, a giant underground ocean of glacial water, has been tapped with huge irrigation systems that allow the continued production of bumper crops of corn, wheat, cotton and other crops on land that would otherwise be too dry. Anyone who flies over the Great Plains today can see the signature of these huge circular sprinklers greening up square sections of land. Round pegs in square holes.
And, like the giant underground deposits of fossil fuels, this fossil water is both ancient and finite. And it is being pumped mined at unsustainable rates, not to provide Americans with basic sustenance, but to grow huge crops of taxpayer-subsidized commodities that make us fat or get shipped overseas in quantities high enough, and prices low enough, to destroy native farmers in Third World countries.
The self-delusion that this practice can last forever is as deep and as dangerous as the foolish beliefs of the last century, that "rain follows the plow" and that, next year, it will rain.
Or that climate change isn't real.