Comparisons between the Great Depression's Dust Bowl and the Drought of 2002 are inevitable, but most of these comparisons have been centered on the consequences of each and not on the underlined causes of each. Thus one might say we have learned little in the intervening 70 years.
Called by some "one of the three worst ecological blunders in history," the Dust Bowl was a mere 50 years in the making. Donald Worster in his authoritative investigation, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, vividly describes this tragedy, and sees more than just nature on a rampage.
"My argument ... is that there was in fact a close link between the Dust Bowl and the Depression -- that the same society produced them both, and for similar reasons. Both events revealed fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of America, the one in ecological terms, the other in economic. Both offered a reason, and an opportunity for substantial reform of that culture ...
"It came about because the expansionary energy of the United States had finally encountered a volatile, marginal land, destroying the delicate ecological balance that had evolved there. We speak of farmers and plows on the plains and the damage they did, but the language is inadequate. What brought them 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'."
In explaining his meaning Worster points out that "capitalism" has developed an "enduring ethos" that seeks to give the economic culture continuity. The ecological values of that ethos include: nature must be seen as capital; man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement, and the social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth.
By the 1920s farming and ranching had become for many a business, the object of which was not necessarily to make a living, but to make money. Just as they objected to the "social controls" that they perceived Roosevelt's New Deal was trying to impose on them, they also believed that nature would dare not thwart them in the managing of their business affairs. Thus, these same laissez-faire interests continued to extensively plow up the Great Plains, planting their wheat, and creating highly mechanized factory farms that produced unprecedented harvests.
As Worster states, "There was nothing in the plains society to check the progress of commercial farming, nothing to prevent it from taking the risks it was willing to take for profit. That is how and why the Dust Bowl came about."
The Dust Bowl was only an extreme example, however, of the serious drought which threatened the greater part of the nation in the 1930s. Yet, if one uses a precipitation deficiency of at least 15% of the historical mean to define drought, the only states that escaped it from 1930 to 1936 were Maine and Vermont. Intense heat also accompanied this drought in many areas of the country.
The estimated financial cost of just the 1934 drought alone amounted to one-half the US cost in World War I. By 1936 farm losses had reached $25 million a day as more than two million farmers were drawing relief checks. "You could look out the window and watch Kansas go by," was the way one Midwesterner put it to a reporter. "The wind blew everything into old Mexico, except the mortgage," was the observation of another farmer.
Most farmers gladly accepted their relief in the form of federal dollars along with the federal government's inevitable reassurance, solicitation and encouragement. However, when New Deal policies attempted to become innovative, many plains people turned hostile. "The fate of the plains lay in the hands of Providence, and Providence, not Washington, would see them come out all right" was a popularly expressed sentiment at the time, notes Worster.
"What the plains men needed was hope, of course -- but the mature hope that does not smooth over failure, deny responsibility, or prevent basic change. They needed a disciplined optimism, tempered with restraint and realism toward the land. But all that required a substantial reform of commercial farming, which neither Roosevelt nor most of his New Deal advisers were prepared or able to bring about. Even as it evolved toward a more comprehensive program, the New Deal did not aim to alter fundamentally the American economic culture. Washington became and remained throughout the decade a substitute for a benign Providence, trying to give plains men their 'next year'."
Yet, despite these Dust Bowl lessons that Worster so well outlines and that should have been learned by our leaders and legislators we hear George W. Bush, last month in South Dakota, under the stony gaze of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rush-more, tell America's drought-stricken farmers, in launching his latest campaign to put a brake on federal spending, that they can expect no extra help from the federal government even as he prepares to take the country into a costly war.
Consider for a moment how utterly mean such a declaration from the nation's chief executive is in the context of history, the current state of the general welfare and the common good.
Here is a president who unashamedly invokes the pioneer spirit to farmers suffering from the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days, despite the fact he seeks to perpetuate many of the same policies and conditions that led to the disaster in the 1930s, and which are now in the process of again taking such a devastating toll in America's heartland.
Thus while he is rhapsodizing about the pioneer spirit in the face of a sun-scorching drought, which some say may be the initial warning sign that global warming is here to stay, he not only doubts whether there is any such thing as "global warming;" he has shown this unwillingness to believe by refusing to allow the nation to sign any international agreements, such as the Kyoto Treaty, aimed at preventing a similar worldwide ecological disaster.
As he asks farmers to wrap themselves in the security that they are maintaining the pioneer spirit, he sits in his Texas ranch house entertaining his corporate friends while also making plans to wage an undeclared first-strike war which assuredly will exact an unnecessary toll in human life and expenditure of the nation's vital resources.
One wonders why the president doesn't also ask the Pentagon with its $355 billion and its defense contractors living off of corporate welfare to abide by the pioneer spirit and invest some of those billions of dollars in rebuilding and modernizing the nation's social and decaying physical infrastructure and tending to the needs of those people who have been victimized by George W. Bush's friends and ranch guests.
When one measures the Pentagon's billions of dollars against some immediate relief for our needy and drought stricken family farmers it is but mere pocket change. Consider for a moment these facts when attempting to put the staggering amount of money this nation spends on weapons of war, some of which have proven of dubious value in recent actions by the US.
How much is one billion?
One billion seconds ago was approximately two years after the New England colonies were established in the New World!
One billion minutes ago was a point during the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan and 22 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius!
One billion hours ago and we are in unrecorded history!
One billion dollars was yesterday afternoon at the Pentagon!
Thus, this nation would be well advised while it is mourning Sept. 11 and its ad nauseam "showing of the flag" to also begin to show some genuine outrage, not only over what is happening to our environment, our reputation in the world as a valued nation, our corporate-sponsored national leadership, our precarious economic structure, and our much abused democratic form of government, but also to who is going to provide their next meal, where it is to come from, and how safe it is going to be to digest in our stomachs?
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/