Who's to Blame for Drought?

Capitalism or Mother Nature?

Ignored by most Americans until they see their favorite national forests burning or their hillside homes going up in flames, an ever-growing drought has been taking its destructive toll in the western US. "Most of the West," Rick Ochoa, weather program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, warns, "is headed into six years of drought and some areas are looking at seven years."

Consistently warmer weather and a diminished snow pack share some blame for such conditions, but the West's relentless, often wasteful, thirst for cheap water remains the chief culprit. For example, irrigators in western Nevada are threatening war with a country club that wants green grass for a national golf tournament.

The lessons of recent history appear lost to most users of this nation's most precious limited natural resource.

Siegfried Schubert of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who recently led a research team studying the causes of the 1930s Dust Bowl, told Nature News Service, "the Dust Bowl is unique in the last 100 years, and that is because of the unusual combination of Pacific and Atlantic effects." In believing that unusual sea surface temperatures contributed immeasurably to the Dust Bowl, NASA's climate researchers feel their work could help predict future dry spells, and demonstrate that tiny changes in ocean temperature can have a massive impact on the land.

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, [Oxford University Press, 1979], 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 and 1930s farming and ranching had become a business for many, 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. 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.

Centered around Liberal, Kan., the Dust Bowl stretched 400 miles north to south and 300 miles east to west. This 151,000-square mile area included western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. It was in this region where the "black blizzards" of the 1930s struck with all their fury.

It was on April 17, 1935, that a 200-mile wide storm with a 1,000-feet high dust cloud roiled along the ground at speeds of 60 miles per hour, keeping some towns in nightime blackness for more than three hours, and stretched across Kansas, Eastern Colorado and into Texas and Oklahoma. Dust from storms such as these found its way to the streets of New York and Washington, D.C.

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 plainsmen 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 plainsmen their 'next year.'"

As has been said numerous times before, those who do not know or learn from history are bound to repeat its same tragic mistakes.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, which monitors corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective, and publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email; see

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