It has been some fifty years since Walter Prescott Webb published his monumental The Great Plains. This great work—which studied the social, economic, and institutional adjustment of settlers to this water-short region—was the first to demonstrate comprehensively the interrelationships of ecology and civilization. In the ensuing five decades, the plains environment has held the fascination of historians such as Henry Nash Smith, Eugene Hollon, Edward Everett Dale, and Frederick Rathjen. Scores of books and articles have been published on this semihumid, still relatively underpopulated region—perhaps more than on any other section of the country.
It is surprising that yet another landmark book could be written about this well-trodden subject. However, Donald Worster, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, has made a major contribution to American history in Dust Bowl. This book pushes back the frontiers of conservation and environmental history in many important ways, and it marks the fulfillment of scholarly promise Worster demonstrated in his other fine books, Nature’s Economy and American Environmentalism. With this publication, he makes a strong claim for being the most worthy inheritor of Walter Prescott Webb’s mantel.
The Dust Bowl is a well-written, thoroughly documented synthesis of human and ecological events. Man’s misuse of the fragile plains environment resulted in suffocating “black blizzards” during the 1930’s that swept away topsoil and destroyed homes, farms, and entire local economies. America’s heartland paid a terrible price for ignoring environmental determinants. An intriguing dimension of the book is that it represents a native son’s coming to terms with a catastrophe that touched his own family, since Worster’s parents lived through the Dust Bowl years. The author’s strong identification with his subject is manifest throughout this moving history, which is illustrated with more than fifty startling photographs of the people and places affected by the holocaust.
Dust Bowl is based not only on extensive library research, but on conversations with farmers, store owners, and government officials who had memories of blowing dust indelibly imprinted on their minds. Its fourteen chapters are divided into five major sections that each offer a different dimension of the subject. The first two, “A Darkling Plain” and “Prelude to Dust,” describe the human dislocation that resulted from the 1930’s drought and years of abusive agricultural practices. The next two parts, “Cimarron County, Oklahoma” and “Haskell County, Kansas,” enable the reader to view the phenomenon in microcosm. Survivors offer firsthand accounts of the storms that virtually tore their communities apart. The final section, “A New Deal for the Land,” describes the federal relief programs that attempted to ameliorate suffering and cushion the shock of depression and drought. The efforts of federal conservationists to foster better dryland farming practices is also described in this section.
Since the late nineteenth century, the once-superb grasslands of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas were plowed and planted with wheat and other crops. A ceaseless tide of farmers migrated to the region and transformed millions of acres of prime grazing land into marginal farmland. Until the 1930’s, agriculture in this region was largely successful due to generally adequate rainfall; but when the wet cycle ended and the drought commenced, the disturbed soil blew away—often as much as a foot of this resource that it took nature thousands of years to produce. The resultant storms shielded out the sun as far away as Chicago and dusted the decks of ships hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Worster suggests that the causes of the Dust Bowl, like those of the Depression, lay in America’s economic institutions and ethos. He also implies that this case study of environmental disaster has important implications for our own age, when drought, starvation, and ecological abuse are threatening the world.
Most historians have noted, like Worster, that this darkest moment in the history of the southern plains took some fifty years to make. Rather than viewing it as an aberration caused by unwise men, however, Worster suggests in his Introduction that it “came about because the culture was operating precisely the way it was supposed to.” The author’s fundamental assumption is that Americans have devastated their richly endowed continent with a ruthless, unrelenting efficiency unmatched by any other civilization. The sod-busters, therefore, literally “busted” the environmental rules that governed the arid region. Many ecological catastrophes such as earthquakes and tornadoes are nature’s work; other human tragedies are the products of exploitation, poverty, and disease. In contrast, Worster contends that the Dust Bowl was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately and self-consciously set itself the task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.
The basic thesis point of the book is that the two major traumas of the 1930’s—Dust Bowl and Depression—were interconnected as well as coincidental. Few historians have noted this subtle yet obvious fact. Worster convincingly argues that the same society produced them both for similar reasons and suggests that these two phenomena revealed basic weaknesses in the traditional culture of America: one in ecological terms, the other in economic.
The book further contends that capitalism is the root cause of the ecological genocide that swept the southern plains. The author recognizes that the white pioneers carried with them a cultural baggage of religious ideas, family institutions, and social traditions that either reinforced or in some cases moderated the dominant American economic ethos. In the settler’s attitude toward the land, however, capitalism was the major defining influence. Rather than following the Jeffersonian ideal of the self-sufficient, agrarian hero, American agriculturists came to view farming—on the plains and elsewhere—as a business, the object of which was not simply to make a living but to make money. Thus, the notion that there were ecological limits to what man could do to the land was as abhorrent as the idea of economic controls. The plains were extensively plowed and planted and turned into highly mechanized factory farms that yielded huge harvests.
Worster draws an interesting parallel between the Wall Street barons of the 1920’s, who ignored the shaky foundations of the stock market, and the plains operators who ignored the environmental limits of their enterprise. The Dust Bowl came about because there was...
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