Many Americans view the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as merely a historical event, a long ago environmental and agricultural trauma that, along with the Great Depression, stains our collective history, but will never occur again. Such a point of view, however, is not only revisionist, but highly inaccurate. The determinants of the Dust Bowl are not isolated to the 1930s, nor are its effects secluded to the American plains. In Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979), Donald Worster posits that a combination of factors not only caused the Dust Bowl, but continue to derail agriculture worldwide: American values run amuck, capitalism ruling without restraint, farming taken over by business, and unstable agricultural policy hastily enacted.
Worster argues that the Dust Bowl, as well as subsequent agricultural issues, are rooted in American values and unrestrained capitalism. Fueled by the sprit of Manifest Destiny, the desire for endless opportunity, and the promise of plenty, farmers during the Dust Bowl era exploited the land to the fullest extent possible, employing every available technology to ensure high yields and high profits. As a result, factory-style farming of monocultures became a new norm; a way of farming that dissolves the traditional farming lifestyle and depletes the land.
Such farming practices are nearly universal today. Worster’s Dust Bowl lessons not only inform our current agricultural practices, however, but also the broader environmental agenda of the United States. As Worster so expertly argues, the true meaning of the Dust Bowl reveals that not just wheat farmers on the plains, but all of America was sorely out of balance with nature. Furthermore, he argues that this distorted relationship is caused by the capitalist ethos that, “replaced man’s attachment to the earth…it replaced a rural economy aimed at sufficiency with one driving toward unlimited wealth.”
While no one is arguing for the United States to return to a rural economy, our relationship with the earth must be repaired. While it may not be feasible, or even possible, to restore our original balance, we must work toward a new balance between man and nature.
This overarching issue affects not only our nation’s agricultural practices, but also our dependence upon fossil fuels, development of alternative energy sources, and commitment to green building practices, to name but a few. The Dust Bowl and Worster’s work ultimately reveal that man’s actions shape the earth. While Armageddon may not await us if we fail to proceed with humility and restraint to restore much needed balance to our systems, what is nearly guaranteed is that we shall be met again and again with natural disasters of our own making. From the Dust Bowl of the “dirty thirties” to the shorter and more severe “filthy fifties” to 2012’s hottest July on record to the droughts that decimated 2012 corn harvest yields, raising food prices across the board and around the world, we shall not escape this fate if we do not change our ways.
While core American values that lead to excess may have contributed to our current state of affairs, other values that Americans hold dear—innovation, creativity, and hard work—may be the key to our future. Political rhetoric repeatedly reinforces that it is the United States of America that creates the truly world-changing thinkers and entrepreneurs, from Google’s quirky innovation to Apple’s life-altering personal technologies. While the iPhone alone of course cannot save American agriculture, we can harness this same freethinking innovation and channel it into our relationship with the earth and her limited resources, ensuring our collective survival and success.