Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Depression, New Deal, Agriculture, Capitalism, Environmental History.

For farming families of the Southern Plains, the plight of the Great Depression was made all the more harrowing by the onset of the Dust Bowl, as readers of The Grapes of Wrath will remember well. But, for environmental historian Donald Worster, the twin calamities of the Depression and the Dust Bowl were no unlucky coincidence. "My argument," Worster declares, "is that there was a 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." (5)

In both the Depression and the Dust Bowl, Worster argues, the enemy at work is rampant, unfettered capitalism. The Dust Bowl "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...Capitalism, it is my contention, has been decisive in this nation's use of nature." (5)

How so? Worster underlines three ecological tenets which he believes lay at the center of the capitalist vision of nature:
"1. Nature must be seen as capital. It is a set of economic assets that can become a source of profit or advantage, a means to make more wealth. Trees, wildlife, minerals, water, and the soil are all commodities that can either be developed or carried as they are to the marketplace. A business culture attaches no other values to nature than this; the nonhuman world is desanctified and demystified as a consequence. Its functional interdependencies are also discounted in the economic calculus.

2. Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement. Capitalism is an intensely maximizing culture, always seeking to get more out of the natural resources of the world than it did yesterday. The highest economic rewards go to those who have done the most to extract from nature all it can yield. Private acquisitiveness and accumulation are unlimited ideals, impossible to satisfy once and for all.

3. The social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth. It should free individuals (and corporations as collective individuals) from encumbrances on their aggressive use of nature, teach young people the proper behavior, and protect the successful from losing what they have gained. In pure capitalism, the self as an economic being is not only all-important, but autonomous and irresponsible. The community exists to help individuals get ahead and to absorb the environmental costs."
While acknowledging other "contradictory values" at work in American history, Worster concludes that "capitalism was the major defining influence" in American treatment of the land, and particularly in "the laissez-faire, expansionist 1920s," the decade that laid the conditions for both the Depression and the Dust Bowl. (6) He then spends the rest of the book using Cimarron County, OK and Haskell County, KS, to explain the effect of these ecological tenets at work. Dirt, dust, and grime, loosened from the soil as a result of excessive overplowing and "sodbusting," enveloped the country and choked the lungs of the nation. And New Deal officials, uncognizant of the deeper environmental origins of the storms (they, like farmers, blamed it on "drought") offered the afflicted only superficial hope and failed to alter "the system of non-resident tenure, factory-like monoculture, and market speculation that had dominated [New Era agriculture.] Not only did it fail to induce these changes, the emerging welfare state actually prevented their occurring. In the main it propped up an agricultural economy that had proved itself to be socially and ecologically corrosive." (163)

As with farm policy, so too with conservation policy. Having examined New Dealers' inclination towards short-term problem-solving and indesire to grapple with the fundamental issues of land use, Worster concludes his book by noting that "agricultural conservation of the New Deal era was, on balance, a failure in the Great Plains. Neither the federal land-use planners nor the ecologists made a lasting impact on the region. The agronomists and soil technicians, although they were more successful in getting their version of conservation translated into action, were ultimately ineffectual, too." (229-230) In fact, the alterations to capitalism and agriculture that were made in this time "lay on the periphery; none of them touched the core of Great Plains agriculture -- it devotion to unlimited expansion and its attendant sense of autonomy from nature. Subsequent events revealed that those environmental attitudes were not much affected by the years of turmoil and tempest, boom and bust, experts and exodusters. Conservation as a cultural reform had come to be accepted only where and insofar as it had helped the plains culture reach its traditional expansionary aims. If that was not failure, success had a strangely dusty smell about it." (230)

Obviously, Worster's book is not intended as a work of history alone, but a cautionary tale. "This, then," he declares, "is the agriculture that America offers to the world: producing an incredible bounty in good seasons, using staggering qualities of machines and fossil fuels to do so, exuding confidence in man's technological mastery over the earth, running along the thin edge of disaster." (234) Ultimately, Worster declares, man "needs another kind of farming by which he can satisfy his needs without making a wasteland." (243) As of the publication of Worster's book (1979), we had not yet found it.

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