Originally published in 1979, Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl offers an account of the southern plains in the 1930s. Now considered a classic example of modern environmental history, this book offers a richly textured portrait of one of the worst environmental disasters in human history. Not just a tragic tale of antiquarian concern, the Dust Bowl, Worster maintains, offers a revealing chapter of our environmental history with ever-increasing relevance to mankind’s future. Arguing that the Dust Bowl contributed to the deepening of the Depression — rather than simply occurring simultaneously with the Great Crash in the east — this book added significantly to the historiography of the 1930s when first published and remains a valuable and fascinating read today.
The causes of the ecological catastrophe — while admittedly not wholly understood — are now largely clear. Wooster’s book reminds us that there was a time in which there was great uncertainty about both the causes of the great crisis and the proper steps of moving forward. Over-farming, prolonged drought, dramatic crashes in the price of wheat, and underdeveloped infrastructure created the dust bowl — but the story is about much more than those events. Wooster’s story includes details about the effects of the disaster on the society that inhabited the regions worst impacted on the society as well its its gradual but deepening impact on the east.
Couple the aforementioned problems with the lack of a social safety net, poor banking system, and the fact that the entire plains economy was flimsy — based on dangerously overextended investment in questionable lands for farming — and you have one of the worst disasters in human history. The Dust Bowl, Wooster contends, “was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.” This book situates the New Deal as critical in helping the southern plains recover from one of the harshest disasters in modern history. Arguing that ranchers, farmers, and cattlemen failed to take the long view on the natural resources critical to survival, this book explains these actions as rational in light of the evolution of modern American commerce. Farmers, simply put, were encouraged to engage in practices that led to their own demise in the 1930s.
The Works Progress Administration, Soil Conservation Service, Civilian Conservation Corps, and National Resources Committee — all New Deal innovations — appear as critical to the efforts to recover the plains from the disaster. One basic function of these programs was to educate farmers about methods of irrigation and plowing, particularly in helping to stem the recurring dust storms. Although these programs helped mitigate some of the suffering, repair infrastructure, and planted thousands of trees, it was not until the demand in the international market caused by the Second World War and, more importantly, the return of the rains, the region began recovering. Many years since its original publication – in the wake of several recent, high profile disasters blamed in part on man-made climate change, this book seems more relevant than ever.[Environmental historian Donald Worster is featured in the new Ken Burns PBS documentary series Dust Bowl.]
Reviewed by Samuel Redman