Donald Worster

Dust Bowl

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Dust Bowl Summary

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Considered a seminal work in the field of environmental history, environmental historian Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl analyzes the causes, effects, and legacy of the Dust Bowl, a natural disaster in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in which the soil on which agriculture and civilization depended eroded dramatically. Using a variety of primary and secondary sources, Worster shows how the disaster impacted virtually all aspects of human life in the region, including industry, culture, migration, farming, and residential planning. The Dust Bowl’s forced migration of people, many of them farmers who helped feed the rest of the country, a classic example of climate change-based displacement, resonates with many similar incidents in more recent history.

In Dust Bowl, Worster argues that the titular catastrophe was caused mainly by two factors. The first is the United States’ blind imperative to maximize industrial productivity. The second, actively enabled by the first, was the government’s permission of heavy exploitation of land resources. The farming industry in the region ravaged the landscape of the flat, dry south-Midwestern states. Worster does not exempt any involved party, including the individual farmers, from blame, contending that they (along with industry magnates and government officials) were blinded by greed.

Worster also examines the Dust Bowl from the perspective of normative environmental conservation efforts. He believes that farmers did not give the soil a critical amount of recovery time between harvests, leading it to dry out and crumble away. The Great Plains, usually resilient to erosion, was rendered brittle and lifeless. The erosion directly affected human flourishing, introducing economic depression and severe poverty which led, in many cases, to the disease and death of people and animals.

Worster uses the Dust Bowl as an example to educate his audience on how the systems of resource exchange between human groups and the environment needs to be more cautious, scientific, and holistically managed. He argues that the Dust Bowl exacerbated the Great Depression, and that, as a corollary, the Great Depression was partly a result of failures in environmental management. The United States has a demonstrated history of reneging on its duty to think of its activities in the context of their historical and potential ecological effects. Worster traces this self-destructive pattern to the capitalistic mentality of business professionals in American history, which reached a peak during the market boom and hype of the 1920s, before the Great Depression.

After elucidating the Dust Bowl’s factors, Worster turns to the Great Depression, arguing that the two are inextricable from each other. He rebukes the greedy implementation of unregulated free market policies that enabled the Midwest to physically deteriorate over many decades in the twentieth century. He imputes the impulse to strip regulation from public policy to greed and deep political corruption. Capitalists rationalized productivity as a phenomenon that needed to be maximized without respect to the consequences that lay outside its monetary systems of value. Ironically, farmers who signed off on the industry’s policies did so at the ultimate expense of their families and farms. Certain early preventative measures during the Dust Bowl included economic subsidies and brief declarations of emergency. None of these policies were effective in ameliorating the Great Plains’ environmental decay.

As the 1940s came to a close, the U.S. government and agricultural industry had still failed to learn that brief policy measures that took no close look at the environment would always be ineffective. Worster condemns this sophisticated recklessness, arguing that it has since spread throughout the world, introducing recurring droughts to semiarid biomes that used to flourish. He ends his book with an exhortation to governments and the agricultural industry, asserting that they must step up to their responsibility as stewards of the environment if they are to ever make agriculture sustainable.