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The Dust Bowl Essay, Research Paper

The Dust Bowl was “the darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the southern plains,” (pg. 4) as described by Donald Worster in his book “The Dust Bowl.” It was a time of drought, famine, and poverty that existed in the 1930’s. It’s cause, as Worster presents in a very thorough manner, was a chain of events that was perpetuated by the basic capitalistic society’s “need” for expansion and consumption. Considered by some as one of the worst ecological catastrophes in the history of man, Worster argues that the Dust Bowl was created not by nature’s work, but by an American culture that was working exactly the way it was planned. In essence, the Dust Bowl was the effect of a society, which deliberately set out to take all it could from the earth while giving next to nothing back.

The Dust Bowl existed, in its full quintessence, concurrently with the Great Depression during the 1930’s. Worster sets out in an attempt to show that these two cataclysms existed simultaneously not by coincidence, but by the same culture, which brought them about from similar events. “Both events revealed fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of America, the one in ecological terms, the other in economic.” (pg. 5) Worster proposes that in American society, as in all others, there are certain accepted ways of using the land. He sums up the “capital ethos” of ecology into three simply stated maxims: nature must be seen as capital, man has a right/obligation to use this capital for constant self-advancement, and the social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth (pg. 6) It is through these basic beliefs that Worster claims the plainsmen ignored all environmental limits, much like the brokers and investors on Wall Street ignored a top-heavy economy. Worster explains that our business-oriented society began to transform farming into a mass-producing industrial machine, becoming another excess of free enterprise that not even Roosevelt’s “New Deal” could remedy.

The “dirty thirties,” as many called it, was a time when the earth ran amok in southern plains for the better part of a decade. This great American tragedy, which was more devastating environmentally as well as economically than anything in America’s past or present, painstakingly tested the spirit of the southern plainsmen. The proud folks of the south refused at first to accept government help, optimistically believing that better days were ahead. Some moved out of the plains, running from not only drought but from the new machine-controlled agriculture. As John Steinbeck wrote in the bestseller The Grapes of Wrath, “it was not nature that broke the people-they could handle the drought. It was business farming, seeking a better return on land investments and buying tractors to pursue it, that had broken these people, smashing their identity as natural beings wedded to the land.”(pg. 58) The machines, one-crop specialization, non-resident farming, and soil abuse were tangible threats to the American agriculture, but it was the capitalistic economic values behind these land exploitations that drove the plainsmen from their land and created the Dust Bowl.

Eventually, after years of drought and dust storms, the plains people had to accept some form of aid or fall to the lowest ranks of poverty in the land, and possibly perish. The government set up agency after agency to try and give federal aid to the plains farmers. Groups such as the Farm Credit Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the Land Utilization Project, and the Agricultural Adjustment program, among others, were formed to give the plainsmen some sort of relief from the hardships of the Dust Bowl. In Cimarron county, Oklahoma 306 households were drawing government relief in June 1934: 60 of them were paid entirely in commodities, the rest mostly in cash (pg. 131). Roosevelt and the government continually contrived ways to give the plains aid, and when the Supreme Court ruled that a certain agency was unconstitutional, Roosevelt simply created another one in its place. In the end, Worster argues, the government agencies did not improve the lot of the large number of poor, marginal farmers, and in fact, none of the federal activities altered much of the factory-like culture of the plains. Simply stated, the government programs failed to induce the changes that were needed to save the southern plains.

Other groups outside of the government tried to help the plains with their own plan of attack. Local women’s groups were organized in places like Haskell County, Kansas. These groups were aimed at strengthening the most common counterforce of the outside consumer society-the family. Ultimately though, as Worster writes, the effect of the magnetic outward pull of the capitalistic ideals was stronger than the principals of the family. Post-Progressive Conservationists, such as Lewis Gray also tried to lend a hand in correcting what went wrong in the Dust Bowl. Gray wanted to do things such as end homesteading completely, add unprofitable private lands to the public domain, and extend agricultural conservation. Again though, Worster claims these attempts were not enough, calling men like Gray “problem-solvers, often bogged down in the immediate issues of Depression America?and did not give enough attention to the broader issues, nor did they talk boldly enough about the dimensions of change.”(pg. 196) Then there were the ecological conservationists, such as Paul Sears, who brought their expertise to the problems like the Dust Bowl and made important suggestions to cure the problems. Worster argues, though, that the conservationists would evaluate the problem, make a diagnosis, and then back off leaving the plainsmen to fix the problems. “Ecologists were doomed to futility and self-deception as long as they supposed that man’s use of the land was controlled by disinterested reason alone or that recommendations served up with scientific credentials would necessarily be adopted.”(pg. 209) And finally the agronomists took their best shot by introducing new farming techniques, such as terracing and planting shelterbelts of trees, as an attempt to recapture the essence of the land. The agronomists, although they were more successful in getting their version of conservation translated into action, were ultimately ineffectual, too.

In the end, Worster claims that neither the federal land-use planners, ecologists, nor the agronomists made a lasting impact on the region. “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.”(pg. 230) The Dust Bowl, even more so than the Great Depression, became the dominant national symbol of bankruptcy and ecological decay-the irony is that it was the capitalistic values that our country holds so highly that ultimately facilitated both the creation of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Worster’s “Dust Bowl” is a very informative work that makes a great contribution to understanding the effects that a consumer society can have on the land. Worster set forth a strong argument and supported it finely with great details. I agree with his views for the most part, but I feel like the southern plainsmen did what they had to do to keep up with the big city industries. In this society, the axiom “root, hog, or die” holds true in every aspect of the culture. So, in my opinion, the only way for the Dust Bowl to have been curtailed sooner would have been for the people there to stop “breaking” the land all together and let mother nature take over and fix herself. Of course, that would be asking the impossible since it would mean the plains people would have to give up, and lose to the capitalistic society of which they were trying to keep up with. Ultimately, every remedy that was attempted merely assisted in the growth of the Dust Bowl and of consumerism itself. Droughts and famine will come and go during our time here on earth, but we must learn to look to the earth for the remedy and give back to the earth what is rightfully hers-for capitalism cannot fill the needs of human life without the resources of the land.


Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

by Donald Worster

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