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Lessons learned in the Dust Bowl

by
11 January 2012

As the New Year begins, there is cause for optimism, says Bill Countryman

Reclaiming the Dust Bowl: the Oklahoma panhandle, where the Great Plains became a desert SHUTTERSTOCK

Reclaiming the Dust Bowl: the Oklahoma panhandle, where the Great Plains became a desert SHUTTERSTOCK

MY MOTHER was born in the panhandle of Oklahoma, the state’s odd appendage that stretches westward into the high plains — or, as old maps often called the region, the Great American Desert. In the early 1900s, homesteaders ploughed the grasslands there, and began to produce bumper crops of wheat. Then came the stock-market crash, and the drought of the 1930s, and the panhandle became the heart of the infamous Dust Bowl.

Recently, I read The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), Timothy Egan’s vivid history of the period. It features greedy banks, blundering politicians, a culture that laid waste to the natural world on which it depended, and massive human suffering. It was easy to make some connections with recent events. History may not exactly repeat itself, but it often resembles a theme and varia­tions.

As we launch into a new year, we look particularly for signs of hope; and there are some for Americans. We have at last pulled back from our wrong-headed and disastrous war in Iraq, and contemplating disengage­ment from Afghanistan; there are a few signs of recovery in the econo­my, however slow, precarious, and unevenly distributed; and Okla­homa, stricken with drought again in 2011, is getting some rain.

Although 2012 will not be an easy year, hope at least brings creativity back to life after hard times. Egan’s account of the end of the Dust Bowl offers some worthwhile issues to reflect on as we look forward.

One obvious one is that governments have to keep a close eye on banks. The bankers of the 1920s equalled those of the early 2000s in recklessness. When lavish im­prudence brings ruin on banks, it brings ruin on the society around them. We need to make clear, once again, that institutions of finance exist not only for private benefit, but for the benefit of the larger whole.

A second issue is that it takes communities, not just individuals, to change environmentally destructive habits. In the high plains, only the formation of water-conservation districts enabled farmers to co-operate in caring for the land, instead of destroying it as they competed against each other.

A third issue is that governments have to lead, not just follow. Not only did the admin­istration of Franklin D. Roosevelt rein in the banks: it also encouraged such organisations as the conserva­tion districts, gave them shape, and disseminated knowledge about better agricultural practice.

Finally, the story of the Dust Bowl reminds us not to underestimate the power of nature for healing as well as destruction. When the rains returned in 1938, and better farming methods were used, the high plains became once again a source of winter wheat. My mother’s father somehow hung on through the worst of it, and was still farming there decades later.

This is not to suggest that nature will rescue us, but sometimes we can learn to co-operate with it to undo some of the harm that we have done.

The Revd Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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