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Beinhart's Body Politic: The Invisible Handful of Dust 

click to enlarge DION OGUST
  • Dion Ogust

On the 14th day of April 1935;
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
—Woody Guthrie, The Great Dust Storm, ca. 1937

Pretty much flat as can be, the Great Plains run all the way from the edge of the Arctic to the deserts of West Texas and New Mexico.

It was once a short-grass prairie. It was where the buffalo used to roam. It's cold in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. There are frequent droughts, even entire decades with low rainfall. When the winds come, there's nothing to stop or slow them, no mountains, no forests, no hills.

The 1920s were a time of higher than usual precipitation. The market for agricultural products was good. More land was farmed with more intensive methods.

Then, in the 1930s, the rains stopped coming. What was left of the topsoil turned dry and dusty. In 1934 a two-day storm roared across the flatlands. The winds blew so hard that the dust fell in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC. That winter, the snow that fell in New England was tinged dirty red from the Midwestern soil.

In 1935 it got even worse. Towering black clouds raced across the sky and rained down dirt from Canada to Texas.

In the dust-covered desolation of our No Man's Land here, wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is almost a hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. "Visibility" approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor.
—A letter from an Oklahoma woman, June, 1935, later published in Reader's Digest

Two-and-a-half-million people fled the region.

President Roosevelt appointed a commission to study the problem. Their report is remarkably clear and simple. It's so astonishingly lucid that it's hard to believe that it was produced by a government or by any organization whatsoever.

The agricultural economy of the Great Plains will become increasingly unstable and unsafe, in view of the impossibility of permanent increase in the amount of rainfall, unless over-cropping, over-grazing, and improper farm methods are prevented. There is no reason to believe that the primary factors of climate temperature, precipitation, and winds in the Great Plains region have undergone any fundamental change. The future of the region must depend, therefore, on the degree to which farming practices conform to natural conditions. Because the situation has now passed out of the individual farmer's control, the reorganization of farming practices demands the cooperation of many agencies, including the local, state, and federal governments.
—Report of the Great Plains Drought Committee, August 27, 1936

So there it is. The region is dry. It was going to stay that way. The report made it clear that the disaster had come about because the land was used harder than it could stand. The natural conditions had to be respected. No single farmer could protect himself. When the winds came, no individual could hold back the dust. There had to be planning, with rules and restrictions, incentives and enforcement. They were put in place to some degree. The effects of erosion were slowly repaired and farming resumed throughout the region.

So here we are, in 2013. And the ghost of Woody Guthrie is picking out a tune.

There's an aquifer that runs beneath the ground from South Dakota right down to Texas and New Mexico. It's right below the lands that turned into the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Wells could supply the water that the rains wouldn't deliver, with more certainty and reliability.

Farmers, hard-working entrepreneurs that they are, followed the imperatives of the market, to grow as much of the most profitable crops as they could. Without a care as to how much water they used or what they were doing to the land, provided it didn't affect their immediate bottom line.

The problem, Michael Wines of the New York Times reports ("Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust," May 20), is that "when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains." It is running out. Of course, even if a farmer is a dedicated conservationist and chooses crops or livestock that only use sustainable amounts of water, it doesn't mean he can save himself, because his neighbors can be sucking the aquifer dry right underneath him.

The report by Mr. Wines of the Times is generally excellent. And I am grateful for it. However, it includes this bizarre sentence: "The villain in this story is in fact the farmers' savior: the center-pivot irrigator, a quarter- or half-mile of pipe that traces a watery circle around a point in the middle of a field. The center pivots helped start a revolution that raised farming from hardscrabble work to a profitable business."

No. That simple bit of technology is not at fault. The villain is the same one all over again: the unrestricted rule of the market, with each individual pursuing his own profit. But the invisible hand, instead of leading them to a common good that they knew not of, led them, once again, to destroy the very thing that gave them sustenance.

Speaking of...

  • Larry Beinhart discusses drought, the agricultural economy, and Woody Guthrie.

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