Before Hurricane Sandy, There Was the Dust Bowl

If you won't listen to Al Gore, listen to devastated 1930s farmers from Oklahoma.

In these fraught times of partisan gridlock about, well, everything, but specifically about man-made climate change (does it exist? are we actually causing it? and even if we are, what’s the big deal—it’s not like you can change the weather, right?), and the role of government (big? small? will you please go away and let me create my jobs?), it’s really a shame that Americans don’t have some historical precedent to draw upon for guidance … some sort of not-so-distant environmental disaster brought on by human greed and environmental ignorance …  some kind of historical yarn to provide a little perspective on the massive, devastating storms that are ripping up our beach towns, to help us understand that in matters like climate change, individuals and the vaunted free market aren’t necessarily wired to act in the interest of the greater good, thus necessitating governmental action.

Oh … wait a second …

For the last few days, I’ve been—like so many millions of Americans, and so many millions of tons of eroded Oklahoma panhandle soil during the 1930s—absolutely sucked into The Dust Bowl.

The two-part Ken Burns documentary that just aired on PBS (and which you can watch in all its black-and-white, panned-and-zoomed glory at should be required viewing for anyone with an opinion on climate change (whether your opinion is that the science behind climate change is sound, or that the science is liberal propaganda).

Burns has his critics as a filmmaker—just as FDR and the New Deal policies that helped the country to end the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression have their critics—but that this four-hour documentary about one of the most bludgeoning periods of despair in our national history is so completely gripping is testament to Burns’ talents, and to unique intensity of the suffering of the era.

This is a depressing film about defeated people trying to make peace with a world gone completely to hell. This is a film chronicling a day in 1935, dubbed Black Sunday, during which a dust storm so large trudged across the Plains that residents thought it was the rapture. And once you start watching, you just can’t stop.

While Burns draws no overt parallels between the conditions that led to the dust bowl (greedy farmers and speculators embarking on a “great plow-up” to turn thousands of square miles of arid grassland into a short-lived wheat bonanza) and the looming environmental crisis (greedy industrialists refusing to wean themselves off greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels), it’s hard to watch The Dust Bowl and not make the connection.

As Superstorm Sandy recently taught us—and as Al “Cassandra” Gore’s been shouting in the diminishing wilderness—the fiscal cliff’s got nothing on the environmental cliff. Burns ultimately credits FDR and his soil scientists for their efforts in championing the contour plowing that ultimately ameliorated the situation, but he also hat-tips the social programs—the WPA, the CCC and the like—that, though opposed by the well off, buttressed a flailing nation’s morale, especially among those buried in dust.

Perhaps the greater takeaway was that the Dust Bowl could have been avoided had we better understood nature and taken preventative actions. It’s what makes it so infuriatingly inexcusable that, backed with a light-years’ better understanding of climate, many elected officials oppose even the slightest climate measures, as if the weather couldn’t possibly turn on us.