There is a good show on PBS this week - The Dust Bowl, by Ken Burns. You may have seen it too, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. Basically, the farming practices of the 1930’s, coupled with the great depression and an extended drought led to turning a big part of our country into a desert and created enormous rolling dust storms that threatened the life of everything in their path. It lasted for about 10 years. I was impressed with the agricultural science of the time which realized the tremendous dust storms were mainly man made and could be stopped by better farming practices like terracing and crop rotation. At first the wheat farmers who caused the problem refused to believe it was man made, blaming nature or even the wrath of God. In time they saw the scientists were right when their practices improved things. The government under FDR saved the land and most of the people with intelligent interventions like providing jobs and assistance, educating the farmers on better practices and even buying up land to return it to the native prairie grassland for which it is best suited.
Since then farmers have used well water from the big Ogallala Aquifer to grow animal fodder, and the water is now half gone. At the end of the movie an old farmer says “when the aquifer is completely gone in 20 years they’ll look back and say, ‘ and to think ... they used up our drinking water to raise hog feed.” So in the end we learned a little something about better farming practices but are also making the same mistakes all over again. The basic problem is we destroy our delicate eco systems to make a quick buck. (My husband and I kept thinking how much better off they would have been if they had learned from the Native Americans who roamed those plains alongside the buffalo and didn’t try to grow wheat.)
Today we are facing the prospect of running the Keystone pipeline carrying tar sand oil through our land. This particular oil is very corrosive and likely to break the pipeline and leak the oil into our precious declining water supplies. There have already been many spills with this kind of pipeline. Sure there will be some jobs for awhile, but at what cost?
The broader lesson of the dust bowl is how we must protect the entire planet and its delicate balance. Our scientists have been warning us for 30 years about the man-made warming of our climate and how it would lead to catastrophic storms and rising sea waters. I heard a climate scientist say the other day that when the ice caps completely melt (which is accelerating every year) the Statue of Liberty will be up to her chest in water. You can imagine what this means for New York City. Once again, some resist our best knowledge and say “we need jobs at any cost” and “it’s all up to God” when we need to immediately institute very serious measures to cut greenhouse gasses and also protect our ground water. Mother Nature can only take so much abuse from her most destructive creature - us humans - before spitting out some pretty nasty consequences like storms, floods and dust bowls. Perhaps even our very extinction if we don’t wake up. We can all stay informed by listening to scientists and urge our President and Representatives to address climate change before its really too late.