While watching the Ken Burns Dust Bowl documentary on PBS recently, it occurred to me that there are some strong parallels between the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s and the severe problems associated with climate change that Americans are just beginning to face.
The Dust Bowl was almost entirely caused by widespread plowing of the virgin prairies on the Great Plains, and planting of wheat crops year after year, with furrows extending farther than the eye could see (the amber waves of grain). Contour plowing, planting of wind breaks and other moisture conserving practices were unknown or ignored. The prairie grasses that were destroyed were drought-tolerant, had root systems that extended many feet below the ground surface, drew water from the depths rather than the surface, and physically anchored the soil against the fierce prairie winds. Wheat does not.
The farmers continued their runaway plowing and planting even after wheat prices collapsed due to a vast oversupply in the market. They continued in the face of plummeting prices until their income was gone, their savings consumed, their animals, machinery and other possessions sold to buy food for their families, and finally their land and homes were lost to foreclosure. My Vineyard Conservation Society board colleague James Prichard recalled growing up in rural Missouri when the Dust Bowl was still a fresh memory, and hearing so many harrowing stories about drought-related deprivation that they seemed commonplace.
Dust Bowl farmers, having lost everything, with no choice but to leave forever the land they loved but had destroyed, migrated elsewhere to begin all over again. The physical and economic devastation created what has often been called a diaspora: tens of thousands of families left the Great Plains forever and returned to their places of origin, or to places where family could take them in until they got back on their feet. Many thousands of others, who came to be known as Oakies, loaded what possessions they still had into their cars and headed for California.
The kind of stubborn persistence in disastrous behavior that was exhibited by western farmers certainly has a familiar ring today. Substitute runaway emissions of carbon dioxide for the runaway plowing for wheat that caused the Dust Bowl disaster, and there is a clear analogy with today’s global climate change. Similarly, substitute rising sea levels and more intense ocean storms for the rising soil erosion and dust storms that were the result of those destructive human activities in the 1920s, and you can begin to see what our future may hold. Substitute the images of totally destroyed farms, homes and entire towns of the dust bowl era with images we have all seen as recently as early November in nightly newscasts — of devastated coastal homes and towns from North Carolina to New York city from Hurricane Sandy. The costs of Sandy are still being counted and rapidly mounting. For comparison purposes, perhaps Hurricane Katrina can better serve to illustrate the impacts of a very strong ocean storm while we wait for the historically large numbers that will emerge over coming months in Sandy’s wake.
Hurricane Katrina created in Louisiana and Mississippi a modern-day economic disaster and another human diaspora. Katrina made landfall as a category three hurricane on August 29, 2005. Although only the sixth strongest hurricane on record, because it struck an urban area Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in the U.S. to date at that time, causing at least 1,833 deaths (though no one knows exactly how many died) and $108 billion in property damage (preliminary estimates for New York and New Jersey alone from Sandy are already at $70 billion and climbing). Eighty per cent of the city of New Orleans was flooded, and 30 oil platforms and nine refineries were damaged or destroyed. The total economic impact in Louisiana and Mississippi is estimated to exceed $150 billion. Perhaps interestingly for New Englanders, employment numbers indicate that tourism was the industry most heavily affected. Prior to Katrina, the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services sectors employed 9.7 per cent of the population. Following the hurricane, the percentage dropped to 8.2 per cent.
And, similar to the Dust Bowl diaspora, Katrina is estimated to have redistributed over one million people from the central Gulf Coast. Houston, Tex., took in 35,000 people; Mobile, Ala., welcomed 24,000; Baton Rouge, La., received more than 15,000; and Chicago, Ill., received over 6,000 people. Even Boston received people who were relocating from New Orleans, both short-term and permanently. Six months after the storm, about 200,000 people were living in New Orleans, less than half the pre-storm population. Ten months after the storm, the U.S. Census Bureau calculated that the population of the state of Louisiana had declined by 219,563, or 4.87 per cent. In February 2011, four and a half years after the storm, the census bureau pegged the population of New Orleans at 343,829 people — 29 per cent smaller than it was a decade earlier. On the East Coast this autumn, following a series of storms that included Hurricane Sandy, the news media ran daily stories with people from Ortley Beach, N.J., to Plum Island who spoke of their exhaustion and frustration at the prospect of another storm and another need to rebuild. One man said he had just finished rebuilding from Hurricane Irene last year; his house was completely destroyed. Again. Others questioned whether federal flood insurance should be using billions of taxpayer dollars to finance multiple reconstructions of public infrastructure and private buildings in such dangerous locations.
The parallels between the Dust Bowl and climate change are eye-opening, if we are able to learn from both our past experience and the scientific forecasts of future conditions. One obvious lesson is that global climate change is not our first man-made environmental disaster. We’ve done this before. Another is that human inertia and stubborn persistence in disastrous behavior is a normal response, but not the right one. Another is that the sooner we start paying attention to the big picture, the more we can avoid catastrophe. And if Katrina was not the wake-up call we needed to get us to do that, surely Sandy was. The future that some have denied, and many have assumed was too far off to worry about, has arrived.
Phil Henderson is a member of the board of directors of the Vineyard Conservation Society.