Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. By Donald Worster. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Illustrations, maps, tables, notes, and index. x + 277pp. $8.95
In his Bancroft Prize winning book, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, prolific environmental historian and Plains native Donald Worster is the first to establish the link between American capitalism and the ecological crisis. The Depression brought further suffering to the region, as it amplified the dire circumstances for Southern Plains citizens. Utilizing a wide variety of sources such as official documents, contemporary accounts, poetry, and literature, Worster reveals the troubles of the 1930s rural Plains farmer. Subscribing to the Marxist theory, he points his finger squarely at capitalism and overuse of land as the source to blame.
Worster argues that the American capitalist culture pushed those in the region to farm their land to the maximum capacity. Settling the region in the late 19th century, farmers cleared the natural grasses to plant their crops. The destruction of natural vegetation and exhaustive production of wheat crops continued through World War I, thus creating a dry region. Industrialization of farming also created debt for many farmers due to the high cost of equipment during this time. The desire to make more and buy more has always been the American way as our society encourages the increase of personal wealth at any cost. For Southern Plains citizens, nature is capital and man has a right to use this capital for self-advancement. In this area of the nation, growing as much as possible means maximum profit, regardless of whether the environment can support it.
Over-farming brought the Southern Plains to its knees by creating a man-made natural disaster, with Cimarron County, OK and Haskell County, KS suffering most. What started as a region of small-town farmers quickly shifted to farming as a business, with large companies or absentee sidewalk farmers procuring huge swaths of land. Soon, the humble farmer either had to compete with these corporations or become just another worker in the big business of agriculture. Non-diversification of farms also did not help the situation. Those who solely planted wheat had been left with miniscule crop returns once the drought reached its peak years. Without grasses and vegetation to hold the soil, the winds created dust storms that would wreak havoc on the Plains. Drought, dust storms, and over farming thus ushered in a mass exodus from the region.
To remedy the situation, the New Deal administration brought the region public works jobs, welfare, and legislation. While these programs did help, it did not address the issue of over farming. The Soil Conservation Service therefore introduced proper land-use techniques. Through environmental study, they concluded that the panacea to the ecological disaster lies in scientific manipulation of the land (211). The SCS shared farming techniques such as shelter belts, contour furrows, and terracing with farmers. These techniques were met with skepticism, but quickly became integrated after proof of their success. However, once the rain returned in 1941, crops once again flourished and farmers abandoned land management. American capitalist culture returned as though it had never left.
Highlighting contemporary drought issues, Worster brings us into the present day with reports of additional droughts and dusty periods for the Southern Plains, along with examples from Africa in the years following. He strongly emphasizes that nature has limits; they are neither inflexible nor are they constant, but they do exist (239). The Dust Bowl is an influential account in the field of New Western History that will serve to remind Americans to keep our mass production – mass consumption culture in check or history will repeat itself.