On Hard Times & Dust

Center of Concern | Fri, Oct 24, 2008

By Theresa E. Polk
Source: Center of Concern
Much like the current crisis, the Depression wasn’t an event isolated to the world of finance. In fact, it was magnified by, and in turn magnified the impacts of, a corresponding ecological crisis. Much like we face today.

Over the last few weeks, there have been a lot of comparisons made between our current financial crisis, and the Great Depression. Many of these comparisons seem intended to stoke fear and hysteria over the current situation, whether because it makes for a better media story, or because it creates the opportunity for things that were previously unacceptable to suddenly become palatable (new powers for Treasury? Bailouts for Wall Street? Bretton Woods II?). Which is not to say that people and communities aren’t hurting – they are, but their stories aren’t the stories being told. Their fears aren’t the ones being addressed.

That said, there is legitimacy in the Great Depression comparison. Much like the current crisis, the Depression wasn’t an event isolated to the world of finance. In fact, it was magnified by, and in turn magnified the impacts of, a corresponding ecological crisis. Much like we face today.

Not long after the stock-market crash that heralded the Depression era, a multi-year drought struck the intensely over-plowed and over-farmed grasslands of the Great Plains states of the U.S. and Canada. The exposed topsoil, stripped of prairie grasses, dried up, turned to dust, and was blown away. Raging dust storms swept across the plains states, with blistering winds burying homes, fields – anything in their paths – in dust. One hundred million acres of land were affected.  On one day alone, April 14, 1935, it is estimated that 300,000 tons of topsoil were airborne.

However, it was not simply an environmental disaster of epic proportions, but also a human one. Soil erosion, drought and above average temperatures caused widespread failure of the principle crops of wheat and cotton, leading to the collapse of many small-scale farms and displacement of share-croppers. Approximately 2.5 million people were displaced, the majority to nearby states, counties and urban areas. Others migrated out of the region to find work in the fields of California. Malnutrition and ‘dust pneumonia’ claimed many lives.

Nor did the Dust Bowl happen in a historical vacuum, but at a time when one in four Americans was unemployed, when the impacts of the Great Depression were starting to be felt across the country. As credit dried up, and scant savings disappeared, there were no safety nets to help weather the storm, especially as it dragged on through the greater part of the decade. But the advent of the Depression, with falling prices for commodities and debts piling up, also led to the last few acres of prairie grass that held the dirt in place being plowed up in desperation to plant just a little more wheat. The soil was exhausted and the natural defenses of the land, gone. Two crises, deeply interrelated.

The Dust Bowl was a single event, long in duration, the result of climate variability and human misuse of the land. As widespread and damaging as it was, it remained a largely regional phenomenon. What we confront now with climate change is so many times greater and more pervasive. Yet, as we face our own economic crisis, the impetus to seriously address the urgency of climate change is rapidly eroding.  Instead, we hear passionate calls for more oil drilling, more resource extraction, more of the same mechanisms that are feeding both crises, and exhausting our resources and defenses, financial and natural.

What we need now, in the face of these accumulating crises, is not a band-aid, patches to the system that will get us from here to next week, so we can stitch on yet another patch. We need a shift in paradigms, to a focus on long-term ecological sustainability, authentic human development and security within the global community. As the 2008 election cycle nears the final countdown, it is increasingly urgent that the candidates raise their sights beyond a narrow domestic financial focus to understanding our multiple crises within an interconnected global framework. Only by recognizing the intimate connection between the health of the natural world and the well-being of human communities can the common future of the earth community be secured.

For more information, see our 2008 Election materials on climate change, poverty and livelihoods: