Adapting to the new dust bowl

Drought in the Southwest is causing a new dust bowl. How can residents adapt?

By , Guest blogger

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    In this file photo, dry dirt billows into the air as a worker tills a farm field. The Southwest is experiencing terrible drought conditions, but Kahn predicts that our past experience with dust bowl conditions and technological advance will help this region to cope and adjust.
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Due to drought in the Southwest, a new "Dust Bowl" is now playing. For some dramatic video, watch this. What are the strategies such that this area can adapt to these conditions? One newspaper article reported that part of the solution will be to plant native plants that are more likely to withstand drought conditions. If the plants stay alive then the soil is less likely to blow away. For some facts about keeping vegetative cover read this.

A leading young economist named Rick Hornbeck has written about the past impacts of the Dust Bowl. Here is the abstract from his study;

"The 1930's American Dust Bowl was an environmental catastrophe that greatly eroded sections of
the Plains. Analyzing new data collected to identify low-, medium-, and high-erosion counties, the
Dust Bowl is estimated to have immediately, substantially, and persistently reduced agricultural land
values and revenues. During the Depression and through at least the 1950's, there was limited reallocation
of farmland from activities that became relatively less productive. Agricultural adjustments, such
as reallocating land from crops to livestock, recovered only 14% to 28% of the initial agricultural cost.
The economy adjusted predominately through migration, rather than through capital inflows and increased
industry."

So, note the adaptation. The geographical area suffered but economic activity moved. It wasn't costless but it did happen. I predict that our past experience with dust bowl conditions and technological advance will help this region to cope and adjust with the new dust bowl.

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Consider this quote that highlights the role of increased out migration (and reduced in -migration) in adapting to these Dust Bowl shocks:

"From 1930 to 1940, the unemployment rate increased by 0.71 percentage points in high-erosion counties (Table 5, column 5). The increase was gone by 1950, however, and medium-erosion counties had no increase in unemployment after 1940. Declining populations may have prevented further unemployment, because there is little evidence of an increase in manufacturing."

Note that the land (and the land owners) suffered but the people can protect themselves by clearing out.
As Rick says in his conclusion:

"The experience of the American Dust Bowl highlights that agricultural costs from environmental destruction need not be mostly mitigated by agricultural adjustments, and that mass migration may result."

Did civil unrest and dislocation occur as this population moved? No. Free markets mediated this transition. This is another example of Climatopolis at work. Capitalism aids the adaptation to the new shock.

Now in 2011, how do we handle "Dust Bowl"? To read more click here.

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