Dust Bowl lesson: We can heal ecological disaster

'The Dust Bowl,' part I, aired Sunday night on PBS stations. The Ken Burns documentary points to how the Dust Bowl was man-made – and overcome with smarter policies and practices.

Associated Press/File
Children cover their faces against swirling dust storms while pumping water in Springfield, Colo., in 1935. Thousands of acres of wind-whipped eroded farmland turned the region into the Dust Bowl during the decade, a disaster made worse because of human practices.

Almost three weeks to the day after hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States, PBS aired the first part of Ken Burns's new two-part documentary "The Dust Bowl."

On the face of it, the two disasters have little in common. One is wet; the other is dry. They're eight decades apart. The superstorm knocked out power for weeks; the Dust Bowl knocked out livelihoods over a decade and caused massive migrations.

The troubling link is that the Dust Bowl's dryness was made worse by human practices and Sandy's flooding was made worse by rising oceans, probably linked to human-induced climate change.

One can take that two ways. Pessimists can say it's a bad omen that more destructive coastal storms are on the way. Optimists can point to the eventual public response to the Dust Bowl: a dramatic change in agricultural practices and government programs that have mitigated soil erosion in the southern Great Plains.

With government encouragement, farmers began to diversify and rotate their crops to keep more moisture in the soil, use new tilling systems that leaves more crop residue on the surface, and stop overgrazing the land. Later, they installed irrigation systems. If farmers and politicians could come up with solutions to a great disaster like the Dust Bowl, can their descendants come up with reasonable solutions to warming?

"The Dust Bowl is the greatest man-made – man-made – ecological disaster in the history of the United States and perhaps the world," says Mr. Burns in an interview with James West of The Climate Desk, a collaboration between The Atlantic, Mother JonesSlate, and other media outlets. "The horrible positive side of Sandy , if there could be the silver lining, is ... that people have come to understand that you can't have two 100-year storms in two years. You've got to suddenly wake up and say: 'My goodness, what can we do together?' And a lot of it goes back and hearkens to the lessons of the Dust Bowl about planning for the long term."

The progress in Great Plains agriculture comes with a caveat. Although farmers and ranchers have reduced erosion, they have become increasingly reliant on irrigation, which despite various improvements is drying out ground-water aquifers. So their future is not assured.  

Still, 70 years after the last storms of the Dust Bowl fizzled away, the US has managed to repair what seemed an overwhelming environmental disaster at the time. Burns's new documentary is a reminder that the nation has the capacity to take action when disaster looms large.

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