Monday, March 3, 2008


I am a child of “the Dust Bowl,” both as a point in time and geography. The time was between 1931 and 1939. The epicenter was a light-bulb-shaped one hundred million acre area on the High Plains that extended from the Republican River in extreme southern Nebraska 800 miles south to Lubbock, Texas, from southeastern Colorado 500 miles east to central Kansas. The area included the northeastern part of New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle.

When a friend loaned me a copy of Timothy Egan’s
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, you may rightly conclude that it more than piqued my curiosity. As I read what Walter Cronkite has called “This is can’t-put-it-down history,” I was transported back in time to what my family experienced; but I hardly read a page without thinking about the very present threat of global warming.

More than a quarter a million people fled the area during the 30’s. Egan points out that
John Steinbeck tells part of the story, but his “Exodusdusters” were from eastern Oklahoma, mostly tenant farmers fleeing the ruined by the collapse of the economy. Surprisingly, almost two-thirds of the people living in the area of the Dust Bowl in 1930 stayed. They, including my people, were the survivors, who were too hard-headed, too poor, or too crazy to leave. Check out these pictures.

I was too young to remember the Dust Bowl itself, but when it reappeared for shorter periods in the late forties and early 50s I remember. Someone would spot the large red/black clouds on the northern horizon. The principal would call us all out of class and tell us to get home in a hurry. When I got home, it would be as dark as night. My mother would be stuffing wet towels around the windows and under the doors in a fruitless attempt to keep out the dust. You even had difficulty with visibility in the house. And you had difficulty breathing. Even with those memories, it is still difficult to imagine what Egan describes:

A Sunday in mid-April 1935 dawned quiet, windless, and bright. In the afternoon, the sky went purple—as if it were sick3and the temperature plunged. People looked northwest and saw a ragged topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap. Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship’s prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.
One has to wonder about the sanity of those who stayed, for as Egan writes,
Hurricanes that buried city blocks farther south, tornadoes that knocked down everything in their paths, grassfires that burned from one horizon to the other—all have come and gone through the southern planes. But nothing has matched the black blizzards. American meteorologists rated the Dust Bowl the number one weather event of the twentieth century. And as they go over the scars of the land, historians say it was the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster.
That is, perhaps, until global warming, or as it is euphemistically called “climate change” to minimize the reality.

Between 1970 and 2000 Arctic sea ice coverage has been reduced by over one million square miles, almost one-third of the land mass of the United States. You would have thought we would have noticed. What is that old expression, “out of sight, out of mind”? The
polar bears and the native people who live on the Arctic coast did notice, as well as scientists who have been measuring sea ice for years.

In the early 1930s people in the east didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in the mid-west either. “Can’t those people take a little wind?” was a not uncommon dismissal. But then in 1934 a storm carried three tons of dirt for every living American and deposited it from Chicago eastward. Dust fell like snow in Boston and New York, and onto ships as far as 250 miles out in the Atlantic. That got the country’s attention.

When Franklin Roosevelt took office in January of 1933 he knew the country was in crisis, not just an economic depression but an ecological cataclysm in the mid-west. In his inaugural he made clear a sense of urgency: "This nation asks for action, and action now"; "We must act, we must act quickly.” And, he did. Within his
first hundred days and in his second hundred days he took action on many fronts. Some of them succeeded and some of them failed.

In mid-1936 the report of the “
Great Plains Drought Area Committee” was delivered to the President. The conclusion was unambiguous. The problem was not the weather; this was marginal land for agriculture in the best of times and this drought was not out of character.

One primary source of disaster has been the destruction of millions of acres of this natural cover, an act which in such a series of dry years as that through which we are now passing left the loose soil exposed to the winds. This destruction has keen caused partly by over grazing, partly by excessive plowing.
The problem was human-caused! It was not what Roosevelt wanted to hear, but the host of scientists assembled for the study and his most trusted aide on the land told him the unpleasant truth. He accepted the report and immediately began to act on it. His actions turned around the terrible loss of land and so also the direction of the nation.

None of this looks like the political leadership we have seen on global warming, does it? With some extraordinary winter conditions in both hemispheres this past year, on Wednesday
Marc Morano, communications director for the Republican minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, issued a press release titled, “Earth’s ‘Fever’ Breaks: Global COOLING Currently Under Way.”

For those, not in the anti-science administration, Dr. Ignatius G. Rigor, a climate scientist at the Polar Science Center of the University of Washington in Seattle, said in response to Morano’ release,

“Climate skeptics typically take a few small pieces of the puzzle to debunk global warming, and ignore the whole picture that the larger science community sees by looking at all the pieces.”
He reminded us that the argument for growing human influence on climate was laid out convincingly in last year’s reports from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or I.P.C.C., and was supported by evidence from many fields.

When a new President takes office next year, we need one with the leadership skills that FDR demonstrated during the 1930s. He took the heat for declaring that the Dust Bowl was human-caused. Will we have a President who will unambiguously declare what the best of science has been saying for years—Global Warming is human-caused. And, will the new President, like FDR did the Dust Bowl, treat Global Warming for the threat that it is? This nation and the world cannot afford more denial.

Can you understand why, as I read The Worst Hard Time, I was not only thinking about my parents and grandparents, but I was thinking about my children and their children?

- Milo

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