History is Written By the Winners
I remember learning about The Dust Bowl in school but only recently realized our curriculum included a fraction of the whole history. We memorized dates and trivial knowledge about these years but didn’t scratch the surface regarding why it happened or what caused it. How the whole thing could have been prevented…that wasn’t something we covered. Not one single lesson was gleaned after studying “the greatest natural disaster in America’s history” according to Timothy Egan, in his book, “The Worst of the Hard Times”. But it wasn’t because there were no lessons to be learned.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” -George Santayana
Let’s start with some staggering facts
Diving into Egan’s book, I was astonished by many of the wild stats furnished. His descriptions of the events that occurred during this time in American history sound like something out of a science fiction movie. The recent images we’ve received from Perservearance on the surface of Mars seem like a fair comparison. A few of his stats:
- In one afternoon, over 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was moved.
- Twice as much dirt was moved in a single afternoon as was relocated during the entire construction of the Panama Canal, which took seven years.
- There was so much static electricity from the dust people couldn’t touch each other without the fear of being knocked down by the electric charge.
- Barbed wire fences glowed red from the electricity generated during some storms.
- Originating in the Dakotas, some dust storms were so large and expansive that soil from them reached New York and Washington D.C.
As I continued to read the history, I was amazed these facts never made the lesson plan. But as I got further into it, a clear understanding began to form. The scale of this natural disaster could have been prevented. Not only could it have been prevented but it was exacerbated via policies implemented by the American government. The entire situation was made exponentially worse due to people’s greed, as they ravaged the land.
Disastrous chain of events
Droughts in the Great Plains region aren’t anything new. Some were even worse than the drought leading to the Dust Bowl. Richard Seager and Celine Herweijer use tree ring analysis and weather simulations to accurately interpret the natural causes of these historical droughts in their article, “Causes and consequences of nineteenth century droughts in North America”.
The drought that hit the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl was inevitable, but the severity could have been prevented. Government agencies implemented the Homestead Act after the Civil War, which drove settlers to the Great Plains. Once there, they were goaded into relying heavily on wheat as their crop of choice. After World War I, prices inflated and demand increased. There was money to be made.
Even though the farming practices proved to be destructive, government agencies stuck to the claims that American land was an infinite resource. More settlers moved in, looking to make a quick buck, leading to even more destruction. The soil eroded significantly, leaving a landscape, once naturally protected by wild grasses, barren and dry. It was these poor farming practices, mass cultivation of land with unsuitable crops, and the natural occurrences of droughts that lead to the decade of destruction known as the Dust Bowl.
History only repeats itself if we let it
The stereotype that history repeats itself is a stereotype for a reason. History is full of recurring themes. During the Dust Bowl, the droughts were thought to be signs of Climate Change. As people found themselves poorer and hungrier, they resorted to blaming marginalized communities like the Jewish or Native Americans for their problems. Political power changed as candidates clung to issues affecting large portions of the American people. Any of this sound familiar?
The winners will always write history but we live in a day and age where we have the opportunity to research and discover the true history ourselves. Our connectivity as a species and our liberties as a nation allow us to uncover the whole story. We need to make a point to use this information to keep from repeating the terrible histories of our past. Take the time to dig deeper, learn more than the basics we’re taught, and fully invest in history so we can provide a better future.