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Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?
(Released June 2006)

 
  by Ethan Goffman  

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The Dust Bowl: Blowing in the Wind

Contents

Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke.
--John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

A dust storm blackens the sky
Dust Storm near Dalhart, Texas, 1936

The Okies who populate The Grapes of Wrath are an early example of environmental refugees, people driven from their homes by the forces of nature. With the grasslands of the southern Great Plains torn away to make room for agriculture, and a period of drought, erosion was rampant. Timothy Egan describes the appearance of the first black duster, in 1930: "People called the government to find out what was up with this dirty, swirling thing in the sky. . . . The strange thing about it, the weather bureau observers said, was that it rolled, like a mobile hill of crud, and it was black."1 Throughout the 1930s, windstorms swept vast clouds of dust, dirt, and grit across the prairie. As Steinbeck describes it, "men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes."2

With the land producing little or no food, some one-third of the farmers in the center of the dust bowl chose to migrate,3 many following Route 66 west to California, which had long advertised for migrant labor. "Those families which had lived on a little piece of land, who had lived and died on forty acres, had eaten or starved on the produce of forty acres, now had the whole West to rove in. And they scampered about looking for work; and the highways were streams of people, and the ditch banks were lines of people."4 Ironically, many of these were recent immigrants to the dust bowl states, enticed by cheap land, whose farming practices had helped create the conditions driving their flight.

map of prime dustbowl states
The Dust Bowl

Critics have pointed out that The Grapes of Wrath is rife with inaccuracies, fitting Steinbeck's socialist beliefs to create a mythology of a scorned people driven from their homes by the actions of distant, greedy capitalists. The novel emphasizes the machinery of capitalism-both literally in the form of the tractor, and figuratively in the banking system-driving families from their homes: "One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop."5 Yet the hardships of the dust bowl can better be attributed to bad luck in the occurrence of successive droughts, and to ignorance about how to manage natural resources.

A massive conversion to agriculture preceded the dust bowl: "in just five years, 1925 to 1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plains-an area the size of two Yellowstone National Parks."6 The area was also victimized by agricultural practices unsuited for that particular environment with its low rainfall. For most settlers, "their farming experience was based on conditions in the more humid eastern United States, so the crops and cultivation practices they chose often were not suitable for the Great Plains. But the earliest settlements occurred during a wet cycle, and the first crops flourished, so settlers were encouraged to continue practices that would later have to be abandoned."7 Lack of crop rotation, particularly overplanting of wheat, was one mistake.8 New technology, such as the disc plow, left the land more vulnerable than ever, while marginal land was increasingly exploited, causing greater soil erosion.9

farmer crouches on parched land
Minnesota farm blighted by drought, 1936
Not just natural, but economic factors were crucial in driving the Okies to pack up and leave. Indeed, the intertwining of factors, so important in most cases of environmental refugees, is crucial to understanding the dust bowl. Vast increases in agricultural production had driven prices down, forcing farmers to adopt new technologies, and to farm marginal land, thus stripping the land of its natural defenses. The unfortunate coinciding of the Great Depression with a series of droughts made the dust bowl years a paradigmatic expression of natural disaster and environmental flight.

The reaction to the dust bowl came partly out of Washington, DC, in new policies that paid farmers not to plant crops. This attacked the economic part of the problem, the oversupply of crops. The ecological solution came from new farm policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt favored massive tree planting,10 although this was in disharmony with the Great Plains' ecosystem. More effective were new soil conservation strategies favored by Hugh Bennett, the head of the newly created Soil Erosion Service. He initiated "community farming districts where everyone would agree to practice a strict set of conservation rules, rotating crops, fallowing land, abandoning tear-up-the-earth methods of plowing."11 Replanting grasslands was another part of the conservation effort. New technology allowed better irrigation use of the vast Ogallala aquifer, unknown before the 20th Century. Wind breaks, crop rotation, and surface cover are some of the techniques used to prevent erosion.12

Finally, the end of a period of droughts in 1940 signaled the conclusion of the dust bowl. New environmental policies have prevented a repeat of such conditions. Explains one analyst, the "subsidy system continued through the present and the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) created a stable niche promoting wise agricultural land management and soil mapping."13 Humans had learned how to work the land, within its natural environment, to avoid the conditions that spawn environmental refugees. Whether, and how well, we are remembering these lessons, and applying them on a global scale with continually changing technologies, remains a work in progress.

Go To What Is an "Environmental Refugee"?

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