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Reflections on the Dust Bowl

Dust storm in Texas in 1935. What happens when a massive front of denial meets with nature?

I’ve been reading Daniel Worster’s Dust Bowl, a classic on the massive dust storms which hit the Southern Plains in the 1930s. Worster presents the dust bowl as a product of economic and cultural forces as much as a physical phenomenon. His description of the plainsmen’s attitudes and behavior toward the crisis is eerily similar to the responses of some to modern crises. One passage in particular provides a useful description of behavior in prolonged crises:

The pattern of reaction among plainsmen went something like this: fail to anticipate drought, underestimate its duration when it comes, expect rain momentarily, deny that they are as hard hit as outsiders believe, defend the region against critics, admit that some help would be useful, demand that the government act and act quickly, insist that federal aid be given without strings and when and where local residents want it, vote for those politicians who confirm the people’s optimism and pooh-pooh the need for major reform, resent interference by the bureaucrats, eagerly await the return of “normalcy” when the plain will once more proceed along the road of steady progress.

(Worster, 1979)

This pattern is not limited to the culture and conditions of southern plains farmers. It holds true for the reactions of corporations as well. Replace “drought” with “economic downturn” and “rain” with “normalcy” and the passage could equally be describing the reaction of American investment banks or auto companies from just a couple of years ago. This might be the norm too where human action, or inaction, meets natural forces (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, drought in the West, climate change, etc.).

Meanwhile, there is still some hope that this pattern does not have to persist. Take Texas’s modern response to drought, for example. Initially, it looked to follow the same pattern of denial-based optimism. Last year, in response to severe drought and subsequent wildfires Governor Perry called on Texans to pray for rain. At the same time, the State Water Plan–which regulates water quality, usage, and transfers–failed to account for the impacts of climate change and severe drought on available water. This year, though, the actions seem to be changing. The new draft State Water Plan considers the likely scenario that severe droughts will continue in Texas and the impact of climate change.

Texas’s move from denial to acceptance looks to be positive. What is yet to be seen is whether it will take a sober look at the possible consequences of climate change and prolonged drought and regulate accordingly, or if it will follow Worster’s description and is still underestimating the size of the problem.

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