Lessons From the Dust Bowl
The dust-bowl era of the ‘dirty thirties’ was the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, and one of the worst in the world. If you take into account the short time-frame of human intervention which lead up to this dark decade — compared to many generations, or many centuries, for other global environmental catastrophes — it could even be described as the worst. With just a few decades of lead time, vast areas of grassland-protected soils, which had previously been stable for thousands of years, took flight, relatively speaking, virtually overnight.
It was truly a disaster of Biblical proportions.
I think we would do well to consider this period. You know what they say about those who fail to study history…. With recent events evidencing a possible return to a dust-bowl type situation, one might be forgiven for thinking we’ve already forgotten the hard-learned lessons from that time — lessons people paid for with their livelihoods, their health and even their lives. And, with the U.S. population now being roughly three times what it was during the 1930s, and with international dependency on U.S.-grown grain being another factor to take into account, can we afford to see vast tracts of precious topsoil blown out into the oceans once more? Increased populations, if not rising in tandem with increased environmental stability, translates to acute vulnerability.
In the video above, a very interesting commentary on a new PBS film, The Dust Bowl, by Ken Burns, you’ll learn about a very important law — the law of diminishing returns. This is where economic ambition meets environmental reality — and this is where man learns that whilst Mother Nature gives her all, she will, once done, negotiate no further. Ultimately, Nature does not punish us — rather, we punish ourselves through our ignorance and greed.
As permaculturists know well, the dust-bowl era need not have been. Misplaced values, and a general lack of observation and common sense combined with inappropriate economic incentives, all set the stage for this great tragedy.
Before I leave you to watch the excellent video above, I want to use this moment to share news on another, more recent, tragedy. This one is found in Australia, where people are learning other hard lessons. Bids to restore the great Murray River watershed have become an ill-planned and expensive farce as a 5.7 million dollar tree-planting project resulted in most of the 2.5 million trees subsequently dying. If only we could turn back the clock and get a small army of permaculturists involved in such endeavours…. If you think the struggling economy means your future looks bleak — please think again! There are projects waiting to happen near you, as we continue to raise awareness and continue to showcase permaculture successes. An observant, passionate permaculturist has a world of opportunities in the wings, and, further, if we can find a way to overturn our present economic model — getting it to appreciate and incentivise the things that really matter — then there need be no unemployment with all the restorative work that is waiting to be done.
We don’t need to resign ourselves to a future of dust, dearth and death. The design toolbox that permaculturists possess has solutions to deal with our present and our future — the only obstacle is raising awareness, which we (the PRI) are working very hard to achieve. Thanks to all of you who contribute by sending in articles, comments and who share them widely. We’ve already helped to make ‘permaculture’ a household word in Australia. Now we’ve just got to see this happen worldwide.