“This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home, And I got to be driftin’ along.”
-Woody Guthrie, “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh”
This past weekend I watched Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” a great, insightful documentary drawing parallels to the dust bowl of the 1930’s and today’s environmental and climate crisis.
And of course it’s sponsored by Bank of America.
As a former history teacher, I can appreciate a new telling of environmental history before our movement even began. But as an organizer targeting the root causes of climate change and the banks that fund them, I have to wonder what is going on?
The PBS documentary, which aired this month, chronicles America’s worst man-made ecological disaster. A deadly combination of the frenzied wheat boom of the “Great Plow-Up,” followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, wrecked America’s heartland.
The disaster was completely man made. During the 1910’s and 1920’s, the “Great Plow Up” had transformed millions of acres of natural grassland into wheat fields. With the Great Depression, farmers responded to falling wheat prices first with tearing up more land for bumper crops, and then many simply abandoned their fields.
When the drought of the 1930’s engulfed America’s breadbasket, there were no natural defenses to prevent the region from turning into a virtual “dust bowl.” Dust storms became commonplace. Static electricity disabled vehicles and could knock a man to the ground with a mere handshake. 850 million tons of top soil blew away in 1935. Dirt and dust blew as far away as New York City and Washington D.C. Incidentally, the dust bowl had “deniers” who said the phenomenon was “God’s will” or part of the natural cycle. (Sound familiar?)
The parallels drawn between the dust bowl and climate change in the film are stark. Markets and investors drove agricultural development, which led to the ecological crisis of the 1930’s. Big profits and fossil fuel prices today drive everything from tar sands development to coal exports, leading us to growing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Watching “The Dust Bowl” is a constant reminder to me of the extreme weather (hurricanes, drought, wildfires, etc.,) fueled by climate change, which we’ve been seeing more and more of over recent years. Furthermore, the poverty of communities in the 1930s dust bowl and the poverty of communities in today’s extraction zones were eerily familiar.
The lessons of Burns’ documentary seem to be lost on Bank of America’s decision-makers. Instead, they are spending big bucks on another public relations campaign, promoting environmental values and a history that needs to be learned from, while they continue to make profit from coal and other fossil fuels and ignoring the lessons of the past.