DUST BOWL: The Southern Plains in the 1930s by Donald Worster

DUST BOWL: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

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Worster offers us a plausible thesis overextended, suggestive information, and some large gaps between the two. Squarely in the appropriate-technology/small-is-beautiful camp, Worster argues that the Dust Bowl is the consequence of the inherent conflict between capitalist expansionism and ecological sensitivity. He sees the plains farmer as an optimistic gambler who tries to maximize his profits by plowing up marginal lands, concentrating on a single cash crop, and over-investing in expensive machinery. When prices fall or the rains fail--as they must in Worster's view--ecological and economic disaster follow. Given the narrow, ideological constraint, the only solution he can entertain is a basic change in American economic and social values. Once off the soapbox, and into case studies of Cimarron, Oklahoma, and Haskell, Kansas, he shows--usefully--what happened to communities rather than dwelling on personal tragedies. Cimarron was the ""archetypal Dust Bowl community--eroded, depopulated, broke, and on relief."" As the cattle industry collapsed, locals went to the movies to worship mythic Anglo cowboys, while the real Mexican cowboys around them starved. In Haskell, on the periphery of the worst blow area, things should have been better; but the footloose spirit and get-rich-quick mentality caused its social structure to crumble from drought, just as Cimarron's did from the wind. Worster then turns to the conservationist movement of the Thirties, tracing the shift from wilderness-preservation (in TR's time) to agricultural conservation under FDR. And while ecologists like Frederic Clement and Paul Sears took a broad view, agronomists looked for technical solutions (such as tree planting and contour farming). Meanwhile the New Deal approach reinforced the optimism of the farmer by helping him through the crisis. What Worster overlooks in this tendentious, only spottily illuminating tract is that optimism does not equal capitalism does not equal culture.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press