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The Dust Bowl:
From the Roaring Twenties to the Dirty Thirties
Mary Ryals
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There are various theories explaining the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In Donald Worster's article, "Grassland Follies: Agricultural Capitalism on the Plains" he considers the main reason to be a combination between nature and economics. Indeed, the grasslands were torn apart by entrepreneurs trying to get rich in the 1930s. It resulted in neglect of the land's needs. The combination of millions of acres being torn apart and the natural drought brought circumstances that led to the Dust Bowl.

Millions of entrepreneurs headed to the Great Plains to make a buck, yet lacked the knowledge to understand what the effects millions of acres of overworked land would cause. "Nor was it exclusively or primarily drought that disrupted the ecological system of the Plains; it was humans and the economic culture pushing them ahead" (Worster 213). With their lack of consideration of the consequences for the land, mass production of wheat conjured the historic Dust Bowl. "A long series of willful human misunderstandings and assaults led finally to a collapse whose origins were mainly cultural" (Cronon 1348). As Worster suggests in his thesis: "Whether defined as climate, as vegetation, as the presence or absence of water, as soil and topography, or more compositely as ecosystem and biosphere, nature has been a force to be reckoned with in social evolution"(206). Worster is arguing his point, and relaying the points of other writers, specifically Walter Prescott Webb and James Malin, in order to harden his argument. Worster clearly believes nature should strongly be considered when dealing with social and economic changes in order to prevent problems that erupt due to the combination of natural circumstances and economy.

Worster illustrates his beliefs and reasons for writing his article at the beginning when he states, "My main purpose here is to move toward a cultural explanation for this disaster, one that will, when complete, be adequate to its significance and alert to its complexity" (207). Without considering circumstances of the natural effects, human made scenarios conflicted with already hazardous natural conditions. People were working the land to the core trying to become rich. As Worster states: "For a few at least they made the region say money instead of grass" (214). It seemed as though the old fashioned love for the land was replaced by a dream to become wealthy.

William Cronon, author of "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative", looks into the comparison between ecological causes and cultural reasons that determine the cause of the Dust Bowl. "A fundamental premise of my field is that human acts occur within a network of relationships, processes, and systems that are as ecological as they are cultural" (Cronon 1349). Cronon considers the Dust Bowl to be equally caused by both environmental effects, and the actions of humans.

At first, this migration to the plains was accepted. "Entrepreneurialism was not a new cultural innovation on the Plains" (Worster 214). People could get rich and provide for the war. "It deliberately made, with no end of paradox, the pursuit of private wealth into a social ethic" (Worster 215). It was considered a blessing how much wheat and other crops could be produced in the acreage provided. Millions of acres of land in the plains was destroyed and turned into vast dusty fields. With the lack of grass to hold down the dust, and the vast flat distances, the Dust Bowl occurred. The combination of agriculturally abused loose ground with natural dry skies resulted in a disaster.

Land in the Great Plains is naturally dry and wind provoked. An article by an anonymous writer for a magazine in Chicago, Discover, discusses a researcher's discovery about the history of droughts in the plains region:

But if Kathleen Laird [researcher] is right, dust bowl conditions may be far from unusual for the Great Plains. Her research shows that the region has suffered repeated droughts for thousands of years, but the last 700 years have in fact been unusually wet (Discover 1).
Laird's discovery explains how nature does have a binding role in conditions leading up to the Dust Bowl. According to Laird, droughts in the plains region "not only persisted for centuries at a time, but occurred much more frequently than they do today" (1). The natural historical conditions of the Great Plains combined with the extensive acreage of land that was being plowed and used for agriculture, supply two ingredients that area needed to result in the Dust Bowl.

Emphasizing the lack of rain in the plains region is important to defining the reasons the Dust Bowl occurred. It is recognized, however, that the Dust Bowl did not occur only because of the drought. "During the 1930s, there was a particularly bad drought, with many dust storms. Then the drought ended. A lot of people began to pump water out of the ground for use on their fields and in their towns" (Cronon 1351). What is being emphasized is how droughts in the plains were not unusual. Dust storms happened often, and people knew how to handle them. What made the Dust Bowl different and more historical is the severity of it. " For scholars who share my perspective, the importance of the natural world, its objective effects on people, and the concrete ways people affect it in turn are not at issue; they are the very heart of our intellectual project" (Cronon 1349). If dust storms were fairly common, and farmers and townspeople of the plains were prepared to bounce back, then that should conclude the Dust Bowl was due to a combination of natural circumstance and economy.

In 1983, Americans started noticing a recurrence of the Dust Bowl from the 1930s. Once again, the land had been taken advantage of and the winds were picking up. A mixture of natural circumstances and human neglect of the land started creating what was noticed as a recurrence of the Dust Bowl. Farmers seemed to not care about the consequences by what they had learned before. "For example, Time [magazine] reported that wheat operators had torn up the sod on 6.4 acres of marginal grasslands in Montana and Colorado" (Worster 217). Again, the yearning for wealth and the neglect of nature nearly resulted in another Dust Bowl as it had as far back as the nineteen tens and twenties. Worster hypothesizes how the role of history in the Great Plains region estimates how and why there was a Dust Bowl:

Any attempt to understand the cultural roots of the Dust Bowl must begin with a scrutiny of Great Plains rural society in the late 1910s and the 1920s…a brief summary of the history of those years will tell us much about how and why there was a Dust Bowl (211).
The people did not change from the early twentieth century to the later part when it came to agriculture and consideration of nature. The nature of the area was uncontrollable, and so combining the agricultural stress on the land that had already shown its weakness resulted in the Dust Bowl.

Government decided to take action. A "sod-buster" bill was passed to exclude pay from the government to crop owners farming on highly erodable land. Finally, a higher authority took charge and demanded the land be protected. Historically, the nineteen thirties are looked at for educational values concerning the earth, and how to maintain the conditions and still be able to produce mass crops each year. "The Great Plains have uniquely had an impact on the historical imagination because conditions of settlement there have presented so stark a contrast with those in more humid American environments" (Worster 207). Looking back, it was traumatic for the Americans to go from "roaring twenties" to "dirty thirties". It would seem to be a lesson that was learned. Unfortunately, the traumatic Dust Bowl nearly occurred twice more.

Naturally, with the help of humans, the Great Plains could again become dangerous. "Very recent evidence, however, indicates that the entrepreneur is still around, still sitting tall in the tractor seat-and the old danger is not over" (Worster 217). The problem is people care about getting rich quickly and mass production. The area at hand is known for dry weather. "Crops sometimes failed for lack of rain" (Cronon 1351). It is human nature that gives people the drive for fast wealth. Tearing up the land does not seem to be a bother. America's history offers complete knowledge of prevention of further Dust Bowls. Without proper preparation and consideration, the plains could give in to another historical dust storm such as the Dust Bowl. Given the natural circumstances and the lack of preparation for such a drought, a recurrence of America's Dust Bowl can happen anywhere in the world.

Various explanations are abundant when trying to describe the cause of the Dust Bowl. But of these different theories, a combination of two is the most practical. When naturally the area is dry and apt to dust storms, and then millions of farmers came in and began over-using the land, the Dust Bowl occurred. The grasslands and prairies were mangled by entrepreneurs rushing to get wealthy. In conclusion, the Dust Bowl was the result of a drought and economic irresponsibility.

Works Cited

Cronon, William. "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative." The Journal of American History 78.4 (1992): 1347-76.

"The Once and Future Dust Bowl." Discover 18.4 (1997): 16-17.

Worster, Donald. "Grassland Follies: Agricultural Capitalism on the Plains." The Great Plains: Writing Across the Disciplines. Ed. Brad Gambill, et al. Ft. Worth: Harcourt Custom Publishers, 2001. 206-19.

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