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The Dust Bowl and Agricultural Capitalism:
An Environmental Disaster to the Plains Region
Geoff Sites
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Writings from historians illustrated the period of the Dust Bowl, and history reflected that agricultural profits clouded the minds of farmers during the early 1900s. No regard was given to the effect their over-farming caused to the environment. A professor of history, Brad Lookingbill, interpreted the destroying of the environment from the Dust Bowl in his book, Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, as “The understanding of the dust originated with an irregular but dreadful environment, a dystopia.” (1). Donald Worster, a western historian, agreed in his essay “Grassland Follies: Agricultural Capitalism on the Plains,” that “the Dust Bowl made emphatically clear the consequences nature has for people, the surprises she can bring to those who leave her out of their calculations.” (207). They believed that farmers created this problem for themselves. The mishaps made by farmers contributed to the start of a downward spiral that resulted in the Dust Bowl for farmers with droughts, dust, and depression that soon would ruin farming possibilities.

As settlers began to travel into western lands, they brought new agricultural ideas with them. Farms soon expanded across the new lands. Advancements in farming machinery soon cultivated the Plains into a vast farmland. Changing nature into farmland turned farmland into money; thus, placing a capitalistic idea on farming. The more land the farmer farmed the more profit he made which caused more damage to the environment. Capitalistic farmers chose profits over environmental conservation. The expansion of farmland for large scale farming and possessing the equipment to produce mass profits from agricultural capitalism resulted in a wave of agriculture production in the Plains region, which degraded the quality of the environment.

The Great Plow-up was the start of the Dust Bowl, which soon meant an end to farming and plant life. Investment minded farmers chased opportunity and high profits. This fueled the expansion of farmland and agricultural technology to the Plains. As Worster explains, “Essentially the great plow-up was the work of a generation of aggressive entrepreneurs, embued with the values and world view of American agricultural capitalism.” (214). These farmers took an investment in farming and financed the machines that would plow-up and replace nature with fields of agricultural profit. Exposing a bare geographically flat region, to wind erosion caused the area to be engulfed in dust storms. Dust storms soon depleted farms and agricultural expansion ended. For profit, the farm and the land died with the Dust Bowl. The over- production of Plains resulted in advancements in agricultural technology beneficial to the entrepreneur farmers financially, but produced the problems of dust storms in the Plains. The invention of the Malin machine resulted in transportable expensive agricultural equipment and made farmers of investors. The profitable agriculture market was an investment land mine, but high profits from agriculture lured long range investors called suit case farmers, who financed equipment for farming but also destroyed the environment by doing so. Lookingbill attributes agricultural expansion of modern technology, irrigation projects, and farming on a larger scale caused the dust storms, “In frontier sense and fantasy, the stories about droughts, erosion, and disasters strengthen the interconnections between humans and the environment.” (128). This shows the power humans have on the environment in which they live. The innovations made in the industry of agriculture effected the capitol minded farmer, by giving him the ability to farm more land and increase profits but in exchange money raised the possibility of dust storms. Advancements seemed good for the farmer but greed for profits and land soon destroyed life, money, and the environment of the Plains.

Entrepreneurs advanced the Dust Bowl with their new ideas. Entrepreneurs stayed focused on profits from farming and saw the environmental risks as being acceptable when compared to the amount of economic success they received from agriculture. Agriculture offered an investment factor to entrepreneurs; “the agricultural entrepreneur stood for the idea that the land’s true and only end was to become a commodity—something to be used, bought, and sold, for human gain.” (214). Western expansion was caused by capitalistic farmers chasing after huge profits in farming. Profits benefited agriculture and convinced many Americans to invest in farming, but proved to be destructive to the land. Environmentalists warned farmers of the problem they were creating, as Lookingbill suggests; “Ironically, spirited resisters to the variations on a frontier theme park roared about their own ‘stubborn adaptability’ and ‘ingenuity”’(127). The agricultural enterprise stood on the shoulders of risk taking farmers. Entrepreneur farmers were individualists, and followed their own beliefs, paying no attention to the idea of environmental devastation.

Profit fueled farmers to cultivate a large percent of native fields for the expansion of farms: “the machine made possible, as it made common, an exploitative relationship with earth-a bond predominately commercial-so that the land became little more than a form of capital that must be made to pay as much as possible”(Worster 212). The agricultural industry had changed, becoming a profitable business due to capitalistic ideas of associating land with money. By changing a vast amount of land into farming possibilities, profits increase with capitalistic idea. Agricultural capitalism produced an environmental disaster by furthering the money-seeking entrepreneur to cultivate the land to a point where the land falls apart. The Dust Bowl was a problem that plagued the Plains because of entrepreneur forced expansion on agricultural frontiers. Capitalistic farming principles produced unbelievable profits farmers. Money overruled the possibility of the Dust Bowl. The region became an agricultural crisis where each development in agriculture caused a negative effect on the people, the ideas, and the environment in which they live. This affected the agricultural community by causing new cultural perspectives of life and money for the farmer. The Dust Bowl is historically important because it showed the mistakes and the consequences of over-farming on the land.

The perceptions of the historian, Malin, fueled the settlers with the idea that the dust storms were natural. He believed that nature’s normal cycles were the cause of a drought to the Plains, and his ideas furthered the progression of agricultural capitalism hurting the environment of the region. Lookingbill describes Malin's beliefs: “Blowing dirt, Malin contended with great passion, was a recurring phenomenon and fitted into the whole ‘economy of nature.’ The agitation of politicians, the sensationalism of social activists, and lack of historical perspective, however, exaggerated the dust bowl.” (3). Malin was well respected and his opinions were accepted by farmers. Worster believes that Malin’s influence on farmers causes the problem of dust storms to exist. He explains the cause of the dust bowl as not natural, “The dirty thirties were largely the outcome of a well-established, long-maturing economic culture, that of agricultural capitalism.” (211). Agricultural capitalism pushed farmers to farm and in turn this pushed the possibility of dust storms.

The government offered protection to risk taking entrepreneurs. The New Deal and governmental programs made farmers feel protected against dust storms, but furthered the problem into the Dust Bowl. Worster believed this created economic freedoms in agriculture that help produced the explosion of agricultural activity in the Plains, “As risk-spreaders, these federal programs signified the maturation of the national capitalist economy: the coming of a new era when entrepreneurial drives need not entail such severe penalties for failure.”(215). This freedom was environmentally destructive to the Plains. Lookingbill believes this created an idea of agrarianism in the settlers: “Agrarianism constituted a powerful ideological force to rationalize unprecedented governmental measures for assisting farmers.” (43). This help to farmers by the government causes the wave of agriculture across the Plains. The risk of dust storms from agriculture was not a problem until the dust bowl brought destruction.

The agricultural capitalism in the western territories caused a boom in agriculture in the 1930s that helped farms financially but also produced problems in the environment of the Plains region. The probability of dust storms increased with over- farming and was quickly overlooked by capitalistic farmers. The popularity of farming at the time increased because of advancements in farming equipment, which raised profits in agriculture. Destruction of the Plains began with the Great Plow-up, grassy plains and forests were replaced with fields for farming. Wind erosion soon transformed the fields of agriculture into a depression and the Dust Bowl ruined farms. Technological advancements in farming machinery turned agriculture into a profitable investment and produced the idea of an entrepreneur farmer. The over- production and cultivation of land posed many problems to the environment. The cause of the Dust Bowl was not natural but was caused by the increasing amount of agriculture as expansion proceeded west. The cleared land for farms in the plains region resulted in dust storms and eventually the Dust Bowl. Settlers took calculated economic risks. High profits and agricultural advancements tempted many Americans to take that risk, and mass amounts of land changed into money, resulting in a negative effect to the environment of the Plains.

Work Cited

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.

Lookingbill, Brad. Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929-1941. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001.

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