3 January 2013 | dimplet
Bad politics caused it, good politics fixed it. Period.
All Americans have heard of the Dust Bowl and know it was a phenomenon associated with drought in the 1930s, and that Okies left for California, a la The Grapes of Wrath. We have also heard about the more recent droughts in the West. So the thought arises, could it happen again? But that's about it. Most non-Americans don't even know that.
With some of his documentaries on more distant subjects, Ken Burns relied on old photographs and narratives read by actors. But The Dust Bowl is the story told by the people who saw the massive dust storms, day after day, with their own eyes, breathing the dust, eating the dust, getting lost in the dust. They are often the very people in the pictures used. At at the end, we see a dedication listing the participants who had died before the documentary was released. Burns was just in time to save this bit of oral history.
What struck me initially was how objective, unemotional, and even dry was his approach, far less spirited than subjects like the Statue of Liberty, Baseball or Jazz. And the pace is leisurely, a lot of time spent looking at a lot of towering dust clouds and hearing account after account of being engulfed by dust and sand. Most film makers would have sped things up for the MTV generation, perhaps added booming sound effects and gimmicky zips and flashes to keep our attention. But this is Ken Burns, and he has the street cred to do things his way. And it was the right way. People actually lived through these dust and sand storms for years, so surely we can endure the accounts for a few hours to get a feel for it.
But this tells a larger story, of how the region was settled, telling another side of the Oklahoma land rush that I had never heard, and how government policies and World War I led to foolish overproduction of wheat on land better suited to grazing. Yes, foolish. The people involved say so, themselves, for the most part. This is not Ken Burns political propagandist, as some reviewers allege.
What struck me is how objective this account is, how balanced, presenting various sides, and grounded in fact, like good journalism. The film covers the New Deal policies of FDR to try to save the land and help those living in the Dust Bowl; it also provides insight into the origins of farm price support policies. Is this what causes some viewers to froth at the mouth? I kept waiting for the judgment, the observation that global warming could cause more dust bowls, in America, and around the world. But it never came. Perhaps he could anticipate the response. Frankly, he didn't need to spell out the connection.
With better, scientific farming practices, the Dust Bowl land could be saved, more or less. You still need rainfall, unless you are willing to drain aquifers. But the story of the Dust Bowl also offers some promise that there may be intelligent ways to adjust to the effects of climate change on agriculture. Discussion of this is the part that I wish was included.
This is a vitally important story that needs to be remembered, with lessons for our and future generations. It is also a story of the human spirit, of people who endured hardship far longer than any of us should, or probably could, bear. I am glad they got a chance to share their story with us.
A good supplementary program is The Civilian Conservation Corps episode of The American Experience, #22.1, for a larger context on the environmental and economic situation.