The apparent declining interest in the environment among Americans was much on my mind as I attended the 21st Annual Southern Plains conference in Lubbock, Texas, recently. Organized by the nonprofit Ogallala Commons, the event focused on a famous date in environmental history. No, it wasn’t the upcoming 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but the 75th anniversary of ‘Black Sunday’ – April 14th, 1935 – when a massive dust cloud arose from the Great Plains like a biblical vision and blew topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C., and out to sea.
It was the Dust Bowl, of course – a national calamity of epic proportions that still reverberates today. It was a ‘perfect’ storm of ecological and economic havoc. Massive tilling of prairie topsoil, abetted immensely by the introduction of diesel-powered tractors, followed by a series of unusually dry years in the early 1930s, followed by big winds put hundreds of millions of tons of fertile soil into the air. Nearly one-third of the human population left the area as a result, most never to return.
It wasn’t an act of God. The 1920s were a period of ‘irrational exuberance’ in the nation, characterized by rapid technological innovation, crazy speculation in real estate markets, a bull run on the stock market, distracted regulators, social excess, widespread consumerism, cheap products, fast deals, and an uncritical faith in Progress. On the land, this translated into the ‘big plow-up’ where nearly every acre of the Great Plains that could be planted to wheat or other grains was planted, whether there was a cloud in the sky or not. In their exuberance, farmers transformed a healthy, functioning prairie ecosystem – fabulous country for herbivores of all stripes – into a tilled-over wasteland. Then they prayed for rain.
Unfortunately, God lost his temper.
“The dust storms that swept across the southern plains in the 1930s,” wrote historian Donald Worster in his seminal book titled The Dust Bowl, “created the most severe environmental catastrophe in the entire history of the white man on this continent. In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to the American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants. Not even the Depression was more devastating, economically. And in ecological terms we have nothing in the nation’s past, nothing even in the polluted present, that compares.”
Not yet – but it could be coming.
That was the message of the conference, and its keynote speaker, Dr. Worster. He said climate change is on its way to dwarfing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s by an order of magnitude. He noted that according to climate models, one of the worst ‘hot spots’ in the nation for drought sits directly atop the area of the previous Dust Bowl, which means we could lose America’s breadbasket, for good possibly.
That wasn’t all. According to Dr. Kevin Mulligan, a professor of Economics and Geography at Texas Tech, and another speaker at the event, serious trouble lurks underground. His sobering presentation focused on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a vast underground reservoir of fresh water created over the span of millions of years and which has been drawn down dramatically in less than a century by irrigators up and down the southern Plains. Mulligan and his students have mapped the Aquifer extensively, discovering that not only is it shallower in places than people originally thought, it is also being drawn down (often at a rate of 800 gallons a minute) faster than anticipated.
In fact, they have determined that in many spots industry will run out of useable water (i.e., 30ft of water or less) not by the end of the century, as predicted, but by 2030 – only twenty years from now.
“This will certainly mean the end of pivot irrigation in the region,” he announced calmly to the audience.
Of course, Dr. Mulligan’s maps, much like Dr. Worster’s history lessons and climatologists’ prognostications about global warming are disputed by Industry, dismissed by politicians, and ignored by an apathetic public. One local activist I spoke with said this about the future: “When they run out of water, the irrigators will simply leave, and we’ll have a different economy. Again.”
This, of course, is the pattern of New West economies – exploit a resource until it is nearly exhausted and then move on. It doesn’t matter if the resource is pelts, bison, gold, oil, trees, water, scenery, people, or climate – the desire to use until used up is powerful and terrifying. The trouble is we’re beginning to run out of exploitable stuff, such as ancient aquifers. The question now, I believe, is whether the next New West will be a “moving on” to the next exploitable commodity, if one can be found, or something more enduring and resilient.
Courtney White is the executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and the author of Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West as well as countless articles and essays on the region. His Along the Frontier column runs on NewWest.Net twice a month. Read more from Courtney at his Web site, www.awestthatworks.com.
You can read Courtney’s entire series of columns, which are presented as a sequence, on his New West archive at www.newwest.net/courtneywhite. See the most recent columns below.