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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Ken Burns Historic Dust Bowl Documentary - A Juxtaposition on Climate Change

First person stories and film footage about the catastrophic 1930s "Dust Bowl" years, aired on Public Television, goes beyond a documentary. First person accounts from those who survived this catastrophic era of man made weather disasters also tell about how greed caused the problem and how the Roosevelt Administration (ie: government) urgency helped to solve it.

It's evident in the oral histories and the newsreel footage that the mid western states could have been cut loose by many politicians and conservative hawks who were skeptical about how to rescue thousands of farmers and families caught in the devastating Dust Bowl disasters.

In other words, in spite of the carnage caused by the relentless mid west dust storms, some thought that government intervention wouldn't solve the problem.  On the other hand, there's a newsreel shown of President Franklin Roosevelt, when he visited dust bowl victims, inspiring them with hope.  

Summary of the documentary: "THE DUST BOWL chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the 'Great Plow-Up', followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Vivid interviews with twenty-six survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance. It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril."

Given the assistance of the federal government's Works Project Administration (WPA) and the application of research to protect moisture in the soil, the devastated dust bowl farmers worked collaboratively with government to save their way of life, protect their land for their children's future and grow America's breadbasket.

Many Americans have short memories about how the dust bowl was understood and responded to at the time.  Forgive the French cliche, but it fits:  "Plus de choses changent plus qu'ils restent la même chose" (the more things change the more they stay the same.)

First of all, many of the families who were devastated by the dust bowl were in denial about how greed created the  problem.  They continued to over farm in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Although, during those years, soil conservation wasn't widely understood, many continued to deny the science that demonstrated how over farming, without regard for conservation, caused the problem.  Moreover, the oral histories tell about how some people, during the 1930's, criticized the government's essential interventions to save the families and their farms.  The documentary also provides disturbing vintage film footage of refugees from the dust bowl being discriminated against by California officials, because the state didn't want to care for those who abandoned their farms and who fled to the west coast.  

In addition to telling a history story, the Burns documentary raises the rhetorical question about what the mid west would be like today if the Roosevelt administration had not intervened?  I can't imagine.

Nevertheless, the middle western states, the one that most relied on government intervention (especially in Oklahoma) to save the farms are among today's "red" states  - meaning, most of the voters are conservatives, who advocate for less government. 

Even more of a historic juxtaposition is how some conservative farmers used the concept of "climate change" to smokescreen their own misuse of the soil,  that brought about the dust bowl.  They said the dust bowl was a natural weather cycle rather than misuse of the land.  Fast forward to today, many conservatives are in denial about "climate change" as a cause of global warming.  In this reversal of thinking, many are now in denial about "climate change"as a cause of global warming.

It's obviously too simplistic to argue that conservatives often deny science, unless the information supports their view of the world.  Yet, the Burns documentary certainly presents a compelling argument for another cliche.  "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The Ken Burns "Dust Bowl" documentary is as much a comment on contemporary social and environmental policies as it is an excellent retrospective on a sad time in American history.  Perhaps, the Burns documentary is a history warning.  Even though Americans, with government investment, have implemented excellent soil conservation policies to help farmers, the social and environmental politics describe are as relevant today, as during the 1930's.  We still don't understand how to communicate the importance of science in determining compassionate and efficient social policy.  Consequently, the Burns "Dust Bowl" documentary could be the best in his impressive litany of history lessons in film.

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