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Holleman’s Dust Bowls of Empire shows that ecological crisis on the Great Plains of America is rooted in racism, imperialism and capitalism, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

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Hannah Holleman, Dust Bowls of Empire. Imperialism, Environmental Politics and Injustice of ‘Green’ Capitalism (Yale University Press 2018), xvii, 231pp.

A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
Singin’:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-getting’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.

Woody Guthrie, So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh, (1940)

The dust bowl of the 1930s on the southern plains of US was, according to some, one of the three greatest ecological disasters in human history, ranked with the deforestation of the Chinese uplands in around 3000BC and the destruction of Mediterranean vegetation by livestock. The dust bowl stands out, however, because it happened in such a short time. The Homestead Act, requiring military removal of the Native American people from the plains so that land could be allotted to settlers, was passed in 1862. The last Native American lands here were declared open for settlement in 1901.

The soil started drifting in some places only a few seasons after ploughing started, then in 1932 drought conditions accentuated the problem to such an extent that dust storms, combined with the Great Depression, made the area virtually unfarmable and unliveable. Between 1930 and 1935, Holleman notes, the dust bowl region lost around a third of its population and one in four of its houses were abandoned. It had all happened in less than seventy years.

The effects of the dust bowl on the people of the plains is known through popular-culture representations like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the songs of Woody Guthrie. These do not, however, address the reasons for the dustbowlification of the plains, tending to treat it as simply a natural phenomenon or just as a result of the drought. (Dustbowlification, while something of a mouthful to pronounce, is, as Holleman rightly argues, a better term than desertification for what happened to the plains. A desert is a functioning, diverse ecosystem. A dust bowl is the opposite.)

A problem of structure not knowledge

It is generally accepted, and was even noted by some contemporaries, that the effect of the drought was so catastrophic because of ‘the over-cultivation of the original semi-arid grasslands, much of which should not have been ploughed in the first place’ (p.51). This can however turn the dust bowl into a simple account of ignorance: the white farmers did not realise that attempting to farm would destroy the ecology of the plains. In fact, as Holleman shows, the story of the dust bowl is the story of the innate destructiveness of capitalism.

It is not the case that contemporaries of the dust bowl did not know about the issue of soil erosion. The problem had in fact attracted a good deal of concerned attention, both in the US and across the British Empire. This was so much so that, as Holleman says, it demonstrates the paradox of environmental issues under capitalism, where there tends to be ‘a growing understanding of ecological crises on the one hand, and deepening entrenchment of those crises on the other’ (p.95).

Land degradation and its tendency to drive settlement westwards in the US had been noted as early as the eighteenth century. Dust clouds were recorded as a problem of soil erosion in Maryland and Delaware in 1807. By 1908, when Roosevelt gave a speech about the seriousness of soil erosion, it was very definitely a known problem. In 1944, Russell Lord, working on an article on new soil conservation methods as part of the New Deal, asked an experienced scientist to review his draft. The scientist told him to take the word ‘new’ out of his description of the methods, because ‘it isn’t that we didn’t know’ (p.111).

Part of the reason why such a recognised problem was not dealt with was the racist nature of the colonial project. A justification for the dispossession of indigenous people by the British all over the world was that they were not using, and were incapable of looking after, the land, which was therefore essentially vacant. This justification is apparent in contemporary discussions of the American conquest of the west, where the plains are described as undisturbed, ‘virgin land’ ready for white farmers.

Criticisms of the farming that led to the dust bowl could also fall into regarding the plains as untouched land, ruined by attempts to cultivate them. Melt White, for example, in his memories of growing up on the plains in the 1930s, attributed the dust bowl to mistreatment of the land ‘’cause, to me, God didn’t create the plains to be farmland. He created it for what He put on it, in grass and cattle. And they come in and completely changed it’ (p.2).

It’s easy to see how someone who lived through the dust storms that White describes could come to that conclusion, but the view that the plains were ‘naturally’ grasslands is the result of colonial thinking which refused to recognise any sort of cultivation which didn’t look like European-style farming. This prevented any understanding that the plains were not untouched before white settlers arrived, but were the result of careful management by the Native American population over many centuries. It is now thought that the great plains were largely created by Native American controlled burning strategies, aimed at creating grassland to encourage bison and other large ruminants for hunting.i

Imperialist settlement

The settlers on the plains were themselves often working-class people seeking a better life, and certainly by the 1930s, the people doing the farming were often annual tenants, not landowners. They were still nevertheless part of a US imperial strategy which used their farming as a way of destroying the Native American way of life. As Lieutenant General John M Schofield wrote, ‘I wanted no other occupation in life than to ward off the savage and kill off his food until there should no longer be an Indian frontier in our beautiful country’ (p.67).

This meant that for the settlers, their farming was axiomatically superior, an attitude shown for example by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s fiction about growing up on the plains. As Frances Kaye commented in her discussion of Ingalls Wilder and racism, the most progressive of the attitudes she shows among the settlers can be summed up as: ‘we have two land-use systems in conflict, but the settlers’ system of using the land to support many people is humanly superior to the Osages’ system of neglecting the land during the growing season to go on buffalo hunts.’ii

As Holleman shows, however, the issue goes far beyond the attitudes of individual settlers, to encompass the use of colonised land in the imperial capitalist system. Soil erosion was a widespread problem in the British Empire by the 1930s; Holleman notes, for example, an article in the Journal of the Royal African Society in 1938 stated that ‘this soil erosion question is not one of Africa alone. It is one that affects the whole world, and in particular the British Empire’ (p.50). This was not simply a matter of European farming methods being used in ecosystems where they were inappropriate. The soil erosion was a result of exploitation of the colonised lands in cash-crops systems designed to extract as much from them to the imperial centre as possible, regardless of the damage caused to the land in the process.

Capitalism and ecological crisis

The farming system developed on the plains could not, as a US federal report noted, be ‘both permanent and prosperous’ (p.71), but it was not designed to be. The cash-crop system on the plains was aimed at extracting the maximum value from the land in the short term, on the assumption that when the land was exhausted, the capitalist interests could simply switch to new lands elsewhere. That such relocation would not be so easy for the ‘Okies’ trudging to California to get away from the dust storms would of course not enter into the calculation.

The structure of the exploitation of the plains meant that there was no group with both an inherent interest in paying attention to soil conservation and the power to do anything about it. The tenant farmers who were dispossessed by the dust storms were the ones who had the most to lose, but they were also the least likely to have the resources to do anything other than to try to maximise their cash crop for the next year. The annual tenancy system also worked to discourage any investment in soil quality, since this would only benefit the landlord and the next tenant, not the farmer bearing the cost.

The traditional narrative of the dust bowl as being the result of farmers’ ignorance blames the victims of this ecological disaster for causing it. This is rather in the same way that British imperial discourse used the soil erosion problem that imperial resource extraction had caused as a justification for not extending self-government in the colonies. As the District Commissioner of Nyeri, Kenya, wrote in the 1930s: ‘we have reached the position in which it is kinder to be cruel, for by doing so we shall save the negro from worse to come’ (p.52).

Understanding the dust bowl as the result of capitalism and imperialism on the other hand allows us to see it as a structural problem. It also shows, as Holleman points out, that it is not an analogue of our current environmental problems, but a precursor. In part, this is simply because the dust bowl is not an issue of the past, but of the present. The soil erosion in the 1930s abated as the drought ended, but dust bowl conditions returned in the 1950s. The demands of irrigating the farmland in the area is now so great that extensive groundwater mining has created a metabolic rift in the High Plains aquifer. It is also however because the climate crisis we are facing now is similarly a result of the inherent destructiveness of capitalism. The dust bowl shows us one version of our future and, as Holleman says, that revolution has to be one of the tenets of the environmental movement.

i Charles C Mann, 1491. New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, (Vintage Books 2006), p.282.

ii Frances W. Kaye, ‘Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians’, Great Plains Quarterly 20 (2000), pp.123-40, p.132.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 

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