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Ken Burns’ Prequel to the Dust-Bowlification of America’s Southwest

November 18th, 2012 · No Comments

This evening, PBS will start broadcasting the latest of film documentarian Ken Burns’ treatises on significant periods and issues of American history.

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.

This “morality tale” and “peril” cannot be understated, as this documentary is like a laser pointer at one of the major impacts of catastrophic climate chaos, a all-too likely scenario for the American southwest for the near, mid, and long-term future that Joe Romm christened in a Nature article as Dust-Bowlification.

Which impact of anthropogenic global warming will harm the most people in the coming decades? I believe that the answer is extended or permanent drought over large parts of currently habitable or arable land — a drastic change in climate that will threaten food security and may be irreversible over centuries. …

I used to call the confluence of these processes ‘desertification’ on my blog,, until some readers pointed out that many deserts are high in biodiversity, which isn’t where we’re heading. ‘Dust- bowlification’ is perhaps a more accurate and vivid term, particularly for Americans — many of whom still believe that climate change will only affect far-away places in far-distant times.
Prolonged drought will strike around the globe, but it is surprising to many that it would hit the US heartland so strongly and so soon.
The coming droughts ought to be a major driver — if not the major driver — of climate policies. Yet few policy-makers and journalists seem to be aware of dust-bowlification and its potentially devastating impact on food security. That’s partly understandable, because much of the key research cited in this article post-dates the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Raising public awareness of, and scientific focus on, the likelihood of severe effects of drought is the first step in prompting action.

One path, it seems, to such “raising public awareness” is (as per the post) making the linkage — the appropriate, legitimate, defensible — between Burns’ searing documentation of the historical Dust Bowl experience to what is already occurring the Southwest and what scientific work shows will occur in coming years, decades, centuries. While, due to the accumulated impact, the situation will get worse, we have a choice. We can continue with business as usual, assuring that we will only be worsening the situation with each passing moment, or we can do the math and decide to take action to mitigate our climate impacts and seek to reduce the likelihood of irrevocably hurtling over the climate cliff (or, more accurately, the C4: the catastrophic climate chaos cliff). Leveraging the power of communicators like Burns, helping Americans connect the dots between historical experience and the future we are creating, is one tool to help galvanise Americans to work together to turn the tide on Global Warming’s rising seas.

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

Note: For an excellent review of Burns’ documentary, see Roger Witherspoon, The Dust Bowl: America’s Greatest Ecological Disaster.

“It was an incredible and heartbreaking story,” said Duncan. “And it’s amazing how they – now in their late 80s and 90s – told the story as if it happened the day before. That’s how raw and vivid the memory was for them.”

It is a raw and vivid and extraordinarily well executed documentary that makes viewers marvel at the overpowering strength of nature unleashed, the arrogance and folly of crafting policies designed to tame the environment rather than live with it, and the resilience of those live through such a preventable disaster and rebuild their lives.

Much of the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy resulted from years of over development in low-lying areas without provisions for inevitable floods, and political posturing that ignores ongoing climate change.

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Tags: Energy