on October 16, 2007
Looking at the cover, this book seems as if it's going to be something really academic--and it is scholarly and knowledgeable--but it's never academic in the bad sense, in the boring sense.
I read this right after reading Timothy Egan's "The Worst Hard Time," and found this book's descriptions of the devastation caused by the 1930s Dust Bowl to be much more vivid and gripping, this book's facts to be much quirkier and more interesting, and this book's scope to feel much broader and more widely felt. With "The Worst Hard Time," I got the idea that the whole thing really only affected a handful of counties, which I knew was wrong, but with this book there was no denying just how epic the whole ordeal was.
I loved this book (despite its author's amusing tendency to quote Marx) and consider it to be perhaps the very best book I've read about the Dust Bowl--and I've read a few of them. You should read it, for sure.
on July 11, 2002
As most persons are aware, these are times of climatic change, with the West becoming warmer and drier. These changes are episodic, but mankind's response to them is not so predictable. Professor Worster's excellent coverage of the Dust Bowl, one of the greatest agricultural and ecological calamities in history, shows that, with a little foresight and honest recognition of the limitations of technology, much of the harm caused by shifting climate can be prevented. In that respect, it is a hopeful text.
Professor Worster, however, views history from a Marxist standpoint, a trait that colors some of his conclusions. While I agree with him that land is frequently viewed by the shortsighted as a commodity to be used and discarded, I feel that the lessons of the Dust Bowl have resulted in safer, drought-resistant patterns of crop farming. However, as Worster adroitly points out, the shifting in agricultural practices in the Southern plains is accompanied by a wasteful use of available underground water, raising a peril of the Dust Bowl's return. So have we really learned anything? Time will tell, and not very long from now.
So far as Professor Worster addresses the socio-economic causes of the reckless destruction of the short-grass prairie ecosystem for quick profit, his discussion is masterful His organization of topics and chronology is excellent, and the reader will not soon forget the horror of living with the dust. The photos of dust storms and their effect are almost nightmarish.
Regardless of one's irritation at the myopia of those who try to farm mrginal land, his is a sympathetic portrait as well, waxing almost lyrical in his discussions of the effects of crop failures on the local populace. The book is copiously reserched and peopled with personal anecdotes of those who lived through the "Dirty Thirties". This narrative includes not only the local citizenry, but contains numerous passages about governmental attempts to allay the crisis.
I recommend this book very highly. I think anyone who likes history, who is concerned about the effects of climatic change, or both, ought to read this book very carefully. It should be an essential part of anyone's library.
on February 24, 2000
Our family has farmed in the panhandle of Oklahoma for almost 100 years. We still farm there, and in Texhoma (North Texas) both in the center of the dust bowl. My mother grew up there and was always telling us how severe it was and we (as her children) didn't really believe that it could be as bad as she said. However, since that time, we have reviewed the book, and seen a video of actual motion pictures of that period, - in the very area that was the subject of the book. Everything we have seen, and heard from all of our relatives who lived there at this time appear to be in total agreement with the book.
We still farm there and it seems that the cyclical weathern pattern could be developing for a reoccurance of the same pattern, especially since the water table used for irrigation (so important in that part of the U.S., is decreasing yearly. Randy Miller
on April 16, 2002
In the book "Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930's," Worster examines the reasons for and the ideological background behind the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. The author focuses his discussion around the devastation of the Southern Plains, as he presents his argument about the impact of American culture on both the ecological destruction of the land and the desolation of the people who depended on the land for their livelihood. The body of the work focuses on the multifaceted and sometimes diametrically opposed economic and ethical/ecological interests of the country during the Dust Bowl, which Worster brings into an examination of the pervasive capitalist mentality of early 20th century American culture. The author believes the root of Americans' misuse and destruction of the Southern Plains serves as just another example of irresponsibility in the means to obtain the end desire of capitalistic pursuits.
Donald Worster argues that a close link existed between the Dust Bowl and the capitalist mentality of American society during the early 20th century, as American zeal for wealth and expansion wrought devastating affects on both the land and its people.
In his treatise of the Dust Bowl, Worster focuses on the mindset of American culture both before and during the 1930's. Worster believes that before the Dust Bowl and the years immediately preceding it, the area of the Southern Plains enjoyed relative ecological stability as neither the Indians, nor the primary white farmers following them viewed their environment and land as expendable resources or commodities. However, as the Jeffersonian ideals of agrarian harmony with nature gave way to the destructive and selfish capitalist ideology, the Southern Plains became the victim of economic ambition. Subsistence farming no longer existed in the Southern Plains at the time of the Dust Bowl. Rather, Worster describes an area dominated by massive amounts of machinery, fewer farm laborers, and a construct known as the factory farm based on city assembly lines, business principles, and exploitative ends. As the ill-effects of factory farming came together with a period of significant drought, the resulting dust storms generated not only a environmentally destructive force, but also became a symbol of the filth and disparity of the capitalistic pursuits of American society, a symbol that would leave Americans searching for both a solution and a way to prevent such an incident from occurring again.
Worster describes the delicate ecological reality of the Southern Plains in great detail as he presents the scientific basis necessary to further support his claim of unhindered misuse of the lands by American commercial farming. The author presents the Southern Plains as an untainted grassland community, which remained largely in tact due before the period of great settlement and farming in the area. Worster shows that the commercial farming techniques during the early 20th century stripped the land of not only its productiveness, but also its ability to achieve an organic equilibrium in nature. Due to both governmental and personal economic motivations, American farmers felt compelled to plow, plant, and exploit every free tract across the Southern Plains, a trend only intensified by the importance placed on the American farmer during the period immediately following the onset on the Great Depression. Due to the impeding pressures of capitalism, the plowing of the majority of the land and focusing on planting and increasing production of only a select few cash crops resulted in a great loss in biodiversity in the ecosystem of the Southern Plains. This ecological imbalance would reap widespread devastation in the manifestation of not only the dust storms of the period, but also in the displacement of many who depended upon the land for their livelihood.
In the midst of the Dust Bowl, Worster presents the popularly held and supported proposals for solutions to the problem facing the Southern Plains. Worster provides examples such as the formation of the National Land Use Planning Committee and the conservatism of Roosevelt's New Deal to show the government's efforts to offset the devastation of the Dust Bowl and preventing the recurrence of another such disaster in the future. The author shows that, though the ideas of such prevention and regulation constituted seemingly positive ventures, these strategies proved relatively ineffective in drastically changing farming practice or preventing another such event to occur in the future. Worster presents historical information that exemplifies the attitudes associated with the expansionary, free enterprise oriented, capitalistic American culture, which actively participated in the destruction and exploitation of nature to satiate its ever-growing greed.
In Dust Bowl, Worster presents a well-developed and clear argument for his advocacy of American culture's inseparable tie to capitalism and its affect in the ecological devastation of the Southern Plains. The book not only contains a great deal of specific information, but also artfully ties the Dust Bowl into many underlying themes present in early 20th century America. The book supplements one's understanding of the time periods both before and after the Great Depression and provides insight into the affects of the nation's fallen economy on rural America.
on November 6, 2001
In Dust Bowl, Donald Worster masterfully transports the reader to a time when the land seemed to rise up in protest against those who would try to dominate it. The author points out in the introduction that the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression took place at the same time, and that both events "revealed fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of America, the one in ecological terms, the other in economic." Worster successfully weaves a revealing tapestry in his monograph that supports his argument, by presenting capitalistic values and motives as the human element involved in the Great Depression's "Dust Bowl Days." The natural environment caused the winds to blow and the rains to stop, but the farmers of the Great Plains, in an attempt to reap a profit from the land, destroyed the prairie grasses by plowing them under. This left the nutrient-rich topsoil in an exposed position, where intense drying heat and voracious winds could forcefully thrust the sandy granules of soil into the atmosphere.
Dust Bowl is divided into five parts, and the author has a personal interest in the subject and the location of this ecological disaster. The author dedicates this book to his parents, who actually experienced the trauma of leaving the plains for California during the Great Depression. Although the author was born in California, he spent his childhood living on the Great Plains and considers himself "a native son." The first part of the book provides insight into what a dust storm was like, and how this severe wind erosion effected the land, the people, and the nation in general. Part two gives the reader a sense of place, by explaining the chronological physical history of the Great Plains from prehistoric times to the mechanized wheat farming of the early twentieth century. In part three, Worster concentrates his study toward Cimarron County in the Oklahoma panhandle during the "dirty thirties," by describing people's experiences, government programs, and quotes from historical documents. Moving north to Haskell County, Kansas, Worster scrutinizes this region by interpreting economic, political, social, and agricultural trends evidenced by historical data. The final chapters of the book relate the history of the agricultural conservation movement in the United States, describe the delicate balance between all living things in an ecosystem, and illustrate why the "filthy fifties" took place and how other agricultural disasters may appear in the future.
While some may disagree with Worster's attack on capitalistic values and label his perspective as politically biased, one cannot refute the hard, cold, documented evidence of how economics dominated agriculture and caused the catastrophic disaster of the Dust Bowl. Without considering a history of drought in the area, the farmer used the tractor and plow to cut deep into the soil in order to turn the Great Plains into a giant "wheat factory." The standard of living in the United States was rising quickly, but in order for people to acquire such luxuries as indoor plumbing, they needed currency. With the hope of obtaining more material possessions during the 1920s, bankers bought stocks on margin, and farmers plowed up more and more natural grasses. The wheat fields were considered an investment, and large corporations started to buy enormous expanses of land. The profit margin involved with mechanized farming allowed one person to alter more land area than had ever been possible in the past. This gave people a feeling of complete sovereignty over nature or "human autonomy." As Worster advises, "The attitude of capitalism-industrial and pre-industrial-toward the earth was imperial and commercial; none of its ruling values taught environmental humility, reverence, or restraint" (97).
In order to survive, a society must be able to adapt. Worster's Dust Bowl is an enlightening study, which not only informs the reader of past exploitation, but also challenges the reader with current socio-economic environmental responsibility. After reading the book, one wonders-Can the capitalistic system and a healthy worldwide environment survive the twenty-first century together?
Marilyn Glaser, Student
Great Basin College
on December 27, 2011
Donald Worster examines the history and causes of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, concluding that, ultimately, it was caused by the culture of capitalism. Farmers following the capitalist mantra of increased production at any cost disrupted the ecological balance of the plains region by stripping the land and created the environmental conditions that made the region susceptible to dust storms. Worster writes a well-written and intriguing look into the history of the Dust Bowl, but his book suffers from its reductive and agenda-driven nature.
From the beginning, Worster is not shy about his ultimate purpose. He writes that the most valuable lesson learned from the southern plains "may be...as a model from which we can learn much about the ecological insensitivity of our culture" (4). This culture is the culture of capitalism, a system Worster declares "has a greater resource hunger than others...and less capacity for restraint" (7). This capitalist system created the "business mentality" that led to the main causes of the Dust Bowl: "the alienation of man from the land, its commercialization, and its consequent abuse" (63). The drought was "a necessary factor" for the dust storms, but not a sufficient one (42). Rather, the environmental devastation came from a shared "condition of profound ecological disequilibrium...caused by a fundamentally similar economic order" (62). Ultimately, "it was culture in the main that created the Dust Bowl" (94).
Worster writes that capitalism has an "imperial and commercial" attitude toward the environment, which undermines any notion of maintaining ecological balance (97). He calls this "revolutionary impulse" of man seeking to dominate nature rather than recognizing the dominance of nature, the most "important change in the human condition" of the modern world (95). The only way to restore this equilibrium was to restructure the economic order, something no one was willing to do (209).
Worster, especially in the ending chapters, turns this ostensible history of the Dust Bowl into a social commentary, a criticism of the culture of capitalism. Some of the book seems entirely driven by this agenda. Regardless of one's personal opinion on the matter, the use of history to make a sociological argument fundamentally undermines the objectivity of that history. Facts begin to be cherry-picked to support the argument, rather than the argument flowing from the facts. This is, of course, a danger in any history book that has a thesis, but the hazard is multiplied even further when the author sets out from the beginning to argue for a modern-day agenda. Everything begins to be interpreted in light of present circumstances. In many places, Dust Bowl reads like an anti-capitalist manifesto.
That said, Dust Bowl in the main is good history. The first half of the book especially provides an excellent portrait of what is was really like to live in the midst of the storms and the struggles the people went through. As the book nears the end, however, Worster begins to lose some of his objectivity and his anti-capitalist agenda begins popping up every other page. Dust Bowl is a great book, probably the best on the storms that ravaged the plains in the 1930s, but the reader must always keep in mind the point of view Worster is writing from.
In the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930's, the Great Plains states faced the additional hardship of one of the worst environmental disasters commonly known as the Dust Bowl. Traditionally grassland, the area was not well-suited to the kind of extensive farming that preceeded those years. And once the natural grass which held the soil together was gone and the regular cycle of drought hit, there was nothing to stop the wind from blowing it across the land or into huge dust storms that raged for weeks on end. History usually focuses only on the social and economic effects of the Dust Bowl, but Worster adds the environment into the mix and seeks to find the root cause of this man-made disaster. He opens with a quote from Karl Marx, and although he dismisses that in his newly added Afterword as mere bravado, it seems apparent throughout his writting that he's a Marxist in his beliefs. He places the blame on American culture and Capitalism - not on the people, but the culture that encourages and drives them to create bigger farms and use machinery that more effectively tills the land. He argues that inherent to American culture is this behavior of exploiting the land for profit and only through government intervention and control can we avoid this kind of disaster in the future.
I can agree that the greed of Capitalism is laid bare in this disaster and that the land is probably not suitable to the kind of exessive use that happens there. But I'm not convinced that his Socialist suggestions (which unfortunately are not offered in a very concise or summarized way) are the answer. He seems to dismiss and ignore the inherent problems in Socialism and it's failure to provide for the people under it's rule. Capitalism may not be perfect, but it taps into mankind's natural desire to better one's position through individual efforts, while Socialism in theory recognizes the brotherhood of mankind but fails to provide for even the basic needs of the people (even the author recognizes it is this Capitalist economy that provides food for most of the world). And his suggestions for population control or that the people in that area should go back to bare subsistence farming seems far-fetched. But at least the author is exploring new ideas (or probably just regurgitating old ones from the 60's and 70's), and for that I give him credit.
But while I found many aspects of the book interesting and insightful, overall it's pretty dry reading (pun intended). The statistics become a bit boring and make the book feel excessively academic. The lectures against the evils of American culture were tiresome, and I felt he had a very condescending attitude when discussing the people affected. And I would have enjoyed a better discussion on the natural ecology of the land and it's native plants and animals, which I think would have been more inspiring. But on a personal aside, the one thing that made me realize how boring the book was becoming for me was when I kept losing my place (I'd forget to put the bookmark back where I left off). But when I picked it up again I would read for several pages before I realized that wasn't actually where I left off before. It was like it didn't matter where I read - it all kinda flowed together.
on June 23, 2000
My mother was born and raised on a west Kansas wheat farm. She grew up in the "dirty 30's" and I spent my summers as a child on that farm in the "filthy 50's". However, I know she saw a lot more blowing dirt in the 30's than I did in the 50's.
I think this book does an excellent job of presenting the human side of the dust bowl disaster. He doesn't romanticize the people who lived in that section of the country or their part in the ecological disaster. He describes in a lot of detail what factors led to the disaster. Apparently it was primarily due to both drought and a short sighted desire to strike it rich plowing up grassy prairie to plant wheat. The growing of wheat during the 1910's was especially profitable because of high prices. Unfortunately, the center of the dust bowl was and is highly unsuited for any agricultural practice that leaves the soil fully exposed to wind erosion.
About my only complaint of the book is that it gets a little heavy handed on the idea of an agrarian "utopian" world. When I was younger I liked liberal "utopian" dreams as well. However, I think that human self-interest is never going to fully go away. It's good to appeal to people's idealism, communitarian and environmental values, etc. However, any meaningful solution also needs to be sympathetic to the human beings trying to make a living in this dusty land.
on March 3, 2015
Dust Bowl is an undeniable classic of environmental history. Donald Worster’s synthesis of ecology and social history set a precedent for the burgeoning field when the book was published in 1979. And as a document of “one of the worst… ecological blunders in history” (p. 4), Dust Bowl reads like a necessary cautionary tale from a wise elder.
Yet, for all its thorough analysis, vivid imagery, and scholarly importance, Dust Bowl is often distractingly heavy-handed (Mind you—this review is coming from as staunch an environmentalist as you will meet.). It is telling that the book’s introductory quote comes from Karl Marx, with whom Worster shared a penchant for historical fatalism. Turn-of-the-century capitalism, Worster would argue, was (and in many ways still is) on a collision course with the natural limits of ecology, and this inevitable disaster manifested most clearly in the “Great American Desert” (p. 81) during the 1930s. But the notion of Culture, to which Worster points as the explanatory variable in our downfall—variously, a “capitalist ethos” (p. 96), or a set of “bourgeois values” (p. 136)—leaves no room for human agency and leaves this reader wondering: Are we looking at the issue critically or just commiserating? At best, Worster’s line of reasoning is accurate but extremely depressing. At worst, it is nihilistic and somewhat offensive (Note how often he uses the word “cling” in regards to traditional practices.). Indeed, Worster cautions in his preface that his argument “will not be acceptable to many plainsmen” (p. vii). I would take that sentiment further and suggest that it may not be acceptable to really anyone who has hope for the future.
Since the publication of Dust Bowl, environmental historians have been engaged in a delicate tap dance with the most pressing issue facing our species: environmental degradation. Worster chose to focus on our most egregious ecological transgression and thus succeeded in demonstrating where we have gone spectacularly wrong. However, if, upon reflection, we are left at a loss for who “we” really are—except as an expression of some nebulous, overbearing idea of economics and Culture—then we would do well to reassess or perhaps look elsewhere.
Donald Worster first wrote this book in 1979 based on his research and interviews about the Dust Bowl era in the Southern Plains. This book is for my research paper on the topic of the Dust Bowl and it gives a very powerful overview presentation of the history, sociology, psychology, and ecology of the region.
First, I enjoy the book's presentation which uses black and white photographs such as the one on the cover throughout the book. The photographs are spread out each to prove a powerful point about the power of the soil erosion which led to Dust Bowl condition after being plowed down in previous years. The Dust Bowl was in the making when the farmers plowed millions of acres of land to grow wheat in abundance.
The book takes it's time to explain the situation in the pre-Dust Bowl days until recently. The book's presentation makes it easier to read rather than turning to the center of the book where the photographs are combined. In the book, they also offer several maps to help understand the area.
If you are interested in the history of the Dust Bowl, this book would be the first step in understanding the gravity of the man-made conditions, the economy, ecology, and the abuse of land in the first place. The situation is not talked about today because the government have assisted during the Great Depression and through the New Deal to study soil erosion and soil conservation.