Worster's Dust Bowl Is it essay

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S. history. He has held teaching appointments at Brandeis University, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Maine. He serves on the boards of several environmental organizations. His publications include An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West (1994); The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (1993); Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1977); and A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (2001). He is currently working on a biography of John Muir, to be published by Oxford University Press (Harvard Divinity School, 2006, found online at http://www.hds.harvard.edu/cswr/resources/eve/worster.html)."

Worster's credentials reveal him to be well educated in the subject matter that he covers in his book, Dust Bowl. He is a man whose interest in environmental history, especially it focuses on those areas of the country where Worster's own life experiences have been shaped, and would familiarize him with the geography and environments of the areas of Kansas and Oklahoma. Worster's ability to relate first-hand to the environment that he speaks of enhances his credibility; we know that he has a good basis of understanding for that which he is writing about, combined with his academic and career successes.

Worster begins his book by introducing us to the area that he knows well, the Dust Bowl of the high plains area of America where, he writes, one of the darkest moments in America's twentieth century descended upon the landscape with all the lack of forethought and environmental ignorance that mankind could muster (4). Only two other environmental events in the world can be compared to the environmental damage done by us to the environment: "the deforestation of China's uplands about 3000 B.C. (p. 4)," and "and the destruction of the Mediterranean vegetation by livestock (4)." This is Worster's conclusions, drawn from research, and posited from his perspective. There are certainly those of us who might add to that the deforestation of the South American rainforest, Chernobyl, and any number of other environmental disasters inflicted upon nature by mankind. Worster goes on to say that the Dust Bowl disaster cannot be ascribed to illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder (4). However, one might cite the depression within which Worster frames the context of the events of the dust bowl disaster, as being a condition of social disorder when, as he comments, it coincided with the Great Depression of the 1930s, when much of America was impoverished and out of work as the result of the stock market crash (5). Worster does not see these as two separate events, but as "part of the same crisis (5)." Although it might be noted that historians have traditionally treated the dust bowl and the Great Depression as two separate events, even though the result of the dust bowl increased the number (three million, Worster says (10)) of Americans who were out of work when those people living in the dust bowl left the states affected for other regions in order to find work to support their families.

Here, we might surmise that Worster is expressing a conclusion that is under the influence of his passionate morality of environmental superiority. That is, that he is imposing the primacy of the environment over the primacy of mankind. First, Worster contends that the dust bowl was not as a result of mankind's illiteracy, yet the numerous famers who created the dust bowl through poor planning and by employing technology during the drought were bereft of modern agricultural techniques and knowledge -- or they would not have ploughed drought dried fields in a landscape that was unprotected by trees and other vegetation that would have helped to prevent the disaster that followed.

Worster, in his three maxims: Nature must be seen as capital; Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement; and the social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth (6) further demonstrates his environmental morals influencing his conclusions. He attributes historical causation to the evil of capitalism, when, in fact, the employers of the technology were generational farmers, whose losses were capitalized on by business farming conglomerates who bought up the foreclosed mortgages and lands when the farmers, because of drought, could not meet mortgage payments or even subsist on unproductive farm lands. This, however, is where Worster ties the dust bowl event into the Great Depression, and the evil of capitalism (7). Worster, however, defends his perspective, saying:

"If I seem to exaggerate in this case, it is only because the arguments have been so gingerly stepped around by others. Capitalism, it is my contention, has been the decisive factor in this nation's use of nature. To understand that use more fully we must explain how and why the Dust Bowl happened, just as we have analyzed our financial and industrial in the light of the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing factory shutdowns (5)."

Deliberate exaggeration of history is not a conclusion; it is a manipulation, and in Worster's case a manipulation intended to treat the environment as something that while mankind can achieve balance with, and should achieve balance with, that mankind has had the technology and understanding of to have prevented disasters such as the dust bowl; when that is not true. Mankind's understanding of the environment has progressed because of the environment's response to mankind's abuse of it, and because mankind has evolved in his understanding that the preservation of the environment equates to the preservation of mankind as a species.

Worster prepares the reader for the exaggerations he makes, quoting R.H. Tawney, "if the historian eschews the word, he may also ignore the fact (5)." He concludes his introduction with what should be perceived by the reader as an insight shaping his analysis and interpretation of the events, writing:

"America is still, at heart, a business-oriented society; its farming has evolved even further toward the Henry Ford example of using machinery and mass production to make more profits. We are still naively sure that science and technique will heal the wounds and sores we leave on the earth, when in fact those wounds are more numerous and more malignant than ever. Perhaps we will never be at perfect peace with the natural order of this continent, perhaps we would not be interesting if we were. But we could give it a better try (8)."

Worster goes into the first chapter of the book with evidence that the environment was subjected to natural changing weather conditions with drastic decreases in rainfall, ground water supplies, increased temperatures, wilting crops and uncertainty in the agricultural outputs upon which farming families and agri-business alike depended upon (11). Worster even the pattern that droughts occur approximately every twenty years (12). "The story of the southern plains in the 1930s is essentially about dust storms, when the earth ran amok (12)."

All of this would suggest that the events surrounding the dust bowl were natural events of weather patterns and changes. Worster ends his book with chapter On a Thin Edge, writing that: "Man strides over the earth and deserts follow in his footsteps (231)." He has given facts, however, his analysis of the facts are a yield of strong emotional influences of his perspective on the primacy of the environment. Worster is attributing the causation for the dust bowl to mankind, a man-made natural disaster, which mankind agreeably perpetuated in conjunction with natural weather disasters. This is the determinism about which Carr speaks of in his chapter on causation. Carr says determinism is "the belief that everything that happens has a cause or causes, and could not have happened differently unless something in the cause or causes had also been different (Carr, 121-122)." For Worster, the events of natural disaster in the form of the drought and dust storms, though beyond the control of mankind, were nonetheless perpetuated by mankind because mankind relies upon nature to produce sustenance. It does not matter if that sustenance is in the way of private family farming or corporate farming; for Worster the fact that man manipulates the environment by farming it creates the essence of the disaster in the dust bowl. If we look at causation as Carr explains it, the causation of mankind's farming is sustenance, and mankind's need for sustenance caused the disaster of the dust bowl. The disaster of the dust bowl was drought, and Worster would have mankind set aside his instincts of survival, as natural as those instincts are to mankind, in lieu of nature when in fact the outcome would have been the same had mankind plowed the fields or not: no food, farming economic catastrophe combined with a prevailing business economic failure, and the inevitable migration of people in search of sustainable environments.

The conclusions expressed by Worster in his analysis are fueled by his passion for environmental preservation. However, they condemn technology with mankind has perpetuated the survival of the species,…[continue]

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