Archive for History

Great Depression, Dust Bowl, New Deal, Dams: Environmental Crisis as Social Crisis

Posted in Natural Disasters with tags , , on February 23, 2010 by Sarah

As we prepare to discuss the Dust Bowl and Egan’s text, it might be helpful to get somewhat familiarized with this historical period.  The late 20s through the 30s were a particularly important period in US history.   The Great Depression challenged Americans’ faith in the nation and its heretofore treasured myths of abundance and the pursuit of happiness, to say the least.  Furthermore, Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to address the Depression was unprecedented: he invested in the country by– gasp!– supporting the arts, of all things.   Imagine this approach in our own economic crisis; the first funding to go is for the arts, music, and anything deemed inessential to turning around the economy.  Roosevelt, in contrast, pumped funding into what would seem counterintuitive to us in our era, when economic crisis is an excuse for compromising the public good.  Can we imagine Bush or Obama getting away with promoting environmental conservation and the humanities in our downturn, as Roosevelt did? 

You should spend some time looking up New Deal or Works Projects Administration (WPA) projects and consider writing about them in your blog posts.  Dorothea Lange, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and all kinds of other great things came of the New Deal.  All those gorgeous bridges across the Pacific Coastline highways in Oregon and California– those were built in this era under the WPA program.  All those awesome log cabins throughout the Northwest and California (such as Crater Lake)– also built by the CCC.   The New Deal put people to work, but it did so in ways that would sound absolutely crazy today.

But equally, Roosevelt’s approach involved an unprecedented effort to control nature.  Consider the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933) and the Bureau of Reclamation (just consider that name, for starters!), the latter of which, although set up in 1902, found new purpose under the New Deal. This was THE era of dams across the West.   Getting out of the Depression and into a new era meant overcoming nature’s grip on Americans, as the Dust Bowl illustrated, and dams were the silver-bullet answer to all of America’s problems (including its desire to have a stake in WW II).   

Another major consideration is (as you might have anticipated) what were the causes of the Dust Bowl?  What are the different stories that claim different causes?  We’re particularly interested in understanding how an environmental crisis, such as the Dust Bowl, is really a cultural crisis.  That is, cultural, economic, and political ignorance of ecological processes created the conditions for the Dust Bowl.

Just some context to get us started…