The Dust Bowl Is Today

Ken Burns talks about his latest documentary and why a 1930s disaster means so much in the present day

A car is chased by a "black blizzard" in the Texas Panhandle, March 1936.     Photo: Arthur Rothstein/The Library of Congress

"The sad thing is that the film we made, detailing events in the 1930s, which is an awfully long time ago, is incredibly relevant."

The world is changing. You’ve heard that before if you have ears, but the actual world, Planet Earth, the thing we stand on and live off of, is becoming something it has never been before. Earthquakes, record-level droughts, hurricanes in Manhattan, blizzards followed by 70-degree days. It’s all happening, and most of it is happening because of us. Humans, technology, and capitalism haven’t mixed well with the world-as-it-used-to-be-known. And it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore, as the weather gets more extreme and the consequences more deadly. 

While it may seem like a thoroughly modern concept, we've been through this before. About 80 years ago, America’s worst man-made ecological catastrophe ravaged the Great Plains. Ken Burns retells the story of the disaster—a disaster we caused—in his latest documentary The Dust Bowl. While the Dust Bowl seems to evoke nostalgia for some post-frontier, pre-industrial, faded-photo America, Burns' film argues that calling it anything other than an unmitigated disaster is just wrong.

We caught up with Burns to discuss The Dust Bowl and all the stories that extend from and beyond the disaster itself. The film debuts this Sunday, November 18, at 8 p.m. ET.

Why the Dust Bowl for your latest film?
I think we choose any film that we’ve ever done because it’s a good story. That’s first and last. The thing that we’re drawn to in the case of the Dust Bowl: there’s been so much superficial, sort of conventional wisdom. It’s the picture of a storm. It’s a Dorothea Lange photograph of a migrant Okie farm mother. It’s The Grapes of Wrath. The story that we understood was much more complex. And it required us to go to that area and find living survivors to chronicle what was a 10-year apocalypse of hundreds and hundreds of storms that blotted out the sun at noonday. The worst ecological disaster in all of American history. And it’s that “man-made” that caught our attention. I don’t think people understand the full import of what it meant to create the worst ecological disaster in our history and perhaps the whole of world history. That is what we wanted to tell: a complex personal story but also a very large, complex, continental story about agriculture and environment. 

Not many understand what kind of devastation this was. You called it an “apocalypse.”
It’s definitely that—with biblical plagues of locusts and jackrabbits, stuff that we knew killed the farmers' crops but also their cattle and, more importantly, their children. It becomes a story, once you personalize it, of heroic perseverance in the midst of this complete collapse of this spectacular ecosystem that had once been the home of the buffalo and buffalo grass that evolved over thousands of years to hold the moisture in and hold the topsoil in from the ever-present winds.

And people got greedy. We expanded the Homestead Act. Unscrupulous real estate speculators sold land to folks who really desperately wanted to own a piece of land. It coincided with a couple of wet years. Everybody turned over the soil, an area greater than the size of Ohio, which is mammoth. They had some good years, and whenever you had a good year you planted more. Whenever you had a bad year, you planted more. And all of a sudden the bad years never stopped. The wind kept blowing, and the crops failed, and suddenly you were moving more dirt in one day than the entire 10 years it took us to make the Panama Canal. It was on a scale that I think we’ve forgotten.

We worked very hard, not only to reach out and discover those survivors who are all in their late 80s and 90s but were children at the time of the Dust Bowl to get the first-hand story, but also to find their photos and home movies and to go to hundreds of other archives to find the rest of the still photographs that it takes to tell a story as complex and meaningful in American history as this is. And let’s remember also that this is an ecological catastrophe superimposed over the greatest economic cataclysm in the history of the United States, the Great Depression. So it’s sort of hurt-squared.

Not many people would say it’s the greatest disaster in American history.
No, it’s true. Obviously, we’ve had greater catastrophes: the Civil War, which killed nearly three-quarters-of-a-million human beings fighting over the issue of slavery, and we’ve been involved in other wars. If you talk about ecological or environtmenal catastrophes, this is the big one. The Exxon Valdez and the BP spill don’t come close to its long-lasting effect. And the fact that it went on for 10 years, killed so many people, transformed the southern plains, and took every effort of the government to mitigate it.

Is there any reason it’s not necessarily looked at in that way?
No, I don’t think we need to belabor it. There’s tons of stuff people don’t know about. You ask anybody about George Washington, and they say “wooden teeth,” which isn’t true. It is in human nature to forget. It is in human nature to reduce to the superficial understanding. We, for example, call the second World War the “Good War.” It’s actually the worst war ever. This is what you find in history all the time. And that’s why you do it. You realize that human nature never changes; there are great lessons to be learned in the past. We are dealing with climate change right now and massive weather events, and the shortsightedness of the folks involved in the Dust Bowl becomes a theme not just for our film but our contemporary lives as well.

Is there any particular story that stands out?
Over and over again you’re reminded of the power of memory. We think of memory as something dusty and old and covered in cobwebs, but it’s actually something on our hard drives that we may have forgotten the password to, but when we access it, it’s a portal that’s direct and present. So, seeing Floyd and Dale Cohen in our film break down and cry over the death of a little sister who wasn’t even two and a half years old, in early 1935, which is a long time ago, and realizing that the pain of that was present. You hear others describe just the sheer terror of the dust bowl, as a black blizzard, they recall, that could blot out the sun at noonday. You realize that history is not then; it’s now.

The most tragic part about it, you say, is that it all could’ve been prevented.
This is a man-made disaster, so yes. If the Homestead Act hadn’t been enlarged, if the unscrupulous real-estate speculators hadn’t enticed a land boon, if those farmers desperate to own land—very understandable—hadn’t come in, if it hadn’t coincided with a wet period so that they had early success and the settlement expanded, if they hadn’t, essentially, just turned over that buffalo grass, we would not have had the dust bowl. So it is preventable and it becomes part of a complicated human tragedy that, nonetheless, has stories of heroics and character and extraordinarily good people who remind us of the best of ourselves during this horrific ecological disaster.

It’s hard not to think of some of the extreme weather we’re experiencing today when you think of the Dust Bowl.
The sad thing is that the film we made, detailing events in the 1930s, which is an awfully long time ago, is incredibly relevant. Farm families are suffering again from a drought. We know that man has altered the temperature of the planet through our carbon-dioxide emissions and the trapping of greenhouse gases within our atmosphere, and that these have caused weather extremes, both cold and hot, sort of magnitude events, that we’re dealing with today. While there is a huge political debate, unfortunately, there’s no scientific debate. History can be a table around which we all agree to have a conversation that’s civil and addresses these things.

At the heart of human behavior, you find again and again, in not just this film but in others, the lack of preplanning, the lack of taking the long view. And these environmental things, as the city of New York, the state of New Jersey, and Long Island are learning, require a lot of pre-planning and so too will be the fact that eventually the southern plains will dry out because there’s no Ogallala water to keep the soil in place. And people will have to figure out what kind of long-term solutions to make to avoid having an American Sahara. These are questions that seem ancient, but these are also questions that seem utterly contemporary.

What similarities do you see with Hurricane Sandy?
I appeared on Letterman on Tuesday night to an empty theater, and it seemed very ironic that we were talking about a hurricane filled with water called “Sandy,” while here I was promoting a film called The Dust Bowl in which people were dying just to get a drink of water, and in a city where people were dying from too much water. And yet they were one and the same thing. They were part and parcel of a planet that was destabilized, all man-created. In the case of the Dust Bowl, it was all specific actions by farmers in an area that we realized, in retrospect, should not have been plowed out. Now we’re talking about a global economy that contributes to climate change. And we have to figure out how to mitigate that.

Yet, there’s a very good chance something similar could happen again. What lessons can we take from the Dust Bowl as we look forward?
I think there are thousands of lessons to come out of the Dust Bowl, but I think one of them, as I said, is having a longer view. Most human beings tend to think they live in the moment, but they plan for the immediate stuff. They always think the stock market will go up, the always think their house value will go up, they don’t think that anything will go down. The cycles of human history tell us that the exact opposite is true. You need to plan for a much more complicated future than just living in this all-consuming and thereby forgettable moment where we’re distracted by our electronic devices and our TVs, and forget what the cost of it is. I think the basic lesson is that human beings need to work together to plan things out. 

And for as gloomy as this conversation’s been, your film still tries to tell an uplifting story.
Embedded within every tragedy is also incredible heroism and character, and those things are on display. And the film abounds with people of extraordinary human character and resilience. These are just universal human circumstances, and this is why we investigate history. You know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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