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The Dust Bowl is a documentary film by Ken Burns that utilizes interviews with moral witnesses of the event and their descendants to really highlight the emotional toll that disaster had on the citizens of the Great Plains. The film describes the Dust Bowl as “the worst man-made disaster” in American history and uses eyewitness accounts to help shape the narrative of what caused it.
One could argue that the theme of the film is human greed, and a disconnect that humans have with nature. There were many factors in the early 1900s to 1920s that lead to the conditions of the Dust Bowl. The American Dream of that time was to have a piece of land, and it was being sold cheap in the Great Plains area due to the Homestead Act. In fact, years later there would be a famous real estate scam in Boise City, Oklahoma which the film discusses briefly.
The Great Plains were large flat areas of land covered in buffalo grass. The environment was not the most suitable for farming due to the inability of the soil to hold moisture if the buffalo grass was removed. But during that time period, the film describes farming as being like high-stakes gambling and even mentions there were people that would come from the city, plant seeds, leave and come back to harvest the crop and earn a profit.
The crop that was really being pushed at that time period was wheat, due to the high demand of the crop from the collapse of trade routes as a result of World War 1, which at that time was known as the Great War.
While there were many factors that worked together to create the right conditions for this disaster to occur including the Great Depression, the markets crashing on Black Tuesday, bumper crops, the cause that stood out to me was human greed and ignorance. These farmers were viewing their farms as factories, and there was a disconnect with nature and an abuse of its resources.
A couple things about this film really got through to me on a personal level. Hearing a woman describe what it was like, this decade long horror was in her words “evil.” It is difficult to imagine what these people must have gone through, not being able to even go outside without being injured by the winds.
It also plays as a sort of cautionary tale, a dire warning about the current state of our world and how we mistreat nature. There are so many things that we take for granted, and we imagine that the resources we have come to depend on are infinite.
Global warming, fracking, the pacific garbage patch, the list goes on and on. All these things and more are simultaneously building up to a parallel of a frightening climax unless we can manage to pause, reflect and change our behaviors as a species.
It’s important to note things don’t occur in a vacuum, there are always several players involved, and it is likely that not all of them know all the relevant information. The humanity of these farmers is on full display here throughout Burns’ documentary, and there is also the factor of technology.
We cannot place all the blame on the farmers, or the government, or the scientists of the day, because it could be that there were individuals that did care and were doing all they could to prevent or stop The Dust Bowl from occurring, but the transfer of information in that age was just much slower. It does however, raise the question, what’s our excuse?
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