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No Empires, No Dust Bowls

Ecological Disasters and the Lessons of History

Buried machinery in a barn lot; Dallas, South Dakota, May 1936

Hannah Holleman is an assistant professor of sociology at Amherst College and the author of Dust Bowls of Empire, forthcoming from Yale University Press.

Today we are living in a new Dust Bowl era, defined by egregious levels of inhumanity and profound shifts taking place in the earth’s land, climate, and water systems. Like the 1930s Dust Bowl, contemporary ecological crises are associated with high levels of racialized social inequality, imperial expropriation, social dislocation, and fascistic politics. Accordingly, scholars and scientists are now studying the 1930s disaster as an analogue to our current period, as they seek to understand the dangers posed by climate change, land degradation, and freshwater scarcity. They are studying agricultural technology and practice, government policies, and migration patterns—and they are warning us to be prepared.

However, by treating the 1930s Dust Bowl as merely the outcome of poor policy, a regional phenomenon isolated from broader social issues, a case study in New Deal administration, or a purely climatological disaster, most of these analyses miss the crucial lessons from this period, which connect it to the present not as an analogue, but an antecedent. An honest and historically informed look at the present situation reveals the imperial system of capitalism as the primary driver of “dust-bowlification,” then and now. The racialized division of nature and humanity at the heart of this system cannot be transcended without transcending the system itself. No sustainable agricultural or social policy stands a chance against the overwhelming destructiveness of the existing social order.

However, a major barrier to an environmental politics that takes history seriously is the persistent segregation of the environmental movement and the prevailing belief among mainstream environmentalists, especially in wealthy countries, that a reformed capitalism can solve the problems outlined above. Likely because they themselves are unlikely to bear the costs of these crises, too many environmentalists and policy-makers have failed to face the violence and injustice behind the ecological devastation now dispassionately reported by organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and many environmental NGOs.

Some continue to hope that the same political and economic elites who led us into the new Dust Bowl era will somehow lead us out, placing historically unfounded hope in international climate agreements and voluntary efforts by industry and individuals. They are effectively joining forces with the defenders of capital’s bottom line rather than those on the frontlines of capitalism’s catastrophes, who are fighting for a different world altogether. In the meantime, land and water grabs, the documented increase in violence against earth and water protectors, renewed attacks on indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection, the persistence of slavery and human trafficking, and an unprecedented number of refugees illustrate that at the systemic level, capitalism shows no signs of putting people and the planet ahead of profit.1

It is my hope that activists will take to heart the lessons of the 1930s Dust Bowl, briefly sketched below, and stop repeating the devastating mistakes of self-identified progressives and environmentalists of previous eras who promoted or made peace, however uneasy, with the racialized, imperial class system organized around production for profit. Not only because ecological justice demands it, but because the alternative—expecting capitalists or a reformed capitalism to save us—just will not work. We have more than a hundred years of historical experience since the idea of “greening” capitalism was proposed—from the first global dust bowl to today—as proof.

Preconditions of the First Global Dust Bowl

In the 1830s, the U.S. government under President Andrew Jackson hastened the violent removal of indigenous peoples from their lands, especially in the southeast of the country, to Indian Territory. To make way for the expansion of a plantation economy based on slave labor and white supremacy, the government promised indigenous nations land and life in the area “as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty.” Jackson, Donald Trump’s favorite president, wrote, “there your white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to land.”2

However, as history teaches us, no such Trail of Tears can ever lead to “peace and plenty.” Rather, Northern industrialists and Southern planters joined forces to demand further white territorial expansion, including, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the lands promised and held in Indian Territory by tribes removed from the southeast by Jackson’s army. The accelerated expropriation of native lands for white settlement was the precondition for the expansion of cash crop agriculture and resource extraction across the continent. This expansion led to ecological devastation and human misery on a vast scale and set the stage for the socioecological disaster on the southern plains that a few decades later would be known as the Dust Bowl.

Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes that “at the end of the Civil War the US Army hardly missed a beat before the war ‘to win the West’ began in full force. As a far more advanced killing machine and with seasoned troops, the army began the slaughter of people, buffalo, and the land itself, destroying natural tall grasses of the Plains and planting short grasses for cattle, eventually leading to the loss of topsoil four decades later.”3 Northeastern elites like Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes promoted the privatization and allotment of remaining tribal lands held in common in the 1880s to make way for white settlement and promote the interests of private capital, especially railroads, manufacturers seeking cheap raw materials (like cotton), extractive industries, bankers, and land speculators.

Westward expansion in this period was part of the renewed seizure of indigenous land underway around the world. The new imperialism that took off in the wake of the U.S. Civil War and abolition of slavery encompassed wars of conquest waged by colonial powers for the expansion of white territorial control, as well as the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands to make way for white settlement. Anglo-European and U.S. imperial regimes learned from one another, shared expertise, and developed a trans-imperial approach to the administrative challenges associated, from their perspective, with taking up “the white man’s burden” on a global scale. As a result, their policies of land theft—including the privatization and expropriation of indigenous lands held in common—looked similar, whether employed in French Algeria under Napoleon III and then the Third Republic, or the Cape Colony under Cecil Rhodes, or Indian Territory in what would become the state of Oklahoma.4

Harry Magdoff explains that by the start of the First World War, “as a consequence of this new expansion and conquest on top of that of preceding centuries, the colonial powers, their colonies, and their former colonies extended over approximately 85 percent of the earth’s surface.”5 This is the period in which the United States seized Hawai’i, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands, and waged a war of atrocity against the Philippine Republic.6 The gospel of colonial expansion, which W. E. B. Du Bois identified as the “new religion of whiteness,” taught its followers that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”7 The new imperialism was thus underwritten by “the doctrine of the divine right of white people to steal.”8

One result of this phase of capitalist globalization was the racialized division of nature and humanity on a world scale, resulting in what historian David Anderson has called the “first global environmental problem,” described in the 1930s as another “white man’s burden.”9 This was a massive soil erosion crisis associated with colonial land use changes, especially the expansion of cash crop agriculture and deforestation, and the integration of the first global agriculture and food regime.

Dust Bowls of Empire

As scholars of racial capitalism, colonialism, and white settler colonialism have shown, capitalist development depends on a racialized division of humanity. This process is mirrored in the racialized division of nature. Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster explain that the division of nature under capitalism is central to the system’s ecological rifts:

Capital accumulation requires the continual expansion of the division of nature as well as the division of labor. The division of nature is no longer, however, a social division of nature, in which the earth’s different landscapes and species are utilized by human beings within a context that maintains the reproduction of nature itself. Instead, it is a detailed/alienated division of nature that breaks the circle of natural processes, creating ecological rifts. Nature is remade in such a way as to promote a single end: the accumulation of capital, irrespective of the lessons of rational science and conditions of sustainability.10

The racialization of the division of nature was part and parcel of the new imperialism. Lands and people were identified as the natural property of white men, and modes of land tenure that differed from capitalist property relations (likewise identified with whiteness), as well as the people practicing them, were treated as backward and exploitable or expropriatable.

At the heart of every major ecological crisis of capitalism has been the idea that (white) property owners, businessmen, and policy-makers can do with the land as they please in the name of profit, and assume access to land and resources further afield once they have destroyed the areas where they started. In the United States this attitude was summed up by Teddy Roosevelt, who remarked that in the view of the American settler, “when he exhausted the soil of his farm, he felt that his son could go West and take up another…. When the soil-wash from the farmer’s field choked the neighboring river, the only thought was to use the railway rather than the boats to move produce and supplies.”11

By the 1930s, colonial soil scientists described the massive soil erosion problem then plaguing colonies and frontier regions around the world, including the U.S. Southern plains, as the result of the imperial “rape of the earth” of preceding decades.12 This ecological crisis, predicated on the attempted domination and decimation of entire cultures, involved a then-unprecedented level of destruction and erosion of the living soil complex upon which practically all terrestrial life depends. Lush and lovely prairies, woodlands, pampas, and forests were shorn of their protective layer and the landscape scraped bare to make way for the desolate monoculture of capitalist agriculture.

By the end of the 1930s, tens of thousands of people had been displaced on the U.S. Southern plains and elsewhere, after decades of so many lives being mutilated or sacrificed on the altars of profit and white supremacy.13 One U.S. official called the Dust Bowl “the most spectacular mass sacrifice to strictly commercial mores in the history of mankind.”14 This disaster developed in spite of decades of warnings about the growing problem of soil erosion and broader land degradation across the colonial world, as well as its impact on communities losing their livelihoods. There was already a large body of knowledge about how to prevent erosion, as well as shared expertise across colonial contexts about how to remediate it, adequate technology, and many conservation-oriented elites working to address the growing ecological crises of the new imperialism. However, as with the ineffectual climate conferences held in recent decades by the United Nations, world leaders in the 1930s could not ultimately prevent or resolve the crisis of soil erosion because of their commitment to maintaining the global social and economic status quo—the racialized class system in which we still live. Like dust-bowlification today, the ultimate source of the crisis was social, not technological, and thus required social change to address. Prominent British colonial soil scientists Graham Vernon Jacks and Robert Orr Whyte, authors of The Rape of the Earth, recognized even then that this refusal to disturb the status quo would make it impossible to truly address the global crisis of soil erosion:

Where land-utilization practices are firmly established and have become the basis of the country’s economy, the adoption of a new land-utilization programme conforming to the limits imposed by the natural environment, may well involve a social and political revolution.

Therein lies the supreme difficulty of applying effective erosion control. We now know fairly precisely what agricultural, pastoral, forest and engineering principles must be adopted to stop the earth from rotting away beneath our feet, but we cannot, or dare not, apply them forthwith on a scale commensurate with the gravity of the situation.15

While in the United States New Deal agricultural programs addressed some of the technical problems of agriculture, and met some of the needs of down-and-out white settlers—the Tom Joads depicted in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—the broader social conditions that allow for such destruction have remained in place. This is why, as I argue and illustrate in great detail in my forthcoming book, we now face even worse ecological crises than in the 1930s—a new global Dust Bowl.16

The New Global Dust Bowl

At the heart of the new Dust Bowl are land degradation, climate change, and freshwater scarcity. It is the result of increasingly extreme expropriation—in both scale and technique—of the land, of the planet’s hydrocarbon deposits, and of freshwater systems. Industrial agriculture has contributed significantly to each of these problems, as “heavy [fossil-fueled] tilling, multiple harvests and abundant use of agrochemicals have increased yields at the expense of long-term sustainability.”17 These practices have masked the effects of land degradation, especially in its most destructive form, the loss of soil to erosion. Because of the ongoing mining of the soil for profit, the earth has lost a third of its arable land to erosion and pollution since the 1970s. Plant and soil biologist Duncan Cameron has warned that “you think of the dust bowl of the 1930s in North America and then you realize we are moving towards that situation if we don’t do something.”18

While soil erosion receives little attention in the media—perhaps because, as one scientist said, “soil isn’t sexy”—the problems caused by climate change are more widely covered.19 The earth’s warming climate is driving a shift in the global hydrological or water cycle that is essentially making wet places wetter and dry places drier—with awful ecological and social consequences. NASA’s Earth Observatory cites the alteration of the hydrological cycle as one of “the most serious Earth science and environmental policy issues confronting society.”20 According to World Bank economist Richard Damania, “when we look at any of the major impacts of climate change, they one way or another come through water…. So it will be no exaggeration to claim that climate change is really in fact about hydrological change.”21

At the same time, freshwater resources are being degraded by pollution and over-tapped by unsustainable agricultural practices, which, in conjunction with climate change and inadequate infrastructure serving poorer areas, is reducing the availability of freshwater to life-threatening levels. A 2016 study published in Science Advances indicated that already, “about 66% [of the global population] (4.0 billion people) lives under severe water scarcity…at least 1 month of the year…. The number of people facing severe water scarcity for at least 4 to 6 months per year is 1.8 to 2.9 billion…. Half a billion people face severe water scarcity all year round.”22

Scientists working at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and NOAA predict that in arid regions such as the U.S. Southwest, “the levels of aridity seen in the 1950s multiyear drought, or the 1930s Dust Bowl, [will] become the new climatology by mid-century: a perpetual drought.” The possibility of “perpetual drought” raises again the terrible specter of the Dust Bowl, but this time with no obvious way back, given the “locked-in” nature of climate change.23

Such warnings by scientists indicate the severity of both current and expected crises, given that the Dust Bowl is considered by many as one of the more extreme humanmade ecological and social disasters in history. However, we now confront the reality, given the trends explained above, that dust-bowlification is an increasingly likely and ordinary threat in the face of climate change.24 That what is happening today is a direct continuation of the colonial past is illustrated in part by the great social distance between those making decisions and those most affected—and by the fact that one group of people may forcibly impose such destruction on others. As a recent report by Tamra Gilbertson for the Indigenous Environmental Network and Climate Justice Alliance stated:

Communities especially impacted include the frontline communities of peoples living directly alongside fossil-fuel pollution and extraction overwhelmingly: Indigenous Peoples (IPs), Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, working class, poor and peasant communities in the United States, Canada and around the world. These peoples are forced to sacrifice their lives, livelihoods and health for the sake of projects to extract and burn fossil fuels and dump the resulting toxic waste and…have been facing the reality of the climate crisis for decades. In climate disruption and extreme weather events, these communities and indigenous tribal nations are hit first and [worst].25

However, there is no serious New Deal on the horizon for the poor and non-white world most impacted by socioecological crises in the new Dust Bowl era.26 Rather, international environmental politics, as represented by the most recent climate negotiations, have hung much of the world out to dry—or drown. Moreover, the very people suffering most under current conditions and forced to seek safety away from home are also scapegoated viciously by political and economic elites oozing racist anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe, Britain, North America, and beyond.

No Empires, No Dust Bowls

A key lesson from all of this is that when we talk about ecological crises like climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution and scarcity, and soil degradation, we are necessarily talking about systemic social problems with long and brutal histories under capitalist development. When scientists describe the increase of Dust Bowl-like conditions under climate change, they signal a particular kind of violent ecological and social change. The projected crises have violent consequences. But equally violent are the social forces, historical developments, policies, and practices that produce such massive socioecological crises in the first place.

Mainstream environmentalism, which first developed in the colonial context, has often instead ignored the historical origins of current crises. Failure to address this history allows too many environmentalists and policy-makers “to safely put aside present responsibility for continued harm done by that past and questions of reparations, restitution, and reordering society.”27

Rather than adjusting to injustice, a tendency toward accommodation in the face of oppression that Martin Luther King Jr. and others warned against, we must meet the imperial system of capital head on, in all its manifestations. Collective resistance against police brutality, immigrant-bashing, toxic forms of masculinity and heteronormativity, prisons, attacks on indigenous sovereignty, military aggression and bombing of defenseless communities, and the segregation of the global environmental movement are essential if environmentalism is to have any relevance in the struggle to build a better world and avoid the catastrophic deepening of the global ecological rift. At the heart of the matter is that allowing the accumulation of injustice to continue makes inevitable what Foster calls the “accumulation of catastrophe.”28 Environmental justice demands solidarity with those on the frontlines rather than those defending the bottom line of capital. We do not need a “greener” version of such barbarism. Peace with the system means no peace for the planet.

Notes

  1. Maria Cristina Rulli, Antonio Saviori, and Paolo D’Odorico, “Global Land and Water Grabbing,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 3 (2013): 892–97; Jampel Dell’Angelo, Maria Cristina Rulli, and Paolo D’Odorico, “The Global Water Grabbing Syndrome,” Ecological Economics 143 (2018): 276–85; Cyril Mychalejko, “Land Grabs Soar, Worsen Land Conflicts and Climate Change: Report,” Telesur, June 14, 2016; May Bulman, “Human Trafficking and Slavery Affecting ‘Every Large Town and City in UK,’Independent, August 10, 2017; Gwyneth Rees, “Human Trafficking: Modern-Day Slaves ‘Within Plain Sight,’” BBC Wales News, February 25, 2018; Jonathan Watts and John Vidal, “Environmental Defenders Being Killed in Record Numbers Globally, New Research Reveals,” Guardian, July 13, 2017.
  2. Zach Schonfeld, “Understanding Donald Trump’s Weird Obsession With Andrew Jackson,” Newsweek, January 5, 2017.
  3. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Boston: Beacon, 2014), 144.
  4. R. J. Thompson and B. M. Nicholls, “The Glen Grey Act: Forgotten Dimensions in an Old Theme,” South African Journal of Economic History 8, no. 2 (1993): 58–70.
  5. Harry Magdoff, Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 35.
  6. Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, 163.
  7. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” [1920], Monthly Review 55, no. 6 (2003): 44–58, 45–46.
  8. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” 55.
  9. David Anderson, “Depression, Dust Bowl, Demography, and Drought: The Colonial State and Soil Conservation in East Africa during the 1930’s,” African Affairs 83, no. 332 (July 1984): 321–43, 327; Graham Vernon Jacks and Robert Orr Whyte, The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), 249.
  10. Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Ecology in the 21st Century,” World Review of Political Economy 1, no. 1 (2010): 142–56, 152; John Bellamy Foster referred earlier to the “division of nature” as the “the disconnection of natural processes from each other and their extreme simplification…an inherent tendency of capitalist development” (The Vulnerable Planet [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999], 121).
  11. Theodore Roosevelt, “Opening Address by the President,” Proceedings of a Conference of Governors (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1909), 9. Conference of Governors on the Conservation of Natural Resources held in Washington, D.C., May 13–15, 1908.
  12. Jacks and White, The Rape of the Earth, 1939.
  13. Dust and Drought,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, http://americanexperience.si.edu.
  14. Russell Lord, “Progress of Soil Conservation in the United States,” Geographical Journal 105, nos. 5–6 (1945): 159–66, 162.
  15. Jacks and Whyte, The Rape of the Earth, 38.
  16. Hannah Holleman, Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of Green Capitalism” (Yale University Press, forthcoming).
  17. Jonathan Watts, “Third of Earth’s Soil Is Acutely Degraded due to Agriculture,” Guardian, September 12, 2017.
  18. Oliver Milman, “Earth Has Lost a Third of Arable Land in Past 40 Years, Scientists Say,” Guardian, December 2, 2015.
  19. John Crawford, “What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?” interview by World Economic Forum, Time, December 14, 2012.
  20. Steve Graham, Claire Parkinson, and Mous Chahine, “The Water Cycle and Climate Change,” NASA Earth Observatory, October 1, 2010, http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov.
  21. Chris Mooney, “World Bank: The Way Climate Change Is Really Going to Hurt Us Is through Water,” Washington Post, May 3, 2016.
  22. Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra, “Four Billion People Facing Severe Water Scarcity,” Science Advances 2, no. 2 (2016).
  23. Richard Seager, “An Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America,” Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Earth Institute, Columbia University, http://ocp.ldeo.columbia.edu; Richard Seager et al., “Model Projections of an Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America,” Science 316, no. 5828 (2007): 1181–84.
  24. Joseph Romm, “Desertification: The Next Dust Bowl,” Nature 478 (2011): 450–51, 450; Joe Romm, “My Nature Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security,” ThinkProgress, May 24, 2012, https://thinkprogress.org.
  25. Tamra Gilbertson, Carbon Pricing: A Critical Perspective for Community Resistance, vol. 1 (Bemidji, MN: Indigenous Environmental Network/Climate Justice Alliance, 2017), 12.
  26. Chris Mooney, “World Bank: The Way Climate Change Is Really Going to Hurt Us Is through Water”; Somina Sengupta, “Hotter, Drier, Hungrier: How Global Warming Punishes the World’s Poorest,” New York Times, March 12, 2018; Pamela Worth, “Where Climate Change Hits First and Worst,” Catalyst 14 (2015): 8–11, 22.
  27. Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, 5.
  28. John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe,” Monthly Review 63, no. 7 (December 2011): 1–17.
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