Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl is based on the terrifying dust storms and extended drought in the 1930s in areas centered around Boise City in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
The weather conditions devastated the area, impoverished many people and created an exodus to California. It’s a story embedded in our state’s psyche.
Burns’ brilliant film rightly focuses on the human side of the tragedy, but the documentary makes it clear that the real culprit wasn’t some temporary weather aberration. Droughts were common to the prairie. The main problem was that land was getting farmed that should have never been farmed but left as grassland, once grazed by buffalo, to prevent soil from blowing. Another problem was the common technique used to plow the farm fields, which left the soil susceptible to erosion.
Behind the ecological problems were the greedy land speculators, who bought tracts of land near railroad lines in the area and sold them relatively cheaply to farmers under suspect hucksterism. For years, however, farmers were successful growing wheat in the area, but then the drought hit, the dust storms rolled, the crops were ruined and people lost everything. The disaster, then, was man-made.
Burns spends some time focusing on the larger implications of the drought on farming in the 1930s, which covered several states and especially hurt tenement farmers, and he cites John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I have taught and written about. But, for the most part, the focus remains on a four-state area around Boise City.
Viewers must draw their own parallels between the unscientific and wishful thinking of the Dust Bowl farmers as their lives crumbled in clouds of dusts and today’s anti-science crusaders, such as U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, but it’s not difficult to draw the comparison. The greatest distinction, however, is that the farmers were simply trying to save their way of life while Inhofe, who claims global warming is a liberal hoax, is trying to support the financial interests of the oil and gas industry.
But the larger point is that humans can and do create ecological disasters, and that we have much to learn about the past. Recent severe weather events, including Hurricane Sandy, the lingering Midwest drought and the summer wildfires, have been tied to the systemic causation of global warming, but our country still does little to reduce carbon emissions or tackle the problem in other ways.
This act of ignorance to fail to learn from the past is based on the prevailing right-wing ideology to deny science in general and, judging by the recent election results, even mathematics itself. Back in 2006, I wrote a series of posts titled Okie Rebels With A Cause, one of which dealt with The Grapes of Wrath and by extension the drought in the 1930s. Here’s an excerpt from the post, “Tom Joad and the Progressive Oklahoma Tradition”:
. . . Shortly after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, a Daily Oklahoman editorial writer, who admitted he had not read the novel, accused Steinbeck of “complete and absurd” untruthfulness. “Goldfish swallowing critics know nothing about the region or people pictured in a novel accept at face value even the most inaccurate depiction.” (Berry Tramel, “April 1939 Steinbeck Pains State Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.)
I’m unsure just how much coverage The Oklahoman gave to the Burns’ documentary (I found one short piece), but I think it’s fair to say it didn’t dominate its news columns when the film aired last Sunday and Monday on OETA. That’s a shame because the droughts of the 1930s and the accompanying federal assistance helped shaped the state of Oklahoma-the lakes, dams, work programs-more than anything else in the state’s short history.
The Oklahoman, which also doesn’t accept climate-change science and is now owned by a right-wing oilman, and Inhofe can deny facts and history, but the Dust Bowl is part of an established record. The concerned inhabitants of our warming world, with all its recent weather disasters caused by global warming, are now carefully sorting things out. The lessons of man-made ecological disasters will not go forgotten nor will the self-serving obstinance of The Oklahoman and Inhofe.
Is U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe getting booted from his position as top Republican huckster on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he has used to lobby relentlessly for the oil and gas industry while embarrassing the state with his rejection of climate-change science?
A generic, pro-Inhofe article on NewsOK.com, the site of The Oklahoman, indicates the Oklahoma senator will become the top Republican on the Senate Armed Service Committee when Congress convenes in January.
The article, written in a typical press-release format by chief Washington stenographer Chris Casteel, then tells us this:
Inhofe will be giving up his spot as the top Republican – or ranking member – on the Environment and Public Works Committee, where he has helped author highway bills and gained international notice for his crusade against legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
“International notice,” as in that’s a good thing, Chris? Really.
Of course, Inhofe leaving the Environment and Public Works Committee is the real news not his new appointment, but Casteel, who works for an extremely conservative and biased news organization, won’t expand on it. (Casteel and The Oklahoman have enabled Inhofe during his entire political career.) Inhofe has waged a one-man war against the science of global warming for years, using his position on the committee as a bully pulpit. He has called global warming a “hoax” and absurdly claimed climate change science is a left-wing conspiracy.
Meanwhile, he has tried to protect the interests of the oil, gas and coal industries through outlandish, illogical claims while pocketing more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuels industry since 2007. Certainly, Inhofe has probably been one of the most anti-environmental politicians in the history of the country and definitely THE most anti-environmental figure in the world so far in the twenty-first century. For this, he has obviously become a national and state embarrassment.
Now, post-election, it appears his crusade against basic scientific principles has become an albatross around the GOP’s neck, a tremendous liability that will only sink the Republicans further into their oblivion on the national level. How can the GOP win the presidency if Inhofe and others like him continue to so loudly represent a particular, archaic branch of the party?
Cases in point:
- Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, used the specter of Inhofe and his global warming claims to win a U.S. Senate seat against the Republican incumbent Scott Brown in
Massachusetts. Here’s what she said: “Sen. Brown has been going around the country, talking to people, saying, you’ve got to contribute to his campaign because it may be for the control of the Senate. And he’s right. … What that would mean is if the Republicans take over control of the Senate, Jim Inhofe would become the person who would be in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s a man that has called global warming ‘a hoax.’ In fact, that’s the title of his book.” Warren, well-known as a consumer advocate, won a decisive victory. Obviously, the Inhofe reference helped her, especially after Hurricane Sandy.
- New York City Michael Bloomberg, an Independent who once ran for office as a Republican, endorsed President Barack Obama for president on the heels of Hurricane Sandy because he thought the president would do more to address global warming than Mitt Romney. As Bloomberg wrote before the election, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” This was a major smack-down for Inhofe and an indication that more and more public officials are becoming aware of climate change’s impact. It also argues that Republicans will not be able to increase their independent-voter share without becoming more flexible about climate change.
- Inhofe spent the waning days of the last election campaigning for “legitimate rape” candidate Todd Akin, a fellow Republican, who was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri. During the campaign, Akin said, “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” Akin said this to defend his anti-abortion stance, even in cases of rape. After he said it, he become an extremely controversial figure among Democrats and Republicans alike, but that didn’t stop Inhofe from openly supporting him, and why not? Legitimate rape and the “hoax” of global warming are kooky ideas presented by old, kooky white men who reject basic science. Akin lost the election.
Warren wins, Akin loses and Bloomberg makes Inhofe look like a relic of political party that, as of now, refuses to change. Surely, it’s valid speculation that Inhofe was asked or it was suggested to him by Republican leaders to give up his position on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Even if that isn’t the case and this is truly his own decision, Inhofe can do a lot less damage as a minority member of the Armed Services Committee as the country finally winds down the military occupation of Afghanistan.
Does the election mean Inhofe, who will soon turn 78, will lose even more credibility over his outlandish claims about global warming? It seems so, and that’s good for the planet.