Tuned In

TV Weekend: The Dust Bowl

Yes, Ken Burns' new documentary is history. But to ignore the film's resonances with climate change today is to be as blind as a farmer in a cloud of choking topsoil.

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A dust cloud looms over Boise City, Oklahoma, April 15, 1935.

Ken Burns has a gift for making documentaries that are not at all about today’s controversies and that are also totally about today’s controversies. His World War II epic, The War, came out during the war in Iraq, contrasting the war against fascism, won with massive shared sacrifices, with the post-9/11 battles, whose costs and dangers were borne by a few. As the Tea Party engaged Barack Obama over stimulus and national health care in 2009, Burns released The National Parks, a film on an unobjectionable subject that nonetheless slyly made the case that there were massive public goods that we could only achieve collectively. (The subtitle: “America’s Best Idea.”) Following that, Prohibition was a story of nanny-state regulatory overreach on the one hand and on the other, runaway moralism.

Just so, The Dust Bowl (Nov. 18 and 19, on PBS) is about the Dust Bowl. As far as PBS need be concerned, it is history—something all Americans, whatever their persuasion, should know about, but the past nonetheless. But to believe that no one is aware of the film’s resonances with climate change is to be as blind as a farmer in a cloud of choking topsoil.

The Northeast is still recovering from the flooding damage of Hurricane Sandy, the second “100-year storm” to blow through the region in two years. Even ardent climate-change crusaders don’t say that it, or any particular storm, was directly caused by man-made climate change; but as a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story put it, it juices up the storms that we get. (As Eric Pooley, formerly of TIME, put it: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”) Last summer, the midsection of the country was wracked by crippling wildfires and drought, an increasingly common weather pattern and one reminiscent of, yes, what happened in the 1930s.

The Dust Bowl may not persuade anyone unconvinced that mankind is contributing to the Earth’s verifiable changes in temperature and climate and the resulting wild weather. But it’s a powerful reminder that mankind can create massive environmental effects and that, once those take hold, mankind looks very small indeed in the face of them.

The ’30 catastrophe, of course, was about the soil, not the atmosphere, and the film begins by laying out what led farmers to overwork the land: money, especially from wheat. The prairie’s settlers found a rich soil, with moisture retained deep below the surface thanks to the native grasses. (The problem: those grasses were adaptations to the region’s frequent historic droughts.) When wheat was scarce and in demand during World War I, it became the area’s cash crop, and times were good–for a while.

When wheat drew a good price, you planted more wheat. When it was glutted and prices dropped, you planted more wheat to make up for it. The plains became a breadbasket, which is to say, a monoculture of one crop–wheat wheat wheat–which left farmers financially vulnerable to the market and the topsoil vulnerable to the droughts that grasses had protected them from. When the Depression hit, prices plummeted, and years of dryness hit on top of that, decimating crops and exposing soil. In March 1933, in Cimarron County, Okla., it did not rain at all.

And then things got worse. Windstorms hit, as they had on the plains in the past, but now there was nothing to hold down the parched earth. Clouds of particles 10,000 feet high swept across the plains—”black blizzards,” and brown, red and sandy ones, depending where the wind was blowing from. Dust blew into homes through the merest crack. Newborn babies died.

There was no money and an apocalypse outside–even if you’re read the stories and seen Dorothea Lange photographs, there’s still no preparing for Burns’ repeated images of blackened, dead land. (Stylistically, the film runs the Burns playbook with few surprises: lots of photo pans, and Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” seems to be playing on a loop.) Yet in a way, one of the most chilling images in the film is of the sandy landscape on a brilliantly clear day. “In between storms, it couldn’t have been more beautiful,” one elderly survivor recalls. “I still remember my father looking up at the sky and praying that it would rain.” There was a lot of prayer, and holy dread. There were clouds of locusts. The one repeated refrain of the elderly survivors: it looked like the end of times, Judgment Day.

There is no harsh judgment on the part of The Dust Bowl. There are no villains here. As the narration points out, the farmers who pioneered the great plains were folks who previously had nothing–refugees from Europe, poor people from back East. They lived harvest to harvest and many of them were heavily mortgaged. They were each looking out for themselves and their families. And in looking out for their understandable interests, each of them individually, they brought down a collective black ruin.

The second half of the documentary looks at the federal response to the disaster, and plain and simple, it’s a potent endorsement of government stimulus, muscular intervention and infrastructure spending. Where farms used to keep people alive, the WPA—in the Depression, the country’s biggest employer—stepped in. It employed eight million people nationally, and in the stricken plains they were put to work building dams and schools and reshaping the landscape. Yet, as the documentary points out, many people called it “make-work and a waste of money.”

Meanwhile, plains-states farmers—notoriously individualistic and anti-government-interference—implored the government for regulations and laws against letting land lie dangerously barren. (As author and environmental historian Donald Worster says in the film, “When your back is against the wall, all ideology goes out the window.” There are no libertarians in disaster areas.)  And while some members of his own Cabinet argued for abandoning the human settlement of the Dust Bowl altogether and letting it become desert, big-government Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt stuck with the region, setting up soil conservation programs to try to preserve the habitability of states that, today, almost universally vote GOP red.

If you think no one working on this film thought of this history when Obama’s stimulus or “You didn’t build that” came up, I have a WPA reservoir to sell you.

Mind you, Ken Burns conceives his films years before they air, and not necessarily in response to particular current events or debates. But he’s also not coy—he’s well aware of the parallels of his work to the ideas and debates of our time, which have echoed in different forms for decades and centuries. As he’s said of his new film, “If we show the same neglect to the limits of nature now as we did then, it is entirely possible that this could happen again.” Maybe Burns just means the drought—the film closes on a warning that the area could desertify again when the Ogallala Aquifer now being tapped runs out—but I assume he also reads the newspaper. Like the Woody Guthrie songs played throughout it, The Dust Bowl is broadly American, but it’s also very specifically small-p political if you listen closely enough.

Meanwhile, PBS, just off an election in which its government funding was entirely threatened, is not likely to play up any political parallels too strongly. But The Dust Bowl is a powerful documentary about what human efforts can achieve and what short-term thinking can wreak. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way its wind blows.