It is my favorite not-real holiday: Ruination Day (made famous by Gillian Welch). I hope you don’t mind that I pushed the regular newsletter a few days to coincide with it. I bring up the not-so-distant past because, as we look out on our future nearly a century later, we’re poised to repeat it. The instability of our economy, the increasing instability of our climate, mean we’re only years away, if that, from calamity. But this isn’t the first time America has faced a climate emergency.
In the mid-1800s, the middle of America was known colloquially as the Great American Desert. It was an arid, treeless plain. Then, in 1862, the Homestead Act provided over 100 acres of land, for free, to any non-Confederate American who could improve that land by building a house and starting a farm. Despite the shape the land was in, people began to settle the Midwest to take advantage of the Act. It was a meager, hard life, but by the turn of the century, the weather in the region changed. Rain was falling fairly regularly, and crops became easier to grow.
This change was seized upon by capitalists back east. It was said that “rain follows the plow,” that breaking open the soil for farming released moisture that would then fall back to it as rain. Upon this idea, a vast, vacant horizon could be sold as verdant, ripe farmland. And that’s just what happened. Agents sold parcels of land in barely-extant towns claiming that they would be an Oklahoman Manhattan in just a few years. There were claims of springs and trees where there were none. This land was ripe, and it would only get better.
April the 14th, 1935
What followed the plow is, of course, the Dust Bowl. It took about thirty years, but the unusual rainfall in that region ended, and an extended and vicious drought struck shortly after the Great Depression began. The last harvest before that drought set in, farmers drove their crops to town to sell and found that the expected price had been halved. To hell with half a paycheck, they all probably said, and vowed the following year to plow up and plant twice as much land. But before they could make good on that doubling, the drought struck, and the plowed soil simply blew away—sometimes in gusts, sometimes in massive dust storms that moved millions of tons of soil.
History refers to the Okies as migrants, but it’s important to look at these people for what they were: climate refugees.
The impetus to double the plowed land back in 1930, to double the crops for sale after the halving of their bushel price, was in response to a spiral of trade arguments starting with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Meant as a protectionary action for American goods, it naturally resulted in combative tariffs levied against America by other countries. This sharpened the knives of the Depression, which had up to that point essentially left the farmers of the Midwest be (not that it would have forever). It’s this one-two punch of Great Depression and drought that created the Dust Bowl; that, and the lie that founded the white settlement of the region in the first place.
You’re probably familiar with The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s opus that follows an Oklahoma refugee family to California. Steinbeck’s Joads had their home repossessed after the Dust Bowl took their crops, and with little remaining prospects in Oklahoma, they turned west, where they found further sorrow—a fate 2.5 million others shared. History refers to these people, Okies, as migrants, but it’s important to look at them for what they were: climate refugees. When the weather of your homeland literally deserts you—when you must leave a climate to stay alive—you are a climate refugee. Okies, hailing from all over the near-West and Midwest, fled primarily to California, where they were not greeted with open arms. They were chased out of towns, forced to live in camps, and had their labor exploited much like migrant farmers today.
Around 7,000 people died of dust pneumonia before the end of the Dust Bowl.
Things were no easier for the majority of farmers that stayed put. In a matter of months, the landscape was ravaged by the drought, and dust built up in drifts like snow, while fields were blasted bare. Dust storms were not unusual for the region, but they quickly scaled up with the vast increase in plowed, loose soil. These storms were titanic, covering whole states at a time, and carrying Midwestern soil eastward, over DC, out into the Atlantic. The greatest storm of the Dust Bowl arrived on April the 14th, 1935, and was referred to as Black Sunday. 200 miles wide and rolling at 60 miles per hour, the storm darkened states for over an hour, killing a boy caught outside, and untold livestock. By the time the storm ended, it had blasted off 300 million tons of topsoil from the Dust Bowl.
Dust storms differ from sandstorms, in that the particles are extremely fine. They find their way through windows, roofs, walls. After an overnight storm you would wake up covered in dust, no matter how tight you had packed the wet rags under the windows. You would cough black no matter how thoroughly you’d wrapped yourself in sheets, coated your nose with petroleum jelly. These dust particles were so fine that they penetrated into the lungs and created a kind of silicosis referred to then as dust pneumonia. The young and old were particularly susceptible, and around 7,000 died before the end of the Dust Bowl. Being caught out in a storm was its own fresh hell: cars would short and die from the static electricity; barbed wire glowed in the dark; bare skin would be scoured and you could get lost just trying to walk to the outhouse.
Beyond the dust storms, there were so many other issues that made life inescapably difficult. Imagine living in a place for years and, waking up one day—almost overnight—to find that it has transformed into a barren desert. Your way of life, your crops, your livestock, thin and perish. Your family thins. Most flora and fauna vanished in the drought, though rabbits and hares persevered, taking their tithe off what little farmers were able to grow. In response, locals organized rabbit drives, in which men would gather in a ring around a large parcel of land and slowly walk inward until they had herded the rabbits into one mass that they then clubbed to death. At home, in the kitchen, brined Russian thistle—tumbleweed—was served for food. Water became so scarce in the Dust Bowl that homes swarmed with spiders, insects, centipedes, all looking for a drop to drink. Suicide was endemic to the time, and not limited to bankers on Wall Street. Doctors, businessmen, even children killed themselves over fear of business failures and concerns of being a burden to the family.
A few weeks ago, Climate Envoy John Kerry said that “No government is going to solve climate change,” which, hey John, we agree. But he goes on to say that the governments of the world need to get out of the way of industry, and let those people who are doing such a great job of fucking up the planet now get down to the business of saving it. We know how that’s going to work out.
There’s actually precedent for the entrepreneurial spirit tackling climate change. During the Dust Bowl, a pavement magnate in the East swore up and down that if he were given the resources, he could make the Midwest a parking lot, and we wouldn’t have to worry about all that dust anymore. The oil industry is, right now, essentially engaging in this discourse with us. We’ve moved on from climate denialism, and graduated to greenwashing and obfuscation. Exxon will swear up and down that they’re working on bio-fuels, that they’re committed to net-zero goals, that we can count on them to solve this issue so long as we keep giving them money for fossil fuels. This is not an adequate solution, even if they intend to make good on their net-zero promises. Net-zero is paving over the Midwest to stop dust storms. It’s a lie, and we can’t fall for it.
By 2035 we can expect a serious change in the global average temperature, with the low end of that increase being about half a degree Fahrenheit, and the high end being almost two. Crucially, specific temperatures in various locations and cities will average higher. Certain cities, like Seattle, Denver, and my own, will see temperature increases nearing five degrees by 2050—so that math may be skewing on the safe side. A degree, even two, may not sound like a lot. But consider every day last winter that was at or just below freezing. With all else held equal, in 2035? That winter sees snowmelt on those days. Every summer day becomes two degrees hotter. That’s the difference between comfortable and hot, between survival in a heatwave and hyperthermia. And rainfall is extremely sensitive to temperature—whether that means it’s falling or not—and the difference of a few degrees can create a marked increase in droughts and floods.*
*Editor's Note: This paragraph, only a year old, is already woefully outdated. The latest IPCC reports claim we can expect higher increases over shorter timescales.
Prepping for April the 14th, 2035
The thing is, we probably won’t be so lucky as to get hit with a disaster we can predict. The weather is far more likely to swing, volatile-like, so that a sustained Dust Bowl doesn’t happen. But what can happen is a series of floods and droughts that erode the Midwest breadbasket, forcing millions to flee and literal billions to experience rising food prices and shortages. And, as always with a climate change-induced disaster, this is just one thing. There will be more. Throw in government bungling, a war, an epidemic, a fascist uprising. Throw in droughts in other regions, a hurricane hammering the Gulf, an earthquake off the Pacific. Hell, if we want to be symmetrical, we could have an economic crash. We don’t know what will happen, but we can be pretty damn sure it won’t be just one problem at a time.
The Dust Bowl proves that man-made climate change can happen, and that it can have vast effects and an immense capacity to create misery. If we don’t learn from the past, we can be sure to repeat it. Our Ruination Day may not look exactly like the Okie saga, but the problems we’ll face will be largely the same, and the solutions simply boil down to “more.” We need more water, more food, socked away and grown for ourselves and for others. But what we really need, at the heart of all these issues, is a non-hierarchical, anti-capitalist, system of governance that accepts as its core principle the idea that all human beings have worth, an innate value that is to be nourished, cherished, and protected. During the Great Depression, common acts of decency abounded when times were most hard. Folk songs were sung about great equalizers, like Pretty Boy Floyd, who was said to burn debtors documents when he knocked over banks, and redistributed wealth to the hard-up farmers with whom he hid from the law. While these tales are surely exaggerated, it’s hard not to think that, as we near a widespread public understanding that there’s something inherently wrong with the way the system operates, we could use some redistribution and solidarity ourselves.