Category Archives: Environmentalism

Enough Already!

You can sense a sort of fatigue beginning to set in with respect to the oil spill in the Gulf.  Like the war in Afghanistan, we’re tired of hearing about it, even though we may feel vaguely ashamed for feeling that way.  As a nation, we have many admirable qualities, but a long attention span is not one of them.  We’d like our wars and natural disasters to be resolved in the time it takes to Twitter about them. 

The Gulf oil spill has actually had a longer shelf-life than I would have expected.  I think that’s because it’s closer to home than Afghanistan.  Let’s face it…unless you have a friend or family member in the military, either serving in the war or with the potential to have to do so, Afghanistan is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  When the…I refuse to call it a war…invasion of Iraq was at its height, I remember one day I was standing in the grocery store and it just hit me how we were all going about our business as usual.  There is no rationing, no “war effort”.  World War II, this ain’t. 

The Gulf oil spill, however, is like a sound wave.  Very loud at the source, and gradually lessening in volume as it spreads.  For the people who live on the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or  Florida, it’s still screaming like an air raid siren.  But it’s still resonating in the rest of the country.  I’d be interested to know the percentage of the U.S. population that has visited Florida at least once in their lives.  The damage to the seafood industry is a huge factor, but not as much as damage to the beaches.  I can guarantee you that most people in Nebraska don’t ask themselves where that shrimp came from.  As they say, perception is everything. 

But disaster fatigue is not really what this post is about.  I’ve got some of it.  I’m like Tony Hayward…I’d like my life back.  Which brings me to my first Enough Already! comment, which are in no particular order of importance.  Enough about that statement from Hayward.  Of course he’d like his life back, and so would you.  That doesn’t make him Satan.  On the news last night, they showed a party in Louisiana, on Grand Isle I think, where people were laughing and drinking and dancing to Cajun music, in other words, partying as only people from Louisiana can do.  They interviewed one woman who said, “Sure, we’re in a mess, but sometimes…you just gotta have a break”.    On that note, enough about Hayward attending and possibly participating in a regatta this weekend.  Would we have more respect for him if he just went ahead and committed public harakiri? 

Enough already! about the Swedish chairman of the board of BP saying they care about the “small people”.  When I heard him say it, I groaned out loud, because I knew what was coming.  The endless outrage, the snarky cartoons.  Hello, he’s Swedish.  It isn’t a big stretch to imagine that what he meant was “the average person”.  Even if you can speak another language well, idioms and slang are hard to master. 

Finally, a big, giant, capitalized Enough Already! with comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.  Katrina was a natural disaster; the Gulf oil spill is a manmade one.  The only possible response to Katrina was government intervention.  After all, you can’t ask God for $2o million in escrow. 

Having said that, the President is failing no less than the last one did.  The failures occurred both before and after the disaster.  FEMA in the last case, the MMS in this one.  And not throwing everything you have at it, in both.  The mistake in this case is compounded by allowing BP to manage the response.  They should have been confined to paying for it.  From what I read, “Unified Command” is anything but.  Last week, Paul Flemming, my favorite Florida political writer, wrote “Give us Craig Fugate”.  Fugate is the current head of FEMA and the former director of Emergency Management for the state of Florida, who has a proven record. 

As for the President’s response, as usual, Frank Rich of the New York Times illuminates the broader picture in today’s op-ed.   The President’s response must be bolder, since as Rich says, the Tea Party is at the barricades.  On the other hand, Joe Barton made it clear that if they were in charge, the less-government crowd would hand over everything to the likes of BP.  The best quote:  after Barton’s apology to BP, “the G.O.P. establishment had to shut him down because he was revealing the party’s true loyalties, not because it disagreed with him”.

I’m hoping that Barton’s apology dealt a fatal blow to the no-government crowd, but it won’t work unless government actually Does Something.  Enough waiting, already!

(I’ve Got the) Global Warming Blues

(Thanks to National Geographic for the picture of the sleeping polar bear.) 

Several things conspired this week to make global warming rise to the top of my list of fruitless preoccupations. 

Back in the good old days, like 2008, the argument was whether or not it existed.  The new PC position seems to be, Yes, it does exist, but it isn’t man-made.  Although I think there are still several die-hard members of the Doesn’t Exist party.  For the purposes of this blog, we will leave them barricaded behind the doors of their cabins in Idaho. 

The new PC position causes Fakename to ask:  If it exists, what is the big deal about whether or not it’s man-made?  What difference does it make?  There is the exact rub, isn’t it?  Here’s Fakename’s understanding of the Not Man-made argument: 

It’s happening, but this is a natural cycle, and there’s really nothing we can do about it. 

As opposed to:  It’s a natural cycle, but we have sped up the cycle, and since we caused it, we need to do something about it.  Which might cost money. 

Not to get too technical.  Here at the Fakename Blog, our editors share a philosophy with those of the National Enquirer.  Namely, never get too specific.  Blurry photos of the half-alien, half-chimpanzee baby that Angelina Jolie recently birthed and is hiding in a secret compound in the Himalayas are as close as we need to get. 

Fakename is completely baffled about how the science can be argued.  It seems self-evident that there are a gazillion more humans on the planet today than ever before, all of whom are breathing out carbon dioxide, burning gazillions more tons of coal and rainforests than ever before, and raising gazillions more cows to eat than ever before.  Cows are like a double whammy.  They excrete, and also they breathe.  Global warming coming out both ends, so to speak. 

The real occasion for this post was an AP reprint in my local newspaper entitled Methane seen as a growing climate risk.  To make a long story short, melting of the Arctic ice is releasing methane in concentrations that are “the highest in 400,000 years.”  What?  There were cows 400,000 years ago?  In the Arctic? 

Also there was the article by Dave Barry who said scientists have discovered that kangaroos don’t make methane due to some bacterium in their digestive systems.  Research is now being done to see if that bacterium can be implanted in cows.  If you think global warming is bad, wait until you’re confronted by a herd of hopping cows. 

Finally, I’m reading a book about polar bears:  On Thin Ice by Richard Ellis.  The link takes you to the NY Times book review of the book.  It’s an extraordinary book about an unbelievably extraordinary animal.  They are so ubiquitous these days in images that even I get lulled into complacency. 

The book opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Even as I speak, the very last polar bear may be dying of hunger on account of climate change, on account of us.  And I will sure miss the polar bears.  Their babies are so warm and cuddly and trusting, just like ours.”

Stepping Out On a Limb…Or Not

I have to say that I completely understand people who don’t become involved in political discussions, because it all seems so pointless and depressing.  It’s kind of like housecleaning.  As soon as you think you’re finished, you have to start all over again. 

The majority of Americans, I would say, quietly listen and then go quietly vote.  Ergo, despite the toxic rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign, a majority of Americans went and quietly voted Barack Obama into office. 

Liberals, it seems to me, are particularly prone to becoming depressed and giving up.  Conservatives know that, and just wait for the liberals to wear down.  (See:  Congress.)

I’m personally very prone to that wearing-down thing, but I’m also aware of it.  I know it isn’t logical.  So I just keep plodding, mostly in small ways.  I’ve been involved in some political issues, most notably fighting Wal-Mart, and a little less high-profile issue involving a change to the animal control laws.  I’ve been on TV.  I’ve appeared at Commission meetings.  In neither case did I get everything I wanted.  But here is what I did get:  it’s better than it might have been.  If you define winning by getting everything you want, you will always lose.  But if you don’t say anything, you will lose more. 

And here is what keeps me going:  you never know how what you say may impact someone.  The cynics I know say that politics boils down to values, and that you can never change another person’s values.  I don’t believe that.  But I don’t really care about your values.  I only care about how you act. 

My perfect example is the Civil Rights Act.  It did not change values, but it forced changes in behavior.  Those changes in behavior eventually forced changes in values.  Sometimes you have to put the cart before the horse. 

So as I mentioned in my recent post Political Schizophrenia, I was asked by the Board of the business organization I belong to to explain my support for Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution.  This was your ultimate exercise in futility, since the organization had already voted to oppose it.  But how can I explain?  I just felt a need to do it. 

The two members of our seven-member Board who might even have felt some sympathy for me were absent.  Three of the five members present really had no idea what it was about.  That left me and the one other Board member who had any idea what it meant to duke it out, so to speak, since our opinions were diametrically opposed.  He was condescending;  I was biting my tongue.  If it were a debate, I’d say he won. 

But then…last week, our parent state organization asked for $10 more per member to contribute to an “industry defense fund”.  Which they said they might need to fight Amendment 4.  One Board member said…we already have a PAC we contribute $50 to per member.  Why can’t the PAC suffice?  And what exactly is a defense fund anyway? 

I replied:  In my experience, PAC’s lobby.  A defense fund is separate, and is used to defend against lawsuits.  Or possibly to sue.  (Like there is anybody to sue if a constitutional amendment is passed by the voters.  You can sue to keep it off the ballot, but after that it’s happy trails.)  More likely, they’re worried about being sued if the amendment fails.

The end result was, our chapter voted No–we will not give $10 more per member to a defense fund.  I think that had everything to do with them tying it to Amendment 4.  I have no objection to any organization having a defense fund.  But I think the quiet people in my tiny group listened.  Go, Quiet People.

Sometimes…It’s Better to See It

Rather than think about it. 

This morning, Fakesister sent me a link to a website called “Artful Home”, which has the following serigraph print for sale: 


She found it disturbing.  Me too.

On Jane Goodall’s Book

I have at long last finished Jane Goodall’s book Hope for Animals and Their World.  To start, I’ll quote the dedication in its entirety:

“This book is dedicated to the memory of Martha, the last passsenger pigeon–and to the last Miss Waldron’s colobus and the last Yangtze River dolphin.  As we think of their lonely end, may we be inspired to work harder to prevent others suffering a similar fate.”

The  book is subtitled “How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink”.  It tells the stories of many different animal species, and the remarkable people who have devoted their lives to saving them.  In some cases, the animals became extinct in the wild when scientists captured the last known living examples of the species in order to create a captive breeding program.  The goal, ideally, being to repopulate the species in the wild, or at the very least, to preserve the species even if it has to be in a zoo or a small nature preserve. 

Dr. Goodall’s take on it is always overwhelmingly positive, but the stories are heartbreaking nonetheless.  Time and again, the primary reason for the loss or near loss of a species is loss of habitat.  And loss of habitat is due to human overpopulation.  There are more immediate causes of animal extinction such as the accidental (or sometimes deliberate) introduction of non-native species which either outeat or outright prey on the native animals.  Dogs, cats, and rats are most common.  There are introduced poisons, such as lead and various pesticides.  But these too go back to the issue of human overpopulation.    I have no solution to that.  I’m just stating the fact. 

At the moment, I’ll confine myself to why Jane has hope.  I personally don’t see much.  I fear that one day all the magnificent animals on our planet will be confined in zoos.  But not Jane.  The last section of the book is called “The Nature of Hope”.  She says she has four reasons for hope: our extraordinary intellect, the resilience of nature, the energy and commitment of young people, and the indomitable human spirit.  In that section she also addresses the issue of why we should save endangered species anyway.  And she says, we do it for love. 

In that regard, I heard an oddly related snippet of an interview yesterday on NPR with Jeremy Rifkin, who has a new book called The Empathic Civilization.  Rifkin is an economist and senior lecturer at the Wharton School of Business.  His point is that our ability to connect with one another globally is broadening our identification with others beyond family, tribe, religion, and nation, making us the empathic civilization.  And we increasingly embrace not only each other but the other species on our planet.  I truly hope he is right.

Political Schizophenia

Fakename is having a hard time these days.  Oddly enough she is on the Board of two local organizations–one devoted to local business, one devoted to local environmental issues.  Apparently, never the twain shall meet (except in Fakename’s brain). 

The business organization is publicly taking a stand against Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution, which will be voted on this year.  The amendment is more familiarly known as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment.

We interrupt this blog for an important announcement:  Steve just posted a response on my “I Am Sad” post.  Steve:  Fakename is pro-Amendment 4.  Stop stealing my thunder 🙂

Fakename was the lone dissenter in the business organization, but has been asked to explain in detail why at the next Board meeting, next week.  Actually, Fakename thinks another of her fellow Board members is also pro-4, but quietly so. 

First let’s talk about the process by which the state Constitution can be amended in Florida.  An amendment can either be proposed by the Legislature, or by citizen intiative.  This requires a certain number of signatures on a petition.  The amendment language must be clear, and it must be “single issue”.  You can’t, for example, say that pregnant pigs cannot be confined inhumanely AND that piglets must be confined in the same space as their mothers.  You think I’m kidding with this example.  But the prohibition against inhumane confinement of pregnant pigs is now enshrined in the Florida Constitution. 

The judge of clarity, single-issueness, and whether or not there truly are a sufficient number of valid signatures on the petition is:  the Florida Supreme Court.  Which shot down the Hometown Democracy petition the last time it almost got on the ballot, on the clarity and single-issue front.  Back to the drawing board for the Hometown Democracy movement.  During the interim, the anti-HD people ramped up their fight, and managed to get something through the legislature which would allow people who signed the petition in favor of HD to “revoke” their signatures.  HD sued, and won. 

Now then, what is all this fuss about?  As previously mentioned, Florida has a so-called Smart Growth policy.  All 67 counties are required to have what is called a Comprehensive Plan.  All land-use regulations are subservient to the Plan, and the concept is to guide growth in a responsible way, while preserving natural resources.  And it is a miserable failure.  The evidence of that is all around us.  Given a free hand, developers will pave over every inch of Florida until it all looks like Miami Beach.  (If that doesn’t give you nightmares, you’ve never been to Miami Beach.)

The HD amendment says simply this:  any change to the Comp Plan must be voted on by the citizens.  The absurdity of the arguments against that idea are laughable.  Argument 1:  It will break the bank.  Counties will go broke having special elections every time someone wants to change the Comp Plan.  Reality:  the amendment doesn’t say that a special election has to be held.  It can be done during the next regularly scheduled election.  In addition, changes to the Comp Plan are somewhat rare in the present broken system, and they should be rarer still. 

Argument 2.  Opinions one way or another would be swayed by advertising on one side or the other, so that reasoned, expert opinion would not prevail.  The side with the most money would win.  Oh please!  Fakename is about to develop hiccups from laughing so hard.  Like that isn’t exactly what is happening right now?  Except the money, in one form or another, is going to the officials who make the decisions rather than to expensive ad campaigns.  Implicit in this argument is also that you, the citizen, are not smart enough to make these decisions, and you should leave it to your elected officials.  Let’s hear it for representative government! 

There actually already is a process in place for citizens to “comment” on proposed Comp Plan changes, except nobody ever does.  Why, say the antis, would we expect HD to change that? Fakename says:  a comment is different from a vote.  She also says:  bring on the advertising!  She bets more people will pay attention then.  Usually they don’t, until they end up with a Wal-Mart in the back yard.  (Ahem, this actually happened, more or less, to Fakename, although she fought tooth and nail against it.)

In closing, let’s talk about developers, who have been stereotyped and demonized during this fight.  Fakename says:  rightfully so.  Some of Fakename’s readership may characterize developers as “producers”, which would be true in a sense.  Building things creates jobs, at least temporarily.  But in order to stay in business, and to keep those jobs going, they have to keep building things.  It’s like a giant Ponzi scheme. 

Even Tallahassee caught the condo fever that has consumed the rest of the state.  Fakename can point out a recently completed 24-story condo building near her office, which has some 300 units.  At last count, they’ve sold around 10.  It’s in foreclosure.  But do the developers care?  Nope.  They got their money.  They’ve now moved on to plans to pave over the Appalachicola National Forest.

Fighting for Water

Disclaimer:  There will be no references cited here, since, as I’m fond of saying, I’m writing a blog, not a term paper.  So you will have to take my word for it that I’m telling the truth, or else you will have to look it up yourself.  Disclaimer #2:  I’m telling the truth, but some inaccuracies or fuzzy details may seep in unintentionally.

The subject of this blog is the war between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over the water in what is known as the Chattahoochee/Flint/Appalachicola river system.  This war has been going on for umpty-jillion years (in the South, this means “several” or sometimes, “a few”).  I think in fact that it’s been about 12 years (see:  fuzzy details).  The gist of it is this:  Georgia built a giant dam (Buford Dam) on their end (the Chattahoochee part) which formed Lake Lanier.  This reduced the water flow into the Flint River in Alabama, which flows into the Appalachicola River in Florida, and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.  The amount of water allowed to flow into the Flint and therefore, the Appalachicola, is controlled by the Corps of Engineers. 

So the states involved have spent years alternately suing each other or the Corps.  It hasn’t reached the Supreme Court yet, but it will.  We have, here in the Southeast, not reached the level of water wars so common in the West, but we are getting there. 

Now we will pause for a moment to consider the following topic, which will tie in later:  Smart Growth.  An oxymoron if there ever was one.  But as online friend Jeff Watson says, he’s a conservative because he has something to conserve.  Ditto Florida.  Beautiful white sand beaches, the Everglades, wildlife of an astonishing variety, terrain which ranges from near-desert to tropical lushness.  So Florida enacted laws to protect all that, which it regularly ignores.  But at least it tried. 

In Georgia, there are apparently no such laws.  The once lovely area my sister lives in (a stone’s throw from Buford Dam), north-northeast of Atlanta, used to be rolling pastures filled with horse barns.  Now it’s filled with Toyota dealerships, Hampton Inns, and Wal-Marts.  And it happened lightning-fast.  (Translation:  About five years, way less than umpty-jillion.)

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming involving water wars.  The real fight is between Georgia and Florida.  Alabama is just kind of stuck in the middle, and generally sides with Florida. (If we don’t get any, they don’t either.)  Georgia’s argument is that it needs the water in Lake Lanier to supply drinking water to Atlanta.  Plus, they say, it’s our water.  It starts here.  Florida says, it’s not your water, it’s our water too.  Florida needs it for the oyster industry, since the fresh water from the Appalachicola flowing into the Gulf creates the perfect breeding ground for oysters. 

The latest in a surprising ruling by some Federal court or another is this:  Georgia may not keep as much water as it wants (needs), because Lake Lanier was not originally created for the purpose of supplying drinking water to Atlanta.  Temporarily, Florida wins.  I’m pretty sure Georgia is suing somebody about it. 

Long ago, Fakename came up with a solution to this problem.  It involves building a very large, electrified fence around Atlanta and its suburbs, which is patrolled by border guards.  No one is allowed inside the fence unless someone already inside dies.  That way, Atlanta can make do with the water it already has.  Fakesister commented that it’s a good thing Fakename is not an elected official.  But in milder form, my solution would work.  Stop development.  If you can’t get water, you can’t build.  As crazy as I may sound, this will in fact be the ultimate resolution.  Georgia will be forced to curb its appetite.  It can either do it on its own terms, or be forced into it by the federal government.  (All you libertarians out there, read and weep.)

This brings me to the concept of urban planning.  My friend Judith has a degree in it, and taught me that in order to get anything done which benefits wildlife or the environment, you have to somehow make the argument that it benefits people.  Thus with the infamous “turtle tunnel” here in Tallahassee.  The argument had to be made that turtles crossing a major highway were hazardous, which is in fact true.  Drivers either swerve to avoid them, or hit them.  Then the turtles in some cases become hard-shelled missiles capable of breaking your windshield (and there were pictures to prove it).

The deal is that most people are not capable of thinking beyond their noses.  They are not capable of grasping how the survival of turtles benefits them.  And they are not capable of understanding how important water is.  Possibly until the day they turn on the faucet and nothing comes out.    Do I sound elitist?  Guilty as charged…because those people have to be protected from themselves. 

Presently I’m reading Jane Goodall’s latest book, “Hope for Animals and Their World”.  Subtitled “How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink”.  The very first section is about animals who already, in our lifetimes, have become extinct in the wild.  And why should we care? 

Well, most of us will not notice until we go out on the patio and no birds are singing in the back yard (see: Rachel Carson).  Or until we turn on the water faucet and nothing comes out.

The “Forgotten” Coast

This term refers to the Gulf Coast of North Florida, stretching roughly from Carabelle to Mexico Beach, and includes probably more well-known locations like Appalachicola and St. George Island.  St. George, if you ask me (and I realize you didn’t), is the best beach in Florida…maybe the world.  But if you also ask me, the Forgotten Coast is not nearly forgotten enough…by the developers.  Having paved over every inch of South Florida’s beaches, they have now set their sights on the only remaining waterfront property in the state.  The first to fall is Carabelle, which used to be a (quote) “quaint fishing village”, and soon will be Boca Raton North, with condos and marinas for pleasure boats as far as the eye can see.  Gone will be those unsightly shrimp boats and messy fish houses.  Just don’t blame us when you can’t get oysters in Manhattan. 

The incomparable Carl Hiaasen of the Miami Herald has spent a lifetime chronicalling the disappearance of Florida as you know it, or as you think you know it.  Now then.  Time for a disclaimer. 

I actually have a job, which is in the business world (although some fail to see my relevance).  I’m on the Board of Directors of the local chapter of a national, indeed international, organization related to commercial property management.  In certain cases, growth and development contributes to my employment security and potentially to my personal bottom line.  Some of my favorite people are in the construction industry.  Plus you know how the saying goes:  birds gotta swim, fish gotta fly, and developers have to build.  [Another disclaimer:  Please, please don’t correct me here.  I said that on purpose.  Kinda takes away from the joke when you don’t get it, ‘k?]

At the same time, I’m also on the Board of Directors of a local environmental organization with a very narrow focus:  protecting a lake that I live near from….developers.  And I have to say this:  they are a relentless bunch.  The Lake is fairly well-protected, but if there is an ordinance that can be misinterpreted, a definition that can be misunderstood, a rule that can be ignored until you get caught…these guys and their lawyers are the masters.  Take the following example: 

A developer went in near the lake and clear-cut an area illegally, so they could essentially make a “pasture” where there used to be a “forest”.  Then they put in a bunch of goats, and put up a sign on the highway saying they were in the goat cheese business.  This is so they can claim the “agricultural” property tax rate, which is cheaper than the pre-development rate.  (That won’t work, but good try.) So then they got caught by the County, who said they had to replant the trees.  So they did.  And the goats promptly ate them all.  Carl Hiaasen, where are you? 

Therefore I lead a sort of schizophrenic existence.  I’ve learned more than anyone should have to know about zoning codes and stormwater regulations, and I’ve been exposed to terms like “urban infill”, which you should only have to hear if you’re an urban planning graduate student or a local politician. 

I am amending that flower-child sort of poster that says, “Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints.”  I want you to visit Florida…really I do.  St. George Island would be a great place to start.  So please:  take only memories, and leave all your discretionary money behind.  And also, be sure to check the bathroom and the balcony and the drawers in the bedside tables for any unnecessary condos you may have left behind.

Let’s Kill Florida

As it stands now, Florida has a dangerous glut of useless natural features:  beaches, swamps, rivers, lakes, forests, woodlands and plains.  And all of them are inconveniently located, standing right in the way of where a house or an office building or a road could be.  Even worse, all these places have critters living in them that are either useless or downright dangerous.  No civilized person should have to be confronted with an alligator or a bear. 

That’s why I propose a New Florida, in which only three animals will be allowed:  ducks, fish and deer.  I haven’t quite worked out where the ducks, fish, and deer will live since in the New Florida, there won’t be woods or water to speak of.  I’m thinking along the lines of a condominium project.  The fish can live in the basement, which I’ll fill with water.  The ducks and the deer will live on the upper floors.  That way, when you have an urge to go deer hunting, you can just push the button on the elevator that says “6 point buck, 11A”.

In these trying economic times, there are still people, believe it or not, who are trying to hold on to these outdated natural features.  We need growth!  We need to put people back to work!  Public Enemy #1, my friends, is the state’s Department of Community Affairs, which oversees something it calls “growth management”.  Growth obstruction is more like it!  It has a bunch of rules and regulations and fees and fines and such, and pokes its nose into affairs that are none of its business, overruling the due authority of local officials that we bought and paid for fair and square. 

But don’t worry, we have that covered.  Right now we have a bill in the Legislature that will pretty much dismantle DCA (S.B. 360) and send those tree huggers back to the landfill where they belong.  If you care about Florida’s future, as I know you do, join with me in supporting State Senator Mike Bennett.  Let him know that if necessary, you’ll use your own personal shovel to help fill in a swamp, because feeding your family comes first. 

Footnote:  This post is not in English.  It is in Newspeak.  Freedom is slavery.  Growth management is ungood.

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time

This book is subtitled “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” and focuses primarily on the stories of people who stayed and tried to make a go of it, in most cases because they had nowhere else to go.  In many other cases it was misplaced optimism; in spite of the evidence, they kept hoping next year would be better, until they lost everything and were trapped in hell with no way out. 

The Dust Bowl encompassed parts of 6 states:  Kansas and Texas certainly had the largest areas, but in between Kansas and Texas was the Panhandle of Oklahoma.  To the north of Kansas, a small part of Nebraska.  To the west, bordering Kansas, a small part of Colorado.  To the west of the Oklahoma Panhandle and Texas, a narrow part of New Mexico.  All part of the “High Plains”.  This is an area characterized by extreme temperature changes from winter to summer–sometimes below zero in the winter and over 100 in the summer, and very high winds in both seasons.  In good years it gets maybe 20 inches of rain, but is prone to long droughts.  In the entire area there are 5 rivers, which range from trickles to raging floods in the rare wet periods. 

To make a long story short, it’s perfect for grass and buffalo.  But through a sort of perfect storm of conditions, the Dust Bowl was created.  First, it was the idea that the middle of America should not be inhabited by Indians, but by the white man.  And the Homestead Act made it possible for people to go there and cheaply get their own land–the American dream then as it is now.  The real estate people and the government said it was perfect farming land and that the land was an inexhaustible resource.  They planted wheat, and made very good money, and when WWI came along, the price of wheat skyrocketed.  So they plowed up more land and planted more wheat, until eventually 100 million acres of grassland had been plowed.  Then came the Depression.  The price of wheat fell, and the demand fell.  Farmers were still planting wheat and more wheat while last year’s wheat was mildewing, unsold.  And the final nail in the coffin was the drought.  With no more grass–grasses that had adapted to the high plains over thousands of years–to hold down the soil, and wheat that was dying from the lack of rain and from the blazing temperatures, the soil went on the move.   

There is a hero in the story, a man named Hugh Hammond Bennett, who as early as the 1920’s started sounding the alarm that the land was being killed, perhaps permanently.  He later created the concept of soil conservation districts, and managed to restore some of the land.  Apparently he was more successful at getting farmers to change their ways than he was at getting his boss, FDR, to see the light.  FDR thought the solution was to plant trees as windbreaks.   His Civilian Conservation Corps planted millions of trees on the High Plains, most of which are now dead.  Bennett told him they would not survive.  But it put a lot of people to work planting trees, which was a short-term stimulus package that worked. 

The prairie is still not restored fully, and here’s the bad part:  now it appears we are doing new bad things to it.  The author, Timothy Egan, says that now they are pulling water from the Oglalla Aquifer, the largest in North America, which runs from North Dakota to Texas.  At the time of the Dust Bowl, that was one of their hopes to save themselves, but they did not yet have the technology to bring it up, because it’s 500 to 700 feet deep.  Water is being pulled from the Aquifer 8 times faster than it can be replaced by nature, and it’s thought it will run out in 100 years.   And what is that saying about being doomed to repeat history?

Any good book, fiction or non-fiction, will make the setting and the people real for you.  In this book, which is filled with real people, the horror of the Dust Bowl was brought home to me by one scene.  The dust storms started in 1932, but in 1937, in the tiny town of Dalhart, Texas, they got a little rain that spring.  A man named Bam White planted some grass, some alfalfa (to feed his two surviving horses), and a little corn.  Then a grasshopper swarm arrived.  At first they thought it was another dust storm.  Later, it was estimated that there were 23,000 grasshoppers per acre, 14 million per square mile, in the swarm.  At Bam’s farm, the grasshoppers ate everything down to the ground in minutes, and then moved on, but not before his son tried to sweep them off the grass with a broom.  They landed on him and tried to eat his shirt.  They tried to eat fences and the wooden handles of tools. 

But that scene, of Bam’s son trying to sweep a swarm of locusts off the grass will forever be the picture I have of the Dust Bowl–the folly and the desperation, but a sort of defiance and courage too.