Hard Lessons Learned...Maybe
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' latest work, The Dust Bowl, does not drive home an explicit comparison between the Dust Bowl that consumed the southern Plains in the 1930s and ongoing climate change, but the implied connections are obvious. Airing on PBS on Sunday, November 18 and Monday, November 19, Burns’ four-hour documentary, writes Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Joel Connelly, "should be watched particularly by those who deny the mounting body of evidence that man can cause climate change, and that climate change can bring catastrophe."
The Dust Bowl, says Burns, "was a catastrophe of almost Biblical proportions--10 years and hundreds of storms--killing not only crops and cattle but children." After plowing up native grasses that had adapted to harsh conditions in the Plains with roots five feet deep, farmers planted wheat fields that, once confronted with unrelenting drought conditions, set the stage for dark, devastating dust clouds that one witness likened to "two midnights in a jug."
"It is an extraordinary cautionary tale, one that we should ponder now," Burns tells Connelly. "We have experienced a prolonged drought in the heart of the country, storms of exaggerated ferocity, and the hottest months since we began keeping records. I hope this experience--the Dust Bowl--launches a conversation about the long-term planning that humans don't like to do, but are required to do to save ourselves from ourselves."
On Thursday, November 15 at 2pm ET, filmmaker Burns and journalist Paula Zahn will host a live "YouTube event and national dialogue regarding the Dust bowl's legacy on both the environment and the culture of the United States." You can join in at youtube.com/pbs, and submit questions at youtube.com/pbs or #DustBowlPBS.
Image of Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, in Ulysses, Kansas, courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum.
Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”