Dust Bowl Dust-Off

Ashley Thorne

Oil in the Gulf has gripped America with questions as to the causes and effects of environmental disasters. A New York Times article this weekend contemplated where the current crisis ranks among America’s worst such disasters. The Times quoted Donald Worster, who has been deemed an expert authority in environmental history.

Worster’s 1979 book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s is considered the definitive text on the severe dust storms that plagued the Western United States in the 30s. In 1980, Columbia University awarded the book the Bancroft Prize for American History.

But another environmental expert sees errors and bias in Worster’s acclaimed work. UCLA geography professor Stanley Trimble is the author of “If the Science Is Solid, Why Stoop?” (PDF) in the latest issue of Academic Questions, where he lists five ways that Climategate illustrates a double standard in environmental science. He has an article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education with Mark Bauerlein, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, and Bill McKelvey, “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research.” And this month, he published an important commentary in the journal Aeolian Research (subscription required), reviewing the 25th anniversary edition of Dust Bowl.

When the book originally appeared, Trimble recalls, it struck him as a “political tract.” As he notes in this review, the new edition compels the same verdict: his essay cites a similar plethora of errors and pervasive ideological bias. Worster’s thesis, he says, “is that the Dust Bowl was created by a bunch of mostly ignorant, greedy, gullible, unethical (but “Puritan”) yokels, driven by the American capitalistic ethic of acquisition.”

Trimble contends that Worster distorts the evidence for his claims in several ways. First, he did not exercise due diligence in studying the data (as other Dust Bowl researchers have done). Trimble raises the question:

With detailed federal and state census reports by every county readily available for the entire period, why did Worster not give us the complete, clinical picture?

Second, Worster does not suggest a workable alternative to capitalism, which he indicts for the destruction wrought by the storms. For his part, Trimble argues that neither state-sponsored socialism nor private agricultural collectives has proven to be environmentally successful. Third, although agreeing that Worster correctly identifies faulty farming practices as one cause of the Dust Bowl, Trimble concludes that “much of his sociological critique is elitist and sometimes condescendingly mean-spirited and unfair.”

Specifically, Worster blames the “capitalist” farmers - mostly new arrivals in the West - for not anticipating the consequences of their profit-driven agricultural methods. But this is hardly reasonable, Trimble rejoins.  As newcomers, they “had never experienced, and thus had no techniques to deal with” unfamiliar weather extremes or topographical peculiarities.  By contrast, Worster extols the lifestyle of Native Americans, who “carefully kept their numbers down to what the ecological community could support.” Trimble seems astonished:

Carefully? What he does not consider is just exactly how such primitive societies could “control” population. The choices are few: warfare, starvation, infanticide, homicide, suicide, and migration. And indigenous populations were not quite as environmentally benign as Worster seems to imagine.

Other competent Dust Bowl researchers, Trimble notes, have also cited the ideological shoe-horning and significant analytical gaps in Worster’s work. Trimble concludes, “I find this book long on ideology and short on rigor, good historiography, knowledge of environmental science, and just basic fairness and common sense.” He quotes the American environmental historian William Cronon, who once asked, “If our choice of narratives reflects only our power to impose our preferred version of reality on a past that cannot resist us, then what is left of history?”

“Fiction,” is Trimble’s answer.

I am not a climate scientist and cannot verify either Trimble’s claims or Worster’s account in Dust Bowl. But when I came across this review, it seemed a well-reasoned and fact-based challenge to a book that has long been regarded as canonical. Here is a case of a mainstream scholar providing compelling evidence that ideology displaced science in a seminal text in environmental history. As NAS has studied the sustainability movement in higher education, we’ve observed many cases of what seem to be ideologically-driven assertions that get lauded as fact. The expert scientists that challenge these assertions are usually dismissed as the ideological, unscientific ones.

Will that be the case for Professor Trimble? Will his critique be acknowledged as a legitimate challenge to ideas that have long rested in comfortable approval? Or will it grow dusty on the shelf?

Read Trimble's review here.

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