DE-NATURALIZING ECOLOGICAL DISASTER:
COLONIALISM, RACISM AND THE GLOBAL DUST BOWL OF THE 1930s
By Hannah Holleman
Hannah Holleman is assistant professor of sociology at Amherst College. Her current book project is “Dustbowls of Empire,” and her recent articles include “Weber and the Environment: Classical Foundations for a Post-exemptionalist Sociology,” and “The Theory of Unequal Ecological Exchange: a Marx-Odum Dialectic,” both co-authored with John Bellamy Foster.
There is a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in the Dust Bowl era given both the contemporary confluence of economic and ecological crises, echoing the 1930s, and the projection that ‘dust-bowlification’ is an increasingly likely threat with the advance of global climate change (Romm 2011). However, the existing Dust Bowl literature is inadequate for understanding the social drivers, global context and unresolved consequences of the crisis, and therefore limited in how it may inform contemporary theoretical and practical debates regarding socio-ecological change, especially regarding questions of ecological (in)justice and the broader ecological crisis of capitalism. Because this period is so crucial to understand – not only as an analog to our own, as it is often treated, but as an antecedent to contemporary socio-ecological crises – this contribution seeks to provide an empirical and theoretical reinterpretation of what is frequently seen as an isolated historical-meteorological event, in order to address the wider social and ecological aspects of the crisis.
In contrast to predominant academic, official and popular depictions, the reinterpretation offered here re-embeds the Dust Bowl on the US Southern Plains within its broader historical and social context. In so doing, it becomes clear that the disaster was one dramatic regional manifestation of a global socio-ecological crisis of soil erosion generated by the conditions of economic expansion via the ‘new imperialism’ beginning in the 1870s and lasting through the early decades of the twentieth century. These include policies and practices, such as the accelerated seizure of indigenous lands, legitimated and spurred by a ‘culture of conquest’ rooted in white supremacy, ‘the essential ideology of colonial projects’ (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014, 37). Such conditions were outgrowths of the driving logic of
capitalist development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Expansion of the global economy at this time ‘was not merely accompanied by the worst excesses of colonialism; colonialism was not an accident. On the contrary, globalization was colonialism’(Milanovic 2003, 669, emphasis in original). …
This reinterpretation is in sharp contrast to the preponderance of contemporary Dust Bowl literature, which frames the disaster as a regionally particular fate, mostly involving white ranchers and farmers, whether tenants, laborers or owners. In this literature, the settler colonial context from which the Dust Bowl emerged is ignored and the experience on the US Southern Plains region extracted from broader historical developments. In some instances, including an influential paper written by prominent NASA scientists, the Dust Bowl is treated even more narrowly as a primarily meteorological or natural event, void of social content (Schubert et al. 2004). Prevailing perspectives therefore make invisible the colonial and racial-domination aspects of the crisis and lead to the whitewashing of Dust Bowl narratives.