The Dustbowl was a period of severe dust storms occurring in the American and Canadian prairies in 1930-1936 (Vann Woodward, 1967). At the same time, the Dustbowl was not just a natural disaster that struck the large territory and affected the natural environment and economy of the US and partially Canada. In fact, it was the disaster which revealed the full extent of the negative impact of human activities on the environment. The Dustbowl was provoked by humans and put many people on the edge of survival. At the same time, the Dustbowl proved to be the warning made by the nature to people to change their attitude to their environment and their economic activities.
The Dustbowl was definitely provoked by wrong and environmentally dangerous methods of farming. As the matter of fact, the Dustbowl affected the vast territory of the Great Plains, which had never been used for farming before the settlement of Europeans. Moreover, until the late 19th century these lands had not been used for cultivation but the cattle farming dominated in the region. Nevertheless, after droughts in the late 19th century, farmers started cultivating various plants, especially wheat in the Great Plains region. However, the methods of farming were absolutely erroneous and inapplicable in the geographic and climatic conditions of the Great Plains. Farmers used extensive methods of farming that led to the erosion of soil. They did not use such techniques as crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops and other techniques which could have prevented fast and irrevocable soil erosion (Egan, 2006). The soil was exhausted after a couple of decades of extensive farming and the severe drought that struck the region accomplished the destructive impact of farmers on the environment. As the matter of fact, the land which was used to be farmland had turned into a desert as soil turned into dust. Hence, the Dustbowl emerged as the effect of the negative impact of farmers on the would-be fertile land of the Great Plains.
The effects of the Dustbowl were disastrous for both people and environment. Natural disasters, such as dust storms occurred regularly reaching the Eastern coast of the US, including such large cities as New York (Janke, 2002). The land became absolutely inappropriate for farming and local farmers and their families had to move to other states where they looked for new jobs. In fact, the Dustbowls aggravated the negative economic effects of the Great Depression for American farmers. People, who escaped from the Dustbowl region, had little option but to hire at starvation wages or to stay unemployed.
Thus, the Dustbowl was the natural and human disaster which was provoked by human activities, namely wrong methods of farming. At the same time, the disaster revealed the importance of soil conservation and encouraged American farmers to use environmentally friendly techniques of farming which prevented soil erosion. In a long-run perspective, the Dustbowl can be viewed as the warning to people concerning the necessity to prevent the negative impact of human activities on nature to avoid natural disasters.
Egan, T. (2006). The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Janke, K. (2002). Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, New York: Random House.
Vann Woodward, C. (1967).The Origins of the New South, Louisiana State University Press.
Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930's
Zeynep K. Hansen, Gary D. Libecap
NBER Working Paper No. 10055
Issued in November 2003
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy
We provide a new and more complete analysis of the origins of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, one of the most severe environmental crises in North America in the 20th Century. Severe drought and wind erosion hit the Great Plains in 1930 and lasted through 1940. There were similar droughts in the 1950s and 1970s, but no comparable level of wind erosion. We explain why. The prevalence of small farms in the 1930s limited private solutions for controlling the downwind externalities associated with wind erosion. Drifting sand from unprotected fields damaged neighboring farms. Small farmers cultivated more of their land and were less likely to invest in erosion control than were larger farmers. Soil Conservation Districts, established by government after 1937, helped coordinate erosion control. This unitized' solution for collective action is similar to that used in other natural resource/environmental settings.
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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w10055
Published: Hansen, Zeynep K. and Gary D. Libecap. "Small Farms, Externalities, And The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s," Journal of Political Economy, 2004, v112(3,Jun), 665-694. citation courtesy of