Professor Hannah Holleman Discusses the Dust Bowl’s Legacy
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 21:34

In a crowded Paino Lecture Hall on April 12, Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein introduced assistant professor of sociology Hannah Holleman as this year’s Lazarowitz Lecturer, a distinction given to a professor each spring semester. In her talk, titled “Can We Survive Climate Change? Lessons from the Global Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Holleman led the audience through the questions and findings she encountered in writing her soon-to-be-published book. The book, “Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of ‘Green’ Capitalism” is slated for publication in November through Yale University Press.

Holleman approached her study of the 1930’s Dust Bowl through a sociological and environmental lens. She framed the talk and her analysis through this outlook. The lecture followed an outline of three guiding questions: why have we seen a resurgence of interest in the Dust Bowl? What is the Dust Bowl? And, what is wrong with how we understand it?

The study of the massive drought and dust storms of the 1930’s midwest has been revived because of its similarity to environmental patterns today, Holleman said. Issues such as erosion, drought and stress on water systems are prevalent today and in the Dust Bowl. These contemporary issues, Holleman said, stem from the lack of proper preventative measures in the immediate response to the Dust Bowl.

Holleman also drew parallels between the cause of the 1930’s natural disaster and the climate change-plagued world today, as both come from people’s “extreme demand and abuse of the planet.”

The environmental conditions of the Dust Bowl resulted from farmers bringing agricultural practices suited for humid regions into the arid regions of Oklahoma and Texas. To describe this phenomenon of profit-driven ventures, Holleman quoted the words of historian Donald Worster, who said that westward expansion stemmed from a “capitalist ethos that brought Henry Fordism to the plains in the form of industrial agriculture and an all-out dedication to cash.”

“Fields are planted when they are meant to be laid fallow, herds are expanded when they should be culled,” Holleman said.

Additionally, “this happened on the plains despite many advanced warnings that the region couldn’t handle this type of agricultural development and that the problem of soil erosion was becoming intractable.” Steps could have been taken earlier on to reduce the intensity of the Dust Bowl effect, and as scientists learn more about the state of the world today, Holleman said, humans find themselves in a similar situation; there are steps that, if taken soon, could help mitigate the future impacts of climate change.

In her discussion of the driving forces behind western expansion, Holleman also analyzed the influence of imperialism and white supremacy, which she said spurred white farmers to exploit not only the land, but the Native Americans who lived on it. She described the interactions between farmers and Natives as “relations of unequal exchange.” This legacy of racism persists today, Holleman pointed out, as Americans romanticize images of the Dust Bowl, nearly all of which depict only the stories and struggles of white people, such as Dorothea Lange, John Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie.

Holleman explained that social injustice was inextricably linked with the environmental degradation she outlined. “When we talk about ecological crises … at the root, we are talking about social problems,” she said. She argued that the same holds true for the social and environmental injustices experienced today. “The projected [environmental] changes have extreme consequences, like the Dust Bowl, but also extreme are the social forces, historical developments, policies and practices that produce such massive socio-ecological crises,” she said.

For Holleman, at the heart of the matter is the need to challenge the root problems of social inequality and injustice, rather than taking “shallow approaches” to address the symptoms. She said, “it’s important to understand that allowing for the accumulation for injustice makes inevitable what the environmental historian William McNeil called ‘the accumulation of catastrophe.’”