Wind Blown: Ken Burns on “The Dustbowl”

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained…infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  That was philospher George Santayana writing in 1906, thirty years before the peak of the American Dust Bowl, a chapter of the 20th Century that’s often called America’s worst man-made ecological disaster (so far, anyway).

A lengthy dry spell, combined with farming practices that did not respect the natural conditions of the region, set into motion a decade which devastated millions of acres of land, displaced thousands of heartland families, and had ripple effects on food markets and the national economy. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has produced a new film series on the dustbowl. It features survivors, experts on climate and farming, as well as some amazing footage from the era. He’s our guest this week on Sea Change Radio. Burns and host Alex Wise discuss this important project, which is being released against the ominous backdrop of our current drought conditions.

In 2012, North America has seen a record low snowfall and a corresponding decline in rain, and the US Drought Monitor shows about 80% of the country to be suffering abnormally dry conditions with over 60% of the country already in full-fledged drought. Are there lessons from the Dust Bowl that will inform how we move forward as a nation through the impending hardship of continued drought? Ken Burns’s latest project is well-timed and ought to help in our efforts to remember the past and escape the condemnation of repeating our mistakes.