The Carbon Bowl

Apparently, each year the SMU Provost hands out a book for the faculty to read. Last year, that book was Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” a collection of stories (including diary entries) about surviving the worst environmental disaster in American history: the dust bowl. The dust bowl was an event in the 1930s which devastated much of the Southern Great Plains, a consequence of poor farming practices coupled with government and private incentivizing of conversion of grasslands into farmlands. Winds which normally whipped across the plains and caused little damage, owing to the protection offered by Buffalo Grass, suddenly found top soil loosened by plows on unplanted land. These winds kicked up clouds of dust 2000 feet high and 200 miles across, killing men, women, and children and destroying countless communities.

I’m reading this book now, and wondering if the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico represents America’s “Carbon Bowl,” an environmental disaster that is the face of global warming. Just as greed and poor homesteading policy fueled the farming boom leading up to the dust bowl, an unslakeable thirst for energy coupled with bad public and private policies for energy diversification have led us to desperate measures to drill for oil. Just as the natural forces that move energy across the plains – wind and heat – were then unchecked by the natural ecology that had long developed in and protected the plains, unleashing the dust bowl, the natural forces that move material around the Gulf are sending the fruits of energy labor – crude oil – into bays and marshes. Countless plant, animal, and human life was destroyed during the dust bowl; we probably can’t know the extent of the oil’s damage on sea life for quite some time. Dust pneumonia was the disease of the dust bowl, the delicate tissue of the lung severed by fine silicates; who knows what the long-term health effects of all that oil and oil cleanup will be on Gulf coast residents.

Just as FDR had a chance to do something great to save the land and save the people, this President has a chance to do something great to create good energy policy while bringing relief to the Gulf and its people. With so many other comparisons to FDR under President Obama’s belt, will he rise to the challenge and meet this historical cycle head-on?