Thursday, July 30, 2009

Man vs. Nature- A Lesson from the Dust Bowl

My Daddy was a dry land wheat farmer in the northeastern plains of Colorado for over 2 decades, just as his father was before him.  Growing up on a farm, I always swore that I would never marry a farmer.  Not because I didn't like the dirt or the hard work.  I just wasn't fond of the gamble involved.  My Dad poured his blood, sweat, and tears--quite literally--into a small, dry piece of land, hoping to wrench enough life out of it to make enough income to live on for the next year. We watched the skies, praying for rain while the wheat was growing, praying for dry weather when it was time for harvest, and praying that no hail would come in the interim.  Most years, nothing seemed to go right for my Dad.  If it wasn't the weather, it was the old equipment breaking down.  Nothing was ever easy and very little seemed to go right.

What a precarious relationship exists between man and nature.

I recently finished reading a book a friend lent me about the Dust Bowl called The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan.  I've always known the Dust Bowl was an extremely difficult time; in fact, I remember my grandparents telling me stories about it, although they were on the fringes of the area actually called the "Dust Bowl."  But this book was rather shocking to read.  It's hard to picture millions of tons of dirt blowing across several states-- even harder to imagine standing in the middle of it as it blew over your house, your fields, and your livestock.  I can't fathom watching every sign of life around you wither and die or be buried under a mountain of sand.  Year after dry, dirty, hopeless year.  

A severe drought exacerbated the problem, but the weather was not to blame--humans were.  Irresponsible farming methods, short-sighted government plans for homesteading, and record harvests to aid the war effort left the land vulnerable and exposed.  Interestingly enough, the book pointed out that not everyone believed humans were responsible for the crisis.  Some said it was just a cyclical change in the climate.  Some just said it was the drought.  It couldn't be helped-- it was governed by a force stronger than humans, and thus humans couldn't have caused it nor could they change it.  Some thought it was a punishment of God.

One can't help but notice the similarities between the rhetoric of that time and all the continuing debates about climate change today.  Many Christians still feel reluctant to admit that humans have affected our world in significant, harmful ways or that we really have any power to undo some of the damage.  The earth has gone through climate change before, they say, and this is just another one of those cycles.  We had nothing to do with it.  Therefore we have no compelling reason to change our behavior, especially if it's going to cost us.

Of course, many Christians see the need to be better stewards of this earth and are thus working to change our habits and our policies.  I believe Christians can be leaders in this endeavor, and should be, because we see the value of both creation itself and the human lives within that creation.  Many policies that aim to help the environment put human welfare at risk.  Policy makers during the Dust Bowl faced similar questions.  Should we encourage the people to stay and establish conservation practices to save the land?  Or is it so far gone that we should move all the people out?  Where should they go?  How will they live?  Some people thought the government had no business bailing out the "Okies."  Others thought the government didn't do enough.  

There were no easy answers then, and there are no easy answers now.  But after reading that book, I realize that the fragility of our current climate situation is not overstated, as sometimes I tend to think.  Just because we don't see all of the effects of it now doesn't mean we should continue to rip out every last fragment of prairie grass to plant a crop, so to speak.  The consequences don't come until later.  But we have to make decisions today, with foresight informed by science and a sense of stewardship.  

The land, after all, is a gift, and it is our livelihood.  Even if it seems a little bit beyond our control.  Even if it lets us down, year after year.  "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1).