Book Report on Chapter 1: "The Dust Bowl" of American Exodus by Giles Slade

Posted: 2 February 2015
A dust storm
A dust storm behind a farm truck during the Dust Bowl.
American Exodus small cover art

Giles Slade begins American Exodus:Climate Change and the Coming Flight For Survival by explaining to readers through historical research how and why the Dust Bowl happened during the 1930’s in the southwest states of the U.S. such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. This was a situation where people, through the ignorant use of a powerful new technology, tractors, caused an environmental disaster. His point is that the Dust Bowl was a manmade environmental problem; it was not purely a factor of nature. As Slade writes, “The Dust Bowl is a valuable example of how humans alter their environments.” Tractors, the newest farming technology of the 1920’s and 30’s enabled a single farmer to clear a large area of land without the help of field workers, however this practice was overused and it eventually destroyed the topsoil making it vulnerable to wind erosion.

"During the Depression, tractor sales enjoyed unprecedented success. In Kansas alone there were just over 17,000 tractors in use by 1920; but by 1925 that figure had nearly doubled to 31,000; and by 1930 Kansas had 66,000 tractors. Despite the Depression, by 1935 the number of Kansas owned tractors had risen to 71,000."
- American Exodus p.12

When Giles Slade refers to the southwest, he does not mean in reference to the west coast, but the southwest in relation to the east coast, thus mainly Oklahoma and the other farming states where the Dust Bowl was the worst. The dust bowl was caused by a combination of loose soil caused by tractors and wind erosion, a concept that was not well understood at the time. It is now known by farmers that soil in that region does not hold moisture well, so after the land had been tilled by the tractors, the top soil blew away in the wind. This caused everything to be covered in dust for literally hundreds of miles, in states far away from the farmland, and even off the coast onto ships in the ocean. It also ruined their ability to grow crops and make a living.

Dust storm

According to Slade, in 1936, a novelist in Atlanta named Margaret Mitchell, had just completed her novel titled "Tomorrow is Another Day," when Atlanta was covered in chocolatee-colored snow from the Dust Bowl. She renamed her novel “Gone with the Wind.” The Dust Bowl produced a type of environmental refugee called an Okie, meaning they came to California from Oklahoma or somewhere affected by the Dust Bowl. Unfortunately these people were treated very badly by the Californians, who were recovering from the Depression.  The popular novel by John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath, memorializes the desperate and difficult migration of the environmental refugees from the southwest to California in the story of the Joad family. In Chapter 1, Giles Slade quotes the scholar Sing C. Chew, and he borrows Chew’s idea throughout American Exodus which he considers to be one of the most critical ideas to recognize in the study of climate change and for practical purposes the environmental refugees climate change produces. A simplified explanation is that environmental and economic collapse are intrinsically related, in a sort of intertwined relationship, and they always occur together so that you cannot have one without the other.   

“Nonetheless, ‘environmental refugee,’ may be a deeply misleading term because as Sing C. Chew has brilliantly demonstrated, even in cases where environmental collapse forces migration, it is inevitably preceded by economic collapse. In this way,  ‘ecological limits’ Chew writes:
         ‘become…the limits of socioeconomic processes of empires, civilizations and nation states, and the interplay between ecological limits and the dynamics of social systems defines the historical tendencies and the explanatory trajectories of the human enterprise.’ ”

- American Exodus p.18

The destruction of the topsoil by the use of tractors caused an environmental collapse, and an economic collapse followed due to the fact that farmers were in debt from their new farm equipment, and farm workers were out of work because of the tractors.

“Besides providing farmers with a fast way to prepare his fields by himself, however, buying tractors put farmers deep into debt, as did buying the combine harvesters and trucks that farmers were also using.”

- American Exodus p.12

Another dust storm image from the Dust Bowl era

A point that Slade makes in Chapter 1 is that climate change is not the first time that mankind has caused terrible environmental,  devastation to his environment, as well as economic devastation to himself, through the ignorant use of powerful technology. Also the “lifeboat ethics” of how the environmental refuges were received, like criminals essentially, is nothing new and occurring in a very similar fashion today in regards to the way the United States is treating Mexican and other immigrants from Central and South America, who are trying to escape an extreme shortage of food, water, and work in their own home countries, which will only get worse without a new solution being implemented.

In Chapter 1 Slade explains where the title of American Exodus comes from; it is somewhat of a tribute to a book written by Paul Taylor, during the Dust Bowl era called An American Exodus. That book described Mexican field laborers being replaced by migrants from the southwest during the time of the mass migration into California.

“As early as 1933, Paul Taylor, co-author of a very timely and admirable book called An American Exodus, observed the replacement of Mexican field hands in the Central Valley by poor, white workers living in the crudest conditions.”

- American Exodus p.15

Giles Slade points out in Chapter 1 that engineers, who live on the technological forefront of the world and hold more of the global economy than lawyers and doctors combined will most likely not be able to “geo-engineer” a solution to the problem of climate change, which will lead to an increase in environmental refugees. So what kind of solutions will it take to adjust to climate change? Will there be any solution or just a continuation into further collapse of the known way of life until it is too late to fix it?

By Andrea Boggs

Reference list

Giles Slade (2013) American Exodus. New Society Publisher; Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada.