This is our sixth blog about CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.
Homestead and farm in Texas County, Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. (By USDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Less than 100 years ago, a catastrophe of enormous proportions
left thousands dead and millions homeless across the United States. The worst part? We could have prevented it.
The Dust Bowl is a stark example of how poor land management — and particularly poor soil management — can unravel a natural system. As farmers spread across America’s grasslands in the 1920s, they plowed the land until they broke up the structure of the soil and removed natural grasses and vegetation, leaving the soil exposed and making it more susceptible to erosion. When a drought hit the weakened landscape, it fed massive dust storms that blanketed entire states with soil.
The more soil was lost, the harder it was to grow anything — and the harder it was to grow, the longer soils were left exposed to the elements and the harder it was to stop the problem. We created a downward spiral. True, a drought sparked all of it, but the drought played upon conditions resulting from humans’ poor management of natural resources.
The question is: Have we learned our lesson?
In some cases, yes; in many other cases, signs point to no. The U.S. farming sector has made significant strides in reducing soil erosion — but improvements in managing soils and other natural resources like forests have been inconsistent, and more needs to be done.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 25% of the world’s farmland is highly degraded. The cost of soil loss in the U.S. alone is hundreds of millions of dollars per year; the loss of just one inch of topsoil could take centuries to replace.
In 2013, record levels of haze from fires associated with clearing land in Indonesia led to dangerous air quality conditions in Singapore and Malaysia, resulting in closure of many schools and businesses, negatively impacting public health and economic development.
Clearly, we are — as Edward Norton says below — treating the soil like dirt.