October 16, 2012


Ken Burn’s new film The Dust Bowl, a two-part, four-hour documentary airs on PBS November 18 and 19, 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). The film chronicles this 1930s environmental catastrophe that destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains. It is based on Timothy Egan’s 2006 National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Times, a history of the Dust Bowl and includes interviews with twenty-six survivors and seldom seen movie footage.

On an ironically hot 106-degree July afternoon, the staff at Earth Policy Institute attended a special preview screening of the film sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring Lester Brown, Tim Egan, and Clay Pope, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and a sixth generation Oklahoma farmer. The panel was moderated by Ann Yonkers, FRESHFARM Markets Co-Executive Director.

Since news of the extent and degree of the Midwestern American drought was just reaching mass media, the discussion was both lively and at times a bit frightening. The audience had many questions for the panelists.

Lester spoke of the food unrest that lay ahead, of overpumping aquifers, and of moving down the food chain, topics that are discussed in his new book Full Planet, Empty Plates. Tim spoke about the people he met while writing his book, the factors that led to the Dust Bowl, and how we are making similar mistakes with soil erosion and overplowing. Clay gave a firsthand account of the effects of the drought in his home state and discussed other challenges farmers are now facing in the wake of climate change.

Those of us fortunate to be at the screening are now looking forward to seeing the documentary in its entirety. Burns believes the film should be taken as a cautionary tale for more contemporary environmental issues. A preview is available at pbs.org/dustbowl.

For information on dust bowls forming in other countries, see Chapter 3 of World on the Edge: Eroding Soils and Expanding Deserts, and the Plan B Updates: Dust Bowl Threatening China’s Future and Deserts Advancing, Civilization Retreating.