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Unrestrained Capitalism

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Unrestrained Capitalism

Abraham Fox

History 101

Professor Sayres

April 26, 2014

Donald Worster, in The Dust Bowl establishes that "capitalism was the major defining influence" in American treatment of the land, “it came about because the expansionary energy of the United States had finally encountered a volatile, marginal land, destroying the delicate ecological balance that had evolved there.” ¹ His contention is that the Dust Bowl occurred because of the ‘culture of capitalism.’ Unrestrained Capitalism was manifested in America as aggressive misuse of the land which inflicted devastation on the environmental balance and inhabitants of the southern plains in the 20th century.

In the book Dust Bowl, Worster asserts that there is concurrence between the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, claiming that it occurred because of the ‘culture of capitalism.’  As discussed in his book, the Great Plains had a history of episodic drought, but it was not until the settlers began coming in the late 1890’s that drought became a significant issue. For about 50 years, farmers moved to the southern plains and plowed the earth, despite the drought cycle, fragile root structures, and finally the earth came loose. Beginning in the 1930’s, a sequence of dust storms occurred which also coincided with the economic depression which was plaguing America. Dust storms, also called Black Blizzards by some, dimmed the skies and caused havoc for the people of the area. Worster stated “but natural factors did not make the storms they merely made them possible.” ² 

Worster used his book The Dust Bowl, to argue his theory of environmental need by giving a historical overview of the dust bowl and its impacts on the people. He uses his narrative to express both strengths and weaknesses of the culture and how there was a contaminating sway toward capitalist socio-economic policies that were part of the cause, nonetheless this period also allowed for new agricultural practices to be established that are still in use today.

During this period in history people began moving west to alleviate the consequences of the depression in the east hoping to find a better life. People were conditioned toward capitalism, the American dream. As the migration west occurred, the people of the southern plains took risks, claimed land, farmed, and over produced/cultivated the land in hopes of profit.” Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement.”  Although a natural liberty to use the capitalist ideals for gain,  in Worster’s opinion, this value placed on production and earnings is a reason the Dust Bowl occurred.

The United States was going through great change with the industrial revolution and its developmental growth, but came to a quick standstill when the balance was swayed. In the southern plains this meant the ecological balance had been destroyed. Worster highlights three ecological theories which he trusts place at the focus of the capitalist vision of nature and he finds contentious in its regard with capitalism:

1. Nature must be seen as capital. It is a set of economic assets that can become a source of profit or advantage, a means to make more wealth. Trees, wildlife, minerals, water, and the soil are all commodities that can either be developed or carried as they are to the marketplace. A business culture attaches no other values to nature than this; the nonhuman world is desanctified and demystified as a consequence. Its functional interdependencies are also discounted in the economic calculus.

2. Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement. Capitalism is an intensely maximizing culture, always seeking to get more out of the natural resources of the world than it did yesterday. The highest economic rewards go to those who have done the most to extract from nature all it can yield. Private acquisitiveness and accumulation are unlimited ideals, impossible to satisfy once and for all.

3. The social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth. It should free individuals (and corporations as collective individuals) from encumbrances on their aggressive use of nature, teach young people the proper behavior, and protect the successful from losing what they have gained. In pure capitalism, the self as an economic being is not only all-important, but autonomous and irresponsible. The community exists to help individuals get ahead and to absorb the environmental costs.

As our nation grew, people in the United States did not just want to farm to live, but to make profit and excel. This practice put undue stress on the land. Both a strength and weakness, this optimism caused great environmental challenges when added to the drought situations in the plains, which in turn developed into the Dust Bowl. Many farmers of this era wanted a quick fix for money problems and thus used poor farming practices which complicated the deprivation. The dust storms of the 1930’s caused an enormous loss of topsoil and destroyed millions of acres of farms. Some people made the choice to “stick it out” while others again packed up and left the southern plains in search of a better life. Many areas were devastated by the ruins, people were out of work and many had lost lives.

        Along with the challenging times felt by the people of the southern plains arose the development of Federal assistance which for many was a needed boost toward recovery. The drought, huge dust storms and despondency forced change in our nation to aid the people of the southern plains. The Soil Conservation service was established by President Roosevelt to give monetary aid and training to farmers to put land use principles into effect. In addition, the New Deal agenda was enacted which founded the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) to help with unemployment, help with regional resources, and to give money for erosion control.  Finally some changes in land use, ecology of the land, and regional planning were established and some optimism took hold.

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