The ‘Invisible Hand’ Takes Up the Plow: Environmental and Economic Interpretations of the Dust Bowl

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As my colleagues Price and Molly have shrewdly noted, there seems to be a fundamental tension in interpretations of the Dust Bowl, one that pits market forces against natural causes. But what’s particularly interesting about this tension, as Price suggests, is its ambiguity. To call the Dust Bowl an environmental disaster is an understatement; to call it an economic tragedy is shortsighted. Instead, I think, we ought to read this particular disaster as a complicated intersection of the two, to understand how people driven by market forces used the land and how, as Molly writes, “the land . . . got its revenge.”

In The Plow that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz navigates this tension rather well. Though he states initially that his is “a record of lands . . . of soil, rather than people,” he carefully includes explanations of the political and economic forces that motivated the behavior of plains people. Indeed, as Lorentz explicitly highlights, the rising price of wheat and the crisis of war spurred old ranchers in the “cattleman’s paradise” to take up the plow. Contrary Molly’s suggestion, however, I think that Lorentz remains to true to his “record of the lands” even in this coverage of human behavior. As he explains the underlying forces of farm expansion, Lorentz repeatedly invokes the environmental costs and dangers of the wheat boom, interspersing the phrase “high winds and sun” throughout his dialogue. Moreover, with the advent of the Dust Bowl, Lorentz returns to panoramic shots of the landscape—only covered in dust and death, rather than grassy hills. Lorentz, it seems, characterizes the land as a victim at the hands of humans.

That said, I do think that Molly is right in stressing Lorentz’s attention to humans in the film. Though—as I argued above—Lorentz’s primary focus is the victimization of the land, I think there is something to be said for Lorentz’s treatment of plains people. Particularly at the end of the film, he highlights their suffering, characterizing them as he does the land, as victims. He describes them as “blown-out, baked-out, and broke” and later as “homeless, penniless, and bewildered.” Those affected by the Dust Bowl were certainly victimized. The only question is: by whom? Lorentz, I think, leaves a clear, resounding answer to this question at the very end of film: “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”

So, in sum, I think that Lorentz balanced the tension between the environmental and economic causes of the Dust Bowl by stressing two, intertwined instances of victimization: the land at the hands of plains people and plains people at the hand of the land.