The roots of the Dust Bowl
When drought struck North America in the 1930s, the hardest-hit places hadn’t been used for modern farming for very long at all. Except for Texas, the Great Plains states had been states, on average, for only about 40 years. No one with the technology to compile long-term weather records had lived in the region long enough to compile them. And members of Plains Indian tribes, people who could describe the climate of the Great Plains in detail, were ignored almost entirely—and not just on matters of weather.
Decisions weren’t based on either scientific data or the knowledge and experience of the people who had lived there for centuries. And that gap between knowledge and action was key to turning the droughts of the 1930s into the full-fledged Dust Bowl. Anyone in a position to make decisions hadn’t been living on the Great Plains long enough to know what to expect over the long term, so people made a lot of investments based on a lot of speculation. The disaster that followed was inevitable.
‘Rain follows the plow’
As strange as this may sound in the 21st century, there was an incredibly popular idea in the 19th century that “rain follows the plow.” That is, many people—perhaps most—believed wherever humans built towns and established farms, rain would fall. To be fair, springs and summers were wetter than average on the Great Plains from about 1875 to about 1885, and those were the years when permanent settlement and modern agriculture first took root on the Plains. “Rain follows the plow” didn’t start out as wishful thinking, but as a tragic misinterpretation of otherwise reliable data. While human structures and farms can change weather, it can only do so at extremely local levels. For example, temperatures are higher in cities than in surrounding farmland because concrete absorbs and retains heat better than open fields. Long-term rainfall patterns, however, do not shift to supply human settlements with adequate amounts of rain.
But in time, “rain follows the plow” came to embody the strong sense of certainty Americans in the late 19th century had about the inevitability of never-ending prosperity fueled by an uninterrupted expansion West. People trusted that nature itself would change to accommodate America’s expanding borders and population. As Charles Dana Wilber wrote in 1881, “[M]an can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling.” In other words, Americans believed that as long as they were willing to work, all endeavors they undertook were guaranteed to be successful.
Because it promised success to all comers, “rain follows the plow” became more than a specious weather hypothesis: it quickly became an advertising slogan for real estate speculators and railroads. It was an exceptionally persuasive sales pitch. Both native-born Americans from the eastern U.S. and newly arrived immigrants from northern and central Europe were eager to spend their savings—and borrow what they didn’t have—to buy land and go west into freedom and prosperity. There were a lot of people who wanted to spend a lot of money to secure the promise of a better life.