Blog: We have met the locusts, and they is us

Blog: We have met the locusts, and they is us

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Dust Bowl

You're not having a bad day until you've lived through the Dust Bowl.

Little Princess is working on a "DBQ," which stands for "Document Based Question," in her eighth-grade social studies class. She's supposed to write a five-paragraph essay on whether, in her opinion based on the facts in the documents she's studied, the Mexican-American War was justified.

So far, she's taking the stand that it wasn't. Essentially, as she is laying out in her argument, the United States had offered to buy land from Mexico and Mexico said no, so American troops went to war and took it anyway. She sees the rationale as going something like this: "Well, we needed it for expansion and they weren't using it."

Feel free to weigh in on the deeper causes and outcomes of the Mexican-American war. I haven't studied it, not like she is doing, anyway, so I have plenty to learn from anyone who wants to share an opinion. But it adds weight to a question that has been forming in my mind lately, sort of a biology/psychology/sociology question: Is there something in humanity that is essentially predisposed to destruction? 

Let me elaborate a little on that.

I just finished a book that I'd rank somewhere in the top 10 of the most depressing and miserable pieces of literature I've ever read, particularly because it's nonfiction. The book, "The Worst Hard Time," by Timothy Egan, is actually extremely good and holds a story extremely well told; an account of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the people who stayed there through the Depression. But as good as the story is, it would be hard to beat it for utter despair. 

First, the government killed, ran off or imprisoned the Indians who lived on the Great Plains. Next, hunters all but wiped out the native buffalo population. After that, egged on by the government, settlers scalped the prairie grass by the hundreds of thousands of acres, obliterating an ecosystem that had built a balance over millennia in about a couple of decades. And, very briefly, some became rich, because unseasonable rains made for a handful of good growing seasons.

But when the land's true character reasserted itself and the drought and the winds and the scorching sun and the freezing temperatures came back, there was no grass to hold the earth in place — and it simply blew away. Tons of topsoil lifted into the air and blew away. Livestock suffocated on dust, their stomachs stuffed with it. People couldn't keep the dust from their lungs and died of dust pneumonia. Drifts piled up over houses, fences, machinery. Bugs that had once been eaten by predators in the past were now free to infest homes; in one scene I'll never forget, a homeowner uses her iron to slam the centipedes covering the walls. Nothing grew. Nothing could be harvested. People salted tumbleweed and tore up yucca root to live on, further disrupting the ecosystem.

And this was the Depression, remember; banks had collapsed. Jobs were gone. People left in droves but there was nowhere to go: Everyone everywhere was suffering, and places with resources had big signs: "No Okies." 

And yet, as in a Greek tragedy, the worst part is that human beings brought this mess on themselves. In our greed, our shortsightedness, our boundless belief that we are somehow the Good Guys and thus due whatever we can wrest from whomever isn't strong enough to keep it for themselves, we grabbed the land and tore it up and then looked around for more.

It's a wonder anyone survived.

I look back over history and see countless examples of the same behavior, writ slightly differently depending on the players: clear-cutting. Rainforest destruction. Strip mining. Fracking. Territory battles, a la the Mexican-American War. Manifest Destiny.

I wonder, is it all of humanity? If every racial or ethnic category were given access to the same resources, would all of them turn into rapacious monsters? Our history books are full of stories of people proliferating like a virus and sucking the lifeblood out of whatever resource happens to be at hand, confident that there's no end to it — or no need to consider one in their lifetime, anyway. Are we all like that? Or does something, somewhere in our genetic makeup go desperately wrong to make us so? 

You would think it would be beneficial, in an evolutionary way, for us to be born with the desire to work together as a community to strengthen our species as a whole. Instead we act like Biblical plagues of locusts (which also descended on the weak new crops once the first rains trickled back to the Dust Bowl).

"The Worst Hard Time" carries the reader up through 2006, where, Egan notes with grim irony, farmers have found a way to make the Plains work for them, in spite of the realities of weather: They are draining the vast Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's biggest source of underground fresh water, filled with melted glaciers 15,000 years old. They are pumping it out at a rate eight times faster than nature can replenish it. It's used to grow cotton, Egan says: cotton we ship to China, which makes cheap T-shirts to stock Wal-Mart.

Are we that intent on self-destruction? Did we learn nothing from the Dust Bowl? For the love of God, what is wrong with us? 

I don't have an answer. People need to eat; need jobs; need places to live. How am I to justify where I live and what resources I use if I'm unwilling to grant them to others? Yet there has to be a balance if we are to survive.

We talk a good game about living within our means, but we as a species don't seem to mean it if that means sacrificing something for future generations. 

Or do we? There are individuals who take only what they need and give back what they can and try to live within the rhythms of the rest of the world. Surely there must be whole societies that can do the same. Are they out there? Or in there, in us somewhere? And if so, what makes them different? 

And are they doomed to succumb to the locusts? 

— Jennifer Moody is not usually this pessimistic.

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