Hannah Holleman’s Dust Bowls of Empire, and Thoughts on the Green New Deal

The amount of support and energy that the Green New Deal has created in the past month and a half probably took some of the activists pushing for it by surprise. Evoking Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal isn’t just a way to harken back to a more progressive Democratic Party; the New Deal had to tackle another climate catastrophe in the United States, the Dust Bowl. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a massive mobilization to fight climate change has understandably heartened climate activists who have watched the U.S. government dither while a disaster of horrifying proportions looms. By drawing attention to the first New Deal, however, one should carefully consider some of the lessons we might learn from that earlier experience. Contrary to its romanticized depiction or criticism from conservative critics, the New Deal was not a radical experiment in socialism. It was an attempt to try to reform and regulate capitalism in order to preserve it, and its policies were predicated on saving capitalism.

Hannah Holleman’s Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism looks back at the Dust Bowl and what it can tell us about our own contemporary climate crisis, and whether the framework of the New Deal is a useful one for the dilemmas of the 21st century. Holleman sees the Dust Bowl as a product of empire, white supremacy and capitalism, first by seizing land from indigenous peoples and then subjecting it to agricultural production regimens which were not ecologically sustainable. In the United States, overproduction simply caused the topsoil to blow away once drought inevitably, devastating midwestern communities in the 1930s.

Strikingly, in the United States, Canada, Australia, and much of Africa, administrators recognized that capitalistic modes of production could not be maintained indefinitely. Land was being used in a way that was fundamentally unsustainable. Conferences, meetings, and panels were regularly convened in order to try and solve these problems as early as the beginning of the 20th century. So why were they unsuccessful?

Looking at the New Deal can teach us a few lessons about this. New Dealers recognized that the Dust Bowl represented a genuine crisis that needed to be addressed, but were themselves divided on how extensive the solution should be. What’s more, they were themselves trapped by the desire to try and accommodate business interests and conservative state governments. While Holleman doesn’t downplay the New Deal’s role in helping people and providing some overdue basic reforms for farmers, the New Deal’s more dramatic changes to the system were either systematically blocked or were steadily undermined once the crisis had temporarily abated.

Of course, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was just one iteration of a longer-term problem: intensive, profit-oriented farming in arid regions. Drought returned in the 1950s; in Texas, it was as severe as before. Rather than reconsider how livestock was raised and how crops were grown, Texas simply began seeking out new sources of groundwater to pump to make up the difference, and other states followed suit. Today, groundwater depletion is a serious problem in many parts of the Midwest at precisely the same time that climate change is likely to wreak havoc on weather patterns.

As climate activists today think about a Green New Deal, it’s worth considering that earlier attempts at “green capitalism” were unable to meaningfully solve the problem of drought and aridification. The solutions never addressed the root of the problem, which were capitalist modes of production: at best, it could only work along the margins. The current proposal has ambitious goals but is light on specifics. Given the widespread divisions within the Democratic Party and the absence of any firm commitment by the party to meaningful solutions, a great deal of pressure will be needed to make sure that what ends up in the final legislation isn’t window-dressing.. We’re rapidly running out of time to punt on climate change.