New Ken Burns documentary looks at Dust Bowl, 'worst sustained environmental disaster' in U.S. history
Ken Burns is widely celebrated for the incredible documentaries he brings to television. His latest work, set to air on PBS stations Nov. 18 and Nov. 19, looks at the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl -- an environmental disaster called the worst in our history, and how it happened.
The Dust Bowl, which crippled the American plains during the 1930s, is considered one of the worst man-made environmental catastrophes in American history.
In his latest film, director Ken Burns tells the story of the migrant farmers who in the early 20th century moved to an area of Oklahoma once called “No Man’s Land."
With infrequent rain, this part of the country was a risky place to eke out a living, but in the 1920s the southern plains experienced an unusual wet spell and a boom in wheat production followed. Millions of acres of soil were plowed for the first time and virgin grasslands were converted to wheat fields.
But as booms are wont to do, the boom eventually went bust and those who remained in the region struggled to survive through a decade of drought and a series of devastating dust storms.
Historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, in Burn’s film following the "Great Plow-Up," called the steps that led to those dust storms one of "the worst sustained environmental disasters in American history."
“It’s not something that happens in just one year, it’s not something that just lasts for three or four years, it’s a decade," she said. "Because of the combination of extreme drought and extreme high temperatures, this is the worst 10-year period in recorded history on the plains.”
Burns' new film, "The Dust Bowl," airs on PBS on today and Monday. Burns is renowned for his prowess in documentary film-making, including The Civil War, Baseball, The War and Prohibition.
"This film is filled with folks in their late 80s and early 90s, and it is our habit, particularly in our media culture to see them as some sort of fading dinosaurs," Burns said. "But in fact if you look through that, you realize you're looking at children, and teenagers, who are the last living witnesses, the last living survivors, to the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history — the dust bowl."
The story of the dust bowl has a lot of resonance today, about the consequences of human actions on the climate, and the tragedy that it can cause, he said.
"You realize, as Faulkner said, that history is not was, but is," Burns said.
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