Teaching Environmental History in the Midst of a Public Health Crisis

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This is the first post in a series called “From the Outside In,” about the experiences of teaching and researching Canadian environmental history by scholars from other countries.

‘The Dust Bowl wasn’t an environmental crisis, it was a health crisis.”

HIST 396 Student, Bridgewater State University, October 2020

Every semester I fret about whether or not my students will find my classes relevant to their lives. The fall of 2020 presented particular anxiety. Making the past seem immediate and palpable has been a perpetual problem for our profession, and today our students face a landslide of upending events – a global pandemic, a national reckoning with our racist past, a US political contest that is perhaps the most divisive since 1860, and a new educational platform that is making it even harder for students and teachers to have rewarding conversations about the past and present.  

Students struggle today more than at any point I have known; so, what do I offer them? A theory and methods class on the history of the Dust Bowl! For me, the Dust Bowl had always been a chapter in environmental history, and, as in past semesters, this September I emphasized what I thought would be the most relevant element of the class: the link between this environmental crisis and our own struggle with climatic disasters. To my surprise, and delight, my students found an altogether different relevancy to the class.  

Students take their methods course about halfway through their curriculum and hopefully the course prepares them for the rigor of the upper-level seminar courses. The goal is to get them to think like a historian, develop some understanding of what historiography is, become familiar with the wide variety of primary sources that we work with, and begin to write clearer and more evidence-based arguments.  

Jacksonville Daily (Illinois), 1935

The Dust Bowl is a fine topic for such work because it stretches assumed geographical and chronological borders, has a well-establish popular understanding that is incomplete and ripe for criticism and a fairly rich historiography, and it offers a plethora of primary sources to work with. Students investigate government reports, propaganda films, newspaper articles, oral interviews, photography, contemporary fiction, and music, as well as some scientific data.  

As a Canadian historian (one who studies the history of Canada, rather than a Canadian who studies history), in the United States I try to sneak in as much Canadian content as a I can. In this class I encourage my students to think about the environmental history of North America beyond just the United States. We discuss the over-production of wheat in the Canadian prairies and social protest movements that erupted across the whole North American west in the 1930s. As a historian of resource economics that stretched and broke political borders (mainly the fisheries), I am always eager to get my students to think about how the environment is a global history topic.  For me, the Dust Bowl told a story of a global environmental and social crisis that is not unlike our current fears of climate change, extreme weather, and dwindling resources.

In past discussions about the Dust Bowl, my students largely focused on one core historiographical debate: Was the Dust Bowl a human-made environmental disaster, or the result of well-established climatic patterns? Those who supported the first answer relied on the work of Donald Worster and primary sources such as The Plow that Broke the Plains and the cornucopia of the government studies from the 1930s. Worster’s argument is  well-known to NiCHE’s readership: the Dust Bowl was the result of decades of agricultural overproduction on the southern plains driven by an intense capitalist ethos of profit. Those students who instead saw the Dust Bowl as just another dust storm caused by drought and high temperatures relied on the work of Geoff Cunfer and primary sources from local observers and scientific and demographic data. In his 2002 article, “Causes of the Dust Bowl,” in Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History, Cunfer argues that  temperatures and rainfall data shows that drought and heat probably played a greater role in causing the Dust Bowl than the “great plow up” of the early 1900s.  Most of my students came away from the section concluding that it was a human-made environmental disaster, despite my best efforts to steer them in the other direction. They are  convinced by the human story related through diaries, newspapers, photographs, and music rather than the hard weather data. They observe that although Cunfer’s study is convincing, there just aren’t many humans in it. And that mattered. 

As I began this semester assuming the same trend, I prepared my class with the usual collection of secondary and primary sources and gradually guided them to that debate. We had the normal conversation about plowing and rising temperatures.  The discussions were rich and the students engaged. The current reality of wildfires in the West and the effects of global warming motivated a particularly enthusiastic discussion about temperatures and rainfall that led more students to support Cunfer’s conclusion. But the real surprise came the following week when we focused on newspaper articles.

I gave the students the usual collection of newspaper coverage from 1935 to 1936. In the past, students focused on those papers that discussed the “great plow up,” such as the Republic from Cleveland, Ohio (3 September 1934) or the San Francisco Examiner (1 July 1934), or the demands for government relief, such as the Cincinnati Enquirer (18 February 1937). But not this year. Overwhelmingly, students zeroed in on a different set of articles that, in the past, received very little attention.  These articles presented a narrative that focused on public health.

Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune (Missouri), 1935

The students leaped at The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune (Chillicothe, Missouri) from 27 April 1935, which discussed “dust pneumonia” and authorities urging people to wear masks. The paper told the story of the Red Cross trying to distribute enough masks and the death of a seven-year-old boy who suffocated in a dust storm. They also gravitated to The Jacksonville Daily Journal (Jacksonville, Illinois), which reported on the death of 20 people in just two weeks. Another paper, The Alexandria Times-Tribune of 18 February 1937, included a photo of a man and woman wearing masks.  

Alexandria Times-Tribune (Indiana), 1927

Never before had these articles been the primary focus, but this semester more than 60% of the students ended up writing their papers on the “health crisis” of the Dust Bowl. I had never once referred to the Dust Bowl as a health crisis. For them, though, the Dust Bowl told a story of a public unwilling to listen to science and distrustful of governments, one that was paying the price of  arrogance. Wherever did they get that idea?

We didn’t stop there. When we got to John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie the story wasn’t about building a new community, but police brutality. They delighted in Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad.” When I asked how Springsteen’s quoting of Steinbeck’s lines, “wherever there’s a cop beating a guy,” and “wherever there’s somebody is fightin’ for a place to stand,” were relevant in 1939 and 1995, they responded that it was relevant for 2020 – it was Black Lives Matter for poor white people.  

The Dust Bowl has long been a subject of environmental history for my students, but this semester it morphed, without any direction from me, into a semester-long debate about public health and government policing.  

Most of our teaching seems regimented. Most of the time students follow us as we unpack the past. Most of the time they engage in healthy debate, but it is rare to have the students upend our agendas. This semester I have been happily upended. It reminds me of the need to keep the reins loose, let the students explore the past through their own experiences. So far, I’m enjoying the ride.


Feature image: 20 February 1894, Midland, Texas. From U.S. Weather Bureau, National Archives & Records Administration, in Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment (2005), via “Rethinking the Dustbowl,” HGIS Lab, University of Saskatchewan.

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Brian teaches environmental and economic history at Bridgewater State University. The focus of his teaching and research is resource economics, particularly fisheries, and the environmental history of New England and Atlantic Canada. His current project examines the environmental, labor, and consumer history of processed seafood. Brian is also the coordinator of the Northeast-Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum.

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