Anthropogenic Climate Change Theory and Busted Sod

Anthropogenic theories of climate change have a neglected and tragic precedent of acceptance by consensus. Before Al Gore's Nobel prize for helping politicize the theory of Global Warming came the widely-believed theory that "Rain Follows the Plow."

Many of the sod busters who settled the American West (and parts of Australia) during the late 19th centuries believed that by plowing under native vegetation to grow crops, they would increase rainfall on their marginally arable land.  Studies by weather experts were said to prove this anthropogenic climate change theory. 

Railroads heralded it, to increase the value of land the government granted them for building their lines, and even cited the thick steam clouds the locomotives of the day produced as another reason rainfall on the High Plains could only increase. When the U.S. Government guaranteed wheat prices at historic levels in World War I, the sod busters plowed under more acres of native vegetation, becoming wealthy in the process. 

And when grain prices fell after the war, additional grassland was converted to wheat in an attempt to maintain farm income at the same levels.  Unfortunately the great droughts of the 1930's proved the Rain Follows the Plow theory terribly wrong. Those increases in rainfall the sod busters had experienced in earlier years proved to be simply part of the natural cycle, a period of wet to be balanced by inevitable drought.

Like Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, Rain Follows the Plow had its detractors. Some scholars found it unlikely.  Ranchers shook their heads at the idea the land was good for anything but grazing cattle and sheep, but couldn't stop the plows when wheat prices rose above beef prices in profit potential. 

The survivors among Plains Indian tribes thought the sod busters plumb loco. Unfortunately the experts quoted by those with economic and political interests in bringing ever more people onto the Great Plains drowned out the scientific skeptics and discredited previous occupants of the land as being against progress.

The true irony of Rain Follows the Plow is that the actions farmers took in reliance on this anthropogenic theory -- and in response to federal incentives -- actually did contribute to the severity of the weather catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. Without that thick mat of tangled roots from perennial prairie grasses to hold things in place, the winds that constantly swept the Great Plains carried topsoil as far as the Atlantic when the drought came. In The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan writes about how the government's expert timed his testimony on Capitol Hill so that the windows in the hearing room would darken from the arrival of such a dust storm just as he pressed his case for funds for soil conservation and resettlement. 

I was listening to Egan's tragic tale of human and ecological consequences last week as I made my annual drive across the middle of the nation.  It put my drive in a new light.  More gas stations than ever before were selling an ethanol mix ,and every field I passed in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota seemed full of corn ready for harvest.  Where cornfields were intermixed with soybean fields in the past, this year I saw mostly corn.  I also saw corn where I had seen pastureland in prior years.  I can't remember seeing so much acreage in corn. 

Unlike the sod busters in the Dust Bowl, today's farmers do practice soil conservation, crop rotation procedures and other methods to help conserve the land.  But like their predecessors, they also respond with agility to higher prices and government incentives.  The demand for corn to produce the supposedly more environmentally-friendly ethanol has already raised food prices, which could have serious consequences in less affluent nations.  We can only wait to see what additional distortions might darken the horizon as people change their behavior in response to all the media coverage about the theory of anthropogenic Global Warming. 
Anthropogenic theories of climate change have a neglected and tragic precedent of acceptance by consensus. Before Al Gore's Nobel prize for helping politicize the theory of Global Warming came the widely-believed theory that "Rain Follows the Plow."

Many of the sod busters who settled the American West (and parts of Australia) during the late 19th centuries believed that by plowing under native vegetation to grow crops, they would increase rainfall on their marginally arable land.  Studies by weather experts were said to prove this anthropogenic climate change theory. 

Railroads heralded it, to increase the value of land the government granted them for building their lines, and even cited the thick steam clouds the locomotives of the day produced as another reason rainfall on the High Plains could only increase. When the U.S. Government guaranteed wheat prices at historic levels in World War I, the sod busters plowed under more acres of native vegetation, becoming wealthy in the process. 

And when grain prices fell after the war, additional grassland was converted to wheat in an attempt to maintain farm income at the same levels.  Unfortunately the great droughts of the 1930's proved the Rain Follows the Plow theory terribly wrong. Those increases in rainfall the sod busters had experienced in earlier years proved to be simply part of the natural cycle, a period of wet to be balanced by inevitable drought.

Like Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, Rain Follows the Plow had its detractors. Some scholars found it unlikely.  Ranchers shook their heads at the idea the land was good for anything but grazing cattle and sheep, but couldn't stop the plows when wheat prices rose above beef prices in profit potential. 

The survivors among Plains Indian tribes thought the sod busters plumb loco. Unfortunately the experts quoted by those with economic and political interests in bringing ever more people onto the Great Plains drowned out the scientific skeptics and discredited previous occupants of the land as being against progress.

The true irony of Rain Follows the Plow is that the actions farmers took in reliance on this anthropogenic theory -- and in response to federal incentives -- actually did contribute to the severity of the weather catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. Without that thick mat of tangled roots from perennial prairie grasses to hold things in place, the winds that constantly swept the Great Plains carried topsoil as far as the Atlantic when the drought came. In The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan writes about how the government's expert timed his testimony on Capitol Hill so that the windows in the hearing room would darken from the arrival of such a dust storm just as he pressed his case for funds for soil conservation and resettlement. 

I was listening to Egan's tragic tale of human and ecological consequences last week as I made my annual drive across the middle of the nation.  It put my drive in a new light.  More gas stations than ever before were selling an ethanol mix ,and every field I passed in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota seemed full of corn ready for harvest.  Where cornfields were intermixed with soybean fields in the past, this year I saw mostly corn.  I also saw corn where I had seen pastureland in prior years.  I can't remember seeing so much acreage in corn. 

Unlike the sod busters in the Dust Bowl, today's farmers do practice soil conservation, crop rotation procedures and other methods to help conserve the land.  But like their predecessors, they also respond with agility to higher prices and government incentives.  The demand for corn to produce the supposedly more environmentally-friendly ethanol has already raised food prices, which could have serious consequences in less affluent nations.  We can only wait to see what additional distortions might darken the horizon as people change their behavior in response to all the media coverage about the theory of anthropogenic Global Warming.