So I was sauteing chicken on the driveway yesterday when one of my kids comes around the corner from the deck where he’s smacking wasp nests out of the grill and he says to me, “Mom, I think it’s the hottest day that’s ever been.” I was about to agree with him, but I was busy scraping the rubber from my flip-flops off the pavement before it boiled away…or melted into the chicken. So we decided together–“To the internets!” because the Internets are inside in the A/C and his board shorts were beginning to smolder.

Turns out that, much like all the other analogs to the 1930’s, the weather is contributing to history repeating itself. Schoolroom reading assignments have made us all at least passingly familiar with the Dust Bowl’s drought and impact on American society. But 1936 experienced a very cold winter, followed by a very hot summer, and a very depressing economy. Then, as now, high pressure pushed hot air throughout the Midwest, setting many of the high-temperature records that were, until this year, relatively safe from breach.

And for you climate change deniers out there, then, as now, mankind did, in fact, play a part in the heat wave. Dust Bowl conditions were exacerbated by almost a century of poor farming practices. Farmers tilled the soil down deep and destroyed the root systems of the big prairie grasses that hold soil in place and moisture in soil. Nobody rotated their crops, so the nutrients in the soil were leached away as it lost its cohesion. Cover crops weren’t planted in fallow fields, leading to barren dirt easily picked up by the wind and blown thousands of miles, all the way to the Atlantic ocean. Of course, farmers weren’t the only culprits–overgrazing cattle and sheep led to additional de-grassing of the prairies.

This is not to say that humankind was entirely at fault. But our actions did contribute in a significant way to turn a few bad seasons into devastation. Out of this rose one of the efforts of President Roosevelt’s government to create a soil conservation program and begin educating the public on soil conservancy practices.

The heat and drought weren’t just an environmental concern (nothing is ever “just” an environmental concern). They had an economic impact as well. Real estate in the Midwest rose and fell on land fertility. With all the topsoil blown Back East, the fertility went with it, and the real estate values went South. The people (two and a half million of ’em), went West. Banking failures and the refusal to loan to farmers (sound familiar?) prevented the homesteaders from being able to invest in rotating their crops. And crop failures for the farmers meant that staple food prices went North. In a depression. Folks on the coasts might have escaped the weather, but they certainly felt the heat on already-burdened pocketbooks.

As many as 5000 people died from the heat, most in the big midwestern cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Cities as far north as Minneapolis and Toronto experienced deaths as well. Without widespread air conditioning, in dense urban areas, the heat stays trapped and people suffer. We’ve gotten through this before, and we’ll get through it again, but time will tell if maybe this time we’ll have the courage and honesty to look at our own practices and dream up ways we can work with nature instead of at odds with it.

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