Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 4.9.09

Hard Lessons Lost
Are we doomed to repeat history?
by Mary O’Brien 

It appears we’re really not great at taking care of the world we’ve been given. 

A month ago I read The Worst Hard Time. It’s about how 100 million acres of native grass on the semi-arid High Plains of western Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, northwestern Texas and southeastern Colorado were turned into dust by cattle ranchers, followed by homesteaders growing wheat, followed by drought. The dust eventually roiled into storms so black that you could not see your hand in front of your face, so prolonged that children died of dust in their lungs and cows of stomachs packed with dirt, and so vast that the High Plains clouds finally rolled into Washington, D.C., triggering Congress to establish the Soil Conservation Service. The Worst Hard Time weaves the stories of individual people through decades, which is appropriate, because ultimately we rip our world apart person by person, through decades.

A week ago, at a friend’s house, my eye was caught by an article title on the cover of her April 2009 National Geographic. The headline: “Australia Goes Dry.” On page 34, where the article begins, a little girl is playfully running through what looks like a brown version of the surface of the moon, her hands covering her eyes. The photo caption reads, “Simon Booth remembers when he grazed 250 head of cattle on his ranch in southeastern Australia — a sight his children Ryan and Claire may never see.” 

The article is a re-run of The Worst Hard Time. It’s about how the Murray-Darling Basin of southeastern Australia, a semiarid plain the size of Spain and France combined, has been turned into a wasteland by overallocating the 1,600-mile Murray river for sheep, beef and dairy cattle and water-sucking crops like cotton and rice, ollowed by the worst seven years of drought in the 117 years of recorded temperature in Australia. 

And this time around the drought is driven by climate change. A question is asked above the headline of the article: “What will happen when the climate starts to change and the rivers dry up and a whole way of life comes to an end? The people of the Murray-Darling Basin are finding out right now.”

The article is surely the most compelling in the entire issue, and the editor’s note on page 4 talks only about that story. Describing how Murray-Darling farmers had cleared 15 billion trees to establish their farms, he recalls the fun he had as a teenager knocking down trees with a bulldozer to build a logging road near Prospect, Ore. Back then, he says, he “didn’t understand the potential consequences of bulldozers.”

Stunningly, the facing page to the editor’s note is a full-page advertisement by Southern Company, a coal company. “Common sense says, to reduce our dependence on foreign energy, let’s use what’s under our own feet,” is the headline. Below a cartoon of a person sticking an electric plug into Appalachia (think mountaintop removal), the ad reminds us, “The U.S. has a 200-year supply of coal.” In the text at the bottom of the page, the ad says, “Common sense says that if you’re blessed with such an abundant resource, you ought to find a way to use it.”

Come again?

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at