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If You Want a Sneak Peek at Our Climate Hell, Look at Texas in The 1950s
A decade of drought changed the state forever.
There was little about the dry land that made a man feel like talking. There was comfort of sorts simply in the silent sharing of the misery.
— Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained
It started out slow, like most terrible things.
The sky went dry. A year went by, then another. Nobody really started worrying until the third year. That’s when the ground cracked open. Farmers had to watch their step to keep from stumbling into the crevices. The sun disappeared behind thick, towering clouds of dust. It was like the 1930s, but worse. Teachers led children through darkness in the middle of the afternoon.
Cows cried from thirst and hunger.
Wild hogs ate them alive.
As the oral historian John Burnett writes, “Good drinking water became more valuable than oil.” Burnett’s interviews with Texans reveal a world of hardship most Americans have never even imagined and probably can barely conceive of, especially when it comes to their own lives of relative privilege and convenience. The Texas of the 1950s came straight out of dystopia. Texans had to measure how much water they used for washing their dishes. There wasn’t even enough pressure to rinse them off. They had to use an outside spigot. On the rare occasion it did rain a little, kids scooped water off the ground and poured it on the trees. In most places, you weren’t even allowed to wash your car.
Baths were a luxury.
Things kept getting worse.
By the fourth or fifth year, farmers just stood around watching the sky, talking about which clouds might bring rain. The sandstorms of the 1930s returned with a vengeance. They suffocated livestock.
They stripped the paint off cars.
There were heat waves so bad they killed penguins at the zoo. Dallas had to get water pumped or trucked in from other places.
Even hospitals ran dry.
Farmers lost billions in crops and livestock. Total crop loss for the period stacks up to $21 billion in contemporary dollars.
People went bankrupt.
Toward the end, the federal government wasn’t just giving farmers money to buy hay. They were delivering emergency food supplies. President Eisenhower finally took a tour of Texas in 1957, sometime before heavy storms and floods brought rain back, but not exactly in a good way.
Most small towns never recovered.
The 1950s drought hit the entire region hard. Neighboring states felt the same withering heat. The American plains have seen plenty of droughts, but that one remains the worst on record, for now at least.
It changed the region forever.
It could get worse.
Drought started water management.
In the aftermath of the drought, the state formed the Texas Water Development Board. They’ve been active ever since, coming up with water plans to anticipate and manage droughts. Water management boards basically coordinate between different stakeholders like farmers and businesses to determine how much water everyone gets to use. They monitor drought conditions and analyze rainfall projections. They oversee the construction of water treatment plants and reservoirs. The whole idea is to make sure we’re thinking about how we use water so everyone has enough, and nobody’s using too much or wasting it, so that other people don’t wind up standing in line at water trucks with buckets.
It’s worth more than oil.
In general, Americans have been hit or miss on water conservation. For the most part, western states have been a little frivolous. I mean, there’s really no good reason to grow almonds. We just like them.
That time’s coming to an end.
The future looks dry as hell.
Climatologists have been telling us for decades that western states are living on borrowed water. They’ve pointed out that despite severe droughts like the one in Texas, the last hundred years in the great plains have actually been the wettest in 1,000 years. That’s a pretty important point.
It’s pretty ominous.
It means that droughts like the one that crushed Texas are actually far more normal than most Americans want to believe. As we get deeper into the 21st century, they’re probably going to happen more often.
They’re probably going to last longer.
They’re going to get bigger.
Of course, politicians and land developers didn’t listen to any of these warnings over the last 100 years. They even named one of their biggest reservoirs after John Wesley Powell, the guy who told them don’t build it.
How’s that for irony?
We have to do things differently.
It looks like Texas is finally waking up.
They recently passed a law that requires land developers and businesses to consult with their state climatologist. That’s a good thing. Of course, it also means that climate change has gotten so severe, that even a hyper-conservative state like Texas can’t live in denial anymore.
Reality is finally forcing them to take responsibility. They’re not coming up with plans to stop climate change anymore.
They’re having to live with it.
Things are going to get nasty. We’ve vastly overpopulated the land west of the Mississippi river. Huge cities like Phoenix probably shouldn’t even exist, and we definitely should never have turned Las Vegas into a famous tourist trap. It’s almost like we make horrible decisions on purpose.
That’s got to stop.
The entire world could go 1950s Texas.
Here’s the key takeaway:
Most Americans still live in this little bubble of denial. Even as they come to realize that climate change is having a large and undeniable influence on things like storms and droughts, they still don’t think it’s going to affect them, not really. They still can’t quite picture what life is going to look like if we don’t start coming up with real, proactive plans.
There’s a reason we should pay attention to history. One of our biggest problems is that we live in stunning ignorance of our own past. It’s a shame, because the past often holds the key to our future.
That’s why I’m thinking about Texas in the 1950s, and the drought that was worse than the 1930s dust bowl. That could be the entire world in just a couple of years. By 2030, we could all be measuring water to wash dishes.
Here’s The Wall Street Journal:
Record drought across the globe this year dried up rivers and reservoirs and sapped the world’s largest source of renewable electricity: hydropower.
From China to Norway, rivers and reservoirs reached their lowest levels in recorded history. So, 1950s Texas looks like a real, plausible future for large parts of the world. That future isn’t distant.
It’s immediate, coming up like a cloud on the horizon.
It almost doesn’t matter what you think about fossil fuels at this point. The consequences are landing. We’d be fools to delay planning a minute longer. And you might want to think about your own water use, too. Think about how you’d wash dishes or do laundry in a 1950s-style drought.
How would you recycle water in your home?
We need to think about it now and start practicing, while we still have time. We have to take climate change more seriously on a national and global level, and stop letting “geopolitics” and “elections” get in the way. We’ve got to stop thinking we can take poor little penguins away from their homes and house them in the middle of the desert. That kind of arrogance and hubris lies at the core of our biggest flaw as a species. We need to get smarter, and more humble.
We all need to hound our state and local governments to come up with real plans, and stop acting like we’ve got decades.
The droughts are starting now. It’ll be a year or two before the full pain hits. By then, it’ll be too late to plan for the worst.
Like all terrible things…
It starts out slow.
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