Beginning this Thursday, members of the Society of Environmental Journalists will be gathering from October 19-23 for the 21st SEJ Conference. This year’s meeting is being held in Miami, considered to be the most vulnerable urban  areas in the world considering the threats of climate change and rising seas. Quartered at the downtown InterContinental Hotel, journalists from all across the hemisphere will be gathering to learn about and debate global warming, sea level rise, acidification, overfishing, pollution, and other maritime and urban issues here in subtropical Miami, a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, and a short drive from Everglades National Park.


While the participants will doubtlessly be busy attending meetings and taking tours of some of South Florida’s unique ecologies, we at the Wolfsonian wanted to extend an invitation for the participants to visit our cultural institutions as well, and to see how some artists represented in our collection pictured the crises in our natural and social environments in the twentieth century. Manifest and Mundane: Scenes of Modern America from the Wolfsonian Collection, on view in our seventh floor gallery includes a number of works documenting the greatest American environmental crisis of the twentieth century: the Dust Bowl, as well as the socio-economic and ecological consequences of urbanization and industrialization of the 1930s.

MISSOURI WOMAN / Oil and Tempera Painting by Burr Singer

THE CITY / Oil Painting by Virginia Berresford

Some years ago, several Florida International university students curated an exhibition of rare library materials entitled The Great Depression and New Deal Americana. Several of them focused on the Dust Bowl and deforestation environmental crises of the 1930s and the programs enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to deal with the consequences.

While not on display at the moment, there are a number of  items from the Wolfsonian’s library collection also relevant to past and present environmental woes. In the eastern states, short-sighted strip-mining and clear-cut logging operations resulted in deforestation and severe problems with soil erosion in the early 1900s.



After being sworn in as president in 1933, FDR began rolling out an alphabet soup of “New Deal” programs—the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Soil Conservation Service (SCS), Resettlement Administration (RA), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and others—aimed at addressing some of the nation’s grave environmental problems.


In addition to  washing away and destroying millions of acres of productive topsoil, the tree and vegetation denuded landscapes also contributed to some of the severe floods experienced during that decade.

By far the worst ecological catastrophe of the twentieth century, however, was the Dust bowl—effecting approximately 100 million acres of land in the Southern Plains states. Having plowed under and converted the arid Great Plain grasslands to monocrop cultivation to cash in on the wheat boom of the First World War, farmer-speculators abandoned the land when prices plummeted after the war, and natural drought cycles began to transform the land into desert. By the early 1930s, wind storms began scooping the barren topsoil into the air and creating “black blizzards” or “dusters”—a phenomenon that gave rise to the characterization of the depression years as the “dirty thirties.”

On April 14, 1935, (“Black Sunday”), a single dust storm swept across the plains carrying twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to build the Panama Canal.

That same month, Hugh Hammond Bennett was in Washington D.C. to testify before Congress on the pressing need for soil conservation legislation when the skies prematurely darkened as a dust storm originating in the plains passed over and blotted out the sun like an eclipse. Faced with such incontrovertible evidence of the severity of the problem, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act that same year.

With luck and—need it be said—good and consistent journalistic reporting—we can only hope that our own politician today will be prepared to act to avert the looming ecological crises of the twenty-first century before we are up to our knees in seas!

~ by "The Chief" on October 19, 2011.

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