WASHINGTON, D.C., October 18, 2012 – We will not repeat the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns told an audience of students yesterday at the National Youth Summit in Washington, D.C.—but that previous disaster may prove instructive to farmers of the present. “The only thing that’s really new,” Burns told the assembled crowd, “is the history you don’t know.”

The Summit, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, WETA television, and Smithsonian Affiliations, staged at the National Museum of American History, and streamed online to a number of classrooms worldwide, asked participating scientists, farmers, and Dust Bowl survivors to explore the environmental aspects of the phenomenon. Burns called the Dust Bowl “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history.”

“The biggest lesson that I don’t think we’ve really understood [from the Dust Bowl],” Iowan farmer Roy Bardole told the audience, is that many American farmlands are “all desert without water.” Bardole, along with fellow panelist and farmer Glenn Roberts, stressed the importance of irrigation innovation to the continued success of American agriculture. Bardole urged budding scientists in the audience to consider careers in plant genetics, and to create hardier crops able to survive on less water.

Another way students can avoid another manmade Dust Bowl? “Plant trees,” Roberts, who grows heirloom crops for a living, told the crowd. Bardole agreed. “Nothing functions in and of itself in the environment,” he said. “Everything affects everything else.” In planting trees, he argued, everyday Americans could help correct atmospheric carbon imbalances caused by burning fossil fuels.

“We can plan ahead” to avoid environmental crisis, Burns concluded. If only it were not something humans had “proved ourselves to be so bad at.”

Visit the National Youth Summit: Dust Bowl’s website here.


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