denverpost | In November, I watched the two parts of Ken Burns’ new documentary film, “The Dust Bowl.” The film presents a lesson for us today.
When farmers first arrived in the large area surrounding the Oklahoma Panhandle, the ground was covered with hardy buffalo grass that firmly protected the soil from erosion by the wind. Then each farmer acted freely and independently to do what was economically best for him. He plowed up the buffalo grass and planted wheat. The more land he plowed and planted, the greater was his income. Almost a decade of very low rainfall dried up the land, but the farmers hung on, plowing up even more land and hoping that there would be rain next year. Most important, there were no government agencies interfering with the freedom and independence of the farmers by trying to promote conservation or to limit the acreage of buffalo grass that was being plowed. The collective action of all of the individual farmers, each acting in his own best interest, resulted in the buffalo grass being stripped from enormous areas of the Great Plains. When the wind started blowing over the exposed soil, the dust began its assault on all living things in the area and beyond. The suffering was so severe as to be difficult to imagine.
A few doomsday voices pointed out the destructive consequences of the elimination of the buffalo grass over such a large area but these voices were ignored by the farmers who resented any suggestion that their agricultural practices were responsible for the disaster. The relief and public works programs initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt provided some immediate help to the suffering people, allowing them to hang on a bit longer.
The lesson I got from this is that when you have large numbers of individuals practicing free enterprise in an unregulated society, with each individual (or today it could also be each company) acting in his or her (or its) best interest, the result can be disastrous to all. The great recession that started around 2008 is only the most recent example of this. These are examples of the “Tragedy of the Commons” in real life just as Garrett Hardin portrayed it.
The long-term solution of the Dust Bowl problem came only after the Federal Government purchased large areas of farmed grassland and replanted these areas in grass to create national grasslands. What the free and independent farmers had destroyed, the “socialistic” Federal Government restored.