Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rain Follows The Plow

Wired looks at the disastrous myth, greed and wishful thinking that helped create the Dust Bowl:
Call it superstition or call it pseudoscience, what began as mythology among the Great Plains farmers eventually turned into a widely accepted scientific theory in the U.S. between 1865 and 1875: “The rain follows the plow.” Journalists, scientists, government officials, you name it—Americans were convinced that through their farming they’d goaded Mother Nature into providing more water. That is, until Mother Nature suddenly shut off the spigot and showed us just how disastrously wrong we’d been.
The spread of the myth, according to Henry Nash Smith in his essay “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains,” can be largely blamed on America’s most reliable villain: greed. It was those standing to profit from a prosperous West—the real estate speculators, the railroads, and the politicians—who propagated the tale, for “the pressures making for high estimates of the economic potentialities of the plains were strong and varied,” Smith writes.
Of course, where did the main exponent of the theory find his proof? Why, the Bible, of course:
Now enter Charles Dana Wilber, an amateur scientist (not that being an amateur in this whole mess was any excuse) who was in the habit of building whole towns in Nebraska—the type of man my father would call a “real piece of work.” He had a “gift of phrase much greater than that of Aughey,” writes Smith, and was the fellow responsible for the maxim “rain follows the plow.”
Wilber wrote: “To those who possess the divine faculty of hope—the optimists of our times—it will always be a source of pleasure to understand that the Creator never imposed a perpetual desert upon the earth, but, on the contrary, has so endowed it that man, by the plow, can transform it, in any country, into farm areas.” (Why God wouldn’t just make it rain more in the first place without having humans do all the work is a bit unclear, but I suspect much of Wilber’s thinking was unclear.)
So how did Wilber know God set it up this way? It was in the Bible, of course, specifically Genesis. From Wilber (parentheticals his own, except for this one, obviously): “But there went up a mist (dew) from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, (because) and there was not a man to till the ground.”
What terrible idea can't be "proven" by interpretation of the Bible? But after a drought brought the theory into question, proponents came up with another "solution," dynamite:
Yet in the 1890s, agricultural pseudoscience simply took on another form. The idea came around that explosives could be used to generate the vibrations required for rainfall. Folks seemed to realize that while not nearly as nutritious, dynamite sure was a much more entertaining way to produce rain than breaking your back growing a bunch of crops. But that’s a story for another week.
I will look forward to that post.  For entertainment until then, you can read about "Operation Plowshare," where nuclear weapons were tested for mass excavation.

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