Dusting Off Some Dusty Wisdom

May 15, 2019

Dusting Off Some Dusty Wisdom

Image: NOAA George E. Marsh Album - Source: Public Domain, www.commons.wikimedia.org


Mike Thompson

Lately I have been working on research that has taken me headlong where I never thought I would venture—into the history of soil erosion, environmental thought and Protestant Christianity in America in the mid 20th century.

In the process I’ve been struck repeatedly by the way the global soil crisis of the 1930s-40s parallels many aspects of the present crisis over climate change. Erosion—the large scale, drastic, and irreversible loss of fertile top layers of soil by wind and rain, that had been millennia in the making—was, you might say, the climate change of the period.

There are several parallels worth noting. Erosion was seen (with merit) to pose an existential and urgent threat to human life itself. No soil means no food, no trees, no life. Second, like climate change, although soil erosion was a natural phenomenon, humans had drastically accelerated it in the modern period, especially with rapid market-based unsustainable farming methods in the early 20th century (and in the case of Australia, with the plague of rabbits eating ground cover en masse).

When large scale dust storms picked up whole parts of South Australia and Victoria, as well as Oklahoma and Texas, and dumped them on far away cities like Melbourne and Washington D.C. in the 1930s, the crisis also gained its apocalypticist imagery—its equivalent to arctic ice shelves of climate change. In this case it was monstrous dust-clouds, blackened skies, deluged homes, and denuded farms scarred by gullies.

Soil degradation and erosion have not gone away. But in contrast to climate change, the striking fact was that in Australia and the US (and possibly elsewhere), there was a relatively successful commitment to political action on the issue.

Such political action rested on a broad-based political, religious, and intellectual consensus that something needed to be done that was powerful enough to check market forces where they erred, and even to collectively restrain the individualist settler-pioneer spirit where it failed.

Markets and individual farmers, once sacrosanct in American political culture, and closely tied to the idea of unlimited progress, now in the light of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, seemed less to shine and more to need checking and balancing.

In both the US and Australia, public awareness surged, and new, effective government programs emerged in the mid-1930s to 1940s. Farmers not only changed behavior—developing land care groups, refining ploughing techniques, deploying wind-break methods and other rotation programs—but altered their religious and cultural outlooks too.

As Kevin Lowe’s excellent book, Baptized with the Soil shows, [1] mainline and ecumenical Protestant churches were front and centre in this building of consensus, this change of outlook. They were a kind of glue. Across denominations and among ecumenical institutions, they developed a theology of earth ‘stewardship’ regarding soil conservation. They wrote books, preached sermons, led Bible studies, circulated pamphlets, and even reflected in their worship the importance of the earth being the Lord’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). Humans were not there to conquer or waste, but to steward the wealth that God had generously provided in fertile soils built up over time.

Significantly, they urged cooperation with the state, with the university sector and with conservation science more broadly as a way of expressing such stewardship. Indeed, while US government efforts at soil conservation are better remembered than church ones, Lowe rightly argues that the churches’ role in nurturing a soil stewardship ethic both lasted longer and ran deeper than the state’s own policies—even while they generated traction for those state policies to take hold.  

This was a case where ‘big state’ and ‘big society’ (to borrow recent parlance) met, without the one negating the other, and where Christian environmental thinking helped forge that meeting. Both unashamed about humanity’s role in ‘tilling’ the earth, and contrite about the way that role had been abused, the quality of their thinking and its subtle but significant social influence warrant a second look today.


Dr Mike Thompson is a historian of Christianity with a focus on Christianity's intersections with American intellectual life and US foreign relations. He is lecturer in History at the Australian Catholic University, Brisbane.


[1] Kevin M. Lowe. Baptized with the Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America (Oxford University Press, 2016)

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