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Why a Green New Deal?

The photograph above, of homes and their inhabitants about to be engulfed by a dust storm, already is part of how Americans remember the 1930s. Virtually none of us have lived through the Dust Bowl Days; we know how they look. The images are so powerful that for his 2014 science-fiction film Interstellar the director Christopher Nolan reached back in time so as to envision planet earth in the year 2067: the film opens with recollections borrowed from the Ken Burns documentary Dust Bowl (2012), and stages a scene closely resembling this 1935 photograph. Interstellar’s desperate search for another planet to inhabit reminds us, increasingly, of a forced migration numbering at least three million from the American plains. But it’s still a challenge to grasp those events given the constraints of black and white photographs, scratchy fiddle music, and above all their perceived pastness.

Dust storm from Interstellar (2014; dir. Christoper Nolan)

Trailer for The Dust Bowl (2012; dir. Ken Burns)

The Green New Deal exhibits are informed by two recent and important developments. The first comes from what climatologists call “attribution studies”: determining the statistical likelihood that extreme weather events have become more likely or more severe due to anthropogenic climate change. Increasingly, such questions are asked alongside the most recent hurricane, flood, or drought. But a team led by Andrew D. King went in the other direction; they wondered how early such effects could be found and concluded that “All of the last 16 record hot years in the observed global series, starting as early as 1937, have a fraction of their probability of occurrence attributable to the anthropogenic influence on the climate” (King, et al.). Newly understood, the “Dirty Thirties” stand as the beginning of our own new epoch, and it's not as though Americans were unaware even then. In 1934 a meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Service specializing in climate and crop weather asked the question, "Is Our Climate Changing to Milder?" His conclusion was that "the abnormal warmth during the past 20 or 25 years has no precedent in records available for study, notwithstanding the longest go back to Revolutionary war days" (Kincer 61-62). Our exhibits therefore approach Americans of the 1930s as (climatalogical) contemporaries.

The other development is a current social movement that gives our project its name. Although the phrase "Green New Deal" dates back at least a decade, conditions of economic and environmental emergency have led to renewed interest in programs from the 1930s like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In January 2019 more than 600 environmental organizations signed on in support of a Green New Deal, prominent among them younger Americans like those in the Sunrise Movement. The Green New Deal has generated controversy and backlash, but its namesake did, too; the sense of urgency is different than even a few years ago. Our exhibits therefore explore a collection of paintings from the 1930s not simply as black-and-white history, but as experiences to learn from in full color.

Works Consulted

-- The Dust Bowl. Directed by Ken Burns. PBS, 2012.

-- "Dust Storm Approaching Stratford, Texas." 18 April 1935. NOAA George E. Marsh Album.

-- Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014.

-- Kincer, J.B. "Is Our Climate Changing to Milder?" The Scientific Monthly 39.1 (July 1934): 59-62.

-- King, Andrew D., et al. “Emergence of heat extremes attributable to anthropogenic influences,” Geophysical Research Letters 2 April 2016. Web version available at American Geophysical Untion.

Why a Green New Deal?