FDR’s 1938 State Of The Union Address Offers Obama Some Timeless Thoughts On Dust-Bowlification

FDR in his Annual Message to Congress, January 3, 1938, said:

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives:

In addressing the Congress on the state of the Union present facts and future hazards demand that I speak clearly and earnestly of the causes which underlie events of profound concern to all….

The first great force, agriculture — and with it the production of timber, minerals and other natural resources — went forward feverishly and thoughtlessly until nature rebelled and we saw deserts encroach, floods destroy, trees disappear and soil exhausted….There are those well meaning theorists who harp on the inherent right of every free born American to do with his land what he wants — to cultivate it well — or badly; to conserve his timber by cutting only the annual increment thereof — or to strip it clean, let fire burn the slash, and erosion complete the ruin; to raise only one crop-and if that crop fails, to look for food and support from his neighbors or his government.

That, I assert is not an inherent right of citizenship. For if a man farms his land to the waste of the soil or the trees, he destroys not only his own assets but the Nation’s assets as well. Or if by his methods he makes himself, year after year, a financial hazard of the community and the government, he becomes not only a social problem but an economic menace. The day has gone by when it could be claimed that government has no interest in such ill-considered practices and no right through representative methods to stop them.

Plus ça change (see “We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming”). The next Dust Bowl will last longer and bring more havoc — but it can still be prevented.


I was directed to FDR’s timeless remarks by Clay Pope — the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. The Western rancher and farmer has some advice of his own for President Obama:

Here’s the transcript:

Mr. President, I know there’s a lot you’ll be covering in the State of the Union address, but I want to make sure you don’t overlook a growing problem in America — Climate change and its effect on agriculture.

Climate change will have a huge effect on our nation’s farms and ranches, and you don’t have to take my word on it. USDA has just issued a report based on hundreds of scientific studies. Collectively, they show that our climate is changing and it’s becoming something we’ve never seen before.

According to the report, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will affect productivity in the coming decades. Droughts and downpours will be more common and destructive. In the future, we may not be able to grow many crops where we grow them today. The report says it’s imperative that we act now to prepare for this if we’re going to continue feeding ourselves and the world.

It’s good that we’re getting ready for the worst, but more importantly, maybe we need to be working to prevent more climate change in the first place.

I know this is a touchy subject, so I thought you could use encouragement from some of your predecessors.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to mention the word “climate” in a State of the Union address. He was talking about the Louisiana Purchase when he praised the Mississippi River. He said it would unlock, “the fertility of the country, its climate and extent, (and) promise in due season important aids to our Treasury, an ample provision for our posterity…

That was in 1803. In 2012, extreme drought killed crops and livestock in the West and caused stretches of the Mississippi to drop so low they had to be dredged just to carry barge traffic. The nation’s GDP fell as a result. More extreme swings in precipitation could make the Mississippi even less predictable.

In 1938, after seeing the ravages of the Dust Bowl, FDR attacked the farming practices that had led to the disaster in that year’s State of the Union address. He said abusing the land in an attempt to maximize production while failing to practice good stewardship was, “not an inherent right of citizenship. For if a man farms his land to the waste of the soil or the trees, he destroys not only his own assets but the Nation’s assets as well.”

Replace the specter of the Dust Bowl with the growing threat of Climate Change and FDR’s sentiment is even more compelling today. It’s not our ‘inherent right’ to burn up our natural resources while altering the very climate that allowed the human race to thrive. As prolific per-capita consumers of fossil fuel, Americans are in a powerful position to make a difference.

And who do you think had one of the strongest calls to address climate change in his State of the Union? Not Jimmy Carter. Not Bill Clinton. It was George W. Bush who in 2007 said that, “America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live ourlives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment — and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”

Now, if a former oilman whose vice president was the former CEO of Halliburton can see the need to take climate change seriously, you might be on safer groundthan you think.Mr. President. America can lead the way in making the world a better place not just for farmers and ranchers but for everyone. And just imagine, with a little bold leadership, it may be you that future generations are quoting.