The Dust Bowl, Narratives, and Elite Theory
Significant environmental events, such as the Dust Bowl that encompassed Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico in the 1930s, afford historians the opportunity to describe history (“Dust Bowl” n.d.) Such descriptions can be written in a variety of ways and rely upon the preferences of each individual historian. One possible approach is the narrative, which is the crafting of historical events into stories. In his 1992 article “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative”, William Cronon analyzes historic accounts of the Dust Bowl region in order to examine “the role of narratives in environmental history,“ and emphasize the impact environmental elites can have with these narratives (Cronon 1992, 1350). However, elite theory offers a critique of Cronon’s article by emphasizing that the public must be wary of environmental elites and their historical narratives because these narratives, which rely solely on the opinion of these elites, have the power to shape future environmental policy to the will of a few selected individuals.
When discussing the importance of narratives in environmental history, Cronon emphasizes the specific significance of narrative construction. As Cronon claims, when narratives are constructed, historians select a series of events and craft stories “that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings ” (Cronon 1992, 1349). In order to simplify events, environmental historians must decide which facts to include, and, more importantly, how those facts are connected. This carefully crafted construction results in a story with a plot that can be described as progressive or tragic (Cronon 1992, 1352). Furthermore, Cronon asserts that the trajectory of the narrative matters because an event will likely be evaluated by the difference between the beginning and the end of the story. This in turn allows the writer to display the moral that they wish, as the same set of events can have drastically different interpretations (Cronon 1992, 1370).
In addition to emphasizing the importance of narrative construction, Cronon demonstrates that narratives and their accompanying moral lessons can have a direct impact on the political policy regarding crucial environmental issues. He states: “Narratives remain our chief moral compass in the world. Because we use them to motivate and explain our actions, the stories we tell change the way we act in the world” (Cronon 1992, 1375). Cronon’s observation emphasizes the fact that the narratives of environmental historians are not just passive actions, rather they have the power to influence public policy and sentiment towards environmental issues.
Elite theory emphasizes the importance of how the values of governing elites, which differ from those of the public, affect public policy. According to the theory, the elite need not be political elite. Rather, ‘elite’ members may be economic, cultural, scientific, or historical leaders who influence public policy (Kraft and Furlong 2012, 65). The environmental historians who craft the narratives described by Cronon would be considered elites because they are experts in their field and are well versed with the environmental events and history. Therefore, elite theory would imply that environmental elites could force their views on the public through their narratives and use their knowledge and control of the presentation of historical events in order to influence future public policy they find acceptable, even if it is not the most popular. One example of this is seen when analyzing the tale Cronon presents of settlers learning to adapt to the land on their own (Cronon 1992, 1353). This tale presents Promethean values and emphasizes the ability of mankind to overcome any and all issues without any intervention. If this narrative were used, for example, as the sole narrative to shape future policy, many programs and initiatives that aim to help people and aid them would be considered taboo. This is problematic because this would be promoting the value system of a single person – the author of the specific narrative. The policy for society would be shaped by a single individual’s mentality that places importance on human determination, and does not consider any other points of view. This is problematic because, in society, different people have different beliefs, and there is no single narrative that can represent all of the different values.
Significant elite control is problematic because a majority should never accept the views of a few without representation and approval. Therefore, the key critique that pessimistic elite theory offers of Cronon’s work is that while environmental historians should continue to craft their narratives, the people should view these narratives with a cautious eye. The narratives in which environmental historians can control which facts are included and excluded should not be followed blindly. A handful of historians should not be allowed to solely influence how society views history because each set of events can be viewed in a variety of ways. Therefore, in order to ensure that public policy surrounding environmental issues continues to be open to public discourse, the public must educate themselves on issues in order to ensure elites do not dictate policy on future environmental issues.
Despite the seemingly positive message of Cronon’s work surrounding the Dust Bowl, elite theory offers a critique of the article by emphasizing that the public must be wary of environmental elites and their historical narratives. The public must be careful not to blindly follow the narratives of historians, but rather use these stories as a guideline for future policy.
“Dust Bowl – Facts & Summary.” HISTORY.com. http://www.history.com/topics/dust-bowl (February 9, 2015).
Michael Kraft and Scott Furlong. 2012. Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives. CQ Press.
William Cronon. 1992. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History 78(4), p. 1347-1376 (29).